Archive for the ‘psychology of choice’ Category

Late last week, I caught up with M., a young woman–a New York transplant a couple of years into post-collegiate life–we’re profiling in the book, fresh off the heels of a major decision. As she downloaded the details, so much of what she said about her choice–to leave a great job with a major brand in the field she’d always thought she wanted to be in–rang true. Here’s a bit from M:

It was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever made because I knew in my gut that I was unhappy, but on paper it made a lot of sense for me to keep working there. I had good health insurance, I was making a good salary, I had a steady job, but I was just unhappy and to make a choice based on my feelings versus what logically made sense was really difficult.

Feelings. They’re so – well, touchy feely. Hard to quantify. They look so woefully wimpy on a list, lined up against numbers and facts and figures. Like they’re somehow less real. And yet – if happiness, satisfaction, a sense of purpose, and other, you know, feelings are what we’re after, it shouldn’t seem so outrageous to base our decisions on them. But it can — if you’ll pardon the choice of word — feel outrageous. Irresponsible. Silly. And when it comes down to the choice that looks good on paper versus the one that feels right in our heart, choosing the one that feels right over the one that’s arguably right can feel kinda wrong.

Back to M, who aggressively went on the prowl for a new gig, and was rewarded with a couple of job offers (two of which came on the same day), all of which came complete with their own sets of pros and cons. But ultimately, in analyzing the facts, she realized that what it all came down to was feelings.

It wasn’t necessarily a matter of being worried that, oh no, I have no options, I was like, okay, I have worked really hard to put options in front of myself now I have to make a choice where I just put so much effort into making sure I put before me as many avenues as possible, but then, there I was, stuck having to make a choice.  That was really difficult for me, and since I’ve been in my 20s the big choice I made was to move to New York, and since then I’ve felt like I was just making very small choices. And this was going to be my first really big, life-changing decision since then. So, it was extremely difficult and I can tell you honestly that I put a lot of grey hair on both my parents’ heads and my poor boyfriend–I can’t tell you how many times we sat there with pros and cons lists that I had him talk me through.

It’s hard to adjust to being a grown-up and realizing that the repercussions of your choices mean so much more, so I think it was really hard for [my parents] you know, they wanted to help me in the ways they always have as parents. They wanted to be like, it’s gonna be all right and we’ll take care of it for you. The thing is they just at this point had to be council, and I had to figure it out because, at the end of the day it was me that was gonna take care of me, and if I screwed up I was the one who was gonna deal with the repercussions.

It came down to the fact that I was unhappy, and I would start to think about what my life would be like in these new decisions, and just what made me feel less anxious and what made me feel happy.

M’s story hits on a bunch of things: How relatively new it is for us women to be in charge of our own lives, and the decisions that design them. And how, the reasoning skills, the objective ways we’re often taught to approach decisions, don’t–can’t–take into account what’s most important, when it comes down to what’s going to make us happy: how we really feel.

M’s tale has a happy ending: she loves her new job. The one, she says, she’d “never in a million years imagined doing.” But she does have one regret:

I regret that I didn’t take the time to really reflect earlier. I just spent so much time I think pushing away my feelings and pushing away, hey, what is it that I really want to be, because it was going to be tough, and then it took me being really unhappy at work to stop and reflect: okay, what are you gonna do with your future?

It shouldn’t take a bout of extreme unhappiness for us to give our feelings the weight they deserve, but so often it does. And it shouldn’t seem such a daunting task to confront them, either, but so often it does. And the funny thing is, maybe if we could learn how to listen to them, to trust them, to value them, they might be the one thing that can make our decisions easier. And wouldn’t that feel good?

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There is a point here, I promise. But first, here’s the scene. My desk, at work. A wobbly stack of books, papers and files, some dating back to last spring. A to-do list, also written last spring. On the other side of my mousepad, a pile of resumes for the letters of rec I need to write. On my computer, some 200 emails that at least have to be opened.

Plus the steady buzz of folks, either in the hall, or in my office. Kinda like a roving cocktail party, but without the booze. This is not necessarily a good thing. The latter, I mean.

