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Posts Tagged ‘paradox of choice’

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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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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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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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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