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Posts Tagged ‘Barry Schwartz’

Gift Boxes and BallSanta, make it stop!

My inbox, which has exploded exponentially every day since Thanksgiving rolled over into the Season of  Shopping, has sent me on the fast track to crazy town.

Among the fifty-odd messages that popped up since I went to bed last night are emails from everything from Bloomingdales to the Stanford Wine Club to Toys “R” Us, each and every one of them with urgent subject lines, imploring me to get on the stick before it’s too late:

Final Hours:  30 percent Off!
Friends and Family!  Sale Ends Today!
1 day only: Free Shipping!
Shoes and Bags, Starting at $49.99
Up to 35% Off! Cybersale ends today!
Top Foodie gifts!
Last minute holiday deals!

Last minute?  Gulp. The silliest offer, who knows how they found me, was for a half-price gift certificate at the local batting cages.  Go figure.

So crazed was I the other day, in fact, that I misread an email from a local retailer that one of my kids happens to love offering a 24-hour-40-percent-off sale.  I rushed to the mall, only to find out that the sale was online only.

You would think that a smart person such as myself – and one who genuinely enjoys Christmas shopping – should be immune to all this insanity.  And yet, I succumb each year to a ridiculous sense of panic starting a few days before Thanksgiving is in the books:  All these options, all these sales!  Get it together before it’s too late.  Decide, decide, decide!

As in shopping, so in life?  As we’ve written before, choices are hard, and time pressure makes the decision-making process a hundred times worse.  Add in the constant barrage of information (thank you, interwebs) and we’re headed for a serious case of analysis paralysis.  In fact, what we learned in the research for our book is that the greater the number of options, the less likely we are to choose one, whether we’re Christmas shopping — or more importantly, trying to figure out what to do with our lives.

It’s not unlike choosing between the red sweater for Aunt Jean or the blue one — or no sweater at all.  Because, as we learned from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice’, one of the insidious effect of having too many choices is that you naturally expect that one of them will be perfect.  And so you search and search until you find it.

Or you don’t.  Cue the holiday shoppers wandering through the mall with the thirty-yard stare

This analysis-paralysis business is especially strong for women when it comes to career decisions.  Consider the newness of it all.  Back in the day, college-educated women were routinely told they could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary.  (Until, of course, they stayed home to raise the children).  Now, young women know from the earliest age that they can do or be anything – with or without kids.  That freedom is what we’ve fought for, but with it comes a mountain a stress.  There’s an added wrinkle, too, which is what I hear from so many of my female students:  Before they’re legal to order a cocktail, they feel pressure to decide on their life’s path: Choose the right major! Get an internship! Build a resume!

Before it’s too late.

But anyway, back to me.  As background, I rarely start Christmas shopping until I get Fall quarter grades turned in, sometime around the second week of December.  And you know what?  Santa always comes.  I know this, truly I do.  And yet: with stacks of final papers awaiting my red pen, I am making a list and checking it twice, in a total twit because, you know, I haven’t bought one thing.  And with all those emails, all those sales, all those choices blinking at me from my computer screen, I can’t help but thinking that the perfect gift, at the perfect price is out there waiting for me.  But I had better act now.

So here I sit, with a terminal case of the head spins.  That cute little pencil skirt?  You can never have too many.  Or, um, can you?   The Northface half-zip?  But wait, doesn’t he already have one?  So maybe the cashmere V-neck would be better after all.  Just not quite sure of the color.  Good price, though.  Sigh. At least for today.

But hold the phone: What about the batting cages?

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If rules were made to be broken, why are so many of us so afraid of breaking them?

They have their function, after all: if everyone took a red light as but a minor suggestion, driving—or merely riding in—a car would be a seriously risky endeavor. Actually though, it occurs to me as I type this, there’s an intersection by my house, near where I get onto the freeway to go North. The light works on some sort of timer or sensor or something. And several times, in the painfully early hours when I’ve been on my way to the airport, I’ve sat at that light. And I’ve waited. And waited. And waited. In fact, I’ve never seen it turn green. More than once I’ve inched into that intersection, staring down the deserted streets, thinking to myself “Should I, or shouldn’t I?”

