THE PARADOX OF CHOICE

[The following is an excerpt from a book I’m currently writing for self-publication later this year (2018). Any feedback is welcome!]

Even though working at a school site means you’ll be entering unknown territory every day, having a clear and disciplined strategy isn’t just nice to have, it’s essential if you want clarity about your practice and its impact. It sounds weird to say, but lack of options are actually freeing. Being able to do everything can be a prison. I’m reminded of a movie from the 1990s entitled The Devil’s Advocate. Keanu Reeves is a lawyer who joins a successful law firm in New York. Unbeknownst to him, his boss (Al Pacino) is the devil. Pacino’s character puts Reeves and his wife (Charlize Theron) through the ringer. One of the more interesting ways he does this is bestowing upon Reeves and Theron a beautiful Manhattan home that’s a complete blank slate inside. The young couple needs to paint the white walls and furnish each room. As the plot progresses, the decisions begin to eat away at Theron’s sanity, so much so that she’s painting the walls over and over again, trying to find the perfect color. Instead of lashing her with a cat o’ nine tails in a fiery landscape, the devil tortures her with gallons of paint in an upscale neighborhood.

By giving Theron’s character unlimited options, she became trapped in a prison of choices. During collaboration time when leaders tell teachers, “Do it however you want, just make sure X gets done,” leaders are unaware they’re likely causing confusion and frustration. After a long day of teaching students and making choices about instruction, curriculum, discipline, and more, teachers more often than not want to be given parameters in order to facilitate the deep work they’ll be accomplishing as a team. To not give teachers this structure is at the best foolish and at the worst cruel. Teachers want clarity of strategy–if they don’t get it, their whole meeting can be derailed before it even starts.

Decision making is extremely difficult. Not only that, it’s draining. President Obama is famous for wearing pre-selected suits every day to eliminate morning decisions. The same goes for Mark Zuckerberg; wearing informal t-shirts and hoodies helps him focus less on smaller decisions that deplete brain power, which frees up processing capacity for problem solving and unforeseen daily events. What both President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg are aware of is the insidious Paradox of Choice.

So what is the Paradox of Choice? It’s a fact that while people want autonomy to make their own decisions and have options offered to them, having too many options is unbearable. You can perceive this when talking to employees. At one moment a teacher or administrator is saying they want to be treated like adults and left alone to make their own professional choices, and at other times they feel overwhelmed because they’re not being told explicitly what to do. Striking a balance between the two is extremely difficult, and there’s obviously not a silver bullet to make the paradox any easier. The best approach as a leader is to make a few big decisions you know you won’t reverse, and then pour all your energy into those limited programs, initiatives, or strategies instead of second-guessing them. By doing this, you’re forced to rely on your purpose, and you’re forced to focus your direction.

For more about the Paradox of Choice, I highly recommend reading this.

2 thoughts on “THE PARADOX OF CHOICE

  1. Well stated. I’m a teacher. Couldn’t agree more. At this moment there are too many choices, too many resources. I’m always overwhelmed. I wouldn’t mind a “leaner” approach.

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