Every choice we make means missing out on something else
As a teenager, Thomas Maloney desperately wanted to be a writer. Instead, he became what he calls a “bifurcator”: he studied physics, went to work for a hedge fund, and now writes novels in his spare time. As he wrote in an essay for the Aeon website, that choice has haunted him ever since. Is he a sellout? Was he given a chance to make his mark on the world, only to falter at the crucial moment, choosing a comfortable but less remarkable life instead? “By dividing finite time and energy between two endeavours,” Maloney wrote, “bifurcators inevitably feel they aren’t doing either as well as they could.” Life “seems like a pretty special opportunity, after all”; it feels wrong not to seize it with both hands. His essay concluded with a measured defence of his decision to compromise, but he didn’t dodge the truth: a compromise it certainly was.
It’s a bit of a luxury, of course, even to face such a dilemma – art or money? – to begin with. But the question of whether to compromise isn’t confined to such cases. It infects romance, when people wonder whether to “settle” for an imperfect partner. It’s at the heart of “work-life balance” – will you betray your talents if you choose work that lets you spend more time on your kids, or your kids if you prioritise your talents? – and numerous other life-choices, such as whether to have kids at all, or where to live.