I got to thinking about all this rule-breaking business after hearing Barry Schwartz’ most recent TED Talk on NPR. In it, he talks about what he calls “practical wisdom,” how ideas and behaviors that typically would fall under the heading of “common sense” are valued less and less. His talk focused primarily on organizations and institutions, how an over-reliance on policies and procedures creates bureaucracies and red tape the navigation of which take precedence over a more thoughtful approach–and which are a nightmare to deal with, to boot. How we can get so focused on objective knowledge that our humanity takes a hit. How sometimes, in fact, the rules can lead us astray – as when one man’s child was taken from him after a security guard spotted the clueless father giving his son a Hard Lemonade at a baseball game, oblivious to the fact that “hard” meant booze. Though it was an honest mistake, it was weeks before the child was returned to his home and his father allowed to see him again.

What’s all this got to do with the rest of us? I tend to think quite a bit. When it comes to what we choose to do with our lives—and the angst around those choices—I’d bet that no small part of the difficulty there has to do with the tension between the desire to be true to ourselves, and the desire to play by the rules. To do the things that are expected of us. To color within the lines. To be the perfect fill-in-the-blank. (And the perfect fill-in-the-other-blank, and the other blank, and the other blank…) Certain things are allowed. Certain things are expected. But are they right? And, more importantly, are they right for us? How can we be sure?

Schwartz quotes Aristotle, saying that practical wisdom is figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time. In other words, it’s subjective. Frustratingly so… except when you consider that, if that’s the goal–to live with practical wisdom–you have all the answers you need. You don’t need to consult the rule book—or bow down to the shoulds—because the only should that matters is that you do what’s right for you, given the circumstances of your life now. If that means coloring outside of the lines, so be it. In fact, if that means coloring outside of the lines, then that’s exactly what you should do.

Just make sure to look both ways first.

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We’ve been hearing a lot about the ambition gap lately: the fact that, as Sheryl Sandberg notes, only a paltry 15 to 18 percent of women occupy the top spots.  But there’s a dirty little secret that impacts the number of women who ultimately become leaders, or who hope to ascend to leadership positions, and it’s this:  many women believe — or, sadly, find out the hard way — that ultimately, they will have to choose between family and career.

I see this all the time in my current and former students.  I have been told, a number of times, by talented young women, that they see me as something as a role model:  I stayed home with my kids when they were young while I pursued a career as a freelance journalist and, when said kids fled the nest, began teaching at a university.  What I want to tell them is that they’re nuts.  It wasn’t easy and it didn’t work nearly as well as it looks.  And in fact, full disclosure here, I am one of those ambition gap stats.

The sad truth is that whether your dreams are to be a swashbuckling journalist or a high-rent CEO, your dreams — at least in the way the workplace is currently structured — are flat out incompatible with parenthood.  And when that sharp reality slaps these talented women in the face, a lot of this incredible Double-X talent backs off.  Sometimes before they even have kids.  Or even a marriage.  They think that ultimately, they will have to choose.  And how many are brave enough to face that choice?

Don’t judge them, don’t blame them.  Because the question we haven’t addressed is this:  Why should women have to view their dreams as an either/or proposition?  Men don’t.  Seems to me, if we want to narrow the ambition gap, what we need to do is talk about changing a culture that assigns women the bulk of the second shift as well as the need to reconfigure the workplace structure to one that is compatible with, well, life outside of work — whether or not you have kids.  Or as Gloria Steinem once so brilliantly said:  “Don’t think about making women fit the world—think about making the world fit women.”

And speaking of Steinem, she participated in a panel at  the recent Women in the World conference in New York with Sandberg.  And according to the Business Insider, when Sandberg mentioned the lopsided numbers of women at the top of the game and asked:  “Is this a stalled revolution?”  Steinem replied:

“We’re at a critical mass stage so we’re getting more resistance. … [And the U.S.] is the worst in the world at making it possible for parents to have a life outside the home.” 

