Escaping the Mindless Pursuit of Meaningless Success
Your ability to reject opportunities might be the greatest opportunity of all
Posted Sep 16, 2013
A recently published series of clever laboratory experiments led by Christopher Hsee at the University of Chicago tested how people would react to the opportunity to earn more by working more. In one study, participants listening to the pleasant sound of piano music were given the opportunity to earn one chocolate for every 20 button presses. The rub is that each press of the button triggered an interruption of the soothing piano music with the blast of a buzz saw chewing its way through a piece of wood.
Here is the disturbing part. Before the experiment began, participants were clearly told that any chocolates they earned, but opted not to eat immediately after the experiment ended would be subsequently trashed. They were not allowed to take any leftovers home, give them away, or otherwise save them from destruction. Despite knowing that, the average person continued “working” to earn nearly 3 times as many pieces of chocolate as they could eat. In other words, they willingly sacrificed pleasure and contentment to earn rewards they knew they would not be able to enjoy.
We sacrifice time with our families to earn pay raises that we work too many hours to utlize. We campaign for a leadership role on the PTA even though we complain to friends that we are spread too thin already. Between school, soccer practice, and play dates we feel like we never have time to simply enjoy our kids’ company…right before signing them up for dance class and piano lessons.
It seems we are programmed to sacrificially pursue rewards at all costs without considering whether or not we even value those rewards. The Chicago researchers call this “mindless accumulation.”
So why do we do it?
Grit Gone Wild
Perhaps it is the Protestant Work Ethic run amok? A rich and exciting new line of psychological research spearheaded by Angela Duckworth at University of Pennsylvania is showing overwhelmingly that gritty, conscientious people have a better shot at life satisfaction and higher overall earning potential. Maybe mindless accumulation is merely the by-product of an otherwise helpful “stick-to-it-iveness” trait?
A more cynical observer might argue that mindless accumulation is just one inevitable manifestation of our ugly consumer culture. Maybe Madonna was right after all—it’s a material world, and we are all material girls…and boys?
But what if there is a less sinister cause?
Brian Wansink of Cornell University and his colleagues have found precisely the same phenomenon in everyday eaters. In a series of classic studies, unsuspecting research participants continued eating from bowls of soup that never ran out thanks to a hidden a tube in the bottom that continually kept the bowl half-full. Other participants ate absurd amounts of stale, week-old popcorn at the movie theater simply because the opportunity presented itself in the form of a ginormous tub-full of calories sitting on their lap. Wansink and his colleagues labeled this phenomenon “mindless eating.”
Taken together, it seems that our work woes may be—at least partly—self-inflicted. Maybe it isn’t The Man keeping us down, or the Great Rececission forcing us to do more with less. Maybe the deadly sins of greed and sloth are actually just symptoms of the real problem. What if part of the reason we are overwork, overschedule, and overeat is simply because we aren’t thinking strategically?
Decide to Live Strategically & Decisively
In Why Quitters Win, I argue that even though many of our most vexing personal and professional problems might be rooted in strong social and cultural norms, they can be solved by personal decisions. Unfortunately, most of us are confused about what exactly it means to make a decision.
The Latin root of the word “decide” is caidere which means “to kill or to cut.” (Think homicide, suicide, genocide.) That means deciding to pursue one opportunity without killing another opportunity is not a decision at all. It is merely an addition. When a mom or dad opts to join a golf league or accept a challenging promotion, that parent hasn’t decided anything until they have decided to spend less time playing with their kids, exercising, sleeping, or Facebook’ing.
Instead of starting with the assumption that opportunities for more money, more friends, more fun, more security, and more freedom are categorically “good” and must therefore be pursued whenever possible, the strategic approach starts with the assumption that there is no such thing as a universally “good” option. A promotion that is great for Sally because she can provide better for her family, might pull Tom away from the areas that give his life true meaning. One more volunteer opportunity might be exactly what Joe needs to fill a void in his life, while it might be exactly the opportunity that will push Kathy over the edge of her struggles with anxiety. A strategic approach starts with the question “is this a good opportunity for me given the primary strategic objective of my life?” That question is immediately followed by “…and what other opportunities must I reject in order to successfully pursue this one?”
The greatest tragedy of free will in a free society is an unsatisfying pursuit that ends with a pile of uneaten chocolates. The greatest opportunity of free will in a free society is that we each get to decide which opportunities to accept, and which to reject.
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