Barry Schwartz – The Paradox of Choice

I recently found myself over at the TED site watching some random videos. It’s a great site that will surreptitiously eat up hours of your time. It’s also interesting to see the various presentation styles and, at ten to twenty minute intervals, allow you to digest a large amount of information in a short amount of time.

The presentation that really started the wheels turning tonight was by Barry Schwartz. It has to do with “The Paradox of Choice.” According to Mr. Schwartz, one of western society’s underlying values is that more choices means more happiness. And, in his eyes, this assumption is false. Sure, it may hold true to some extent. But then you devolve quickly into the realm of too many choices and find that you don’t want to make a decision, feel bad about making a decision, etc etc. Happiness does not increase linearly with the amount of choices that you are presented with.

Of course, one of the first things that popped into my head was my choice to going into Accounting. Does the paradox of choice hold true here? I think it does.

Think about it: as a student, you have a ton of choices. You can major in just about anything (notwithstanding family pressures, availability of major at your school, etc). The idea is that you choose something and you stick with it for the rest of your life. If I had continued my Computer Science major, I would have been stuck with it. Forever. That’s a long time for someone who is usually made to decide at some point in high school or shortly thereafter.

Looking back to my life in general before I made the conscious decision to do Accounting and Information Systems, I was less happy in general. A large part of my time was sucked up just pondering the future. Yes, the possibilities were limitless. But that actually damaged my overall happiness. As soon as I made a choice that eliminated a lot of options, I was almost instantly happier.

It’s not just me, either. I’ve seen it in others that have gone through the same decision making process. The results are pretty dramatic.

I mean, just think about the last time that you and a friend tried to figure out somewhere to go to eat. You figure out that you’re both hungry. You figure out that you want to go out. Maybe you even have a certain type of food that you want. Even then, you spend a lot of time and effort to make sure that you’re making the right decision. On something as trivial as a meal. Morgan and I are often prime examples of this – it takes us way longer than it should to figure out where to eat. And, in the end, we’re often not all that happy with our choice anyways. The best meals consist of: “You know what I’m really craving? Sushi.” “Me too!” “OK, let’s go.”

It’s almost like one of my favorite quotes: “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” Except in this instance it’s “it doesn’t matter what you decide, it matters that you decide.”

Now that we’ve figured out that more choices doesn’t equal more happiness, how do we change our behavior?

Well, I would say that there are unlimited choices for changing behaviors.

But I guess that wouldn’t quite make us happy, now, would it?

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Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield

Every now and then, I’ll wander down to the hall to Connor’s office. Connor manages to be an unimposing guy despite his 6’4″ stature and linebacker form. The first thing you see when you walk into his office is a gloriously teetering stack of books in all shapes and sizes. Contained in those stacks are books of every genre: history, pop fiction, self help, business, and just about everything else you could want. He’s read it all — and when I say read I mean really read — the prodigious highlighting and notes in the margin profess his meticulous nature and critical insights.

I love going down there because he always has a book to recommend that’s different from what I’m reading. Back when I was reading Dewey’s Experience and Education (book review coming at some point in the future), Connor recommended Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield as a way to relax and, as he put it, “get the testosterone pumping.”

And, boy, does Gates of Fire ever get the testosterone pumping. I’ve read my fair share of bloody literary battles, but Gates of Fire is the first one that decided that entire paragraphs should be devoted to describing the depth of the rivers of blood and other bodily fluids (that I will not mention here). It rather reminded me of Tolkien’s penchant for taking pages to describe scenery, except with a grisly turn.

Regardless, Gates of Fire is an interesting book because of its interpretation of the famous Battle of Thermopylae — battle that took place in 480 BC between Sparta and its various allies and the Persian Empire. As someone who enjoyed the movie 300, I enjoyed learning more about Sparta — and Greeks in general — but found the book to be underwhelming overall.

Connor informed me that the book is usually required reading for the various branches of our armed forces. Reading through the book, you do get a sense that it is glorifying everything that they hold most dear – loyalty, glory, bravery, selflessness in giving everything to your country, discipline, etc. However, I found it almost impossible to connect with the characters in the book. The conversations, despite their profound nature, often felt forced and superficial.

