I could have turned you inside out. But I chose not to do.

July 26, 2008

SJ and I were talking about choice.

Socially, we construct choice as a good thing. Choice in schools, choice in hospitals. (Sadly, this does not extend to my particular choice, which would have been not to go to school at all and might well have been to blow it up.) SJ was questioning the value of choice, and this is at least in part a post provocateur to get her to expand on this a bit.

But I do think about choice. I use aspects of NLP as part of my coaching practice, and much of that is about helping people to increase their choices. A key concept of NLP is learning to develop flexibility about how to achieve your goals, and I do believe in this. So, for example, if my goal is meaning in life and I think I can only achieve it through working for a company with a noble mission, I will be fairly unhappy working in financial institutions. However, if I can be flexible about where I’m useful, new possibilities open up. I could derive satisfaction from supporting my colleagues, or I could accept that work is not the source of my meaning in life and instead look for it in sponsorship or volunteering in the Oxfam bookshop.

Realising that I have a choice – and being willing to make it – is useful. When I feel trapped by a situation, I look for choices. How can I break down my goal to give myself as much choice as possible? It’s been very useful for me.

However, there are spaces where choice does not help us. Barry Schwartz writes about the paradox of choice, and this is a valuable frame. (Here’s a fun commencement speech by Schwartz about this. God, I love the Internet.)

He poses the question: how much choice is too much choice? His answer is interesting: he distinguishes between maximisers, who look for the perfect solution, and satisficers, who are able to say ‘this is good enough’. Satisficers pick up the first tube of toothpaste that works for sensitive teeth and costs less than £2, whereas maximisers will go through every tube on the shelf to find the cheapest or the best. Unsurprisingly, satisficers are happier. And people are more likely to make decisions if they have less choice.

Of course, one way to frame Schwartz’s work is that we have a choice about how we relate to choice. We can decide where we want to be maximisers and where we want to be satisficers. (If you are an aeronautical engineer, for example, being a maximiser is a Very Good Idea.) As we understand the distinction and become more aware of what we do, we gain more choice.

It’s an interesting space. It is not straightforward, but I think I’m still broadly pro choice, so to speak. If we believe we have choice, rather than believing that there is no way out of a situation, we are stronger. Viktor Frankl said it best: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

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11 Responses to “I could have turned you inside out. But I chose not to do.”

  1. Ros Says:

    It looks like you have an open tag at the end of this post that’s making everything else italic. You should be able to fix it in the html editor.

  2. Francesca Says:

    Fixed. Grazie mille.

  3. Sarah Jane Says:

    Personally I think choice in schools and hospitals is a bad thing. And this may be the case more generally, too. I think people get hung up on choosing the best [school, hospital, job, pair of shoes] and that the quest for perfection distracts them from focusing on the fact that every [school, hospital, job, pair of shoes] should be of a comparable quality and fulfil its basic purpose, and that far too many of them don’t.

  4. Francesca Says:

    I’m going to reflect on the schools and hospitals, but do you really think that every job and pair of shoes should be of a comparable quality? For the first, is that realistic? For the second, what about affordability?

  5. Sarah Jane Says:

    Well, I think there will always be more variety in jobs than in schools and hospitals, but I do think that all jobs ought to provide a living wage and a degree of job satisfaction as a minimum. And I think there’s really something askew in a society where stockbrokers and footballers are paid far more than nurses and teachers. They might not be the same, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be of equal value. For me, all that having a choice of jobs has done is mean that I’ve spent years bouncing around looking for the mythical perfect job instead of actually trying to make the best of what I’ve got.

    And as for shoes, I have a wardrobe full of the wretched things and I still have to wear trainers and change when I get to the office because I can’t walk in any of them. And the huge choice of colours and styles just masks the important things – do they fit? Can I walk a couple of miles in them every day without being crippled by the end at the week?

  6. Francesca Says:

    The problem is, though, that people are different. Shoes that fit you and are comfortable will be hateful on someone else, and vice versa. And people get job satisfaction from doing a great variety of different things.

    I agree with you about the living wage, though, wholeheartedly.

  7. Sarah Jane Says:

    I’m not totally against the idea of choice (except when applied to public services, where I think it is a pernicious legacy of Thatcherism), but I do think that it’s fetished by our society and sometimes we could all do with a bit less of it.

    This probably needs to be a post of my own, though.

  8. Ankaret Says:

    Forgive me, have not read whole post as seeing any unexpected mention of NLP makes me hit the scroll button, but I am going to print out the bit about maximisers and satisficers and wave it at Peter, as we’ve been having a conversation all weekend that goes:

    P: The only place these shelves will go is on this wall.
    A: Fine, stick it on that wall, then.
    P: But this wall is suboptimal for these reasons!
    A: Can you stick the shelves in the hall instead?
    P: I want the shelves *here* so I can keep the cookbooks on them.
    A: Huh, that’s reasonable.
    P: But if it goes on this wall, there’s not quite enough space. There’s space on *this* wall.
    A: That’s not a structural wall.
    P: Well, it should be.

  9. Francesca Says:

    My ex-other half was a maximiser par excellence, and we did in fact discuss it on a number of occasions. The problem was that he liked being a maximiser.

  10. Ankaret Says:

    I think the problem’s that DIY is not yet a sphere of expertise. If he knew it as well as he knows code, he’d probably be more willing to approximate.

    Anyway, I have absolute confidence that whatever happens, it won’t end with the kitchen being blown up, though for some reason saying so doesn’t seem to help so I’ve stopped saying it.

  11. Francesca Says:

    The problem is that he has to gain the expertise somehow…


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