My home office, not much better. At least 100 unread emails. My desk is cleaner — today — but you still never know what you’ll find. A friend once described my work-at-home digs as a junk drawer. At times, the description is apt.

On Tuesday I got up early, graded papers, scanned two newspapers, got ready for school, found and paid my Macy’s bill while my Cheerios got soggy, blew out the door and off to work, taught some classes, and met with a bunch of students who have the end-of-quarter heebie-jeebies. (They’re contagious).

Last week, we hosted a party to celebrate a friend’s engagement. Next week is Thanksgiving (Yikes! I forgot to order the turkey). It’s my husband’s and son-in-law’s birthdays. Shannon and I are knee-deep in writing this book. And this blog. My hair is stringy and I’m low on clean clothes.  So here I am.

Don’t get me wrong.  I fully realize that those balls I’ve got in the air mark me as a lucky woman.  Nonetheless, I’m somewhat breathless just itemizing all this. I’m frazzled. Distracted. And probably like you, just a little bit crazed: Too much going on, going on all at once.

Maybe it was ever so. But now, add this. The San Francisco Chronicle has reported on some new studies on the way that techno-stimulation — texts, tweets, IMs, Facebook, news alerts, the list goes on — has led to a new form of attention deficit disorder. We’re always on. Uber-connected. Addicted to short bursts of constant information. And despite our best intentions, we get sucked in. All of which, experts say, impacts our ability to analyze. From the story:

“The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets,” [Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University] said, “the less patient we will be with more complex, more meaningful information. And I do think we might lose the ability to analyze things with any depth and nuance. Like any skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, uses the term “acquired attention deficit disorder” to describe the way technology is rewiring the modern brain.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t need to know what Suzy from Ohio is doing every five minutes. And yet. There’s the seduction of the buzz, the flash. She has me at beep-beep.

Which brings me belatedly to my point: Is all this stuff, this stimulation, this juggling, cluttering up our already cluttered brains to the point where we are not only overwhelmed — but chronically undecided?

The science suggests the answer is yes. Shannon wrote earlier on our blog about the Paradox of Choice, about how the more choices that confront us, the less likely we are to make one — or to be happy with it when we do. There’s the iconic jam study, where shoppers confronted with 24 jars of jam — versus just six — walked away empty handed. And the pivotal Magical Number Seven study, which dates back to the 1950s, that found that the human brain has trouble processing more than seven items at a time. The study was the basis for similar research in 1999 by Stanford Marketing Professor Baba Shiv, then an assistant professor at University of Iowa. He sent two groups off to memorize a series of numbers. One group had to memorize three. The other, seven. At the end of the task, the groups were given their choice of a treat: gooey chocolate cake or fruit salad. The three digit group overwhelmingly chose fruit. The seven digit group — cake. The point? Overwhelmed with the memory task, the rational brain of the seven-digit folks begged off and let the emotional side take over.

Shannon wrote recently about Zen and art of multi-tasking where, really, what we need to do when we drink tea –is to just drink tea. I wrote about the need to just play cards. Put all of this together and I think you find that maybe, for our own mental health, not to mention our ability to make decisions, we need to turn down the chatter.

Sixties guru Timothy Leary (he of LSD fame) once exhorted the youth of the day to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” I’m thinking it’s time to flip the switch: Turn off, tune out, drop in.

But wait. Did that make the slightest bit of sense? Not sure. I’m off to find some chocolate cake.

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In the first part of this suddenly two-part series, I talked about the “cautionary matrons” who advise their younger counterparts against marriage–and against staying single.

Today’s post has nothing to do with any of that. What it does have to do with is choices. Lots of them. And easy access to them. At all hours. Frequently via text.