Overall, I would steer clear of the book unless you have a profound interest in Sparta. It’s not that the novel is a bad one, I just believe there are better literary works to be found. Do yourself a favor and skip the book, read the Wikipedia article on the Battle, and watch 300 again. You’ll get the same effect.

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Quote 2 of ?

Mentoring is a brain to pick,
an ear to listen,
and a push in the right direction.
John Crosby

One of the powerful themes that I liked so much in Power of One is the huge impact that one person can have on another. In the book, the main character Peekay is treated to a wide array of characters that shape his life. There’s the welter weight boxer that influences him to become a boxer, the aged doctor that teaches him about the world, and many more. Each one adds their personal insights and experience.

I don’t think mentors get enough credit in this day and age. Americans tend to give a lot of credit to the individual who accomplished something – whether it be breaking a world record, inventing a new device, or suggesting a new theory in a scientific field. You often don’t hear about the teacher that inspired a young child with thoughts of what could be possible, a tolerant father who dutifully responded to the endless “but why does this work…” of their child, or the boss that told his newest employee to get back up and try again, even though he failed the first time.

The increased usage of the internet as a mentor has only made this worse.

The world wide web has led to a vast information repository that virtually anyone can tap into. However, this information is formed a lot like an oil slick. In some cases, the information is microscopically deep, but very widespread. There is no depth to the information that is presented on the world wide web. Wikipedia is a great example of this. It has a lot of information, sure, and makes it laughably easy to get a basic grasp on pretty much any subject. But then the four-paragraph page is over. Where do you go to get more?

The power of the mentor, though, is that their knowledge is deep. Incredibly, vastly deep. They may not have the same surface area that the world wide web does, but a mentor can fill in gaps that you never knew existed. As the quote says, a mentor can provide something that a computer screen, or a book, or a magazine, cannot.

Whether you know it or not, you are surrounded by possible mentors. If you’re studying physics, you may not have Einstein at your elbow leading you along the way, but I bet there is someone out there that has gone through a lot of what you have. If you’re in Accounting, or Information Systems, like I am, there are professors, professionals, and fellow students that are always willing to share their experiences with you.

Don’t toss this aside just because you can do a Google search and find the tidbit of information you were looking for. What about the ten other questions that you forgot to ask? Who will give you the answers to those? Reach out to the mentors around you and listen to what they have to say. You don’t have to do exactly what they say and you may not agree with their viewpoints, but I can guarantee that your own view of the world will be expanded.

Oddly enough, the power of mentors can be seen readily in today’s businesses and organizations. Successful organizations realize the power of having a mentor-mentee relationship. They help pass on information and experiences that are valuable. And not like “oh hey that was cool” valuable, but actually translating to dollars and cents valuable. It’s one of those things that you can’t measure with a scale, but the success of companies that foster these relationships speaks for itself.

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Quote 1 of ?

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
Herbert Simon (1916 – 2001)

Information is one of those things that intrigues me. It’s a love-hate relationship. I love learning, I love absorbing new information, and I love the idea that in this day and age its all at my fingertips. However, good information is hard to come by, most information will never be put to use (in one eye, out the other), and some information that you get is just plain wrong.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has had an obsession with information for a long time. It’s a deeply personal obsession for him; if you haven’t read about him, you should. Talk about a success story: going from penniless foreigner who had to walk hours to the nearest library, where he consumed books by the bucketload, to one of the most successful men in the world. Information truly is power (and, apparently, wielding information is even more power).

Considering one of my majors in school is Information Systems, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that information interests me so much. Applying it to the business world interests me even more. I mean, how can people expect to optimize their company if they have no idea what’s going on? Often, management has a depth of experience in their field that can cover it up and make it seem like they’re doing OK. Then, out of the blue, a competitor comes along that isn’t faking it: they have the right information at the right time to make the right decisions. All of a sudden that first company, the one without the information, just can’t compete.

