To Move Or Not To Move?

Media274A colleague of mine gave me grief for constantly blogging about what’s wrong with the world. I’m actually an optimist by nature (which he knows), but I’m trying to provoke thought, which usually means discussing problems or controversies, not warm and fuzzy feel-good stories. He essentially said, “Fine, but aren’t there some interesting, thought-provoking examples which end with a good decision and a positive outcome?”

Well, this time, I have one.

While I was teaching a workshop for a client recently, one of the class participants came up to me on a break and said that he’d like to talk about an important decision he had to make. So at the end of the class that day, we got together to talk.

The situation was indeed a sticky one. This guy (I’ll call him Al) and his family currently live in Houston. The company had recently promoted him to a new job in Los Angeles. He and his family had lived in LA before, and they had loved it. He had been transferred to Houston a number of years ago, and as often happens with transfer-induced moves, the family initially hated life in the new place. The weather is worse, there’s no beach, etc. However, after a year or so, they found that living in Houston has a number of plusses (not the least of which was a bigger house and a much lower cost of living than LA). The family settled in and really enjoyed it – more than they had enjoyed life in LA. So there were mixed emotions about the move back to California.

Now for the sticky part. The company said that if Al wanted to, he and his family could stay in Houston. It would mean a lot of travel back and forth for Al, and he would be away from his family a fair amount of the time, but the job involved some travel, anyway.

So what should he do? Houston was great for the family, but Al was afraid that his work might suffer from a lack of contact with his LA colleagues. LA was definitely better for his work situation, but uprooting the family – even to go back to a city about which they had good memories – might cause problems.

Al is used to solving problems – it’s a key part of his job. But most of the problems Al usually worked on involved cold, hard logic; choosing where to live is a hugely emotional issue. Logic alone wasn’t going to cut it here. Al wasn’t so much looking for a solution to his problem as he was looking for an approach to thinking his way through all of the “soft” issues and the competing objectives which surround a life decision like this.

We briefly discussed some semi-qualitative methods, like weighting one’s objectives and then scoring each decision alternative against those objectives. We talked about tricks like taking a coin, declaring that Heads means LA and Tails means Houston, flipping it, and then checking how he feels when he looks at the coin (relieved? anxious? disappointed? excited?). It’s a good device for tapping into your subconscious emotions. After all, the decision-making center in the brain is located in the emotional center, not the cerebral cortex.

Then Al said something telling. “You know, if they had never told me that we could stay in Houston, I would have been fine with the move to LA. And I’m sure the family would have been, too. It would actually be easier if we had never been given the choice.”

I told Al about a book which deals with exactly this problem: Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. Dr. Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. His book spells out all the ways in which having more options actually makes us less happy. (Economists might have to read that last sentence two or three times before comprehending the words, and even then they might find themselves repeating, “Does not compute…does not compute…”).

Schwartz starts off by relating a story about buying a new pair of jeans. The last time he had bought jeans, he went into the store, found his waist size and inseam, and bought the jeans. The whole process took about five minutes. The jeans didn’t fit exceptionally well, but new jeans had never fit him exceptionally well. Eventually, they conformed to him. He was quite content with his purchase.

This time, he was overwhelmed with the variety of options available to him. Relaxed fit, slim fit, easy fit, baggy, or extra baggy? Stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Button fly or zipper fly? Faded or regular? There are sixty different possible combinations of just these variables. Schwartz spent quite a bit of time trying on different jeans, looking at them in the mirror, trying to decide whether to admit that the relaxed fit felt better, etc. It took time, energy, and thought, and the underlying message was, “Somewhere in here is the perfect pair of jeans for me; it’s my job to figure out which pair that is.” Going home with anything other than the optimal pair of jeans would be failure. This same phenomenon has hit everything from toothpaste to breakfast cereal to cable TV packages to electricity plans for your home. Previously simple choices with which most people were perfectly happy have been replaced with a cornucopia of alternatives that leave most people bewildered and many people angry.

Of course, although the jeans Schwartz ultimately purchased fit just fine, they were not perfect. This really irritated him. So much for increased consumer choice leading to a happier consumer.

But wait – this blog post is supposed to have a happy ending, right? It does, indeed.

Al read The Paradox of Choice (or at least key parts of it), and came in the next day with a smile on his face. “We’re moving to LA,” he said. For Al, the two key messages from Schwartz’s book were 1) don’t try to be a maximizer, and 2) don’t look back. Schwartz points out that many people make themselves miserable by insisting on finding the absolute best product/solution/alternative for themselves – i.e., the “maximum” – rather than one which simply satisfies their primary requirements. They have to read every item on the menu before deciding on what to have. If it doesn’t turn out absolutely delicious, the result is consternation and self-doubt. Al and his wife concluded that although moving would be stressful and they would miss Houston and their friends, living in LA would meet all of their family needs as well as the requirements of Al’s new job. They weren’t sure whether both sets of needs would be met by a cross-country commuting arrangement.

They also agreed not to second-guess this decision. I told Al, “Problems will undoubtedly arise in LA; you need to resist the temptation to say, ‘Damn – we should have stayed in Houston.’ The decision has been made; look forward, not backward.”

If you remember nothing else from Schwartz’s book, remember those two things. Look for solutions that satisfy, not solutions that maximize. Once you make a decision, don’t look back.

You will be much happier for it.

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