Bravo.  (There’s also the fact that when men and women are deciding whose career gets precedence, it’s often a matter of money.  Men make more.  But I digress.) And so, what I wonder is why the disconnect between work and life isn’t the main issue when we talk about the ambition gap.  All of which reminds me of a conversation we had with psychologist Barry Schwartz, the author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More” and pretty much the guru of the psychology of choice, when we were writing our book.  One of the things he told us was this:
“It’s worse in many ways for women than it is for men because of the great lie of the feminist revolution, which is not simply that women can do anything, but that women can do everything. There’s a sense that men can think that too, but society hasn’t changed enough for men to have the same kind of investment in their nurturing role as parents that women do. To have a high-powered career as a woman, every day is torture.”
Schwartz told us that back when he and his wife were raising their kids, he took pains to tell his students that his family life was an anomaly:
“I said, ‘Listen, I have a job two blocks from my house, and I only have to be in the office six hours a week—the rest of the week, no matter how hard I work, I get to choose where and I get to choose when. You can’t do this if one of you is a lawyer, the other is a doctor. So don’t kid yourself. We got lucky. The world is not set up for this. You will discover it.’”
And discover it, we do.  And that should be the conversation.  Speaking of which, we just got back from speaking at the Women’s Leadership Conference at the Cunningham Center in Columbus, Georgia.  We rode back to the airport with one of the other speakers, the transcendent Karen Walron , who had just written a post on this very issue.  Check it out, especially the comments.
And then, join our conversation.  Either/or?  Or constructive change.  You be the judge.

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In the era of information overload, of Facebook, of “personal branding,” of Rachel Zoe–a woman famous for dressing other famous, ahem, grown women–how do we define ourselves? Have the little things come to mean too much? Have we sacrificed nuance in favor of a slick and quick elevator pitch, or swapped the legwork of figuring out who someone is deep down with the convenient shorthand: What do you do? Have we replaced being ourselves with being our brands?

I got to thinking about these questions after reading the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Styles section: The Power Stylists of Hollywood. The piece is a well-timed tease–especially for me, an admitted and unrepentant stylephile–whetting the appetite for red carpet season, which kicked off Sunday night with the Golden Globes. The only thing was, rather than talking about trends, or even really about the stylists themselves, the piece is about the business of styling. And a bit of it gave me pause:

“Dressing for a major red carpet isn’t simply getting ready for a big party and looking pretty,” said George Kotsiopoulos, a stylist and a former editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine who is now a host on “Fashion Police” on the E! network. In recent years, he said, “it’s been about selling yourself as a brand.”

As insiders see it, that investment is worthwhile: the right red-carpet turnout can help a performer change lanes. “If your client plays nefarious characters,” said the stylist Jeanne Yang, you might dress them, say, in tulle, to demonstrate “that she’s really a fresh ingénue.”

Others strive for sartorial consistency. Indeed, a case could be made that [Hailee] Steinfeld’s reliably chic but youthful red-carpet looks inspired the fashion executives at Miu Miu to cast her in its advertising campaigns. Mila Kunis’s transformation, at the hands of Ms. Flannery, from ill-kempt hipster to regal sexpot doubtless helped secure her latest role, as the new “face” of Dior. A fashion or fragrance contract can earn an actress in the tens of millions.

Such potent stylist-star alliances were spawned well over a decade ago, when celebrity Web sites and supermarket tabloids competed to serve up candid shots of stars exiting Starbucks or the gym in a state of sorry dishevelment. Hoping to shore up their images, some were quick to enlist a fashion consultant.

Stylists at the time catered to stars’ insecurities. “The stylist is an outgrowth of the mean-girls culture,” Ms. Press observed. “Their very existence says of an actress, ‘I don’t trust my own instincts, or I have no instincts, or I can’t bear to read all the mean things people are going to say if my dress doesn’t deliver.’ ”

Sure, for most of us, no matter what we wear, our outfits will likely not be netting us a gig as the new face of Dior anytime soon, but I think there’s something in here that’s pretty universal. The need to (pause for barf-in-my-mouth) brand ourselves.