New York Magazine‘s current cover story is called “The Sex Diaries,” and was inspired by the magazine’s ongoing (since 2007) online series in which New Yorkers of all walks anonymously chronicle their sexual exploits for a week. In the highly–ahem–detailed  piece, you’ll find excerpts from “The Trader Who Will Fly for Sex” (he meets one couple at a T.G.I. Friday’s before having sex with the wife while the husband watches.); “The Transportation Coordinator Serving Three Partners” (one night’s entry includes booty-call-type texts from each of the three women, all of whom he turns down, and a final entry: “8:45pm: Jerk off”); and “The Polyamorous Paralegal” (a sample: “Fall asleep wishing I had my bed to myself. The One Who Cries keeps trying to cuddle. I want to punch him.”).

Well, what can you say? It is what it is. More interesting, though, was the lengthy analysis that anchored the salacious tidbits, written by Wesley Yang. Here’s a little background on his assignment:

The editors of this magazine asked me to read all 800 pages of the Sex Diaries, and, using them as a source text, develop some kind of taxonomy of contemporary sexual anxieties… So, that’s what I’ve done. Herewith: ten things that seem to be making our playful, amorous youth crazy.

And guess what? The top three have to do with choices.

1. The anxiety of too much choice. A fact so readily apparent that it has escaped reflection: The cell phone has changed the nature of seduction. One carries in one’s pocket, wherever one goes, the means of doing something other than what one is presently doing, or being with someone other than the person one is with…. This is a distinct shift in the way we experience the world, introducing the nagging urge to make each thing we do the single most satisfying thing we could possibly be doing at any moment. In the face of this enormous pressure, many of the Diarists stay home and masturbate.

2. The anxiety of making the wrong choice. A Diarist with any game at all has unlimited opportunity… Identify the single best sexual partner available, or at least the person most amenable to their requirements at the moment… An inordinate number of Diarists find themselves at the brink of enjoying one sexual experience, only to receive a phone call or text from another potential suitor. They become a slave to their compulsion and indecision… This compulsive toggling between options winds up inflicting the very damage it was designed to protect against.

3. The anxiety of not being chosen. Among active Diarists, the worry that they will make the wrong choice is surpassed by the fear that they may find themselves without one. To guard against this disaster, everybody is on somebody’s back burner, and everybody has a back burner of their own, which they maintain through open-ended texts, sporadic Facebook messages, G-chats, IM’s, and terse emails.

Remove the sex for a second (or don’t, we are nothing if not a world of multitaskers), and ask yourself: sound familiar?

While Yang makes the case that, at least in the sexual realm, much of the current landscape is colored by our wildly connected lives, what comes across loud and clear is this issue of too much choice. Analysis paralysis (Note how he concludes Finding #1). Opportunity cost (why commit to a night with One Who Cries if there’s a possibility that One Who Makes Me Laugh might text later? and what about One Who I Haven’t Met Yet But Might Like Better Than Either OWC or OWMML?). And the pressure to keep all our options open, the scattering of energy that’s required to keep that back burner lit, just in case.

Consider, as Yang puts it “One carries in one’s pocket, wherever one goes, the means of doing something other than what one is presently doing.” That makes me think. And it makes me think that the question is: in our modern, interconnected, always-on world, is all of this choice, or maybe more importantly, this illusion of limitless, constantly available choice, the modern person’s dilemma? And does it mess with our heads in every realm? Is this why, say, when we’re working one job, we spend our time daydreaming about all the other things we could be doing? Or why women beat ourselves up over not being all things to all people at all times? Or why we sometimes find ourselves wishing for a life with no options at all?

And that last idea, of longing for the good ol’ days, was, unsurprisingly, picked up and riffed on by the New York Times’ David Brooks. Check it out:

Once upon a time–in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era–courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts–dating, going steady, delaying sex–was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.

Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn’t fit the post-feminist era…

[People] are free agents in a competitive arena marked by ambiguous relationships. Social life comes to resemble economics, with people enmeshed in blizzards of supply and demand signals amidst a universe of potential partners… If you have several options perpetually before you, and if technology makes it easier to jump from one option to another, you will naturally adopt the mentality of a comparison shopper.

