Choices and Expectations
Remarks delivered at Freshman Convocation, Aug. 19, 2011.
I was in the grocery store last Saturday. It’s a good grocery store – one of the biggest in the region as a matter of fact. Even though I pretty much buy the same things every week, like most Americans I think that the more choices I have the better life is, so sometimes I go there because anything I could possibly want is there.
Two hours after arriving, my husband - who doesn’t really like grocery stores at all and doesn’t like this store in particular - and I checked out.
The conversation in the car on the way home went something like this:
Him: Why do you like to go there?
Me: They have a lot of stuff and we can get everything we need in one place.
Him: It took us 20 minutes to find the peanut butter. I counted 175 different kinds of salad dressing, 240 different kinds of cookies, 280 different cereals and 40 toothpastes. You couldn’t decide if you wanted the regular Fig Newton’s, the low-fat or the non-fat ones; and then we had to decide if you wanted whole wheat outside and, fig or raspberry inside. I don’t even like Fig Newton’s, but after all that didn’t have the energy to find the Oreos – the regular ones, not the golden ones, the Oreos with seasonally tinted filling, the double-stuffed ones, the cake-like ones or the fudge-dipped ones. And don’t they just make Crest toothpaste anymore? Not the gel, super-whitening, sensitive-teeth, gingivitis, plaque-fighting - just the regular Crest? And it took you 10 minutes to decide what pattern you wanted on the paper towels and to decide if you wanted the regular-sized sheets or if you wanted the “select-a-size” option. – I don’t want to talk about the toilet paper. Why do you care about something you’re just going to flush? And, the dogs don’t care what kind of biscuits you hand them. They’re happy chewing on the chair legs, so clearly they don’t have discriminating taste. Why do we have to decide between the bacon flavored crispy rolls and the dental chew chicken flavored balls? Give them some old socks.
Me: Nobody asked you to come. Next week I’ll just go by myself
Him: Did we get those really thin sesame, garlic, onion, poppy seed, whole wheat, low-fat crackers I like?
Me: Shoot. I don’t think we did. Do you want to go back?
What would you choose?
A new movie is opening here in Louisville this weekend. It’s titled “Another World.” It just opened here today, so I haven’t seen it, but the reviews describe the discovery of another world and choices the central characters have to face: Do they want to stay here or go to the other one. If you had to choose between the life you have and a life you don’t know about but maybe could have, which would you pick?
This year’s Book in Common, “The Other Wes Moore: One Name Two Fates” – which many of us spent some time discussing earlier today - has as one of its major themes decision-making and choices. It tells the stories of two young men with very similar backgrounds, and, at the time the story is written, one of them has been a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House fellow, business Leader and author; and the other, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in prison. What choices led them there?
And, of course, as you sit here now, the choices before you must look a bit like those my husband and I experienced in the grocery story, but the stakes are higher. Which gen-ed classes are you taking? To fulfill the scientific thinking requirement, do you want chemistry, biology, geography, geology or physics? With a lab or without? Do you want a morning or an afternoon section? Do you want to take your math class this semester or wait until spring? Which math? Well, it depends on what your major is going to be. There are more than 80 majors, which one would you like? Don’t like any of them, that’s okay; we can design one just for you. Did you sign up for tickets to athletic events? Of the 300 registered student organizations, which ones do you want to join? Do you want free hot dogs on the quad, at public safety, at the Red Barn or the Interfaith Center? Oh, you’re living in Miller? Why didn’t you pick Cardinal Towne?
Options are good – aren’t they?
Here in the western world, we think the more choices we have, the better decisions we’ll make and the happier we’ll be. But research by psychologist Barry Schwartz suggests just the opposite. He argues that some choice is clearly better than no choice, but at some point there are so many choices we become paralyzed and can’t figure out what to do. When we get to the place where we’re wondering whether if we’d taken a left turn instead of a right turn we’d be someone different, we’ve taken the impact of choice a little too far.
Dr. Schwartz suggests that when we have too many options, we feel less satisfied with our choices than we feel if we have just a few choices. So, let’s go back to my Fig Newton example. Say I finally choose the regular. Even after I do that, it’s easy to imagine that I might have liked one of the others better – after all, the whole-wheat, no-fat ones are probably better for me, even though I don’t like them as much. And I actually like raspberries better than figs. So, the more options, the more opportunities to regret the choices we didn’t make.
Further, Schwartz goes on to say that the more choices we have, the greater our expectations are. After all, if the grocery store has every cookie ever made by anybody, I should be able to choose one that makes me really happy, shouldn’t I? And once I think things should be perfect, and they are not, those increased expectations actually make it impossible for anything to meet them and those dashed expectations actually make me less happy. And, that cookie doesn’t taste as good because I’m expecting so much of it - much more than any cookie could possibly deliver.
A corollary to this, I suppose, is that the secret to happiness is low expectations – just kidding on that one.
Finally, Schwartz says that too many choices make us think that we are solely responsible for everything. If there are so many choices, and you choose, you are responsible, aren’t you? And if you aren’t perfectly happy, it must be your fault because you should have chosen better. There’s no other excuse if your life is not exactly as you want it, so you have to blame yourself. It’s probably not an accident that the western world is experiencing more depression and anxiety than ever in our history and significantly more than people in other cultures experience. Our standards are so high, we keep doing better, but feeling worse. With Starbucks continually reminding us that “happiness is in your choices” how could we feel anything else?
