Friday, December 12, 2014

The Art of Non-Choosing (by Megan Butler)

Guest Post

Megan Butler is hands down one of the smartest and most diligent people I know. She can take a lot of credit for me getting through my degree in the allotted years by patiently explaining some of the more difficult concepts which I was struggling with. I was not alone, and many in my class probably feel there should be two names on their certificates. It is therefore not surprising that she went on to become a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand where she taught Actuarial Science. In 2012, she joined Alexander Forbes (while continuing teaching) where her work has included research, defined benefit and defined contribution retirement fund work and Road Accident Fund claims. She is a regular publisher in academic journals and, and eloquent communicator, has spoken on TV. Radio, local and international conferences on retirement matters. Basically Megan rocks and she is a great friend.


The Art of Non-Choosing
by Megan Butler

Humans are wired to find choice exciting. We are also bad at it. In Sheena Iyengar's classic jam experiment, described in her book 'The Art of Choosing', a promotional table loaded with jams generated considerably more interest than a table displaying just 5 jams. However, the increased variety generated far fewer sales. Some choice is good but too much is is, well, too much for our brains to hand.

Let's take that to the extreme and consider the case of no choice. We are programmed to baulk at the concept. However, there is some evidence that we may be happier if some choices were taken out of our hands. An (admittedly) small study of marriages in India showed that arranged marriages started off less happy than love matches but within a few years the tables had turned. Think of your own life for a moment and find a situation where life has presented you with a set of circumstances that you would never have chosen for yourself and you had no choice but to face: the bolt-from-the-blue breakup, the serious injury, the lump that made your blood run cold. Chances are that, once enough time has passed, you realise the choices that you made in the face of the circumstance you didn't choose were some of the best damn choices you ever made.

This applies not only to life lessons but formal education as well. In 18 months, my Russian hasn't progressed past pleasantries while I have an uncle and aunt who learnt Swedish in 6 weeks. They may be better linguists than I am but I suspect the fact that they were immigrating to Sweden and I have no real need to speak Russian may have a lot to do with it. I have a choice and they didn't.

I teach actuarial science at a university. It's a tough course at the best of times and a number of our students have poor English skills. But something that I've realised is that sometimes the students with the weakest English are the strongest thinkers in my post-graduate classes. Why? They filter and refine their thoughts more so they can write less because every phrase they write takes a good deal of effort. They write down less and get more marks. Face with the non-choice of having to study in a language that they struggle with, they choose a coping mechanism that works.

It's somewhat ironic that in the moments of non-choice, when your back is up against the wall, that you are free to make some truly monumental choices. There is a reason we say that necessity is the mother of invention. This wasn't lost on Iyengar either. You see, the woman considered to be the expert on choice and whose studies on choice famously include one centred on the colour of nail polish, was born blind.

May all your non-choices, frightening as they are, help you and those around you develop the art of non-choosing.


In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at 

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