Okay. And while my stomach kind of turns at his description of  “guiding young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment” (Date around before settling down? Horrors. Read Tracy Clark-Flory’s take on his spin for a good laugh.), I do agree with one thing: that the reality of the modern world, the messaging (both societal and, well, textual), has left us approaching everything from the mentality of a comparison shopper. Listing pros and cons. Building cases for and against. Weighing our options.

It’s exhausting. And has it all done nothing more than leave us as a world of neurotic, over-stimulated commitment-phobes?

I don’t know. But I do know one thing for certain: The Trader Who Will Fly for Sex kinda freaks me out.

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There’s this charming story, about a Zen student and his teacher, trying to impart the lesson of mindfulness. “When drinking tea,” the teacher told his student, “just drink tea.”

How often do you just drink tea?

Such a beautifully simple idea. Be Here Now. Focus. Breathe. So quaint… and yet, so hopelessly impossible. At the moment, I have not less than seven other windows open on my computer. Among them: two email accounts, Facebook, Twitter. My cell phone is to my right; my land line receiver to my left. I have a load of laundry in the washing machine, and am trying to determine what to have for dinner as I write this.

Oh, I’m also drinking tea.

I know I’m not the exception. We spend our days assaulted by information, stimulation, texts, tweets, pings, and rings. So I listened with special interest when I came across this edition of NPR’s On Point. Host Tom Ashbrook summarizes the show thus:

Americans love to be horrified by multitasking. Well, some Americans. For many younger Americans, it’s just life. Especially “media multitasking.” Phoning, texting, reading, tweeting, with a movie on the laptop, a video chat in the corner, IM on the side. And–God forbid–maybe driving, too.

A new study out of Stanford seems to confirm the worst fears about multitasking–that in the midst of the “multi,” nothing gets done well. This hour, we’ll talk with an author of that study–and with two twenty-somethings who say it’s just life.

While the debate over how much we’re able to do well at once is an interesting one–because, at least in part, it hits all of us where we live–it’s also kind of moot. To varying degrees, the multitasking is a given. And, regardless of how much is actually a given, the assumption is that, in life, multitasking is as certain as death and taxes. (See: any media portrayal of life in the modern world.)

In a way, it all reminds me of that evil old ad, the one that celebrated the success of the women’s movement by singing that we can bring home the bacon, and fry it up in a pan. (Don’t touch that dial: point is coming, soon.) Well, yes. We can. But between all that’s required to bring it home and fry it up, do we ever get a second to stop and think? Or, more to the point, to stop and feel: are we enjoying bringing it home? Are we enjoying frying it up? Do we have enough psychic space available to even notice how it smells as it’s cookin’, let alone how it tastes?

That sent my mind back to spinning on all the multitasking we do a little bit more. Consider: For all the lip service we pay to the importance of finding our passion, with our attention splintered among all the things crying out for it, how do we even know if we’re actually enjoying something? And might this fractured consciousness have a little something to do with why we’re so damn angsty in the face of big life decisions? It’s hard enough to make a truly informed decision. But how can we feel adequately informed if we can’t focus, if we can’t  just drink the tea?

Oh, and that tea? The end of the story might make you feel a little bit better. One day, that Zen student whose teacher told him to just drink tea discovered his teacher, drinking tea and reading the paper. When confronted, the teacher said, “When drinking tea and reading the paper, just drink tea and read the paper!”


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There’s something to be said for having low expectations: you’ll rarely find yourself disappointed. Or as baffled as “Confused 20-Something,” who’s two years out of college and quit her job at an educational nonprofit when she was accepted at an alternative certification program to become a middle school teacher only to find, now, she can’t get a job. Confused recently wrote in to Salon.com’s Cary Tennis for advice. Her problem?