Gross, right? And yet. We all do it: Whether putting together the outfit that will convey precisely the image we want to project on any given occasion (competent yet creative for the job interview; smart yet sexy for the date; pulled together without trying to hard for the errands…), or editing the reality of our lives in order to present a carefully curated–some might say contrived–image for our imagined audiences to admire on Facebook, we’re all in the business of personal branding. And, as Barry Schwartz tells us in Undecided, it’s little wonder:

Nowadays, everything counts as a marker of who you are in a way that wasn’t true when there were fewer options. So just to give you one example: When all you could buy were Lee’s or Levi’s, then your jeans didn’t tell the world anything about who you were, because there was a huge variation in people, but there were only two kinds of jeans, you know? When there are two thousand kinds of jeans, now all of a sudden, you are what you wear… What this means is that [with] every decision, the stakes have gone up. It’s not just about jeans that fit; it’s about jeans that convey a certain image to the world of what kind of person you are. And if you see it that way, it’s not so shocking that people put so much time and effort into what seems like trivial decisions. Because they’re not trivial anymore.

Actually, it reminds me of a story of my own:

Last year, I was in New York for a book reading–an anthology to which I’d contributed an essay. And off I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home, alone save for my trusty laptop, ensconced in clothes that can most kindly be described as scrubs. And if people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, dammit (and, you know, be comfortable–except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent–and beautiful) woman who’d edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she–dressed decidedly down–told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who’s so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn’t have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony, of course, being that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable? Or literary lightweight?

It all makes you wonder: is all this “personal branding” we’re doing serving yet another purpose? As with the actresses who employ professional stylists, is our brand–or, as we like to call it, our “iconic self“–a buffer in some way? The armor that protects us from those we fear will judge us? After all, in a world of endless options, of jeans for every political affiliation and body shape, sometimes, isn’t it easier to slap on a costume, play the role, be the brand, rather than hanging out our sloppy, indefinable self out there for all to see? Or doing the work of figuring out who she is in the first place?

But all of it surely comes at a cost. After all, what about the parts of ourselves that don’t fit neatly into our brand? Maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. If we let go of the need to fit ourselves into the brand, the image, the iconic self, maybe we’d have an easier time figuring out who we really are. Which in turn, might just make our decisions easier, not to mention more authentic. All of which might just make us happier. Think of it as You, 2.0.

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Here’s a little good news for anyone who’s getting older (yeah, Peter Pan, that includes you): a recent Gallup poll has found that as people get older, they get happier.

You read that right. And I know, such a finding runs counter to the results of countless other studies and anecdotal asides. Not to mention the stereotypes of lonely spinsters, desperate housewives, cosmetically-enhanced cougars, and grumpy old men who have nothing better to do than lament the passing of the “good old days” and talk about the state of their prostate.

Researchers are equally baffled, according to a piece in the New York Times:

‘It could be that there are environmental changes,’ said Arthur A. Stone, the lead author of a new study based on the survey, ‘or it could be psychological changes about the way we view the world, or it could even be biological–for example brain chemistry or endocrine changes.’

The survey involved more than 340,000 people nationwide, ages 18-85, and basically found that people are pretty happy around age 18, but then get less and less so, until about the age of 50, at which point,

there is a sharp reversal.

And then, as everything else begins to sag, happiness starts to climb. Really. Equally surprising is the finding that happiness levels had very little correlation to any of the life biggies you’d think might affect our emotional state: the results held regardless of sex, relationship status, employment status, and whether or not the respondent had children.

‘Those are four reasonable candidates,’ Dr. Stone said, ‘but they don’t make much difference.’

So what is going on, then? Well, our pal Barry Schwartz, he of The Paradox of Choice, has a theory. Talking to him recently for the book, Schwartz posited that what’s happening here has a lot to do with expectations, choices, and the freedom that comes when we’re able to let go of the notion that, because there are so many options out there, there must be one that’s Perfect-with-a-Capital-P… and that it’s our job to find it. Here’s some of what Schwartz had to say:

I think the fact is that you need to learn from experience that good enough is almost always good enough. It seems like settling, as you put it. Why would anyone settle?… And this is something that’s been coming up in the last few weeks, starting at age 50, people get happier. And I think a significant reason why is what you learn from experience is exactly that good enough is good enough, and once you learn that, you stop torturing yourself looking for the best and life gets a lot simpler. And I think it’s very difficult to convince a twenty year-old that that’s the way to go through life.

Difficult if not flat-out impossible. But I guess there’s a silver lining to this self-induced suffering, this lesson that only experience can teach us: We may never find perfection, but we will surely get older.

