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Archive for the ‘psychology of choice’ Category

I’m guessing by now you’ve heard about Lori Gottlieb’s new book, based on her contentious 2008 Atlantic essay I wrote about awhile back. Charmingly entitled “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” the book has earned a ton of ink, both positive and negative, and the movie rights have already been snapped up. (Yeah, can’t wait for that one. Let me guess: knockout actress with hair dyed a mousy brown goes on date after date with loser after loser, until she finally falls for the short, fat, bald man with bad breath and a heart of gold.) While Gottlieb’s horrifying depiction of life as a SWF is downright depressing (and her rose-colored imagination of married life as the magic, loneliness-busting bullet just kind of odd and naive), she insists there’s more to what she’s saying than simply the fact that she’s been there (dates with dudes she dismissed for reasons ranging from a sub-optimal first name to a head of red hair), done that (single and tormented by the ticking of the biological clock, she hit the sperm bank and is now a single mama, lonely for company). From Sarah Hepola’s piece on Salon:

‘This isn’t some regretful 40-something giving you matronly advice. I spoke to scientists and experts in neurobiology, psychology, sociology, marital research, couple therapists, behavioral economists, regular folks married and single.’ Don’t like what the book is saying? There’s more than Lori Gottlieb to blame.

Maybe so. And that is what interests me most about the whole thing, far more so than whether or not one single woman should be writing books telling all other single women why they should “settle”, based mostly on original single woman’s issues and regrets. (Um, not to mention the fact that original single woman also happens to be wildly successful, and mom to a healthy child–yet seems unable to enjoy either of the latter above because of the former above–that she’s single. Is it just me, or is this like a bad Cathy cartoon?)

The thing is, what we’re really talking about here is choice, and that, often, because we believe (because we’ve been told) we have so much of it, we operate according to a belief that to settle for anything less than perfection is to sell ourselves short.

Of course, we’ve covered the problems with perfection. Namely, that it doesn’t exist, and, therefore, we can waste a lot of time waiting for it. Thing is, though, those words are pretty easy to throw around–we read them, we say them, we hear them, and we agree. Of course perfection doesn’t exist, we say. Only a fool would hold out for perfect.

Fools like us.

I think what gets us into trouble is that this reality is so totally at odds with the yarn we’ve been fed since forever, you know, that one we like to yammer about. The one that says You Can Do Anything! And I think it’s that idea that gets our knees to jerking, when someone dares suggest we should settle–for a man, or anything else in life. (And I wonder how steady Gottlieb’s knees would be, were someone to suggest she settle in some other realm of her life.) While the man question is interesting, I think it’s more interesting in terms of all of the other choices in our lives: on some level, do we think that sticking with something (or someone) long enough to see the glossy sheen fade away and the flaws emerge is, well, settling? Do we allow ourselves to be blinded by some mental checklist that renders us unable to enjoy what’s right in front of us? Check Gottlieb’s reference to our pal Barry Schwartz, in an interview with Psychology Today:

‘I interviewed a psychologist for MARRY HIM named Barry Schwartz. He’s a professor at Swarthmore and he also wrote a terrific book called THE PARADOX OF CHOICE. We had a long conversation about how having so many choices actually makes people depressed. You’d think it would be liberating–who doesn’t want to have options?–but actually, having so many makes us dizzy with indecision. And when we do make a choice, we second-guess ourselves because we compare it to all the other options that we didn’t choose. The same applies to having so many choices in a potential spouse.

So Schwartz said to me, about the way we choose spouses these days, ‘You have to remember that good enough is good enough.’ And that mantra has helped me and many women I know enjoy the men we meet much more, and also make much better choices out in the dating world.

Of course that makes sense. And I like the point. But. Is it a cop-out?

It reminds me of the whole Happy Life Or An Interesting One debate, and the question of whether we put too much of a premium on a certain brand of happiness, undervaluing interesting along the way. I guess, as we’ve said before, happiness is really all in how you define it.

It makes me think of the movie Parenthood, and the amusement park wisdom from Grandma.

On the other hand, that’s Hollywood. But sometimes, Hollywood wisdom is good enough.

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I have this friend. (Really, I swear it’s not me.) She never really had a breakup, despite the fact that she dated a lot. And dated a lot of losers. But no matter how bad the cad, she strove to end things peacefully, operating according to a simple mantra she called “keeping the door open.”

Makes sense. There’s a certain comfort that comes from knowing we have options. It mitigates risk. We’re told, after all, that keeping all one’s eggs in one basket is a bad plan. Unless one is planning on making a large omelet.

I was reminded of this after a conversation I recently had with a couple of girlfriends, discussing the post I wrote about New York Mag‘s “Sex Diaries” piece, during which, one declared: “I think, for our generation, commitment is kind of like death.”