If you want to read more about this, Dr. Barry Schwartz’ book is called “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.” And, by now, you’re probably wondering where all this is going:
We’re glad you chose UofL
Well, clearly I’m talking today about choices. And let me now say “welcome.” This class is our choice. We have chosen you and I could not be happier with the choices we’ve made. You’re the brightest freshman class we’ve ever admitted, with an average ACT of 24.6, with nearly 30 percent of you with an ACT of 27 or above, with 68 class valedictorians and with a diversity of color, race, religion and interests that make this university the envy of the state. As I look out at some of the 2,575 of you, I see more than 500 people of color in this class. And the things all of you have done already in your lives make us proud and grateful that you’ve also chosen us – because you’ve made a choice, too, and it was a good one. Don’t second guess yourselves. You wouldn’t have been happier at UK.
You’ve come to a university that is being acknowledged as one of the best: one of the fastest growing in the percent increase in our graduation rate, with one of the lowest disparities in terms of graduation rates between majority and minority students, and with the second fastest research growth in terms of increases in NIH funding in the country. We’re a Carnegie Engaged University, meaning that our great teachers don’t just talk at you in class but involve you in the learning enterprise. We’re a “best neighbor” university due to our outreach into the community; a “top” university for our commitment to vets and a “top feeder” school for prestigious graduate programs. Nearly 65 percent of you are living on campus, helping us create a neighborhood that is vibrant, exciting and young.
And now that you and I have both chosen each other, I want to encourage you to think about Barry Schwartz’ work and Wes Moore’s book, and, just for a moment, to think about what we’ve said about choice.
Choose who you want to be
Columnist David Brooks points out that in some ways this society has served you well, but in other ways we have not. We tell you that you can be whatever you want, and to follow your dreams, and that all doors are open to you, and that you should not worry too much about what you will do, and to just find your passion, and find yourself, and money and jobs and the perfect mate and everything good you can imagine will magically come to you. As Wes Moore (the other one) says: We are shaped more by our expectations than by our environment. And, I think all of this is true and you should expect a lot of yourself – and of us – while you are here. Your choices will absolutely matter and there is magic in life and many good things will happen for you.
But there are so many choices – sometimes too many – and we get lost in them. You’re marching to a different drummer and pretty soon you’re alone out there because the band and the team and the fans all left. In the world you are entering, the choices are not as broad as you might think – and as I might hope – for you. There are extraordinary opportunities here at UofL for you, and we want you to push out of your comfort zone, have high expectations for yourself and take advantage of all of it. But don’t get paralyzed by the options. Don’t expect it all to be perfect. Don’t be too hard on yourself - because you actually are not solely responsible for everything - as a good friend reminded me this morning. Just make a choice – and be responsible for that. Choose why you are here, what kind of person you want to be, what you want to do in this world. And after that, it doesn’t matter so much.
David Brooks goes on to say that we think that we need to “find ourselves” and then we’ll magically know what we want to do in the world. Actually, he says, it doesn’t work like that. We are called by some problem, and the self – and our choices – are constructed in response to that. A group of business leaders here in Louisville recently went through an exercise where they tried to do this. Working with consultant and business leader Lance Secretan, they were all asked to define what they thought the biggest threat to the world was. There were no shortages of responses: environmental destruction, war, domestic violence, Alzheimer’s, despair, loneliness, hatred, racism, poverty, meaninglessness, cruelty, ignorance, fear. People were then asked to name the antidote, or the opposite. So, if I thought the biggest problem in the world was despair, the opposite of that might be joy. People who thought hatred, noted its opposite is love. Fear might call for courage; hatred and war would ask for peace and love. So, think of this as your first choice: What problem is calling you to take action? Does your aunt have autism and you want to help her and other families learn how to connect and love even when communication is very hard? Do you despair when you see so many animals dying because there are more of them than have homes, in houses or in the wild? Do you ache for the lonely and the lost and the homeless? And what is the action that you could bring to this to begin to make a difference? If you care about the environment, how do you bring sanity to a world that that is simply consuming itself? That’s your second choice – what’s the opposite of that which you see as the biggest threat. And a third choice asks how you will act in the world now that you’ve made those first two choices: If you think that environmental destruction is a huge threat, and we can counter that by more sustainable practices, what kind of person would you be? Someone who bikes, thinks about how to live more lightly, becomes part of a student group working on those things? What then would be your work? Still lots of choices, but something that will help you heal the Earth and how we live on it. That might lead to a major in any number of fields, but you’d be making choices based on personal vision and drive that would unerringly allow you to choose things that would equip you to do the work you’ve decided is the call.
Choose to let us help you succeed
More and more students who come into college do not graduate or take longer and longer to complete a degree. It’s not that they fail in school or can’t do it for some reason. I think it’s that, in the midst of so many choices, they can’t choose, or they keep thinking something else will be better. They get mired in options and keep trying new things thinking that something will be better and they eventually give up because nothing seems good enough. Don’t be one of them. Realize that the world is before you and it’s a pretty great place - but you have to pick a place to stand in it or you’ll just be drifting.
Many people who are here at the university believe that ignorance is one of the greatest threats and the antidote to that is education. We think that knowledge – the finding of it, the treasuring of it and the sharing of it – are the most important things we can do to make a difference in the world. And from the vast array of opportunities of thought and action that are here, we’re asking you to make choices – choices that will let you be the change that you see is needed in the world, as Mother Theresa says. Choices that will affirm the kind of person you want to be to bring about those changes, and choices that will give you the knowledge and the skills necessary to do that work in the world.
Today, you’re beginning that process. Many of us here, including the parents, siblings, relatives and friends who have been your supports for a long time now, are excited for you and ready to help you make the very best choices. We’re delighted by you, and amazed by you and look forward to seeing how well you’ve chosen when you again walk across a stage at graduation in four years, ready to find yourself in the work you’ve chosen to do to make this world a better place.
We’re all here to help. Call on us. Get to know us. You’ve made a good choice, and we can’t wait to see what you’ll choose next.