That sounds a lot like what Business Intelligence systems are for (the subject of my team’s first place win at Cal Poly Pomona), but it goes deeper than that. I guess at some point it seems like there is a battle to be waged between intuition and information. I’m sure there have been many such a battle fought already, but it seems like it will become more prevalent as information is recognized as a key success factor. It certainly helps that data is becoming easier to collect and aggregate. CEOs and top level management seem to advocate large doses of intuition. Jack Welch, previous CEO of GE, certainly advocates as much in Jack: Straight from the Gut.

I view this battle of intuition vs information as one of the key problems that will face companies here in the near future. It may not be splayed across newspaper headlines that “APPLE IN INFORMATION VS INTUITION CRISIS” but it’ll be there, bubbling beneath the surface.

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Thoughts on Teams: part 1 of ?

One of the things I really like about going to CSUN is that they have a heavy emphasis on group work. I guess I should say that I like it, but it really does have some drawbacks. I mean, nobody likes getting stuck in a group that has a bad dynamic. Part of the cool part, though, is seeing how groups evolve as you move on in your schooling. Groups compiled of freshmen, or groups in general ed classes, end up being completely different than those that are in your major.

I just finished a “Strategic Management” (“Capstone”) class that all business majors are required to take before they graduate. Ninety percent of the people had this class as their last class or their second-to-last. With 24 units remaining, I had the most units left out of everyone in the class. It really does lead to a different type of group. I guess part of it could be blamed on it being a summer class as well.

Regardless, I’ve been trying to improve my group leadership capabilities. I am of the opinion that there really aren’t any bad groups, just like there aren’t too many really bad group members. All it takes it figuring out how to motivate people and how to approach the situation so that everything gets accomplished. It seems like the role of group leader seems to fall squarely on my shoulders a good majority of the time.

We all know what that’s like – the group kind of flounders around until someone steps up to the plate and starts making decisions. The type of person that does this can make a huge difference. Sometimes they’re kind of an asshole about it and they become a leader, but not a respected one. Sometimes you get the benevolent, rather shy leader that’s too nice to say “no” and ends up trying to make everyone happy. Then, sometimes, you get a true leader that seems to make everything flow smoothly. They can assign tasks without feeling domineering, they can make suggestions without sounding overbearing, and they just make sure stuff gets done.

If I had to guess, I would say that I leaned more towards the benevolent/shy leader type until a few years ago. I viewed myself as smart, and I was often willing to put in more effort than most other group members. This meant that I knew more about what we were doing, had an opinion on how to accomplish the task at hand, and also volunteered to do everything. I knew how to do whatever needed to be done. I knew how to do it right. Fine, I’ll do it. You other group members just sit back and I’ll take care of it.

I can point to my Gateway (another class heavy in group work) sessions as a prime example. I would get input from other team members and incorporate their ideas, but I wrote the majority of the papers. That’s fine, whatever, it’s easier than having to go back and redo it when the other people don’t do a good enough job anyways. Looking back, I wish I had known what I know now.

So, what do I know now? Let’s see:

1) A good group leader doesn’t take charge unless he really has to; winning over your group members with charm and pleasantries leads to much more loyal members that are willing to accomplish things together.

2) A good group leader listens. I can’t stress how important this seems to be. Being a good leader doesn’t mean sitting in front of your group and telling them what to do. It means that you listen. Listen to what the assignment is. Listen to what group members think and say. You even have to listen to what your group members don’t say. Listening does really seem to be immensely powerful.

This makes intuitive sense to me, because I know I like to be listened to. Most people think they’re right all the time and they want to be heard. By the way, this applies just as much to shy people as outgoing people. The outgoing tend to be more vocal, but typically shy people want to be heard and feel they’re right; they just don’t go shoving it down your throat.

3) Building off the thought above, ask questions. I mean, ask a lot of questions. Make them open-ended enough so that they generate conversation, but try to make them specific enough that you answer a question related to whatever you’re working on. I think the key thing is to direct your question to someone, too. If you’re always just asking rhetoric questions to the entire group, 90% of the time it will be answered by one or two people. The others are left feeling excommunicated – especially if you have a rather shy person. Asking them questions directly keeps them in the conversation, gives them a chance to put in their input (which is valuable), and keeps things going smoothly.

