The Sydney Writers’ Festival recently invited Jonathon Franzen, featured on the cover of TIME Magazine as arguably the greatest living American novelist, to be interviewed on his work, his views on American society and the impact of 9/11.
In a wonderfully erudite and often amusing 40 minutes, he challenged whether 9/11 has had the impact critics often attribute to it, regaled stories of the joys of birdwatching and touchingly exposed regrets on the relationship with his mother. However, the thing that I found most interesting was his discussion on “freedoms” in western society. While the interviewer tried to categorise the types of freedom Franzen dealt with in his most recent novel of the same name (Freedom, 2010), Franzen himself was more interested in framing a less restrictive prism through which he approached the notion of freedom.
Indeed, to him, one of the greatest freedoms occurs when choice is removed or limited from daily life. Reducing it to its simplest, he spoke colourfully of the existential angst he experienced when faced with 22 brightly displayed, cleverly marketed jars of peanut butter. The confusion and near paralysis which jostled for attention when choosing between “smooth with medium salt” from “smoother with less salt” was enough to set him running to the nearest exit of the supermarket.
This was music to my ears! I have long felt that while we all say choice is freedom, it does not necessarily lead to more optimal outcomes. So, since last Tuesday (the night of the interview) I have been listening more closely to conversations which touch on the subject of choice. The first came the night after when a talented woman was churning through the options available for her daughter’s schooling. Public/ private? Should she send her to the closest school (to which she could walk) or the one in the city (which she thought had a more diverse student body). What about the third school which had better grounds and music programs? One had better results, the secon had better pastoral care… and on it went. All legitimate questions - none of which provided a simple answer. Finally, in frustration, she despaired “if only there was just one school! I wouldn’t have the responsibility… and guilt… which will come no matter which choice I make!”
The day after, I had coffee with a friend who was getting married. She was outraged with the celebrant who had literally handed her a “bible” of choices for the ceremony and wording. All she wanted was for the woman to help her arrange an acceptable marriage ceremony which included a few personal things about bride and groom. Instead, she got 10,000 ways to say “I do!” It was the tipping point. After the final meeting with the celebrant she decided to throw it all in, go to a registry and have a party afterwards.
Choice fatigue is paralysing us all, and it is only the brave few who can actively process all of our daily choices to produce optimal outcomes. In my endeavour to understand how to get the most out of choice (rather than letting it getting the better of you!) I came across this excellent TED lecture that I wanted to share. There are a million great lectures on “choice” - so this post might at least help you with which one to choose! I have provided a link to it in the above post (but here it is if you choose to do it this way!)