Article by Sheena Iyengar’s friend
While we are far from understanding how we choose to act from moment to moment, we do have a general idea. We choose from a set of things we knowhow to do and do the one we choose. …. We might even consider what we might do next – which is, in itself, something we know how to do.

We also know that we all have a set of things we want. …

Both of these sets are very large but we know a bit about how we make our choices from among all these alternatives manageable.

We rely on the situation we find ourselves in to help. … Much of what we do is suggested by the situation in which we happen to find ourselves which of course are the result of our prior choices. We don’t think about doing next year’s budget while surfboarding.

Another aid to making a choice from all the things we know how to do is a to-do list – which is simply a list of things we know we should do. …

Scheduled events also help. … They punctuate our lives with things we know how to do and sometimes suggest other things we should do.

Conversations also are a big help in helping us choose. We tend to do things we are asked to do … Other people have many ideas about things we might do – many of which we choose to do.

Sometimes we even hire people to help us choose what to do. Consultants of various stripes: …

We use many devices to help us choose from among all the things we know how to do.

But as the advertising industry knows well we are easily distracted. Loud colorful ads interrupt whatever we are doing to suggest other things we might do …

Sheena Iyengar has observed that we all like to be free to choose from among all available alternatives but that too large a set of free choices leaves us uneasy as to whether we have chosen wisely. Thus we welcome all these familiar means to help us narrow the set of things from which we actually choose while preserving our feeling of free choice.

The idea of narrowing my set of choices is an interesting way to conceptualize a reason for following a teacher/mentor. There are many things I don’t know, or I’m so unsure of I don’t know where to start, so it seems efficient to rely on someone who seems to have covered much of the same ground, to be going in the same direction.

In recent years I have been thinking a lot about faith i.e., believing and trusting in, even acting in accordance with,  something or someone who may not be right, or may not be right every time. Relatedly, I’ve discovered it takes a certain kind of inner strength – maybe confidence or courage – for me to have faith despite the possibility of being disappointed and nor reciprocated, or “answered”. It also takes a certain kind of big-ness – maybe generosity, compassion, love – to maintain a connection with that person or thing after being disappointed or unreciprocated. (Of course, a person may do risky things without courage, knowledge, or examination of the situation. It’s important not to confuse the doing of those things with courage, knowledge, and examination.)

At the risk of sounding flowery, that love and compassion is what makes the relationship with one’s teacher/mentor similar to that with one’s spouse/partner. The love and compassion are also what can mislead one relative to the above disappointments. It’s tricky to make sense of the shortcomings of the partner or mentor, or one’s religion or community values. Of course one common way is to ignore or minimize. Another is to rationalize. Yet another is to focus more on the shortcomings of others. None of these is to truly embrace and see. In that sense, they are not true love and compassion.

Again, at the risk of sounding flowery, love and compassion for others is inevitably the same for oneself. To put it briefly, this is what most everyone discovers for themselves, so it seems to be universally true. When I doubt my teacher/mentor, he may actually be wrong or he may be right but at that moment I may only see (or be able to accept) a reality in which he is wrong. One of the “tricks” I’ve found to make good use of the relationship and advice of a teacher/mentor, is to really look closely, even a second or third time, at whether and how he is wrong. I examine two things: 1) how strongly do I feel and how thoroughly do I come up with reasons why he is wrong – this can be an indication of my resistance i.e., how much I don’t want to see it any other way, how much am I feeling like my freedom of choice is getting infringed upon? 2) what if he is right? What are the implications, and do they make even more sense than my arguments against? do they open the way to more growth and health for me than dismissing them? What, if I looked more closely, did he see that prompted him to say that? (And even if I stripped away his personal filter/bias as a human being, what did he see?) Hopefully these two pieces are indicative both of love, courage and compassion as well as of wisdom, mindfulness, and reflection.

Another way to reduce our anxiety about our choices of what to do next is by considering our set of things that we want. [eg dreams, long-term, big goals]

But while real and admirable, such lofty goals are too distant to help us much in choosing what to do next. … We all do what we do in the hope it will one day add up to reaching those lofty objectives to which we aspire. But if we examine in detail the set of values we actually pursue from day to day, we can only hope our choices will get us there.

