Haunted by too many choices

One way to explain our low-grade dissatisfaction

Haunted By Too Many Choices Fall 2008

Week in, week out, I hear the same refrain from former students, many of them bright, young women: They are searching for something else. Not that there is anything especially wrong with their lives, their jobs, their grad programs. It’s just that things haven’t turned out the way they expected.

I sense the same low-grade dissatisfaction among my own kids, their friends, and my friends’ kids: The grass is always greener.

Except when it is not.

Something in the zeitgeist? The niece of a friend once confided she sometimes wished she’d been born into a world where everything from spouse to career was chosen for her. She echoes what I see: a generation of youth overwhelmed by the unintended consequences of choice overload.

Many are 20-something women raised with high expectations, more options than their mothers ever imagined, and a sense that the perfect life is not only a possibility, but an obligation. Some are paralyzed by it: How can I commit to Plan A when Plan B, which might be better, may be just around the bend? Others constantly doubt themselves, obsessing not on the choice they made—but the ones they rejected. Many are seduced by the siren song of the road not taken and tantalize themselves with an “eat, pray, love” fantasy: cut and run.

Granted, such laments are the luxury of a demographic that has never had real worries about putting food on the table. Still, the angst, and its consequences, can break your heart.

I recall a lunch a while ago with three young, talented professional women, all grousing about their jobs. I tossed out the idea that if they are expecting perfection, they may be doomed to disappointment. All three glared—despite the fact that lunch was on my dime—then one spoke up. “Well,” she said, “that’s a depressing thought.”

I blame us. We raised our children to feel they could achieve anything. Many boomer parents, determined to give their kids every option, treated them like art projects, micromanaging their time, overscheduling their lives. Kids played club sports, studied with tutors, applied to prestigious universities. What we didn’t teach them, however, was how to deal with all the options we made possible. And what we didn’t realize was that with choice comes pressure.

A feminist scholar in my department suspects the burden of choice is worse for women. “They have been superachievers all their lives, so they think they can be superachievers at everything,” she says. And when things don’t work out, it’s incomprehensible—they conclude they didn’t try hard enough.

All the options, whether real or perceived, are both appealing and terrifying, she says, especially for women who never learned that perfection is often constrained by opportunity, individual talent, and society, rather than sheer will. “A great career, a marriage, a family—if they fail at any one of those, failure defined as not perfect, the problem is them.”

Add in the psychology of choice itself, and you have a generation ripe for indecision, if not stress. A few years ago, researchers from Stanford and Columbia tested two displays of jams in a grocery store. One featured six varieties. The other had 24. More customers flocked to the latter, but 10 times as many actually bought jam from the former.

The definitive word comes from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. He suggests that an overabundance of choices leads to two negative effects. The first is paralysis: Confronted with too many choices, some people have a hard time choosing at all. The second is opportunity cost: Choosing one option means not choosing others, and when those others are also attractive, you focus on what you missed and are less satisfied with what you have.

It’s a function of escalating expectations, he points out. Faced with many choices, you assume one must be perfect. A choice that is merely good thus leads to disappointment and regret—you should have done better.

But back to my world. Scaling back options is not the answer. But maybe perspective is. We must teach a generation raised to equate B+ with failure to recognize that real life is messy. This is a function of growing up—the realization that a choice is what you make of it and that sometimes, merely good is pretty good, indeed.

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