The Embarrassment of Riches

By Russell Kroeger, CFP®, EA

Apr 22
(10 Minute Read)

Making a choice is tough.

How can we determine what is meaningful enough to pursue?  What do we need to know to prepare for our journey? Who do we look to for insights to increase the probability of a preferred experience? When do we know if it is time to reorient our trajectory?

Everything comes down to choice. Implicit in every choice are many trade-offs. As our world evolves, the complexity of these trade-offs becomes overwhelming. The unforeseeable ripples of each decision make it difficult to achieve a high degree of confidence in the path we’ve chosen. If one is intelligent and driven enough, few careers are outside one’s realm of possibility. Those with significant financial means must identify how to spend their money among an infinite array of things and experiences. Today, there are too many potential goals and experiences competing for prominence in our lives.

Mixing this unprecedented abundance of choice with our human psychology is a recipe that often yields feelings regret from having made the wrong decision. This feeling weighs heavier when layered with an endless number of opinions on how to approach our lives. This paradox is best described as The Embarrassment of Riches. The good news is that there are practical strategies we can leverage to help reduce the risk of being embarrassed by our riches.

Identifying Worthwhile Pursuits

We often think that the freer we are to choose, the better. But this is only true to an extent. You can avoid the curse of dwelling on what ifs by narrowing down your list of preferred futures to identify and invest in the most meaningful possibilities.

Warren Buffet famously recommends writing down your top 25 goals, circling the top 5, and then crossing out the remaining 20 with an intention of avoiding them at all costs. This is an important first step because goals aren’t effective unless taken seriously. Each goal has a set of trade-offs. If you use resources (time, money, energy) for A, you will have fewer for B. We need to reckon with the potential consequences in advance, otherwise resolve will diminish over time in the face of obstacles and ambiguity.

Once you’ve determined your top 5 goals, it’s time to figure out what you need to know to increase your probability of experiencing that life. Because these are likely areas where you already have some skill or strong interest, you probably have a sense of where to find what you need.  But, as with our potential futures, the libraries of knowledge we use to search for these answers are also infinite. At this juncture, we face another paradox of riches. How can we determine which information is best for our specific journey?

Searching for Solutions

Our primary resource for researching what we want to learn is the internet. Technology, serving as an external brain, affords unparalleled access to wisdom. But this accessibility creates new vulnerabilities. The quantity of digestible content on an endless number of topics is paired with an equal number of different opinions about each idea, which often ranges from vague to irrelevant to harmfully inaccurate.

To understand the significance of the scenario we find ourselves in, imagine the internet as a physical library. We’re faced with rows upon rows of shelves lined with books and articles on every conceivable topic. To make matters worse, these rows are growing exponentially before our eyes because the amount of data we have doubles every two years.

There is also no definitive guide about whether the information is true or how to process, interpret, and then act upon the data we consume. This means our search for wisdom has shifted from browsing through a traditional library kept in order by the Dewey Decimal System (when is the last time you thought about the DDS?)  to something that more closely resembles a labyrinth. The type of labyrinth with trolls lurking in dark corners to trap us with their gimmicky misinformation. Otherwise, they force us to pay tolls to cross their bridge into the land of quality information.

Navigating the Labyrinth

We are free to mosey – using our time and energy to find wisdom that pertains to one of our top 5 goals. But then we’d have to discard the gimmicky stuff, sort through the remaining information that seems true but isn’t, figure out which of it pertains to our specific life situation, and then artfully apply what we’ve learned. But after that exhausting exercise we’d have no time to live our lives and pursue what we hope to experience.

Given that time is the one common constraint we all face in trying to make an optimal choice, the best option for navigating this labyrinth is to utilize a librarian. This librarian serves as an expert in an area vital to your preferred experience. Someone with the skills to support you in identifying what you need to know about the key drivers for your success.

Assembling Your Librarians

If you have your top 5 goals written down, what are a few key drivers that will most impact your trajectory and ability to experience the life you want?

What came to my mind is – health, financial security, harmony, and wisdom.

If one of your key drivers aligns with an area of interest for you, then invest in mastering the field if you have the time and energy. Otherwise, investing the time and energy to become an expert in these areas is not as helpful as redirecting those resources to exploring life.

Finding librarians that are skillful in the key areas of your top 5 goals can be one of the most powerful decisions you make in pursuit of your preferred future. A good librarian can help you cut through the noise to savor insights from the greatest ideas and apply it effectively. Left to our own devices, we would likely have overlooked these subtle principles due to the allure of trends or reading reviews.

Examples of librarians could be your favorite podcasters, authors, or vloggers. But, it is also helpful to have partners for your journey that can deliver the same great wisdom but do so within the context of your specific needs.

In search of a healthier lifestyle, you find a well-respected dietary blog recommend the paleo diet. This stresses out because you have to switch grocery stores and reorganize your daily routine for this new lifestyle. Maybe the adjustments negatively impact your other goals as well. This is where having a personal librarian as a resource can add tremendous value. They can help you find balance in what would otherwise be black and white advice.

These librarian relationships can manifest in life/business coaches, personal trainers, doctors, financial planners, golf coaches, tax preparers, etc. The point is to leverage these relationships to help us think through the complexities surrounding the key drivers that influence our preferred experience.

Don’t Be Embarrassed

We all want to be the creator of our life’s story. The protagonist of our experience. But following that dream also comes the responsibility to choose. The best way to choose is to authentically narrow the scope of your story, adopt frameworks for the trade-offs we make along our journey, and build a team of trusted librarians as an ongoing resource.

These librarians serve as a sounding board that leverages their expertise in support of your vision for your life. The key here is that they support your vision, they do not impose theirs. We obviously love our family and our closest friends, but each of those individuals has, unspoken in their guidance, some expectation for your decisions and the direction you journey in life. Your librarians should be an objective guide.

From deciding how to remodel your basement, which exercise regimen and diet are best for you, determining how or when to switch careers, figuring out if it makes sense to uproot your family for a great job opportunity, or what it would look like to take that sabbatical you’ve dreamed of so you can experience something new, we would all benefit by having access to an independent 3rd party with whom to collaborate.

The potential for our riches to embarrass us reaches a tipping point when quantity of choice undermines our quality of choice. If we acknowledge this daunting reality we must also acknowledge our power to overcome it. We can choose to do nothing, or we can choose to do something. If we choose an authentic path forward and do our best, then there is no risk of being embarrassed.


About the Author

Explorer of life, ideas, possibilities, and limitations. Nothing of me is original, I am the combined effort of everyone I've ever known. #UtProsim