The tyranny of choice

Optionality as a means rather than an end in itself

It’s been a chaotic week, to say the least, so today’s newsletter will be a brief one.

I studied behavioral economics in college (which I plan to write a lot more newsletters about), and one of my favorite studies also happens to be one of the most famous experiments in consumer behavior research — the “jam study” (Iyengar and Lepper, 2000). In a nutshell, psychologists conducted an experiment at an upscale Bay Area supermarket and found that consumers were 10 times more likely to purchase jam on display when the number of jams available was reduced from 24 to 6. Less choice led to more sales. Conversely, more choice led to fewer sales.

This result seems counterintuitive in a society where the running assumption is that the more choices you have, the better off you are. I’d go so far as to say that the lauding of choice is a core underpinning of our national ethos — choice is the ultimate manifestation of American ideals like independence and freedom from societal constraints.

And if you’ve spent time with me, you’ll know that I have a proclivity toward over-optimizing for the best choice in every circumstance. I’m the textbook hyperrational decision-maker that traditional economic theory is based on. I’m that person who, when buying paper towels, will try to find the option that provides the most absorbency per square inch at the cheapest price. And when buying treats for my dog, I hunt for the most-reviewed options and scroll through comments to figure out the flavors puppies like best.

I’m still actively trying to unlearn these habits in my consuming behavior, but something I’ve been reflecting on lately is the marked difference in my perspective on optionality in my career a year ago versus today. A year ago, I had just returned from working in Singapore for 6 months. Though I had the time of my life working and living halfway across the world, I felt incredibly unsettled about what was next.

This is why: as an ambitious young person, I felt the need to pursue optionality and optimize for “keeping doors open” above all else, endlessly seeking roles with the best “exit options”. I started my career in a rotational program that allowed me to sample a new role every six months, and I tried my hardest to seek the broadest set of opportunities possible to keep doors open in my career. But only when I took a step back and asked myself why I wanted so badly for these doors to remain open did I realize that I had lost sight of the purpose optionality is meant to serve — to be a stepping stone that helps me actualize my objectives. I was so afraid of making the “wrong” choice that I was reluctant to anchor on an objective to optimize for at all.

As such, I chose to optimize for optionality as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end. This created a vicious cycle of not knowing what I want and subsequently seeking optionality, which in turn led to more confusion about what I wanted, and so on and so forth. I didn’t know what I wanted, but at the same time, I knew I wanted it all.

“The existence of multiple alternatives makes it easy for us to imagine alternatives that don’t exist—alternatives that combine the attractive features of the ones that do exist.” — Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Fast forward to the present, and something interesting has happened now that I’ve chosen to be in the same role for over a year. I’ve started to see diminishing marginal returns on optionality and optimizing for making sure doors aren’t shut. Instead, I’ve been seeing compounding upside in doubling down on my current job. Adopting a mindset of commitment has helped me realize what my strengths are and subsequently pursue aspirations in service of those strengths. It’s opened up opportunities and outcomes for me that I never could have optimized for a priori.

I’ve come to realize that optionality vs. commitment is a false dichotomy, as some of the greatest options in life come out of committing to something and trying your best to do it really damn well.

Ultimately, as afraid as I used to be of making the wrong choice, what I’m more afraid of is not being able to consciously make the hardest, most important decisions because life has already made them on my behalf while I was too busy trying not to let any doors close on me. There’s definitely a lot of unlearning to be done, but there’s also merit in stepping back to celebrate the wins. First step, career — next step, puppy kibble!