I have an odd fantasy; what if I were locked in a room with nothing but books, a notebook, and pen for 2 weeks? Maybe a month…? Why would anyone put themselves through some voluntary solitary confinement? The reasoning is simple: I want to be stripped of all other choices but to read, learn, and analyze. Why? Because I find that I’m easily distracted when I read–even though reading has given me unbelievable returns on my investment.
Practically speaking, this is not an ideal approach (the best kind of learning happens more naturally–and I’d also likely go insane), but it gets at the root of what this thesis is about: how can we better understand the idea of ‘choice’ and make better decisions?
Stuck in a Jam
There’s a famous study from Dr. Sheena Iyengar on how people buy jam. In this study, she shows that participants, when presented with more jam options, were significantly less likely to subsequently purchase a product. In fact, the difference between the group with limited vs the group with more options is stark; a ten-fold difference of 30% (less options) to merely 3% (more options). Initially, this may sound surprising–but I want you to recall the last time you were at the supermarket; looking for jam, pasta sauce, protein bars, etc. Can you remember the feeling of anxiety as you sifted through all the different brands, flavors, prices, and packaging?
Conversely, imagine the last time you went shopping for salmon. Usually, there are only two choices: farmed salmon and wild-caught salmon. Other than price, it’s usually preference that will ultimately guide your decision. Evidently, this is easier and less straining–and yet, if you’re like me, it’s still a terribly hard choice to make!
I’m going to be…
It’s quite silly how most high school seniors enter college with no idea of what they want to pursue. And parents or counselors will often advise, “take as many classes as possible and you’ll figure out what you’re interested in!” Terrible. No wonder our western society is plagued with graduates who are depressed and lost once they leave the haven of our school system. The most successful students from my experience were those who had one or two areas that they were already committed to when they entered college. They had already developed a set of goals starting in freshman year–and even if they weren’t all that focused, the mere fact that they started with the right trajectory gave them an incredible amount of edge.
I have a friend (let’s call him Josh)–who’s parents are quite wealthy and supportive (both emotionally and financially). Josh was well raised (a bit spoiled 😛), well educated, and very down to earth. He’s also quite passionate; he came out of college with a double major–but when he realized that it wasn’t fully what he wanted to pursue, he enrolled in a master’s program for another, related subject. As he was finishing up his graduate degree, I recently reconnected with him–and to my surprise (or not), he still didn’t know what he was going to do afterwards. For him, there were too many fields and jobs that could interest him–and committing to one of them proved to be extremely difficult . How could it not? If we can’t even make trifling decisions about what jam we want to buy, how can we bring ourselves to make such consequential decisions? My advice to him was simple: make a list of jobs/fields on random.org, have it pick one, and if you aren’t going to be insufferable, go with it.
There are innumerable examples I can dive into further; dating scenes in major metropolitan areas (e.g. NYC), Mark Zukerberg’s grey t-shirt, JS frameworks, etc. but I think the point is clear.
Often–especially in western society–we become obsessed with the idea of increasing the number of choices. We talk about the freedom! Oh, what we’d do if money was no object! Oh, how our creative minds would bring about so much value in this world! Yet, the sobering truth is that all this–is merely idealistic. People who are successful are laser focused. These individuals work off a framework that limits distractions. Take a notable example of Elon Musk: love him or hate him, he is a clear example of being laser focused. He sold all his properties and moved as close as he could to SpaceX’s development grounds. His framework, I imagine, works like so: “will this (thing | decision | person) bring me closer to putting myself/people on Mars?” If yes, continue; if no, reject, reject, reject.
So what can we learn from this?
For one, I argue that in order to have successful businesses and organizations, it’s crucial for leaders to effectively identify north stars, hone-in on them with intensity and focus, and convince everyone else to do the same.
As individuals, we must also become keen about the framework that we use to conduct our everyday lives. For example, if your goal is to become a master artist, one simple and effective (albeit crude) framework could be: “is what I’m doing at this current moment something that will help me become a better artist? If not, is it something that’s brings me joy?” The key is to make it simple–easy to remember and easy to measure. By employing such a framework, you will not only become a better artist, but also not be so obsessive as to become completely neurotic and self-absorbed.
Choice is powerful–but only if we know how to utilize it properly. Instead of increasing the number of choices we have, perhaps we can better understand our own choices, limit them, and develop frameworks to become laser focused.
 also see analysis/choice paralysis