Never Met a Book I didn’t Like…

Posted on May 19, 2009

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… until I did.  I recently picked up "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz.  I love behavioral economics books and anything that uses cocktail-party-ready examples to teach me about why we are the way we are.  In fact, I was so excited to dig into this particular gem, that I talked about the concept of the book leading up to the actual purchase so much that I could basically skip the first 5 chapters.  As I was reading those first 5 – just to be sure I got the picture – I had the uneasy feeling of deja vu.  Had I read this book before, or were these the same examples that have been used in so many other similar books?  I need a new genre.  

To paraphrase greatly, our society presents too many choices, which is not really that shocking.  We've all been to the grocery store for cereal and tried to select a cable plan.  The author goes on to illustrate his point in 100s of different ways before making any real conclusions about (1) how these choices make us feel and (2) how we should respond.  Essentially, having too many choices means you'll likely be eternally unhappy with whatever it is you select.  You've probably experienced this yourself.  Have you been to a restaurant where you have trouble choosing which dish would be best only to inevitably wind up with food envy of your date?

Fast forward to the conclusion, appropriately titled "what to do about choice" (aka precisely where the author and I began to disagree).  Schwartz recommends limiting your choices substantially – only considering a limited amount of alternatives and not weighing the opportunity costs of the other choices you could make.  He suggests you let the "new and improved" come to you via your friends, and that you stop comparing yourself to those same friends.  Sure, some limits are necessary.  You can't possibly consider every vacation destination on the planet, but most of us can probably handle choosing between 5 or 6 without sacrificing sanity or unhappiness. 

Therefore, to Schwartz's "choose when to choose" conclusion, I would add: sometimes choosing is part of the fun.  If you're like me, discussing which movie to see, which restaurant to dine in, or where to take that much-needed vacation gives you time to fantasize about all the alternatives.  Rather than limiting yourself, it lets you use your imagination (something that just doesn't happen enough in our over-stimulated world). 

I'm not saying you need to use your imagination to choose Cheerios vs. Raisin Bran (small decisions = even smaller unhappiness factor if you make the wrong choice).  But in choosing life experiences, certainly consider the both (very different options) scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef or climbing mountains in Colorado.

And if you're still unhappy at the top of that mountain, come on back down.  I have a book you might like.    

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