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Posts Tagged ‘too many choices’

I quote Ron Livingston, in his iconic role as office cog-cum-construction-worker Peter Gibbons: “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.” You know you’re in trouble when “Office Space” stops making you laugh and starts pissing you off. And, in his prestigious think tank job and despite the PhD in philosophy under his belt, Matthew Crawford, the author of a new book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft” was most definitely in trouble. So, after several months of doing suprisingly little thinking at said think tank, he left, and opened up a motorcycle repair shop. His book is about the satisfaction of an honest day’s work–and how our society places too little value on such work (witness the extinction of shop class). In a recent NPR interview, he said:

Anyone with halfway decent test scores is getting hustled into a certain track, where you work in an office.

He argues that we’ve created an “educational monoculture,” with “only one respectable course” (those words made me think of the creepy meat-grinder scene in Pink Floyd’s The Wall–check the video at the end of this post), and goes on to say:

It takes a real contrarian streak to live more deliberately and make these calls for yourself…

That reminded me of this comment from Tamara, in response to my post about The Uniform Project, and whether less choice leads to more creativity: “I think it really comes down to an individual’s ingenuity and courage to be themselves.” And it does take courage–and a bit of a contrarian streak–to be yourself. Assuming we can find that courage and tap it, Crawford describes the point of work, as he sees it:

The point is to find some work where you can make yourself useful to people in a straightforward way that engages your own judgment and thinking so that your actions feel like they’re genuinely your own.

Seems like a lot to ask for from a job–and yet it also seems so profoundly simple, there’s no way it can’t be true. Leave it to a philosopher. But really. Do you feel like you were steered away from your passions, your soulcraft, in pursuit of…. a job? And, again back to the choices thing, I wonder if, as overwhelmingly inclusive as the whole “you can be whatever you want!” mantra is, it’s all too easy to just get on the conveyer belt, and hope to make some decent… hamburger? Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to be said for hamburger. Security. Benefits (dare to dream). But what about fulfillment? What about passion? Is it possible to have any pudding, if we don’t eat our meat?

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Check what some of our readers have had to say this past week. To continue the conversations — or read the whole comments — click the links.

On quarterlife:

“…especially with all the recent layoffs, quarter-lifers like myself are stuck answering the age-old question: what should I do with my life? I have a full-time job I enjoy and am still struggling… The best thing about the mid-20s is that you can dress and act like a teenager (and get away with it) and dress and act like an upwardly mobile junior executive (and get away with it). The worst part about the mid-20s: trying to decide which of those images accurately reflects YOU.”          — Timithie

“I’m getting stressed out just reading those questions! I’ve been trying to decide on a car to purchase for five years. FIVE YEARS. I can make great decisions at the office – but when it comes to this… hybrid? 4-wheel drive? fun? practical? lease? buy? 2-door? navigation? red? leather? floormats? cupholders? aaargh. Hello, indecisions and paralysis. It’s embarrassing, frankly. Although, should I be embarassed, or embrace it? Share it, or hide it? Fake it, or own it? I digress.” — Page

“It’s so wonderful to have the plethora of options that we do…but I have no idea which way to go. Some of the stuff I have absolutely nailed down – I know what kind of clothes I like to wear; I know that I DON’T want to be a mathematician… As for the rest…I’m at a loss.” — Marjorie

About women and their choices:

“I am 65 years old and have had the option to work or not work throughout my marriage. …Up to about 35 I used to worry about why I liked to change and explore new things and what was wrong with me that I could not find one goal or profession and stick to it for life like Georgia O’ Keefe did with her passion for painting. But, at around 40, I decided to accept that this is just who I am… I have continued to and hope to never stop changing, learning and growing as the years go on and love it that way.” — Dottie

“I am mostly happy with my job — it’s challenging and well-paid and flexible — but at the same time I constantly feel like I’m just dancing around in circles on the fringes of “the dream job.” I also struggle with how big and important a role I want career to play in my life anyway. I came out of law school thinking I wanted career to be my entire life, and the older I get, the less important career seems and the more important the rest of life seems…” — Anne

“What a relief to find that I’m not the only one who has experienced this phenomenon! I keep reading everything, thinking, “Yes, yes, yes!” My sister used to tease me that I was on the semester system in life because I was always moving and changing jobs. But really I was just worried that I was missing my “true calling” or not doing enough to fulfill my parents’ expectations after all that schooling. .. Now I’m almost 40 and starting yet a new career… Looking back I can see how the choices and self-inflicted expectations led to a major paralysis in my mid-20’s…” — Marisa

