I can't have it all

Posted September 18, 2022 · 3 min read

Any decision I make, to do anything at all with my time, is already radically limited. For one thing, it's limited in a retrospective sense, because I'm already who I am and where I am, which determines what possibilities are open to me. But it's also radically limited in a forward-looking sense, too, not least because a decision to do any given thing will automatically mean sacrificing an infinite number of potential alternative paths. As I make hundreds of small choices throughout the day, I'm building a life—but at one and the same time, I'm closing off the possibility of countless others, forever.

— Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

Two months ago, I was sitting alone in a park in Manhattan, thinking about what the next chapter of life might hold for me and wondering what I wanted from it. As a thought experiment, I decided to make a list of all the things that I could do when I moved to New York and developed new rhythms.

As I'm sure you can imagine, my list was far too long.

I've always been like this — interested in too many things to feel comfortable committing to just one. In a book I read recently, Four Thousand Weeks, the author identifies a psychological phenomenon that I'd never quite put my finger on: delaying a choice often makes it feel like all of the options are still open, but the truth is that a refusal to choose is still a choice. It's not actually possible to sidestep the realities of tradeoffs, but it is possible to make them unconsciously. Failing to pick one doesn't mean that I'll get both—in fact, more often than not, it means I'll have neither.

Why can't I have it all?

It feels funny to say, but I find it difficult to not want everything. I want to read and study and write, to dance and bike and swim, to cook and to eat, to walk alone and to laugh with friends, to learn to garden and speak French and sew and code in Haskell and practice karate, to accomplish something amazing and to lie around doing nothing at all.

Life might be long, and maybe I'll eventually get everything I want. But in one season of life, I just can't have everything. My feelings of wanting to "have it all" are at odds with the finite nature of life.

Not only is it not possible for me to have everything because life is short and time and money and energy and willpower are limited, it's not possible to have everything because many things are mutually exclusive. I can't live a life where I'm fully rooted in my local community and also live in a dozen different countries. I can't build bonds of commitment and mutuality with my loved ones and also remain accountable only to my own whims. Some desires are fundamentally opposite to others, and the promise of "having it all" is hollow in the face of these limitations.

The power of commitment

When I was preparing for the NYC apartment hunt, one of my colleagues gave me the following piece of advice: if I went to an apartment and thought that I could be happy living there, I should apply for it immediately. The rental market was competitive enough that trying to get the perfect unit would be impossible, so I had to have a strong sense of my negotiables and dealbreakers and then just commit to a decision.

I think it takes a lot of wisdom to know when the right time is to keep looking or to stop and be happy with what you have. And of course, there are decisions that aren't life altering: I can always move after my lease is up, or try a new job if I hate my line of work. But I am wary of missing out on building something amazing — a relationship, a career, a skillset — because I wanted more than I could have. The process of making a life requires letting hundreds of alternate lives slip away, and being at peace with that.

All this to say: my life is different now, but the next time you see me, I still won't know how to sew.


Julia Cooke © 2023