My 14-year old daughter can be a study in indecision. Ever since she was old enough to make choices, she has agonized over them. Worse, she has never been able to identify the choices that really matter, putting the same energy into what she should wear to school as she does into how to handle the situation when two of her friends are locked in the mortal combat known only to teenage girls. It's painful to watch her struggle with herself as she seeks to find the "best choice," and her father and I have long wondered what to do to help her through the maze of "important" decisions she makes for herself.I'm beginning to understand her better though, now that I'm reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz.
Here's the problem. We're faced with a million choices every day, and as Schwartz indicates in his book, for a variety of reasons these choices make us LESS willing to choose. There's too much information, too many things to consider, we worry that we'll make the wrong choice or that we won't be able to change our choice, causing us irreparable harm. Many of us end up shutting down completely, refusing to choose. In some cases, no damage is done. If I walk into Old Navy and I'm overwhelmed by my jean options, so I walk out 10 minutes later, so what? But in other cases, refusing to choose can have some major consequences. It is particularly bad for the people Schwartz calls "maximizers"--those for whom every decision is a search for the perfect solution. For these people, there's always something else to consider, some other piece of information they should look at. As a result, they are usually overwhelmed by their choices and paralyzed with indecision.
In the past 10 years, I've done a ton of work with people who have been laid off. When you talk to many of them, you find out that they saw their lay-offs coming from a mile away. Unfortunately, like a deer in the headlights, they were unable to choose to do something about that before a choice was made for them. I think that part of the reason for that is simple fear and our infinite capacity for denial and self-delusion. But I also wonder if it's not because they are so overwhelmed by other choices on a daily basis that they find themselves unable to identify and focus on the major ones. I wonder if buying a pair of jeans at Old Navy doesn't become equivalent to deciding what to do about the fact that I could lose my job in six months.
Schwartz argues that one of the ways we can become better decision-makers in a world with overwhelming options is by becoming a Chooser:
"Choosers are people who are able to reflect on what makes a decision important, on whether, perhaps, none of the options should be chosen, on whether a new option should be created, and on what a particular choice says about the chooser as an individual. It is choosers who create new opportunities for themselves and everyone else. But when faced with overwhelming choice, we are forced to become "pickers," which is to say relatively passive selectors from what is available. Being a chooser is better, but to have the time to choose more and pick less, we must be willing to rely on habits, customs, norms and rules to make some decisions automatic."
So when we are able to operate in "chooser" mode, we are able to make better quality decisions for ourselves. Since "choosing" requires more time, however, we would presumable reserve the "choice" mode for our more important decisions, relying on other methods (habits, rules, etc.) to make choices for us in areas that are less important.
It's been my experience, though that many people have not figured this out. I have seen people put more thought into their wardrobe or into selecting a wine to go with dinner than into selecting a career. Ironically, I find that people will use habits, rules and customs to make their career choices, while using the chooser mode to decide where they'll eat tonight. But when people operate as "Pickers" of careers, they are generally unhappy with the choices they've made. They falsely limit their options, using outdated customs like "women dont' work in construction." Or they use rules like "I'm too old to change careers." Rather than becoming choosers, who actively create options for themselves and who put the right kind of energy into a decision that has the power to impact so many other facets of their lives, they become pickers, selecting the "lesser of two evils." And for many people, this means that they are faced with the same career decisions again and again because they pick something that doesn't work for them, rather than choosing something that does.
This is heartbreaking to watch and I spend much of my time trying to teach people how to make informed choices and to break the bad habits of "picking" a career. I keep thinking that if I educate them about how to make good career decisions, maybe they will be able to do that. But now I'm beginning to wonder if I don't have to take a step back and get them to see that this is the kind of decision that requires more energy, get them to see this as a "chooser" opportunity, rather than as a place to pick.
The trick, of course, is to help them create the space in their psyche for choice. Which means getting them to pick in other areas. But how do I get people to pick a restaurant and choose a career?