The benefits of being closed-minded

Whatever choice you make, a teacher told me, is bound to be disappointing.  Even if you get precisely what you want, your satisfaction with that choice will never be as exciting as the possibility of having options to choose from.  He was right of course.  And consequently I struggle with decision-making, because each necessary decision forecloses as many opportunities as it opens up.

But now, whether through conscious choice or through the sheer momentum of paths taken, many of the major decisions of my life are over.  I’ve hardened into the life I will lead, and I’m old enough to look back on the flexibility of youth with nostalgia.  And while I sometimes miss greatly the excitement of endless possibility, I also find that there can be value in having a mindset that is to some extent “hardened.”

School teaches us to value new insights and to challenge all that we assume—to be anything but hardened.  But, this perspective doesn’t fully account for the utility that comes from automating our behavior and thoughts so that we no longer have to rethink and to remake each choice.  Codifying—in our heads, or, in society at large, in law—good insights removes decisions from the table in a way that forces us to behave well and frees up energy for other activities.  As I have “hardened” into the person I am, I am more efficient in my work, more secure, and, consequently, more able to think about others.  Taking away our agency was Satan’s plan, but transforming our insights into habits and rules that for a period of time we can shelf choices on those topics and move on to others is really not half so bad.


  1. And sometimes the act of NOT choosing eliminates more possibilities than choosing something and dedicating yourself to it would.

  2. Interesting post. I was just talking with a friend today about something similar…more in the spiritual realm (about how spiritual decisiveness can actually add to freedom, not diminish from it). But yeah, it can apply to life decisions, too.

    In a way, I don’t miss the earlier days of heavy decision-making. It’s nice to focus energy on moving forward on a path, not trying to constantly assess which one to take.

    That said, life always seems to present opportunities for new kinds of decisions along the way, though. I still found great comfort and guidance in talks on personal revelation this past weekend.

  3. “Whatever choice you make, a teacher told me, is bound to be disappointing. Even if you get precisely what you want, your satisfaction with that choice will never be as exciting as the possibility of having options to choose from. He was right of course.”

    I think this is largely a matter of personality. While I don’t doubt that you and your teacher both feel this way, I’m someone who is generally much happier when she’s settled on a course of action than when many different options are still open.

    Also, there’s a difference between having the ability to entertain many different possibilities and having trouble choosing between them. Lacking in the former makes you closed-minded. Lacking in the latter makes you . . . someone who has trouble making choices. (I’m having trouble thinking of a more concise term.)

    I.e., if you would never have considered attending a college other than the one your parents wanted you to attend, that’s closed-minded. If you considered and weighed multiple options before you picked one, I wouldn’t call that closed-minded, even if you still went with the same choice.

  4. Thanks, Natalie. I was talking with a friend just the other day about this very thing–the shock and relief of coming to the end of being young(ish) and realizing what you’re taking with you and what you must leave behind. Your words crystallized something I’ve been struggling to understand.

  5. “And if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

  6. I think I’m in the middle of a few “choice” opportunities lately, but with family and kids I feel like I have to set my parameters so that I am the only one affected. It feels as though the decisions before me are meant to determine the type of person I want to be, but it feels strange that I haven’t locked that down yet. When does one have sufficient experience to leave an aspect of themselves alone and just accept that certain areas of their lives are good and don’t need to be constantly altered?

  7. Every time I think I have it all figured out, my life mapped out, I can hear the echo of God, angels and these witnesses laughing in the distance. I have lived to regret most of the never’s uttered from my lips. We may think all the hard decisions are over, but life is always offering up new information, challenges and possibilites. And even if life wasn’t always changing, we are, and so we must reassess our goals and paths.

