Wanna live on the edge?
Get in a car with me behind the wheel.
I am not the best driver in the world… In fact, I might compete with Lucille Bluth for “world’s worst driver.” When I do have to take control of an automobile, it’s important for me to give my full attention to the task at hand. Which is why when Radiolab’s podcast “How Much is Too Much?” came on in my truck, I was happy to be parked and waiting for a friend instead of on the road.
“It’s heartbreaking to see these incredibly talented college seniors terrified at graduation,” psychologist Barry Schwartz was saying to the two hosts.
Immediately I turned up the volume. The sentence really struck a chord with me. I could remember my own graduation day, cowering beneath my black robe and wondering if the mix of pride and complete terror was due to my hangover or if I was experiencing the inner turmoil that would always come along with facing my future.
Looking back, I’m pretty sure it was a little bit of both.
But Schwartz explored this fear of the future a bit deeper.
It’s “a disease of modernity” or “choice angst” as host Jad Abumrad called it.
Where does this “disease of modernity” come from?
“They [graduating college seniors] know that this is a stage in life when walking through this door means they’re going to hear a lot of other doors slam shut. They can’t bear the thought that they might make the wrong choice.”
It’s a FOMO of sorts. It’s pretty true. I’m not used to choosing just one thing and when I have to, I’m terrified of making the wrong choice. If I do this, will I be losing out on that?
Recent graduate Chau Le was anxious about moving to Taiwan after college because she was worried it would cause her to lose out on too many opportunities in the States. All of us millennials (and now generation Z) suffer from this “disease.”
Because we’re used to customizing everything we want to meet our specific needs. We don’t have to make choices because in this world we can have it all. It’s awesome! From relationships to food orders, we can do anything!
The downfall to this? Well, it turns out that the average person may not be equipped to handle all of these options.
Cognitive psychologist George Miller wrote a paper all about the magic number seven. Seven (plus or minus two) is approximately the number of items that can hold up in a person’s short-term memory at any one time.
That’s a teeny-tiny number. Every single day we’re presented with a far greater number of options to choose from. Think about it. Do you remember the first time you went into a Starbucks? Staring back at you was not just a choice of espresso, drip coffee, or tea, but an expansive list of categories to choose from—hot drinks, Frappuccinos, tea lattes, “skinny” options, fruit-flavored, tea-coffee mixes—try to tell me you weren’t overwhelmed and blurted out “orange mocha frappuccino” or “tall decaf cappuccino” because you’d heard them in a movie.
Of course you then discovered that you didn’t have to make just one choice in Starbucks. You could have it all! If you can’t decide if you want tea or coffee, you don’t have to! Just order a dirty chai (with soy milk please).
How this affects our decision making skills:
Okay, but who really cares, right?
I mean, boo hoo we have too many things to choose from. Hold on a sec while I break out the world’s tiniest violin…
I get it. This “disease of modernity” makes its sufferers sound like whiny spoiled brats. What’s the big deal? If we can get anything we want, then what’s the problem?
Well, sometimes we have to make a choice and what happens then?
This is just what was explored in the rest of the podcast. A professor at Stanford’s Business School, Baba Shiv, decided to conduct a little experiment to see how this magical number seven affected subjects’ decision-making abilities.
Subjects of the experiment were asked to memorize a number in one room and then walk to another room down the hall where they would recite the number they’d been given. Some subjects were given two-digit numbers and others were given seven-digit numbers. They could take as much time as they wanted to memorize the number.
When they walked down the hall to the other room, they were stopped and offered a snack as a “thank you” for participation in the experiment. The snack options available were either a piece of chocolate cake or a piece of fruit. The participant had to choose between these two options.
The result? Those who had the seven-digit number were twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake over the fruit.
According to Baba Shiv, it was because our brain is separated into two different departments. The frontal cortex, which is “reasonable,” and a deeper part, which is our “emotional” side. Because participants asked to memorize the seven-digit number were using so much of the “reasonable” side of their brains, the emotional (and much more gluttonous) side could take over and grab that slice of chocolate cake.
The simple task of keeping a seven-digit number in mind was difficult enough to completely push “reason” (calories) out the window and let emotion take over.
What that means for you and your career:
Now let’s go back to the image of terrified college seniors. Think about how many options you have upon graduation. WAY more than seven. With all of those career and life choices staring you in the face, how are you supposed to make a “reasonable” decision?
Or let’s think about the job search. Imagine you’re scanning through job listings on AfterCollege or craigslist. Think about all of the job descriptions you’ll be reading over. We talk a lot about tailoring your résumé to a specific job description or writing cover letters that speak directly to the employer’s needs. How can you do this when your brain is overloaded with information?
This is the time when you need control over the “emotional” side of your brain. You need all of your logic in order to pain-spot or keep track of who you’re reaching out to.
What we can do to fix it:
So, what can we do about this? Are we just supposed to hole ourselves up? Would it be better to be limited in our daily choices?
Neurologist Oliver Sacks explains that he has done just that for himself. He’s chosen certain parts of his life from which to eliminate any decision-making at all. You can hear more about that at the end of the Radiolab podcast.
But I’m not sure all of us can live in the manner that Oliver Sacks does. And I’m not sure it’d be a positive thing if we could. Having so much available to us not only causes the “disease of modernity” but also creates its beauty.
Women not only have the option to work, but can choose from any profession out there! I don’t have to get married if I don’t want to. I can choose to be in a long-term relationship, go on Tinder, or be single forever and no one will (or should) care! I can be vegan, vegetarian, paleo, gluten free, or a raw foodist.
And I love the fact that I have those choices.
But how can we approach making them from a reasonable standpoint?
Well, let’s look at the example used in this post comparing chess players. There is a huge difference between grand master chess players and novices. Why? It’s not necessarily skill that sets the two levels of players apart. Yes, there is some of that as well, but a lot of it has to do with the amount of time spent playing the game. Grand master chess players have seen just about every positioning of pieces imaginable. Because they’re not trying to figure out the new arrangement of pieces, they have more control of their frontal cortex or the “reason” section of their brains and can logically plan the next move.
You can think about your career pursuits in the same way. If you put off career exploration until your senior year as you’re walking across that stage to grab your diploma, you’re going to be much more overwhelmed with the choices in front of you.
On the other hand, if you start early on in your college career (or maybe even in high school), you’re going to build a wealth of knowledge about the choices available to you once you graduate. That way, when you’re starting the job search and sending out those job applications, you won’t be cramming a bunch of information into your frontal cortex all at once. You’ll have enough of that “reasonable” space to make logical choices about your future.
Your other option?
Don’t think of it as having to choose one path. The New York Times has called us a generation of “slashes” because we refuse to limit ourselves. A businesswoman SLASH musician. A barista SLASH entrepreneur.
You can give the “reasonable” portion of your brain a break by releasing the pressure. Maybe it’s not about curing this “disease of modernity” but finding a way around it. After all, if you don’t have to choose between coffee and tea, why should you have to choose between painting and data science?
What do you think? What are your thoughts about this “disease of modernity” and facing the choices of our future? Leave your comment below!
Homework time! Want to open space in that frontal cortex during your senior year to make getting a job easier? Start exploring your options now! Take time to check out what jobs students with similar educational backgrounds have been looking at.