Updated: Jun 21
“It is usually believed that to maximize the welfare of citizens it is important to maximize individual freedom. Freedom is good, it is valuable and leads to people making decision on their own to do the things that makes them happy. And one of the primary ways the western world has identified to maximize freedom is by maximizing choice. The more choices people have, the more freedom they have which in turn leads to more welfare”.
These are the opening lines of a TED talk by Barry Schwartz who’s written a book titled "The Paradox of Choice".
What the book basically says is that though choice is necessary for freedom it is also restrictive. And there by lies the paradox. When there’s so much choice available to people, it more often than not, leads to a decision paralysis. You are so overwhelmed by choices that you aren’t able to make any decision. And in the scenario that you eventually decide, there is a very high probability that you won’t be happy with it. Because your mind keeps telling you that there were other options that could have been better. You start thinking about the Opportunity loss and hence can’t enjoy the fruits of the decision you just made. The best example is the amount of time we all spend browsing Netflix to decide what we want to watch. There have been times when I’ve spent an hour deciding what to watch and then switched on to what was playing on TV at that time.
There are obviously other things the book explains, but for this article a basic understanding of the concept should suffice.
What I want to explore in this blog is how oblivious most Desis are for most of their lives until they move out of their house and especially until they leave their country and move to a western, more developed country.
I say this because most Desis aren’t given too many choices in their lives. For most part, our parents and elders in the family decide everything for us. When we grow slightly old, we get some say in our lives. But even then, we aren’t presented with a plethora of choices.
The choices that we have from a day-to-day scenario to our lives are somewhat as follows:
Doctor or Engineer
Cow’s milk vs Buffalo Milk (and once you’ve decided that you make another simple choice. Packaged milk or from the stable).
Lauki or Tinde
Yes or No
Arranged Marriage or Love Marriage.
So and so forth.
Career or Marriage.
Wait. Not this. Because this isn’t a choice for everyone right? It’s obviously marriage.
Of course, technology has improved our lives and presented us with many more options and choices in the past decade. We too experience the paralysis of choice when we are shopping on Amazon or even in a mall. We too spend hours to decide what to watch on Netflix and with the advent of dating apps, we feel like the world is our oyster. All this has definitely improved our lives. But we also miss the old days of listening to the Radio and being pleasantly surprised by a song we like. Heck, we even make memes about it - 90s kids and what not.
The problem is, most Desis don’t even get these choices. So, the idea of paralysis of choice seems like a first world problem to us. Heck, we want this problem. Give us choices. We won’t mind this paralysis of choice.
Be Careful what you wish for.
Because that’s exactly what you face when you move to any of the western, more developed countries like the US, UK, Canada and so on.
Choices, Choices Everywhere
It starts with the first time you enter a grocery store and are presented with an entire aisle of cereals to choose from. You move on to the milk section and realize there’s Whole milk, Skim milk, 2%, Half and Half, Flavored, Almond, Oat, Soy among others. Heck, there are different options for even potatoes.
Overwhelmed with these many choices you decide to eat at a restaurant. You enter and the server asks you if you’d like some water. You agree and then you’re presented with choices for the kind of water you need. Still, Sparking, Tap, Mineral, Glacial and what not. You are so overwhelmed with anxiety that you run out of the place.
You visit a doctor and say you’ve anxiety (Yes. People should visit a doctor if they have anxiety. I’m trying to break some barriers here) and the doctor listens to you and then provides you with options for medicines. They say, There’s Medicine A and Medicine B. A has these pros and cons and B has these pros and cons. You ask the doctor which one they would prescribe, and they repeat the same line back to you.
You think of the times you used to visit your family doctor back home and they used to scribble something on a notepad that only your chemist could understand. It was a perfect system, wasn’t it?
And what you’ve experienced right now other than anxiety is what we commonly call Culture Shock. You’ve been lifted from one culture where life never presented too many options or choices to a completely new culture that requires you to make choices about the kind of paper you want to wipe your butt with. It works differently, and you can’t seem to wrap your head around it.
Take it or Leave It
Of course, with time, you get used to making these choices. You even like that fact that you have so many choices. Because maybe for the first time in your life you’ve felt what freedom is (even if it means being paralyzed with the amount of options you have for everything). You learn how to order a coffee at Starbucks (for some reason I hold this as the benchmark of assimilation. It probably has something to do with English Vinglish but that's a story for another time), and you actually understand what was missing from your life back home when you go back to India for a vacation & accidently ask for 2% milk at your home. And you're presented with a choice by your Mom - "Take it or Leave it".
Like I said earlier, what I wanted to do with this blog was to explore how oblivious Desis usually are to this paradox and juxtapose it with the lives of people who grow up thousands of miles away from us with infinite choices since childhood and are yet overwhelmed every day with the amount of choices they have to make on a daily basis.
And I think that’s what life is. Making choices. You Regret making some of those choices, you’re fine with some but you’re never fully satisfied with your choice.
I’m not saying more choice is good or bad. I don’t know the answer to it. But I guess choice is good for those who’ve never had any. It feels like freedom. And even though it can be overwhelming at first, it’s still pretty damn important to have, isn’t it?
Unless it’s pineapple on pizza. That should’ve never been a choice in the first place.