We choose to be polite. We choose to dress well. We chose to eat well. We choose to be generous to our friends and family. … And on and on…….. With a rich set of local (al-be-it disconnected) desires it is easy to explain virtually any action we take as being somehow consistent with a single-minded pursuit of our loftiest aspirations. But it is our set of very local and largely disconnected desires that help us choose what to do next.

If this is roughly how we choose what we do, it is easy to see how things could go wrong. We could choose to race old ladies to taxis in the rain. … All these are things we know how to do and, with some effort, we could even persuade ourselves that we were serving some higher purpose. Thus if our modest theory of how we choose what we do is correct, we would expect to see all these things occur. If they did not our theory would be in shambles.

But we do not need fear. All these deplorable things occur with some frequency. We find support for our theory every morning in the newspapers. We continue to struggle but without much success to discourage these harmful choices but we keep trying.

It is harder to explain why things work as well as they do – at least in some parts of the world. … Several explanations are possible. It is possible that our system of controls, reporting, and laws actually do lead people to avoid choosing actions that to do harm. But an even happier possibility is that our array of desires, disconnected though they may be, may indeed lead us to choose actions that good rather than harm. … Indeed virtue may be more widespread than the news would have us believe.

Common sense / assumptionsawareness. It’s hard / impossible to say exactly how much virtue is at play in the world, but I think it is underestimated. Even if a person doesn’t say to people something like, “I try to live a good life. I try to do right”, that virtue or principle may simply be a core, fundamental premise upon which he sees and acts in life. It may be so fundamental that it’s difficult for the person to see it. The occasions that this is brought into awareness may be when the person encounters some act or person that noticeably contrasts with their common sense. Even if it’s brought into awareness, the way it is there may be nothing more than a fuzzy, “That’s wrong. That’s strange”; further, the person may depend on the outside, other people’s rationale (eg religion) to explain or clarify the fuzziness.

Of course, another side of presumptions is that, I may convince myself I operate based on virtue just because I say I do, I believe I do, my community says we do, or I remember the times that I actually did (but discount the times I didn’t).

Ability to articulate. Whether, or the way that, values, virtues, etc.  are in a person’s awareness is related to whether and how they articulate it, and reciprocally, how they actually act. I may act virtuously despite having no vocabulary for why I do so. I may act evilly despite having a lot of vocabulary for why I do right when I do right, and why I shouldn’t act evilly. More generally speaking, I make choices regardless whether I can articulate why I make them or whether the particular way to talk about it that comes to my mind actually fits or not.

A lot of the low-level, discouraging discourse I see happening in the US and in the world today is highly related to poor communication. And part of the poorness of the communication has to do with people using words and expressions that don’t really serve to communicate, but it’s what they’ve been “equipped” with (eg by their culture, religion, education, socialization). The words that come our of people’s mouths reciprocally work to influence how / whether those same people have awareness of themselves, their actions, and the events and other people in the world. Without some working awareness of the tools one is using (eg why one is using it, how one came to use it, the pros and cons of using it), it becomes futile and frustrating to make sense of the other tools out there that sometimes serve the same purpose, sometimes not, have different pros and cons, different origins for people using them now, etc.

What happens with that futility and frustration – when others come to the same table or the same construction project but are using different tools, different ways to go about the job, different order of doing things, etc. but still both you and they are saying you are working on the same project, sitting at the same table? A typical reaction is to say, “No, you’re not really sitting at the table. You’re not really moving forward on the project. You are pushing your own, separate agenda, different motives. You’re being difficult”. The only way any construction foreman or meeting moderator can make things more productive is to start with noticing that different things are being done, sometimes with a shared purpose, sometimes without. From there, the commonalities and differences can be identified and reconciled. But if we remain attached to seeing things only in the way that we started with when we came, then we are going to have a very frustrating interaction with the other people who showed up.


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