Thursday, February 28, 2019


Decision anxiety is a real thing.  Sometimes that still surprises me.

The Boy has received financial offers from six of the eight colleges to which he has applied.  (The other two haven’t yet reported whether he’s in.) He has developed a spreadsheet in which he breaks down each one: sticker price, scholarship/grant, work-study, subsidized loan, and what I call the “real total,” which is the sticker price minus any scholarship or grant.  The offers range from okay to comically bad, with little discernible connection to prestige as generally perceived.

The two most recent offers were from among his second tier, and they came in with weak offers.  His response? “That’s good - now it’s down to six.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but when he said it, it rang true.  Ruling out two options reduces the number of possible futures he’s juggling, and gives him a sense of agency.  What looks on the outside like a loss of options -- which, in one sense, it is -- feels to him like gaining clarity on what comes next.

Two schools have yet to report, so it’ll be a little while before the full picture comes into focus.  

The eagerness to reduce ambiguity, even at the cost of losing real options, is the same basic idea behind guided pathways.  I’ve read some behavioral economics pieces applying the same principle to grocery shopping; shoppers who will happily choose from among four brands of toothpaste will walk away in frustration if there are twenty.  Too many options makes the act of choosing seem overwhelming. Simplicity brings clarity, and therefore a sense of agency. But somehow, in the moment, it was still surprising.

From the parent’s perspective, the whole process looks different.  I’m much more sanguine about his options than he is, because I know that all of his choices are good, and that much of what will define his college years -- friends, relationships, quirky interests -- are, and have to be, unknowable from here.  He can’t know yet who he’ll meet, who’ll break his heart, or what chance overheard comment will change his life. He’s prepared to thrive, and I’m sure he will. He isn’t as sure about that as I am, but that’s okay. I wasn’t sure at seventeen, either.  It comes with the territory.

His anxiety is about choosing.  Mine is about something else.

Six months from now, he’ll be ensconced in his new college, and our house will have a six-foot-seven, TB-shaped hole in it.  He’s getting anxious because he can’t yet picture the near future. I’m getting anxious because I can.

I’ve been talking with him daily since before he could answer.  Later this year, when I forget and call his name, he won’t be there to answer.  


That’s okay.  It’s supposed to happen.  I just didn’t realize it would happen so fast.