The Art of Choosing

When I picked up Sheena Iyengar’s “The Art of Choosing”, I had hoped that her book would set out – step by step some ideas on how I can improve the way I make my choices. I was wrong. Instead of a step by step self-help book; the information in these pages examined the many influences that surround how humans make their choices and raises some questions about choice. In particular, it challenges the assumption that since choice is good, more choice must be better.

Perhaps my biggest take away from this book was that in order for one to reap the most benefit from choice, we must, in a twist of irony; commit to something to the exclusion of all other choices. As I reflect on this, I think of a line from “The Good Place” where the character Chidi, well known for his indecisiveness describes a dilemma at an ice cream sundae bar

There were too many toppings. And very early in the process you had to commit to a chocolate palate or a fruit palate and if you couldn’t decide you wound up with kiwi, junior mint, raisin, and it just ruins everybody’s night.”

 It’s funny when you can’t commit to a palate for a desert, but what happens when you can’t commit to a goal? A career? A partner?

Sure, you have many more options than people who do make these commitments, but is it worth it if the sum total of all your disparate, unrelated choices end up looking like the Chidi ice-cream special?

Many of the studies in Iyengar’s book continually prove that while choice is important, too much choice can be detrimental, paralysing and counter-productive.

So why do we continue to demand more and more choice? Iyengar explains this with behavioural heuristics – specifically “loss aversion”. Committing to a choice means saying goodbye to options that were previously left open to us – we are averse to losing choice itself.

In our society we are constantly told that there is no limit to who we can be, yet the limitations commitment imposes on us can bring order to chaos. They set a framework that allows us to better reflect upon the quality the options laid before us and how well they align with the person we have chosen to become.

Small is Beautiful

Like any other human being, I constantly compare myself to others. Recently, I’ve been comparing my small speech pathology business to other speech pathology businesses. Thanks to the internet, I am able to look at their beautiful website pictures, numerous staff, their blogs and posts on social media with envy. Afterwards, I look at my tiny little business, and all of a sudden I hate how small it is. How insignificant.

Today, when I arrived home I sat down on my couch and read Chapter 5 of Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens” to my little sister over the phone. This chapter discussed the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution; how, by turning our efforts to tilling the soil and cultivating food we managed to grow our population with increasing success. While this is often seen as a positive shift towards progress, Harari encouraged the reader to think about things differently. Tilling the land took time – more time than hunting and gathering – and the grain cultivated had offered far less nutrition than what was found in nature when hunting and gathering, not only that, but the life of an average farmer was far less stimulating than that of a hunter-gatherer. The bottom line was that although there were more people in the world because farming was able to feed them, people had far less quality of life. It was a really depressing chapter, though it made me reflect on my own life.

My speech pathology practice is small (like a hunter-gatherer tribe) – so if I choose to measure the success of my business by how many people I can hire, how many people come to my practice or my gross revenue then I will lose to most people that I compare myself to and I will always feel disappointed.

Harari’s book reminded me that success isn’t always calculated by numbers, but by quality of life which can often be neglected in businesses focused on increasing revenue (like the farmers who were focused on increasing food production).

I love my little practice; we work hard during the school term and chill out during the school holidays. We go home at reasonable hours, take lunch breaks and make time for professional development and team bonding. We have fewer clients so the few people who see us are given the utmost care and attention and as a result we have a very good retention rate. Fewer people means fewer expenses meaning less stress with money.

Small is beautiful.

By divesting myself of the need to build outwards, I open myself to learn how to build inwards not only on how to be a better clinician and a good boss, but to excel in other parts of my life too.