Well then.

These ideas, I’d argue to say they’re almost an indelible part of the current condition. Choice is a blessing. To commit to one is to be, at best, a fool; at worst, well, dead. Stagnated. You can be anything you want! You can do anything you want! You can Have. It. All. You don’t know how lucky you are, to live in an era marked by the number of open doors you have before you! So what kind of fool would suggest we’d be better off closing them?

Dan Ariely, for one. Check this tidy summary:

In Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely suggests that there is a price to be paid for having many options. He claims that we have an irrational compulsion to keep ‘doors’ open. He suggests that we ought to shut a lot of them because they draw energy and commitment away from those that we should keep open.

Buzzkill, no? And yet. Of course it makes sense. And it’s so funny, because, in all likelihood, closing a bunch of those doors probably would go a long way to ease so many of the problems we talk about here: the pain of multitasking; the impossibility of achieving the perfect work-life balance; the angsting over the roads not traveled. (The baking of the ever-lovin cupcakes.) So why should suggesting we just stick to the path we’re on and forget about all the others be such a buzzkill?

Psychological theorizing is all well and good, of course. But does it really change anything? Does knowing that we’re making ourselves crazy make us any less crazy? But what if we took this advice to heart, if we were to just decide, once and for all: This is it! Those roads not traveled? Screw ‘em! Would that really make us feel better?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I don’t really want to find out, either. I mean, ignorance may be bliss, but it’s a bliss in which I am one hundred percent uninterested. I’ll admit, I am a product of my times, and I am happy for all those doors. No matter how crazy they make me. And, the blessing and the curse of these modern times is this: no matter how much we might buy into this idea that closing off a bunch of them would make our lives easier, no matter how much we might want to pretend that those other doors are not open to us, the fact remains: they’re there. You can’t unring this (door)bell.

And as long as they’re there, I’ll be wondering what’s going on behind each and every one of them.

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It’s great to have options. But dealing with them can be a bitch.

Or so we like to say. That’s our very tag line, but, because today marks our 100th post–and is also, coincidentally, the day before the great beige food binge, I’m feeling a little sentimental and thought it would be an appropriate time to give up the but, and offer some musings on gratitude.

I’ll admit, I have a lot of big buts in my life. We all do. Especially when it comes to choices. I can’t tell you how many times, in interviews we’ve conducted for the book and conversations with friends and strangers about the book, women have expressed that very sentiment: I mean, I’m grateful to have all these choices, but… Or the slightly more optimistic: I feel blessed to have all these opportunities that women a couple generations ago didn’t, but…

One of the more scientific pieces of research that’s informed a lot of what we’re doing is Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. (Read some of what we’ve written about it here.) I got to thinking about Schwartz again today, after coming across this piece, The Psychology of Happiness, by Elfren Sicangco Cruz. In it, Cruz writes:

In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz asserts that, paradoxically, happiness may lie in limiting our choices rather than increasing them. He says: “After millions of years of survival based on simple distinctions, it may simply be that we are biologically unprepared for the number of choices we face in the modern world.”

We’ve all lived the truth of that statement, but, as much as we moan and groan, kvetch and complain, no matter how overwhelmed we can be by all the analyzing, all the fantasizing over the grass we’re so sure is greener, all the musings over what we’re NOT doing, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman that would really choose to go back to a time when women had no choices, or severely limited choices, or choices that were made for them–probably by the prominent man in her life. So, to the prospect of limiting our choices, I say: no thank you very much.

But.

This I can get behind:

Schwartz recommends that because more choices bring more opportunities for comparison, the recipe for happiness is twofold. First, make your decision irreversible. Second, constantly appreciate the life you have… Grateful people are healthier, happier, and more optimistic than people who are not.

Again, I’m not so down with the making of the decisions irreversible thing. Despite the angst it can cause, I like the security of knowing that if I blow it and pick Door Number One when I should have gone with Door Number Two, I can always try again.

But.

The gratitude, I can get behind. So maybe, in honor of Thanksgiving, we should give it a try. Maybe, for just one day, rather than being agonized by all the things we can do, we should try to be thankful that we CAN do them at all. Maybe, rather than focusing on the overwhelm of getting it all done, we should try to be thankful that we are empowered enough even to attempt it. (And that, some days, the stars align and our to-do lists actually wind up with more things crossed off than added on.) Maybe, rather than holding up the buffet line, debating the relative merits of dark, light, or tofurkey, we should just say the hell with it, and be thankful that this is one day when we really can have it all. And stuffing and sweet potatoes and gravy and pumpkin pie…

Just hold the whip cream. It goes straight to my but.

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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!”

Yup.

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