Paralyzed by Choice: 5 Ways to Help the Adult Teen Get Unstuck

Paralyzed by choice photo by dherrera 96

David Stanley looks at the problem of too many choices for adult teens and offers suggestions for how to solve that problem.


Two hundred years ago, choosing a path was simple for a young man. Option A—Find someone who was willing to train you. You swapped your sweat in exchange for his knowledge; the apprenticeship. Option B—as did your father, so did you. In many ways, the lack of options made for a simple and easier life.

Choice seems good. We’ve been sold the idea that the more choices we have, the better. Visit your local Mega-Mart. You’ll have 12 different varieties of table salt from which to choose. That doesn’t even take into account the “gourmet salt’ selection.

But choice can freeze you in your tracks. Many years ago, during the glasnost era, my family served as an anchor family for a Russian-Jewish emigrant family. We took the Mom to our grocery. Mom wanted sausages for her husband’s breakfast. Standing in front of the service meat counter, she broke into tears. She spoke no English. I spoke no Russian. We each had a Russian-English dictionary. Somehow, I managed to understand Mother was sobbing because, “So many sausages. So many choices.” She was overwhelmed. She was paralyzed by her choices.

Research supports the idea of ‘paralysis by analysis.” Prof. Sheena Iyengar has done extensive research on choice theory. Quoted in the New York Times, she said, “We raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory, but in reality, people often find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

Too many choices + No clear path to the goal = adult teen cellar dwellers.


We are very good at providing support for some groups of young people. If an adult teen does choose a trade, (current educational theories which degrade the plumber and extol the cube worker notwithstanding), apprentice programs have a long and successful history. Should the adult teen be moving into law or medicine, clerkships and residencies give a supervised base from which to achieve career stability. In truth, what is a physician’s residency but a highly structured medical apprenticeship?

But for many, the dozens of choices for any one particular area of interest multiplied by all possible paths to those goals create a flow chart which resembles a giant cookie sheet covered in twisted spaghetti.

Choosing a career used to be a roadmap. Start in Toledo and get on the Ohio turnpike. Segue onto the Pennsylvania turnpike. End up in Philadelphia.  Run up the stairs of the Art Museum. Wave your fists overhead. Mission accomplished.

Today, we give our adult teens a convoluted mash-up of GPS and Mapquest. Fastest route, most scenic route, best restaurants along the way, fewest construction zones—is it any wonder that our young people throw up their hands and scream “How the Hell should I know which route to take? I don’t even know where I want to go!”

In part, my generation must shoulder some of the blame. We have created a modern US society that has belittled and devalued working with one’s hands. Plumbers, carpenters, mechanics; men and women who were trained to recognize a problem, and solve that problem, are no longer recognized as the bedrock of the middle-class. They have been replaced by “brain workers.” However, as every high school teacher knows, the area of intersection in a Venn diagram between “hands-on problem solvers” and “brain workers” is about the same size as NASCAR Dads who are balletomanes.

The helicopter parent phenomenon doesn’t help. Parents swoop in at every turn to rescue their kids from a perceived wrong. These egocentric parents see their children as extensions of themselves. When the kid makes a mistake, it’s as if the parents have also made a mistake. Helicopters destroy a child’s confidence in the child’s decision making process. Furthermore, the helicopters deny the child the opportunity to learn management skills in the adult world.  By ‘saving’ the kids’ self-esteem, helicopter parents destroy their children’s self-efficacy.


Too many choices. Few clear-cut paths. Lack of quality decision making skills. Lack of responsibility for poor choices.

What’s the solution?

We need to create environments where young men and women can make learn to make adult decisions, celebrate the good choices, deal with the consequences of the bad, and feel confident as they move into adulthood that whatever life hands them, they possess the skills to handle it. What would that environment look like?

1) Serve the community. There is nothing wrong with the idea of a year of full-time community service. As Nathaniel Koloc discussed in a solid piece for the HBR Blog, we all want Legacy, Mastery, and Freedom. Whether it is City Year or a term in the National Guard, we want our adult teens to gain skills for the immediate problem. We want them to gain skills which will serve them well in future problems. We them to want to feel connected to something bigger and better than Self. We want our adult teens to become the masters of their domain. We need to re-create an atmosphere where being a small part of the whole is celebrated. Sadly, adult teens that choose to serve are often seen as lacking in direction, rather than young people who are adding to their personal toolboxes.

2) Rumspringa. The Amish may be on to something. Young people have always tried on different personae as they’ve matured. Make it official. If you can afford it, give your kid a debit card with the admonishment that a bare minimum, no more, will be on the card at the start of every month. If you have more confidence than I in your parenting, just send the kid off. Kid goes out, finds a job, finds a room or apartment, and makes his own way for a year, all the while knowing that end of the time, he will be welcome back home. A taste of the real world, but in a much safer way than living in a refrigerator box under the freeway overpass.

