Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Power of NO! - Closing Doors

John Tierney has an interesting article in the February 26th, 2008 New York Times, The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors.

He is reporting on the incapacity of even some of our brightest and most intellectually accomplished people to focus on what is most important to them. What the article highlights is an instinctive desire on the part of most people to keep open options, even past the point where the cost of keeping those options open becomes material and reduces the rewards of what we are actually trying to accomplish.

"Most people can't make such a painful choice, not even the students at a bastion of rationality like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Dr. Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics. In a series of experiments, hundreds of students could not bear to let their options vanish, even though it was obviously a dumb strategy (and they weren't even asked to burn anything).

The experiments involved a game that eliminated the excuses we usually have for refusing to let go. In the real world, we can always tell ourselves that it's good to keep options open.

You don't even know how a camera's burst-mode flash works, but you persuade yourself to pay for the extra feature just in case. You no longer have anything in common with someone who keeps calling you, but you hate to just zap the relationship.

Your child is exhausted from after-school soccer, ballet and Chinese lessons, but you won't let her drop the piano lessons. They could come in handy! And who knows? Maybe they will."

This last of course hits close to home. Having lived abroad many years, one of the many things we see that distinguishes the US from most other countries is just how over-scheduled people here become and I think it is a function, partly of culture (Americans are notable for always trying to improve things) but also, simply, of raw wealth.

Even the poorest quintile of Americans have more possessions and wealth than the middle classes of most countries in the world. With this wealth comes a surfeit of opportunities and choices and I think to some degree we become seduced by this cornucopia, we reach for just that one extra thing that might be fun, we try to squeeze in just one more event. And suddenly, everyone feels over-scheduled, stressed and wondering how they can be so well off and yet so overwhelmed.

For those of us trying to foster of love reading among children it does mean, almost as a corollary, choosing to accept a slower, less crowded life. And I think that is a good thing, but very counter to everything that is going on in the environment around us. I know our kids love having quiet time where they can just kick-back and enjoy a good read. But that means there is some club, some sport, some other activity which they could do, and which they might even enjoy doing, but which they (or we as parents) have elected not to do in order to have the time to savour reading.

It is one more of those duties/burdens of parenthood, particularly for parents wanting to foster a love of reading - giving our children one of the most precious gifts of all. Not a gift of toys, or TV, or clubs or sports. The gift of time to themselves to discover an even wider world where they are in command, a world where time is their own. And of course the books that open up that magic door.

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