Not the best news, I realize, but certainly, it’s good enough.


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Well, I never thought of Alice In Wonderland as a particularly feminist fairy tale of a movie, what with Johnny Depp and all. Alice is, you might note, not much taller than a teapot. But HuffPo blogger Marcia Reynolds apparently sees past the Mad Hatter to find several models of womenpower jumping off the 3D screen:

What I found even more interesting than the 3D effects was the way the three female characters used their power. The Red Queen chopped the heads off of anyone who disagreed with her. The White Queen, due to her commitment to peace and the sanctity of life, could not defend herself. Alice had to learn how to claim her power, slay evil, be benevolent instead of brutish when the situation called for compassion and above all, take charge of her own life and destiny. The distinction in the uses of power is important to realize for all women, young and old.

Interesting, that. Reynolds goes on to mention other movies, too, where the girls, no longer “damsels in distress”, become take-charge chicks, who not only claim their independence, but their power, too. Even more interesting, she draws a comparison from the likes of Shrek’s Fiona to today’s twentysomething women:

How is this shift playing out in society? According to the Bem Sex Role Inventory, an increasing number of college-age women demonstrate qualities that are traditionally used to define masculinity, such as being self-reliant, independent, able to defend one’s beliefs, willing to take risks, and able to make decisions easily. However, these women also score high on traditionally feminine traits such as sociable, compassionate, understanding, and eager to work with others. The results demonstrate that women aren’t becoming more like men. They are becoming stronger as women.

As self-images go, darn good: You can do anything! You can do everything! The scary old dragon? Slay it yourself! And you can do it in Manolos… But here’s where the message slides down the rabbit hole: With all those options, with all those expectations, comes pressure. Pressure to commit to one option, when you now know something better might be waiting right around the corner. Pressure to please that iconic self, whether it be Alice or Fiona. Pressure to do it all — set up shop in the corner office, but don’t forget the cupcakes.

And pressure to be perfect when, in many cases, good enough is, you know, good enough. As we learned from Barry Schwartz, the guru of choice psychology, when options increase, expectations do, too. You tell yourself that with so many options, one of them must clearly be perfect. But when it it turns out to be merely good, you can’t help but be disappointed. You should have made a better choice.

That’s where we still have work to do: navigating the choices, dealing with the expectations, and understanding both how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go. Which, in a silly kind of way, brings us back to Alice and his Deppness:

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,”said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.” *

* From “The Annotated Alice” by Lewis Carroll.  Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., p. 110

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Or, how to explain why we spend hours trying to decide between the red one or the blue one.

And sometimes walk away with nothing at all.

There are any one of a number of research studies out there on the science of choice. (You’ll read about many of them in our book, in fact. Stay tuned.) What you find out when you read them is that when we’re undecided, when we can’t figure out what to do with our lives, it’s not necessarily that we’re whiny and wishy-washy, but that some significant shit is going down in the space upstairs.

We’ve talked here about the “Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz’ pivotal book that suggests that, the more choices we have, the more likely we are to be disappointed in whatever we choose. We’ve also talked about “magical number seven”, another well-referenced study from the 1950s that suggests we mortals can only hold seven (plus or minus two) items in the gray matter at any given time. Explains a lot, that one.

But one of the most referenced studies on choice has to be the iconic jam study, where shoppers at Drager’s — a chi-chi Northern California grocery store where you find bottles of imported balsamic vinegar in a glass case under lock and key — were confronted with two displays of jam. One table held six jars, the other 24. The folks at the table of six chose one and walked away happy. But those faced with 24 may have enjoyed the extensive array in front of them — but left empty-handed.

One of the authors of that study was Sheena S. Iyengar, now of Columbia University, who has just come out with “The Art of Choosing: The hidden science of choice.” (In the journalist’s world, this here is called burying the lead. But I digress…) The book is a tapestry of anecdotes, science and pop culture to explain, yet again, why when it comes to choice, less is generally more.

This week, she talked to Salon.com about everything from arranged marriages (not necessarily a bad thing), to ballot order (it screwed Al Gore) and how a blind researcher — Iyengar lost her sight when she was a teenager — understands color (she has an easier time of it.). From that interview:

At one point in the book, you write about the ways names shape color preference. How did your blindness affect your ability to research color?

