Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

On my commute today I read a book called "The Paradox of Choice" by Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz. Basically, the book says that we're faced with too many choices in the world today -- 200 kinds of breakfast cereal, 100 kinds of toothpaste, a zillion different career opportunities, places to live, people to marry... and that people were happier when options were more limited, and not every decision needed to be agonized over -- because there was only one fit of blue jeans instead of six, and only one kind of jelly, not forty. And when every decision has so many choices, it becomes overwhelming and makes us less happy. Schwartz divides the universe into two types of people -- maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers always need to find the best -- and feel like they're "settling" if they don't get *the best* deal on a CD player, or pick *the greatest* elective class to take. Satisficers are willing to stop looking when they find something that meets their standards -- so they can choose the first restaurant, or the sweater in the third store, or the new car -- without feeling like they have to look at every option and make sure they're not passing something up that's better. Schwartz spends a ton of time talking about jelly and blue jeans, shampoo and CD players, and all sorts of other consumer products, and while he does talk about the opening up of so many where-to-live and what-to-do options, I think it's that part that feels more serious to me, and where I wish he'd spent more energy and put in more work (but Schwartz is a satisficer, who was content to leave about a dozen typos that I caught in his book, and content to, at least as it seemed to me, dumb down his book a bit so that you don't need to be one of his Swarthmore students to understand it, although it does feel like he's probably got a lot more to say and just made a decision to keep the book simple -- and therefore a bit less rewarding than it could have been).

But I digress. The what-to-do options -- so many choices are out there, and he's right that it's a challenge to decide whether you will "satisfice" and pick a career that will probably make you happy, or whether you'll be a "maximizer" and keep searching until you find the career that's a "perfect" fit (which you may never find). But Schwartz has it wrong, I think. People I know aren't picking between being a satisficer and a maximizer -- the problem isn't that we have (or can get) jobs that we think will make us happy and we're passing those up for something even better -- the problem is that we're trying to find the ones that'll make us happy to begin with. You're not satisficing *or* maximizing when you become an investment banker, hate it, and decide to leave. The problem is finding the jobs that fit at all -- not passing them up for better things when what you've got is okay to begin with. The problem with all these career choices isn't that too many are great -- I think it's that too many are pretty terrible, and it's a rotten shame that bright, smart, talented, virtuous, gifted people are shunted into mind-numbing soul-crushing jobs by career services offices, the forces of capitalism, and the odd but very real social pressure to have jobs that sound impressive and pay a high salary but that are really lousy in terms of making people not want to hurl themselves out a window. That's the book I want to read, not some weak discussion of why too many kinds of shampoo is making me miserable. Too many kinds of shampoo is not making me miserable. Too many kinds of shampoo, I feel like I can safely say, has NO IMPACT AT ALL on my emotional state. Feeling like there are lots of talented people competing for fewer-than-that awesomely super ways to make a living, and being afraid that I will end up doing something I hate just because I'm afraid to take the risk of doing something else -- that's a slightly bigger concern.

Wow, I thought I liked the book until I started typing. Turns out not so much. Nothing against Prof. Schwartz. But shampoo's really not the problem in society today, I don't think. Apologies if I've made a good point but buried it in enough inarticulate rambling that no one but me knows exactly what I'm saying here.