Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Too Many Choices

To my son Tommy,

I was listening to NPR the other day and they had snippets from an interview with TED Talker Barry Schwartz on the "Paradox of Choice".  He talked about how we believe that the more choices we have the better off we are.  More choices gives us the illusion of freedom.  Then he mentioned that there were at least 175 different salad dressings he could buy at the grocery store.  He brought in the science and showed that people actually aren't more happy with all these choices because it triggers a mental or emotional paralysis.  He then goes on to tell us a funny story about jeans shopping and expectations and how studies show we are the most happy when we have about eight choices.  (You can read it all here if you like or watch it here if you don't like reading, if of course these links work in the decades to follow when you read these letters.)

Now I think Mr. Schwartz makes some interesting points but I think he misses some obvious things.  Maybe he has them in the book he wrote but I am too paralyzed to choose to buy his book from the so many book choices out there to buy and spend my time on.  Which kind of brings me to my point.  Choice has always been there.  Maybe in the past there weren't a couple dozen types of jeans or two hundred seventy five cereals, but there has been one category filled with choice since antiquity, what to read.  Even walking in one of the more underfunded libraries of the world and you end up with at least one thousand choices of what to read.  How did I read anything and even find enjoyment with my choice without raising my expectations too high that I would never enjoy another book again?  I admit when I was young that what book to pick was overwhelming, but there was help.  Librarians, teachers, parents, and friends, all suggested what I should read or in some cases told me what I had to read.  They would help me classify and quantify and whittle down my choices to a very manageable few.  Some suggestions were good and some were bad and that certainly changed who I chose to give me suggestions.  But I never felt paralyzed by the amount of choice because I had help to discover what I liked and what I didn't.

The same could be said for many an industry back in the day.  When my mother or grandmother bought me shoes as a child, there was a guy measuring my feet and making suggestions.  He was knowledgeable in his product and professional and helped us past the multitude of selections available.  He even had made relationships with his customers so he knew what they wanted and how they wanted it and would skip over any choices that weren't well suited.  The same could be said for the grocer to the hardware store clerk to the mechanic to the barber or just about any salesman of the day.  Every salesman was like a bartender in a local bar where you walk in and they know your name and what you drink.  Even the video store clerks (when there were video stores) would hold out selections for me that they think I would like.  Those days have seen to have past us by.

Now we get our suggestions from computers and algorithms and campaign ads.  You walk into a store and it is all "help yourself."  You are left to roam the aisle and look at 175 salad dressings and guess which one would suit you all on our own.  It isn't the amount of choices that paralyze a person, it is being alone in making that choice.  We need help.  We need each other.  We need that reliable dependable trustworthy guy to say, "Hey Leo! Nice to see you again.  These are the eight I think that will work best for you.  Let's go over the ups and downs of each!"  We need more people to be professional and knowledgeable and to take pride in their jobs.  Unfortunately there is more profit in paying minimum wage to people to scan you out after you have wandered through the aisles of multitude than to pay them a decent wage to actually help their customer.  With self scan checkouts, they don't even have to pay the cashier.  The big corporations have even created a stigma for those of us who prefer help through their business model.  By under-staffing and under-training they are basically making you feel stupid that you need help deciding which salad dressing goes best with a side salad served with steaks.  Does too many choices give you the illusion of freedom while in fact paralyzing you?  Perhaps, but the solution does not lie in eliminating those choices. It lies within people leaning on other people to help navigate this great big world.  If we focus on helping each other to maximize each others quality of life instead of our own personal profit, then we can make the best choice of all which is allowing ourselves to truly be happy.

Sincerely with love from your dad,

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