Because I’m blind, I’m not emotionally invested in a particular color or color combination. I’m much more able to discern how invested sighted people are in what looks good and how enormously subjective it is. It was my struggle with color that made me pay so much attention to it. Names of shades of particular colors kept changing — along with the idea of what color should go with what others.

Sighted people’s emotions are tied not just to what they’re seeing but what they’re feeling while they’re seeing. If you walk up to a sighted person and say that outfit just doesn’t go, or that their makeup is cakey, they’ll say, “How can you be so cruel?” It’s because you’re commenting on the person’s judgment. Now imagine if you’re blind, and you don’t have an emotional investment in that. If somebody tells me my makeup is caked, I’ll go, “Oh, I’ll fix it.”

Is it really true that Al Gore would have won the 2000 election if his name had been first on the ballot?

Oh yeah. This is research done by John Krosnick at Stanford. It’s estimated that Bush coming first on the ballot cost Gore 2 percent of the vote, which in that election was critical. Why do we vote for the first person? When you open up a menu in a restaurant the first dish serves as your reference point, when you interview people for a job the first person serves as a reference point; it’s just human nature.

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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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As Americans, we put quite a bit of stock in happiness. Our founding fathers even name its pursuit as an inalienable right–up there with life and liberty. And I challenge you to find a person who’d answer the question “Do you want to be happy?” with an “Eh, I could take it or leave it.”

But a recent post by Penelope Trunk on her Brazen Careerist blog suggests that, not only is happiness not so admirable a pursuit–in fact, she uses the word “vacuous”–but that, in choosing to chase a life defined by happiness, we are necessarily opting out of an interesting one. Why’s that? Choices. In her post “Do you overemphasize happiness?” she writes:

I think choosing a life that is interesting to us and choosing a life that makes us feel happy are probably very different choices.

For one thing, people who are happy do not look for a lot of choices, according to Barry Schwartz, in his book, The Paradox of Choice. People who want to have an interesting life are always looking for more choices and better choices, and they make decisions for their life based on maximizing choices.

She then riffs on her different experiences living in New York City and Madison, Wisconsin, where she currently resides, letting the judgments fly. (New York offers choices and opportunities, the promise of access to the best of everything. Madison offers cheese, football, and PETA-inflaming bioscience departments.) She explains her need to go there thus:

The fact that I feel compelled to have a tirade about Wisconsin in the middle of this post is interetsting to me. People who value choices over happiness never argue about it. They are proud of it. People who value happiness over having a life full of interesting opportunities get indignant over being accused that they made that choice…

What this illustrates, though, is how different the world of lots of choices is. People will pay a ton of money to have a lot of choices, which is what they perceive as an interesting life. (See the average rent per square foot in NYC) but people will not pay a ton of money for a life with relatively few choices. (See the average rent per square foot in Madison.) This makes me think that people put a higher premium on choices, because choices make life more interesting.

That they do. After all, a life of PB&J for lunch every day is a reliable snooze. No sushi? No ceviche? No curry? No thank you. But that it’s interesting or happy, one or the other–much as it pains me to say it, I think maybe she has a point. But, as always, I think we’d be missing something if we didn’t look a little harder at what she means when she says happiness–and it seems that, in this post, what she’s really talking about is ease. While one might argue that it’s a given that choices make life more interesting, the women we’ve spoken to for our book seem to all agree: choices make life hard. But do difficulty and challenge necessarily equate to unhappiness? And does seeking them out make us gluttons for punishment? I’m not so sure.

And, to her point that, as opposed to those who choose a “happy life”, those who opt for a life filled with options don’t feel the need to defend themselves, I’d argue: probably not. As we’ve said time and again, when it comes to women who’ve been told how lucky they are that they can be anything they want — well, to suggest that there’s something wrong with seeking out options, hoping for that access to the best of everything, that’d be right up there with suggesting that the earth is flat. As hard as dealing with all the choices afforded to women today can be, very few of us would trade all those opportunities–even if, as Trunk suggests, doing so might offer a shortcut to happiness.  Maybe that’s because happiness is in the definition, and if an interesting life is what one is after, creating and living one brings its own variety of happiness.

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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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