just pick one

are more choices better?

June 28th 2016

One of the best things I’ve ever done to improve myself is become a better chooser. The green or red shirt? Bam, picked one. Omelette or scramble? Pow, order requested. Coffee or tea? Well… you get the picture. This wasn’t always the case for me. I used to pour over a dinner menu, looking at nearby tables trying to approximate what they ordered and if they were satisfied. Mere moments after the waiter turned their back to the table, I’d begin second guessing my choice.

This was curtailed after reading one single book. About 7 years ago, I purchased The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz for a loved one. The first few pages were so compelling, that I ended up reading the whole book before wrapping it. It’s not often that a book has such an immediate impact on my life, but it played right to my analytical mind.

At a high level, our brains did not develop in a way that prepared us for the sheer volume of choices we face today. The paradox being that while we think more choice is the path to happiness, it is, in fact, the opposite. During the selection process, there is much anxiety. Immediately after choosing, a whole other flood of emotions arrives. After a while of this pattern, there can even be an other set of emotions that precede needing to make a choice.

Though there are several areas of my life that were improved by this, such as clothes shopping, ordering food at a restaurant stands out. One of the reasons most people go out to eat is to relax with friends or family and avoid cooking at home. So it’s odd that the meal selections process is so fraught with tension. Nowadays, when I’m seated in front of a menu, I scan all the sections and pick two things that I’ll enjoy. When the server arrives, I’ll pick one and be done with it. I don’t experience much “buyers remorse” because I’ve slimmed my options down to two.

This topic resurfaced for me because I’ve recently started a weekly tradition of taking an hour and getting lunch out by myself. My restaurant of choice is a vegan Tibetan restaurant. They keep it simple, as though you’re getting a meal in a Tibetan temple. Every day there is a new menu, following the same themes. You order either a medium or large plate1. All plates come with a bean/lentil soup to start. Tea and water are available for self service. There is also beer, wine and desserts. That’s it.

Last weekend I found myself enjoying a medium plate and cup of Kukicha Twig tea when an older couple came into the restaurant. The man working the front of house knows that this is an atypical dining experience, so he explained the system. Once he was done with the run down, the couple immediately asked, “Can I get it without the soup and extra greens?” The employee explained that yes, but the extra greens would cost more. “And what about this unseasoned plate,” she asked? He told her that it was like the normal meal, but with no seasoning.

“Should we get a medium or large plate to split between the two of us?”

“What is your wine selection? Do you have beer?”

“Is there more seating out back or is this it?”

The questions kept pouring from the diners and the patient server answered all of them in stride. It was clear that they meant no harm. The reason it stood out is a majority of people enter the restaurant, say hello and request “2 medium” or “1 large, thanks.” Even in a restaurant that has pared down the potential options, people do everything they can dive head first into the paradox of choice.

  1. 1.There is also a smaller, unseasoned plate for those who are spice averse.