Throughout the training, I had nagging, persistent feelings that this wasn’t what I was meant to be doing. Now I’m faced with confusion. Should I keep trying to find a job as a teacher, when it’s a job I’m not even sure I want anymore? Or should I pursue something else? The problem is, I don’t know what. I always thought I would go to law school, since that’s what I would be good at, but a part of me said, ‘No! You’re meant to do something more meaningful.’ I don’t know if it would make me happy. The problem is, I don’t know what makes me happy anymore. I could just wait tables for a while and figure out my next step, but nothing sounds like it would make me happy. I always thought I would be successful at whatever I pursued and to face this failure is difficult. I’m trying to see this as an opportunity to find myself and what truly makes me happy, but every day I feel like I’m slipping further away from happiness. I’m sick of talking about my predicament to friends, because I feel like I’m boring them with my endless indecision. Why can’t I just be happy? What about my grand goals for myself? I feel like a failure.

“Confused” is hardly alone. And part of the root of her angst is, as Tennis says, the assumptions with which we are raised. Hard work leads to success. Success leads to happiness. If only it were so easy.

Another part of it has to do with being a woman, and at a decided disadvantage once we’re cast out into the real world, where our success or failure can no longer be quantified on a report card. As Barbara wrote:

Sure, we women do school well. University structures, especially, support the way we learn and succeed. Overachievers? High expectations? Duly noted and rewarded. But once we get to the workplace? Different kind of rules. Let’s face it. We missed the socialization.

And another part of it is that job dissatisfaction, particularly among 18-29 year olds, is reportedly rampant. Numbers with which Brazen Careerist’s Penelope Trunk would likely disagree, given her recent comment in an interview with the Huffington Post’s Morra Aarons-Mele:

Gen Y is sweating the recession the least–they are sunny and optimistic and they never expected job security anyway. They never expected to have a lot of money, they are a financial train wreck-their parents can’t pay back the college loans. Gen Y never expected to be rich. They never expected job security.

While I tend to disagree with her assessment that Gen Y isn’t sweating their “financial train wreck”dom, I do think Trunk is onto something. And it has to do with expectations. Going back to poor “Confused,” let’s consider some of what Tennis had to say:

It is natural, during our many years of preparation, to acquire the habit of assuming that by excelling in our assigned tasks we will find happiness, or by finding one kind of occupation or profession we will find happiness. In fact, it is probably a useful misconception to believe that excelling in school or work will bring us happiness. If we believe such a thing, we are more likely to do well at our tasks.

That reminded me of some of Daniel Gilbert’s findings, in his bestselling book “Stumbling on Happiness.” The overall point of the book, in a nutshell, is that we, as humans, basically suck at predicting what will make us happy. He even verges into blasphemous territory, dispelling the two biggest “I’ll be happy if…” myths of all: money and babies. (That’s right, according not just to one study but to an amalgam of them, neither more money-past the point of the poverty line-nor having children makes us any happier than we already are. And on that last one, the numbers are downright shocking: happiness plummets when kids are born, then ekes steadily upwards, only making it to pre-baby levels once the children leave home. Seriously. Don’t shoot the messenger, please.) Yet despite such cold, hard numbers, we strive to earn more, and we procreate. Why? According to Gilbert, our social structures feed us the messages that doing so will bring happiness, because otherwise, who would do it? And then where would we be? Economy-free and extinct.

But I think there’s something else to consider in those shocking numbers, something to do with expectations. Perhaps we expect that fat promotion or fat baby to bring us so much happiness, that we’re that much more deflated when reality doesn’t measure up.

All of this brings me back to Confused, and her countless like-minded sisters. We have great expectations, fed, in large part, by a culture with its own agenda. But we’re new to the game. We had the school part down, but now that we’ve no gold stars to measure ourselves by, we’re at a loss. Role models are few, and structures aren’t set up to support us. Our choices are limitless, so when what we’ve chosen doesn’t magically make us Happy, we blame ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong. Expectations can be good: they motivate us, push us to excel, to leave crappy situations that have disappointed us in the hopes of finding something better. But maybe, sometimes, ditching them altogether is what will make us happiest of all. Wouldn’t that be great?