    Sometimes doing things merely out of habit, while efficient, can remove the meaning they have in your life. The experience of looking at your tithing check and choosing to hand it over to the bishop can be much greater than having it automatically sent from your paycheck because you decided that 25 years ago you would pay tithing. And I’m not sure it is out-weighed by the feeling of pride of paying tithing 25 years in a row because you eliminated your own ability to mess that up, but maybe it is. But part of me thinks that discipline is making the choice, not eliminating it. While there is something to be said from being committed, there needs to be balance in everyone’s life, and that includes in establishing and maintaining routine, the life in between following every whim of the moment and being ironclad and closed to any future reconsideration in every decision we make. Sometimes goals we set don’t seem like where we want to be once our vision changes.

    I don’t find that the choices I make now are any less important or difficult than those I made as a teenager or young adult. Remaining on your current path is still a choice. We’ve all seen people who thought they were past these “hard decisions” have to make them again later in life: whom and whether to marry, whether to adopt a nephew in need when they already felt done having children, finding a new career, moving across the country or world, etc. These are just the decisions visible to the outsiders.

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s not over til Elvis leaves the building.

  8. Obviously, there’s no virtue in being hardened in your ways unless the ways are good. I think hardening is a natural process and can just as easily solidify one’s wickedness as one’s righteousness. It often leads to a “comfort zone” and spiritual stagnation.

    Anybody interested in missionary work knows what I mean. As a TBM, it’s easy for me to point to people who are basically good who simply don’t progress because they’re comfortable where they are. It’s a little harder for me to recognize when I’m also one of those people.

  9. I love Mel’s comment. The older I get, the less I know, the less sure I am about a lot of things. I was so convinced of myself when I was 22!

    On the other hand, I agree with the basic premise of this post. When I was younger—and I see this attitude in a lot of young people today—I attempted to be broad-minded (before I became a born again Mormon) and I saw people letting their kids choose their beliefs, etc. I now believe it leaves one without bearings.

    It’s a tightrope, holding to certain standards and doing it in the most loving generous way possible. And like I said, the older I get, the more I realize I of myself am nothing.

  10. Similar to the idea that blessings and cursings come in pairs: If you are blessed with a better job, the family suffers because of your lack of time for them. If you are fired and have to take a lesser job, you family rejoices because you have more time for them (or for writing that novel, etc.).

    The blessing is that you get exactly what you wanted. The curse is the same, because all other possibilities are closed.

    (A “curse” is something you perceive as a disadvantage, whereas a “blessing” is something you perceive as an advantage.)

  11. Interesting post, Natalie. You remind me of a fascinating little book called The Paradox of Choice. In it, Barry Schwartz argues (among other things) that we generally overestimate how happy we’ll be by keeping our options open in making decisions. Once we’ve committed to a choice, we tend to be happier with it if our previous options are closed off than if we have the chance to go back. So maybe we (people in general) tend to be more like Katya than we think we are.

    Mel (#7), regarding your experience of setting up tithing payment automatically, my memory is that President Kimball spoke several times about making the most important choices in our lives, like to obey the Word of Wisdom, only once. Your automatic tithing payment seems very much in that vein. (Sorry–I can’t find any references for President Kimball in a quick search, so I might be misremembering.)

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    There’s a GA statement (forget who said it) that goes something like this: “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” I’ve always gotten a chuckle from that, and I also tend to take it at least somewhat to heart, because I tend to be a very open-minded person, and I wonder sometimes whether that might actually be something of a failing in my personality.

  13. Kevin, Hugh Nibley purportedly used to say something like that: “An open mind is an empty mind.”

  14. “whatever choice you make…is bound to be disappointing”.

    Ah, grasshopper, you have just stumbled on the Buddhist first and second Noble Truth: Life is suffering – birth to death. If you don’t get the slurpee, you suffer. If you get the slurpee, you suffer when the last, noisy suck on the straw brings the pleasure to an end.

    The solution: Noble Truth #3: just make your decision and don’t cling or get attached to the result.

    Ya, I know, easier said than done.

  15. #12 may explain what happened to me – thanks.

  16. “The purpose of an open mind is to close it, on particular subjects. If you never do — you’ve simply abdicated the responsibility to think.”

    WFB, RIP.