3)  Road Trip. Kerouac and Cassady may not have invented the idea of taking to road, but they certainly made it a pop culture touchstone. In the Sixties and Seventies, thousands of young Americans took to the road to find themselves. It wasn’t just the hippies.

I did it. I raced bicycles. Along with a handful of teammates, I spent a goodly portion of the 1980s traveling North America in beat-up wagons (in which the value of the bikes on the roof generally exceeded the value of the vehicle beneath) to races where we would rip our guts out for 100 km in a bicycle race. We’d crash at the homes of local racers or crowd four people into a Red Roof Inn. A successful race was one where you won enough money for a few meals and your share of gas for the vehicle. I worked winters in a ski shop so I could afford to travel from March until September.

Roadie for a friend’s band. Visit every nerd convention in North America. Work as a helper for a fishing or hunting guide. Visit every art museum or dance theater in the Northeast. Wherever your passion leads you, follow it.

Life on the road is a most valuable experience. When the car breaks down, you sort out how to fix it. If you’re hungry and cash is low, you figure out what to do to earn some money to eat. If you can’t afford a motel room, because you spent too much money in the last week at Starbucks, you learn how to live within your means.

You learn, when times are tough, as they said in Apollo 13, to solve that problem.

4) Paid internships. It’s time to end the unpaid internship. If a young person can do the work, s/he should be paid. Unpaid internships are free grunt labor for the company. An unpaid internship teaches an adult teen two things. One, it teaches them that entry level work has no value. Two, it teaches adult teens that if you finagle the system properly, you can get ‘something for nothing.” If the contacts and experience and exposure that are dangled in front of the interns are that valuable, then compensate the kids the way the rest of us are compensated. With some money.

5) Head out. Outdoors is good. Check out this article by Florence Williams in Outside Magazine which cites all the current research in outdoors and health. Outdoor education programs are a great way for your adult teen to earn a few college credits. S/he’ll master skills in a culture where the ability to handle a canoe paddle and deal with adversity is far more important than a new high score in Call of Duty. Visit the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) website. They’ve been doing it longer than anyone.

Garrison Keillor, in one his “News from Lake Wobegon” stories, tells of Tom, a lost lamb who moved from Minnesota to Dallas to find himself by working at the Pizza Prince drive-in where he was assistant night manager. He called Tom a SPASM child—“Simply Pray And Send Money.”

No more “Toms.” No more SPASMs. We want young adults who are confident in their problem solving skills. We want adult teens with the courage to fail, and fail better, knowing that one failure does not dictate the course of one’s life.

As parents, as teachers, as businesspeople- we have created a flawed model. We all want what is best for our kids. In the Fifties, we were perhaps too hands-off. In the past two decades, we are clearly too hands-on. As a parent of a twenty year old, and a teacher of teens, I see the poor results of this model too often. It is time to re-create a model where the teaching of self-efficacy rules the day.

Here’s the great thing about a new model- the adult teens who come of age under this new model will turn into the sort of grown-ups that we, their parents, would like to have as friends. They’re kids for only twenty or so years, but they’ll be adults until we die.

That’s a great pay-off.

  • What was your path like? Straight? Wildly convoluted? Still uncertain?
  • What were your defining moments on your path? How did you know when you hit the “right path?”
  • How did the adults in your life help you get on the path? How will you help your kids? Do we ‘owe’ our kids any help at all?


Photo: dph1110 / flickr

About David Stanley

David Stanley is a voice-over artist and writer. Musician, teacher & science geek. Coach, skier and bike racer. "I call it curiosity, my wife calls it ADD, but I find nearly everything interesting. My son is 20 and still needs his Dad. I am 54 and so do I. On Twitter, I’m @DStan58. I blog on the oddities of life, sports, kids and education at"


  1. Kate Bartolotta says:

    While there is some great advice here, the one “elephant in the room” that seems to be missing is that career-wise, for many people (regardless of education) there is a shocking lack of choices. I’m in my 30s, have a bachelor’s degree and other professional training, and yet the best option for me was to try and create my own job…be an entrepreneur. The options for full time employment at a living wage are currently pretty scarce in many career fields. For many people, there is no path to follow anymore; we have to cut our own.

  2. I did the road trip thing too – backpacking through Eurpoe in this case but the same idea. It was a great adventure for me that gave me great insights into my self.

  3. Great article. I also had a pint internship in college and while I did learn a lot, I do believe that I was definitely taken advantage of and ultimately it made life more difficult because in addition to the internship, I had to keep another job that paid me in actual money.


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