“One of my favorite things about being a woman, and about women in general, is how they tend to be better at adapting to change than men. I feel this is a real benefit when you look at the number of choices before us these days…You have to bend and mold and be flexible to be successful in life and I see that women really tend to show this strength. No wonder we have so many choices before us…women rule. I say “Bring it ON”!! — Ani

“Yes, I swim in a sea of confusion over my options! Being a woman who feels she is unlimited, I’ve spent too much time debating my opportunities instead of picking one path and sticking with it. I can’t complain; life has been good. I do, however, feel concern that I might be overlooking the one thing that is my “calling.” From orchestra conductor to herpetologist to cartographer to photographer to writer, I’ve wanted to do it all. I also know that I can, we all can…”          — Lauren

On “Commencement”:

“…I’m curious to see how women (or men) from previous generations would relate to the characters. One interesting tidbit, I thought, was from one of the character’s mothers, who said — while cooking dinner and doing 90% of the housework — that women with careers and families makes life easier for one gender… men.” — Colleen

On the pressure of the passion versus paycheck dilemma:

“I feel like I have dealt with this issue my entire life, just on a slightly different level. What if you don’t have a passion? It always seems to come up: What would you do if time, money and experience didn’t matter, how would you spend your time? Honestly, I have no idea. … When I did my corporate job for 10 years, I did it well (I have the annual reviews to back that up), but it wasn’t what I lived for. I worked to live, not lived to work. My real life was always on the verge of something else. The verge of what? who knows. I was talking with a friend this weekend who basically thought it was pointless to work in a job that wasn’t emotionally, spiritually, and creatively fullfilling. I thought good for her, but what about everyone else? I kept thinking, this is a first-world problem and really doesn’t apply to much of the world.” — Joanna

On the happiness gap:

“… with so many choices and so many opportunities, it seems like women can now choose careers that they want to pursue rather than doing something they have to do. Unfortunately, our society seems to encourage us to seek out jobs that pay the most money rather than jobs that we enjoy. Finding a high-paying job you love isn’t easy. Of course we all need money to live, but is it worth doing something that causes so much stress just to have the money? Perhaps the women that are the most anxious, stressed and medicated are those that are pursuing high-paying, high-stress jobs that they hate – jobs that in the past may have been held primarily by men.”  — Jennifer

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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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Wharton School’s Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published a study in May that’s been dubbed “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” The title kinda says it all, but the gist is that, while, 35 years ago or so, women reported being happier than men, today women–regardless of marital or employment status or whether or not they have kids–report being unhappier than men. And, as one might imagine, dozens of articles came out in the wake of that study, riffing on the whys.

From the Sunday London Times:

There’s plenty more opportunities for women than there used to be–but then again, that means you are always questioning whether the moves you have made are correct, or whether you should have done something else.

From BusinessWeek:

Over the last 50 years, women have secured greater opportunity, greater achievement, greater influence, and more money. But over the same time period, they have become less happy, more anxious, more stressed, and, in ever-increasing numbers, they are medicating themselves for it,’ says management thinker and author Marcus Buckingham… ‘Better education and job opportunities and freedoms have decreased life happiness for women.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a bit of a problem with that assessment. (Not least because it’s coming from a guy.) The Washington Examiner’s Marta Mossburg had this to say:

Too many choices or opportunities can paralyze rather than inspire. Men are used to this. For women, opportunity is still a relatively new phenomenon, and often a confusing one.

and

Women’s declining happiness in the face of greatly expanded freedoms should come as no surprise. But neither should a reversal of the trend once they have the time to get used to it.

That I can get behind. What about you? What do you think? Does this idea get your hackles up, or do you think there might be a kernel of not-so-convenient truth in there? Would you be happier if your only career options were teacher, secretary, nurse; what if our society was down with arranged marriages, for that matter? And, okay, we’ll be happier once we get used to it. Swell. But in the meantime, we’re living our lives now, wishing we were just a tad happier than we are… So how do we get there?

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This too many choices thing? It’s not just us. No less than e-behemoth Microsoft has recognized that our era would be more accurately described as the too-much-information age. And the more information, the harder the decision.

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