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“If life is just a series of decisions, then making smart ones is paramount, especially now.” So begins a piece from this month’s Elle magazine, entitled “Analyze This: Should you go with your head or your heart?” In it, writer Louisa Kamps goes on to explore the ways in which fear — which, she implies, is in abundant supply these days, especially on the work front — mucks up the decision-making circuitry in our brains. She writes:

Fear has a way of leading us to dubious decisions, sloppy mistakes, and serious brain fog when it comes to figuring out a master plan for your career and all the major things it’s connected with, from finances to relationships.

So, in addition to the sleep, skin, overall health and relationship havoc stress hormones can wreak, apparently they screw up our decisions as well. Swell. And if that’s the case, then what does this mean for those of us who find the very prospect of making a decision stressful? Other than that we’re screwed.

Kamps cites some science, saying that, when we relax, our prefrontal cortexes tend to follow suit, leaving us better able to see the big picture. But even still. The big picture can be even more confusing. More factors to consider. More stress. So, then, when facing a huge decision, how do we decide? Kamps goes on:

Experts say people tend to make major life decisions either out of ‘a crystallization of discontent,’ when a situation becomes unbearable, or out of ‘a crystallization of desire,’ when they feel a surge of enthusiasm for a new idea. ‘People are much more satisfied when they’ve made decisions not only out of fear but out of desire,’ says Jack Bauer, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Dayton.

So, that’s something to shoot for. But might this all have something to do with why sitting around, idling in neutral is so self-perpetuating? We sit around, analyzing every little thing, which stresses us out, which limits our ability to make any decision at all, which leads to more sitting around… Oy. But, for those of us interested in kicking it into gear, I wonder: maybe the fear, the stress we feel in the face of making a decision is something to simply take note of–and rather than focusing on which way we’re going to go, maybe we’d do better if we shifted our perspective, and took it as an opportunity to get to know ourselves better, to discern what it is we really value. What is it that’s pulling us to it, and what it is that’s pushing us away? And maybe, when we look at it like that, is becomes easier to decide which direction to go.

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It’s not just us. It’s not just you. Choice overload, making work work, analysis paralysis — it’s everywhere you look. Just a few quick hits:

Surfing for Mr. Good Date? Technology Review reports a new study out of the Harvard Business School that suggests that, when it comes to online dating, you might still be better off letting your Auntie Marge set you up. Or, uh, going back to your local pub.

The study found that cyberdating, with it’s freakishly large supply of would-be beaus, leads to cognitive overload. In other words, bad decisions or no decisions at all. The study found that would-be daters spend about 12 hours a week searching for and emailing Mr. Right. The payoff? About two hours of awkward face-time. According to coauthor Michael Norton, date seekers

evaluate each person only superficially, never investing the time and energy to explore whether a match might work.” Having too many options raises our expectations of potential matches too high, leading to an “often fruitless search for an ideal person who may not exist.” Incessant browsing for Mr. or Ms. Right may be exactly the wrong decision …

Back to the buzzkill of opportunity cost? Another study out of Taiwan also found that online dating often led to, well, bad dates. The reason? You guessed it: too much information. Pai-Lu Wu from Cheng Shiu University and Wen-Bin Chiou from the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan concluded that

“more search options lead to less selective processing by reducing users’ cognitive resources, distracting them with irrelevant information, and reducing their ability to screen out inferior options.” In other words, when faced with cognitive overload, date-seekers evaluated as many matches as possible, even ones that weren’t a good fit, and they were less able to distinguish a good option from a bad one.

In other words, choice overload strikes again. Which leads us to this comforting hit of validation from Wicked Local, a news site out of Dennis, a very cool town on Cape Cod. The story reported on an upcoming event at a local inn with three successful “chick lit” authors — Lynn Bonasia, Jane Green, and Jennifer Weiner, author of “In Her Shoes.” Weiner tells the Wicked that her stories are inspired by real life:

“I’m especially interested in the choices women of my generation face — we’re probably the first generation to have the relatively high-class problem of too many choices about career, family, marriage and timing — and I think that, in a way, my books are attempts to answer those questions for myself and for my readers,” she said.

Fiction follows fact, yet again.