4) It seems like leading a group is a lot about guiding conversations. It’s kinda like using the Socratic method on a group. Guide them to the answers by asking questions. This seems to lead to a group consensus much faster and easier than arguing about it. Asking questions (mind you, it can’t be in an accusing way) leads to interesting discussions instead of setting someone on the defensive.

This is a lot harder than it seems, at least for me. It’s hard for a couple reasons. One, you have to be willing to accept other people’s opinions as right (that means admitting you’re wrong sometimes). Two, you have to constantly keep track of the end goal. Debate and discussions can rapidly devolve into discussions that have absolutely nothing to do with the task at hand. That’s not always bad, and can let you get closer to your group members, but it can eat up a huge amount of time.

I think that’s enough for tonight. Thoughts for next time: forming, storming, norming, etc (from MGT 360). Set concrete goals early. Don’t take on too much work yourself. Thank everyone constantly and compliment them on what they did well. Ask people to do something, don’t command them.

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The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

Every once in awhile, you find a book whose content reverberates deeply in your soul. The words leap off the page in a symphony that takes you away from wherever you’re reading it, whether it be in your bed before turning in for the night or at the end of your lunch break at work. The sentences resonate with what you think and what you feel, affecting you perhaps more than they should be able to. Combine these words and sentences together into paragraphs, pages, chapters, and a book, and you have an otherworldly experience that is the delight of every bookworm out there.

The Power of One did that to me.

It’s the type of book that should be assigned in high school reading classes. I think that if my classmates and I had been handed this book to read instead of say, The Scarlet Letter, our feeling on literature would have been much different. The Power of One was written in 1989, so I can understand it not having transcended to literary classic status (yet), but I think it will get there.

The book is a tale that is, basically, about a legend. It’s told from the perspective of a white Southern African boy born in the period right before World War 2. It covers his life as he faces what seems tragedy after tragedy, hardships that no little boy should have to endure. The boy, Peekay, sets a goal early on to become the welterweight champion of the world. Although that may seem like a cliche background to the dozens of athletic autobiographies out there, this one does it a little differently. I can’t go in to too much detail, because I really don’t want to spoil it. Take it from me, you want to read this book.

The thing that delights me so about this book is that it really is like a symphony in book form. On one page you will be giggling like a little schoolgirl at the pure naivety and innocence of childhood. Twenty pages down the line, you will feel a hole in your heart as if you just lost a family member. Be sure to bring a packet of Kleenex with you at all times, because you will probably be soaking them with tears – of sadness and of joy – as the characters in the book develop.

This book reminds me heavily of my all-time favorite book, Ender’s Game. The combination of physical and intellectual prowess shown in the book make me want to aspire to something more. Does Peekay seem a little too good at times? Sure. But, come on, you can’t help but root for him. It is the same way with Ender in Ender’s Game, yet the story never gets old or corny. It remains delightful and thought provoking the whole way through.

There are little nuggets of wisdom, common sense, and thoughts on the meaning of life sprinkled heavily throughout the book. Considering the fact that it takes place during World War 2, and takes place in South Africa when racial segregation was still in full swing, the issues that it tackles are not easy. However, the author has such a simple, straight forward way of wrapping these issues in the tale of Peekay that it fascinates you instead of bores you.

The Power of One has made it to my coveted top 5 list and will, I’m sure, stay there for quite awhile. I’m sure my old, beat up copy of Ender’s Game will be happy for the company on my nightstand.

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Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

My first exposure to Dr. Atul Gawande was handed out to me in my Accounting Communications class. The professor was an avid reader – although it was an accounting class, the college makes a point of having English professors teach the class. Professor Leslie constantly brought us delightful little nuggets of information to help propel us along our careers. One of these actually turned out to be the last section of Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Dr. Gawande. It’s titled “Suggestions for Becoming a Positive Deviant” and includes a multitude of tips on how to improve yourself (one of them, I’d like to note, is “write something”).

