Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Keeping 'em open

We live in a world of almost infinite opportunity. At every turn we are beset by new options, from the menu at a restaurant or list of careers to the people we befriend and date. Growing up in the old Land of Opportunity, we imbibe the adage "there's nothing you can't do." In so many ways, these opportunities enrich our lives, but I've also seen them wield their fair share of destruction. Too often we allow ourselves to become paralyzed by this vastness of opportunity, endlessly chasing after something simply because it is there. Just the mere awareness of an option can make it seem valuable and plausible. Sometimes we even start to dream about it becoming ours or integrating it into our lives. We fear losing something, even when it isn't necessarily a good option for us.

And it's only natural, I suppose. We humans have a potent aversion to loss, in whatever form it may come. Even the loss of something that is not technically "ours" is something our constitution avoids. We want to keep our options open, sometimes indefinitely, because quite frankly, the thought of loss is so painful to us that we do whatever we have to do to keep our doors from closing.

Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational did an experiment where he asked people to click on a door to earn money. Each door would bring a varying profit, but it was their choice which door they continued to click. One group was allowed to revisit a door as frequently as they wanted, and they had 100 clicks total. Another group was allowed the 100 clicks, but if they left a door alone for 12 clicks, it would disappear forever. He found that participants in the 2nd scenario were harried, frantic, and made 15% less money than those in the 1st group. They would have made more money by simply choosing one door and sticking with it for the entirety of the experiment. But the presence of those options and the idea that they might disappear were enough to make participants act in illogical ways, chasing after doors that didn't present a good return on investment. In other words, they wanted to keep that door "alive" even though it wasn't benefiting them. They couldn't stand the idea of loss.

Ariely also tells the story of Xiang Yu, a Chinese commander who burned his army's own ships and destroyed all their cooking pots. Of course, his men were confused about why he would do such a seemingly crazy thing. His response was that without the pots and ships, they had no choice but to fight their way to victory or perish. He forced them to close some doors, to suffer a loss so that they were motivated to move forward.

Sometimes there will be somebody who burns our proverbial cooking pots or ships in order for us to move forward and close a door. More often, we are the ones that will have to take the initiative and make conscious decisions. There are some doors we need to close, and others we need to keep open. How do we forge ahead, consciously closing doors when expedient? And how do we decide when it is time to close a particular door?

3 comments:

M. said...

thanks heath, I needed to hear this. xx also, i loved catching up with you. we need to do it more often.

April said...

Heather, once again you find a way to put words to things that I can't. Well done! I know we touched on this, but definitely I'd love to hear more of your insights as they come.

The Swansons said...

That was really well said Heather. Where do you learn such fascninating information about ancient Chinese Commanders?