Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?

Thus spake the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, emphasising that a choice has to be made every moment of life. While having the freedom to choose can be a good thing, we’re living in times where there simply can be just too many to choose from. And that’s overwhelming.

While going through my archives (a.k.a. “clutter” or simply “stuff… I really don’t need”) recently, I bumped into this profound talk by Barry Schwartz he delivered at TED in 2005. I couldn’t help but nod by head throughout the talk when I heard it the first time in late 2008. And I still kept nodding my head as I watched it again yesterday. Clearly, Barry didn’t just speak to the audience that year but to the future.

Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice

Some of the key learnings I’ve had from the talk and his book include the following:

  • The more options we have the harder it becomes to make a good decision as we become vulnerable to make mistakes or worse derive less satisfactions when we (finally) make one! Want an example? Get into your Netflix account and select a movie that you would like to watch tonight. I’m waiting.
  • For some personalities, choices become even less fulfilling. Particularly the ones who’re classified as Maximizers, which as per Gallup, are the ones who “seek to transform something strong into something superb.” Probably Toyota’s brand Lexus would define maximisers the best: “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.” If you’re a maximiser, you want to make the most out of your purchase and your instinct will be to research, compare, and contrast for 1,239 hours before you buy that damn jacket! There’s so much to wade through after all! It’s so overwhelming*! (I feel like I’m dying right now!)
  • In his book, Barry suggests to become a satisficer — someone who is able to settle for “good enough” instead of the best. These folks are decisive as they pick something and get on with their lives! I don’t think I’m a pure satisficer but there are times when I’ve simply walked into a store and asked the clerk to get a size 42 plain black/navy/charcoal grey shirt/pants/jacket/whatever and be done with it. Takes me less than 5 minutes. (Sure, it wouldn’t make up for great style statement. But you get the idea.)
  • The key is to have a certain standard which is “good enough” because it checks off parameters that you deem functional and purposeful compared to let say, “the best in the world!” It’s a far simpler decision-making strategy as there are just two choices: their standards and everything else. Think about it — you search for something that meets your standards and that’s it! You’re done. You have absolutely no reason to waste anymore time on anything else. So, you stop and move on with your life. The number of available options don’t bother you because you know what to look for.

The big question, however, is how do you get there? I think anyone can by letting go of expectations (which is easier said than done, but definitely not impossible) that the “best” is attainable. If it happens, it happens.

I used to think that the “MacBook” was the best computer in the world. Honestly, back in 2007-8 when I embraced it, I wasn’t completely wrong but in 2020, it’s a different story. There are so many choices! I can buy something that’s even more powerful than the best in class MacBook Pro but I still won’t. Why? The Mac still checks off all the parameters that I’m looking for. It’s a no-brainer for me unless I’m literally revolting against Apple! (For which, I must say, I don’t have the time for.)

Interestingly, Barry also suggests that being a satisficer can dramatically improve one’s social relations and psychological well-being. Which didn’t resonate immediately but he has a point — the voluntary constraints do help you to be more freer as you’re more willing to accept relations and people are they are. No judgements. No comparisons. No complaints. It gets easier to think of yourself as not-such-a-big-deal to keep the social ties strong.

Going back to my choice of killing myself or having a cup of coffee, I choose to the latter. I’ve got a lot to give to the world before I say “it’s time.”

P.S. * While I’m glad I’m not a maximizer… some of my near and dear ones are — so, I don’t go out to shop with them. Period.

By Sunil Nair

Nurturing leaders of tomorrow.

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