In our lives, we repeatedly encounter open and closed doors. Some are worth opening for us, and others are worth closing. The question is, at what price?
By the end of this post, hopefully you’re going through your inner house in your mind and throwing many doors shut with a vengeance. Especially the kind of social ones that only hold you back or annoy you and thus prevent you from really moving forward in your life.
Doors can be opened again
The saying “When one door closes, another opens” is legendary as calendar page wisdom. Usually formulated as a consolation, it conveys more hope than actual certainty. However, if you really actively keep your eyes open for open doors, you will indeed always find some.
As a variation, I have also encountered this variant: “When a door closes, open it again. That is how doors work”. Here the metaphor is taken far too literally. While there are enough situations where hops and malt are indeed not yet lost, far too often it is actually not a good option to open that door again.
I would like to make one last round around this proverb just mentioned, because it is fundamentally incomplete in its known form. It lacks a crucial addition, namely that our gaze clings far too strongly to the closed door instead of focusing on the new opportunity. As a quotation, this important addition is attributed, in similar wording, to both Alexander Graham Bell and Andre Gide. About:
“When one door closes, another opens; but we usually look with regret at the closed door for so long that we do not see the one that has opened for us.”
Alexander Graham Bell
We can’t stand closed doors
What all of the above variations have in common is that we worry that there may not be enough open doors in our lives. Social scientist Dan Ariely did a very interesting and instructive experiment on this:
In a computer game, subjects were able to enter a room through three different doors where there was a random prize. In one room, subjects randomly won between 1 and 10 coins, in the second between 4 and 8, and in the third also a different number.
Most subjects entered the rooms in order and tried to get a sense of the probability of winning in each room. They spent the remainder of the play time in the room to which they attributed the highest probability of winning.
Things got interesting when an additional rule was added: doors that were not used by a subject for a certain period of time signaled that they would be removed from play for that subject. The researchers communicated this to the subjects by making the neglected door shrink more and more uniformly. One click on that door and it was back to its original size.
Once you’ve found the best room, though, you shouldn’t care if less lucrative doors close forever. And yet the subjects couldn’t bear the thought. The group with the extra rule wasted playtime keeping the closing doors open, against all the common sense that the first group had displayed.
Ariely and his team were so surprised by the strength of the effect that they repeated the experiment in different variations. And they always observed the same reaction: We simply can’t stand closed or closing doors. Even if they are of no value to us. The loss aversion of a theoretical possibility silences the ratio.
Open doors can damage your career
We like to have “a foot in the door” so that it doesn’t slam shut. It’s a popular saying, especially in the professional world. When networking, even if it’s just on LinkedIn, we shove as many feet between as many doors as possible so that we keep as many career and business options open as possible. Once we “own” that option, loss aversion is joined by a second psychological problem: We overestimate the value of certain things we own.
“Keeping an option open” sounds passive. However, in order for the option to prove useful at some point, regular deposits must be made into the associated person’s relationship account. And just like that, the little things make a mess on the doorstep. Also, don’t forget the opportunity cost: even if the single deposit to the relationship account only ties up a little time (that for it, unfortunately, very often), it loses you time to focus on your few but good options.
Here I also suspect that the Pareto principle applies: 80% of the benefits come from 20% of your options. Identify those 20% and let go of the rest. This carefully chosen focus will then really move you forward in your career.
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How many doors are open in your social life?
In 2012, I deleted my Facebook account. On the final page, I was presented with photos of my friends there with the question of whether I was really ready to say goodbye to them. Facebook was asking me, mutatis mutandis, if I really wanted to slam the door in their faces. The image was powerful and I folded and returned after a few months.
Besides effects like fear of missing out (FOMO: Fear of missing out), it’s our fear of closing doors that makes us waste time on many platforms. We think we have to take the time to wish even the most unpopular former classmate a happy birthday.
Who knows, otherwise we’ll end up losing touch. We comment on vacation photos of Facebook friends who we wouldn’t call friends outside of social platforms. All in all, we invest a lot of time in keeping these doors open for eventualities.
Admittedly, this doesn’t sound very reprehensible at first, since at the end of the day these are nice human gestures. Isn’t that one of the advantages of the Internet and social media, that we can send such kindnesses to everyone we know with simple means?
The tricky part is that in keeping all these doors open, we don’t realize how other, much more important doors are closing in reality. Every minute you invest in such superficial contacts, you have not invested in real life with your family and friends. Time moves on and cannot be brought back to us. To all parents: your children are growing up. Those doors of their childhood are quietly closing forever.
So mentally walk past all the doors that are kept open, think about what can bring you forward and decide what is really important to you in your life.
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PPS: You like blog posts that go into depth and make you think hard? Here you can find another article of mine on the topic of why you should not have a thought twice.