Intrigued by the contents of this little section and a hearty recommendation by the professor, I picked up Better a few months later. As I was checking out, the clerk cheerily informed me that it was one of his favorite books. It turned out that he was in medical school and working at Borders part time. His other top four books included the infamous Grey’s Anatomy (no, not the TV show) and various other medical books, so it’s not a surprise that this one made the list. Better gives a brief look at what’s on the other side of the veil, at what doctors have to put up with and some issues they have to contend with. The majority of the book is, unsurprisingly, based around the medical field. It covers a range of delightful, uplifting topics such how to make doctors and nurses wash their hands more often so they don’t infect (and kill) their patients, how messed up our malpractice system is in the United States, and the doctors behind the death penalty.

Sarcasm aside, Dr. Gawande has the unique ability of interweaving statistics with his own personal story and, for good measure, some self-improvement tips. He lumps his stories together under a few categories, such as “diligence,” “doing right,” and “ingenuity,” although I have to admit that they seem sort of tacked on to the end. The afterword (“Suggestions for Becoming a Positive Deviant”) wrap all these up in a nice tidy package, so if you’re looking for a concise summary of the book I’d suggest just reading that at your local Borders.

Overall, the book is enjoyable; doubly so if you are interested in the medical field. We all have someone in the family or a friend of a family that is a surgeon, nurse, or currently slogging through medical school. Buy it for them, then steal it back for a week and read it yourself.

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A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods by Bill BrysonA Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, was over before I even realized it started. The book itself is about a guy who returns to the U.S. after living abroad for several years; in fact, he wrote several books about his various journeys throughout Europe. Upon coming home, he decides that he wants to hike the incredibly long (and by incredibly, I mean over 2,100 miles long) Appalachian Trail from Georgia to its ultimate destination in Maine. Reading a 300 page book on a guy’s trek through trees and over mountains may not seem to be all that entertaining at first glance, but Bryson does a great job of making it so.

Most of the entertainment, I must admit, comes from Bryson’s partner in crime, Katz. An overweight, recovering alcoholic who flies out from Iowa to join Bryson on his journey, Katz’s amusing character flaws make him the highlight of the trip. The first day of the trip, for instance, his frustration at the weight of his pack causes him to fling some of his possessions over a cliff – among them are cans of Spam, brown sugar, and coffee filters. Later in the book, the author credits Katz with saying something like “Fuck. My criteria for women nowadays is that they not be TOO big and that they have all four limbs. And the limbs part is negotiable, if you know what I mean.”

That quote is about as seedy as this book gets, so if you’re looking for drunken shenanigans, this book isn’t for you. However, it’s still an amusing book that manages to pack a walloping message about the lack of care given to the Appalachian Trail and the surrounding wilderness. Every chapter starts out with at least a few paragraphs on the history of the AT, the current status of it, or various other ecological issues (acid rain is, from what I can gather, the author’s pet peeve). The author’s easy-going style of writing, however, makes it more interesting than preachy and the balance between historical facts and story make it an easy read.

The other aspect of the book that I really liked is the author’s self-deprecating tone that he uses throughout the book. He’s not like the kid from Into the Wild who decides to burn his car, give away his money, and hike out into the wilderness. He’s a pretty normal guy whose love for cheeseburgers and CocaCola is surpassed only by his love for his family. He doesn’t take up the trail as a crusade against modernization or anything like that. He spends a good deal of time while on the trail looking forward to the next motel that skirts the AT, so he can get a hot meal and a cold soda. He doesn’t hold himself up as a saint, so he comes across as a humble, self-effacing guy who is somewhat out of his element.

There are some books whose words seem to fly off the page faster than you actually read them. Maybe the offending book has been recommended by a friend. Maybe you picked it up at Borders after reading the back cover and it’s been sitting patiently on your shelf – content to wait, but always ready to perk up and entertain you. This is one of those books. If, for some reason, you do decide to read a book about a guy going hiking, this one should be it – and it will be over before you know it.

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