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COMMITMENT PHOBIA. ANALYSIS paralysis. Grass-is-greener syndrome. You name it, Hannah’s plagued by it. But she’s not alone. Far from it. She’s a poster girl for the current zeitgeist: Unlike her mother, she was born of a generation blessed with limitless choices—and of a generation that has found that the more choices you have, the harder it is to find happiness. It’s a generation that appears to have everything yet can’t help feeling that things are just not right.
You might call it an epidemic, a sign of the times for American women. Take Sarah, for example, a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer making well into the six figures only a few years out of law school. She wants only one thing: sweet escape from practicing law. Ask her about it, and she’ll claim to have no idea why she ever even applied to law school in the first place—indeed, that she never really wanted to be a lawyer. And yet apply she did, and she found herself at a second-tier law school. She ranked in the top ten of her class, making the law review and ultimately scoring a gig with a big high-end law firm—quite a coup, as very few firms bother recruiting at law schools below the first tier. She’s made a huge amount of money from the start but has never liked what she does—has actually pretty thoroughly hated much of the work, spending a significant chunk of her time keeping her fingers crossed that she’ll never have to go into court. Raised in California by parents who vacationed at their wine country ranch and vineyard, what Sarah really wants to do is open a wine bar. Her fondest hope is to get laid off—with a severance package, of course.
And then there’s Jane, twenty-seven. Worried that only “perfect” will do, she has yet to commit to anything other than a series of uninspiring jobs since graduating from college. This is not for lack of trying, however. Over the years, she’s spent lots of time investigating possible careers and grad schools. She took a summer course in the business school at Stanford and conducted countless “informational interviews” with people who seem happy in their careers, gathering information from journalists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs so that she’d be armed to make an informed decision. Perhaps too informed.
As Malcolm Gladwell explained in his book Blink, “too much information” isn’t just a clever expression—the best decisions are often the ones made before giving yourself too much time to think.1 And he’s not the only one to have found that a clogged mind is a confused mind: The classic 1950s “Magical Number Seven” study showed that the human brain can hold seven bits of information in working memory at any given time.2 Any more, and things can get dicey.
We’ll get deeper into the science of decision making in Chapter 5, but here’s a taste: In another study, participants were asked to memorize either seven digits or two; then they were offered their choice of a snack—fruit or “gooey chocolate cake.” And guess what happened? Those whose brains were maxed out with seven numbers let the emotional side of their brains do the deciding and overwhelmingly chose cake. But the two-digit folks had some room for reason: They chose fruit.3 So basically, when the brain is cluttered with too much information, emotions drive our choices. Ergo, the bigger the cognitive load we’re carrying at any given time, the less able we are to think rationally.
Excerpted from Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and
Find the Career and Life--That's Right for You, by Barbara Kelley and
Shannon Kelley. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books
Group. Copyright (c) 2011.