And finally, again. MediaWeek reports that Candace Bushnell (In case you’ve just woken up from a ten-year nap, she wrote “Sex and the City”) has teamed up with More Magazine to produce a web series — Honestly, I have no idea what that might be. But I digress — on women’s work issues.

More editor Lesley Jane Seymour said she hopes the series will become the “next Lipstick Jungle.

“It’s funny, and a lot of women will recognize themselves,” she said. “There’s the Millennial and Boomer women, all representative of different crowds we see in business.”

Funny? Well, sometimes. Let’s scope our the series before it starts. Back in the real world, and on a slightly more serious note, what would top your list of those work issues? Tell us: anything from work-life balance to blowing that first paycheck.

And there you are. The Zeitgeist. It is us.

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Rob Walker’s “Consumed” column, “This Year’s Model“, in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine presents an interesting question: when constrained by a lack of choice, are we forced to get creative? Walker tells the tale of Sheena Matheiken’s Uniform Project, “which involves wearing the same dress every day for a year, and seeing just how aesthetically creative she could be despite that limitation.” Matheiken’s personal background clearly factored into the project’s inspiration: on her site, she writes:

I was raised and schooled in India where uniforms were a mandate in most public schools. Despite the imposed conformity, kids always found a way to bend the rules and flaunt a little personality… Poking through the sea of uniforms were the idiosyncrasies of teen style and individual flare.

This sounded familiar to me: I wore a school uniform for 12 years. In high school, my sartorial self-expression was limited to my shoes. But while part of me engaged in the grass-is-greener fantasy of a post-high-school life in which I could wear whatever I wanted, while stuck in that plaid skirt, I embraced the challenge and got as creative as I possibly could. Doc Martens, alternated with converse low-tops, became my statement of choice. Of this sort of forced creativity, Walker writes:

Rules stifle creativity and enforce conformity. Rules can do something else too: inspire creativity that thwarts conformity.

Which makes me wonder: as it is in fashion, is it in life? Are there instances in which a lack of choice has forced you to get creative? Is that a good thing? Which would you rather have: a lack of choices that forces you to think out of the box, or endless choices proscribed by no box at all?

As for me, fifteen years post-uniform, I still love clothes. I love the freedom to wear whatever I want. (Is it any wonder that one of my regular writing gigs is as the style columnist for the Santa Barbara Independent?) But I’m not gonna lie: with the hours I’ve spent staring at the innards of my closet, digging through drawers, and trying on outfit after outfit, I could have written The Great American Novel (not to mention come up with The Great American Premise for the Great American Novel). Just this morning, I went through three options before deciding on the one in which I’m currently ensconced. But would I go back to the uniformed days of my youth? Not a chance.

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Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz is the guru of too many choices. His book “The Paradox of Choice” puts forth the argument that, the more choices there are, the more unhappy we’ll be with whichever one we choose. Check the video above (long, but worth watching–especially for his hilarious cartoons) to hear him talking about option excess in the salad dressing aisle, the cell phone store, and his inspiration for the book, something to which we can all relate: shopping for jeans. More specifically, how he found the experience of standing before a wall of options so overwhelming as to leave him longing for the days when jeans came in only one style, only one wash–and not an especially flattering one, at that. He talks about how having so many choices makes picking any one a million times harder than it should be (hello, analysis paralysis), and about how in the face of so many options, there’s no way NOT to come out of the store worrying that the perfect pair was actually one of the ones he’d left discarded on the dressing room floor, or one of the ones he never even got around to trying on. He calls that phenomenon “opportunity cost.” We call it those nagging daydreams about the road not traveled.

The thing is, he’s talking about buying jeans. And yeah, buying jeans is stressful (who wants to wind up with a black bar over her face as a Glamour “Don’t”? More to the point: these days, most of us can only afford one new pair of jeans, if we’re lucky–so if we pick wrong, we’re stuck with the “Don’t”)… but that’s buying jeans. Now extrapolate that stress, that overwhelm, that angst to the ultimate question: What Should I Do With My Life?

Is it any wonder that we’re all in such a state?

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