Too Many Choices

We are conditioned to believe that the more choices we have in life, the better chance we have of finding what we want, acquiring it, and consequently being happy or even happier.

Surprisingly, psychologists tell us that the opposite is true. Having a multitude of choices often leads people to confusion, frustration, and bad decisions.

Based on personal experience and recent observations, I’d say I have to agree with the scientists.

Let’s start with personal experience. As most of you know, I encourage everyone to dress in a fairly traditional, ‘Ivy League’ or ‘Old Money’ style. It’s a strategy that ensures you’ll be most likely be well-dressed for any occasion and save money by investing in your wardrobe over time rather than overspending in the elusive pursuit of fashion trends. You’ll communicate respectability and engender trust without calling too much attention to yourself.

Adopting this style of dress and narrowing your focus automatically reduces the number of vendors you’ll consider, as we discussed in our recent Back To School post on essential wardrobe items for students returning to campus. These vendors have basically formed a ‘usual suspects’ line up for us when we discuss clothing on the blog: Mercer and Sons shirts, Allen Edmonds shoes, Talbots for ladies’ clothing, Brooks Bros, LandsEnd, and Polo for many items.

This single choice–to adopt an enduring style–has a domino effect. It narrows our subsequent choices, which may seem like a bad thing. But it really isn’t. You get to make your choice between a lot of ‘not bad’ options very quickly and with little fanfare.

Contrast this approach with that of a young man living here in Paris. As we sat in a cafe recently, he decided to investigate his online options as he considered purchasing a pair of black blue jeans. Simple enough, I thought, as I leaned in over his shoulder, looking at his laptop screen. We’d go to a website, see two or three options–baggy or slim fit, straight leg or…bell bottoms? Were bell bottoms even back in fashion? I had not a clue about this retail landscape.

Nevertheless, when we landed on the Levi’s jeans portal, I was dumbfounded. I think I saw fifty different styles and colors of quote-unquote ‘black jeans’. Stone-washed, distressed, faded, shiny-finished, stretch, skinny jeans (?), original fit, low rise, all these combined with the Levi’s numbered styles of 501, 511, 513, and who knows how many more…I don’t quite remember and to be honest I don’t want to remember. It was all too much. There were too many choices.

And soon, even my young friend gave up. He closed his laptop and returned to his coffee. “I’ll just walk into a store and pull a pair off the shelf,” he said, suddenly fatigued. Probably a better idea, even though there would be fewer choices at the brick and mortar location. He just wanted a pair of black jeans.  He didn’t want every possible option in the history of denim. (Paired with the tailored white dress shirt, fitted black jeans seem to be part of almost every man’s casual ‘uniform’ here in Paris, and it’s a good look for this city.)

Under the ‘personal observation’ category, let me share this insight (again) after living for a few years in the Mecca of Fashion. The ‘secret’ to Parisians’ legendary style is just that: limiting their choices to classic, well-made pieces in a narrow range of colors. It may justifiably be accused of lacking imagination, but the restrained, timeless style that this city’s residents are so famous for finds its starting point with, again, limited choices. (I’m not the first writer to make note of this and I’m sure I won’t be the last.)

So as we strive to make better decisions, we should first reflect, remembering to avoid retailers’ constant siren call of more and more choices, a bigger variety of products, new and improved this and that, and the next big thing.

We do this by first adopting our philosophy of life and adhering to it. Then we can more easily filter options–from clothing choices to moral choices– that fall within the guidelines that philosophy.

Yes, we instantly create limitations, but ironically, we may find ourselves more fulfilled and, strangely, more free.

  • BGT

7 thoughts on “Too Many Choices

  1. Coincidentally, I have had a very similar suspicion about the conundrum of too much choice since the late 1990s when I began teaching and really observing undergrads while a graduate teaching assistant. More than two or three options petrifies the average person, hence the now expected need, in education, for very specific assignment prompts and associated grading rubrics.

    Simply telling students to develop an 8-10 page paper on X by midterm results in confusion, frustration, metaphoric tears, and (invariably) drama of some kind. “I don’t know what I want to do!” is the oft heard refrain. “Tell me what YOU want!” The problem is not just limited to college students, you understand, but that is where I see it the most in my particular line of work.

    However, I strongly suspect that the reluctance (or possibly inability) to make a choice when faced with numerous possible options and potential outcomes in life is something that troubles many well into adulthood and old age. Far better, in terms of wardrobe and so much else, for people to whittle things down to just a couple of choices and leave it at that.

    Hopefully, some of that will be along more traditional, tasteful lines like the sort you advocate and discuss here.

    Kind Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

  2. Buying jeans online is challenging. I find myself buying a lot of pairs and probably half are quickly given away to Goodwill.

    Your article reminded me of Steve Jobs’ famous black turtle neck + Levi’s 501 + New Balance shoes combo. There’s also Matilda Kahl who famously created a work outfit for herself. Ditto Thomas Edison and many others.

    In the ivy/trad/OMG look world we have Brooks Brother shirts (white, blue, pink) + Bill’s khakis (M3) + brown loafers + navy socks. What could be simpler?

  3. Using an extract from Heinz-Ulrich’s comment “ However, I strongly suspect that the reluctance (or possibly inability) to make a choice when faced with numerous possible options and potential outcomes in life is something that troubles many well into adulthood and old age “ I would like to pose or ask the following:

    Is this inability or reluctance rooted in the confusion caused by too many choices, or, is it rooted in the simple fear of being wrong ? Using Byron’s adopted countrymen as an example, ask one of them “ is this black or is this white ? “. The answer you’ll probably get is “ not exactly “.

    In my view, the reason for that inexactitude is that there always has to be wriggle room for making the wrong choice. Some way not to take the blame. Some way to save face. This is not the sign of, nor the path to, leadership.

    A suggestion when dealing particularly with young people: when they’re confused by choice or simply want ‘you’ to decide ask then what (they) think. Then say ‘ let’s try it ‘. When it doesn’t work, discuss the reason why it failed, which guidelines were missed and then again, discuss the solution or way out with (them) leading the way. (They) must decide.

    Isn’t that how leadership is developed ? At some stage the leader ‘must decide’ just like a pilot must at some stage go solo.

    In my experience of conducting meetings at work, I always ‘involved’ others. They were always for-warned and able to prepare and never placed on-the-spot. But they had to be involved, to contribute while standing on their own feet. It builds their confidence and makes theIr contribution feel worthwhile.

    At the same time they come to realise that the wrong shade of black Levis on a Tuesday afternoon doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they decided and then they learned to recover from an error with their dignity intact. They feel ten feet tall. I’ve tried it and I’ve seen the results.

  4. A while ago, I wondered who is behind the strategy that Levi’s has been following lately. Ironically, the company is still (partly) owned by the same family. Old Money.

    It’s not surprising. So many large companies are owned by Old Money. They prioritize profit and that’s how they get where they are. Fair enough.

  5. As usual, David, I’m impressed with and totally agree with your thinking. And in my experience, I inevitably followed your

    ‘let’s try it’ with —

    “how can I help?

    what do you need from me?

    DONE

    and – lastly –

    “and now I’ll get out of your way so you can get to it.”

    THEN I STOOD BACK WHILE SHE OR HE BLOSSOMED!!!!

    Best regards,
    JanB

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