Letter from Oxford: But Which Door?
“You’re a woman with a lot of options. You’re acting like the world’s backing you into a corner, bouncing from one thing to the next [...]. Maybe you should stop bouncing and pick something. What do you want?” – Toby to CJ, “The West Wing”
Central to American conventional wisdom on the benefits of being a Rhodes Scholar is expanded career opportunity. “So many doors are open to you now,” a second cousin applauds the week after the awards have been made. “You could be the president some day!” says a college friend, only partially in jest. And, without giving it much thought, a family friend remarks, “Well, your resume is now complete.” You are fairly certain all of these comments indicate something good—that this thing you’ve just received, made possible by your hard work but in large part thanks to a heavy dose of luck, will benefit your career and have a positive impact on your life. Yes, of course it will.
But as you breathe an exhausted sigh of relief and joy, suspicions begin to sneak in that you now have to live up to the potential the selection committee perceived in you, that you must do something terribly impressive with your life, that with so many doors open it may be hard to choose which one to walk through or which one is best suited to your strengths and weaknesses, and that if you end up twenty years down the road in a career that leaves you unhappy or unfulfilled, you have no one to blame but yourself. After all, once upon a time, at twenty-three, the world’s oyster was cracked open for you, just waiting to be (successfully) devoured. Louisiana hot sauce anyone?
Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar studies choice. Her research flies in the face of the notion that more choice is always better, always improves the well-being of the chooser. Too many varieties of jam, chocolate, or mustard can be de-motivating, even paralyzing; there are very real limits to the benefits derived from choice.
Working with two colleagues, Iyengar studied a group of college students in their final year of school as they went through the process of seeking out, applying for, and accepting jobs. The researchers categorized the students according to their choice making tendencies—as either “maximizers” or “satisficers”—and surveyed their experiences of searching for and taking up employment over that period. Their findings, outlined in a recent paper, indicate that students who felt compelled to consider a wider range of options—“maximizers”—tended to derive less satisfaction and enjoyment from their ultimate job choices (even in spite of 20% higher starting salaries) than did students who considered a narrower range of options—“satisficers.”*
Iyengar and her colleagues suggest that “maximizers may be less satisfied than satisficers and experience greater negative affect with the jobs they obtain because their pursuit of the elusive ‘best’ induces them to consider a large number of possibilities, thereby increasing their potential for regret or anticipated regret, engendering unrealistically high expectations, and creating mounting opportunity costs” (p. 148). In other words, “Even when they get what they want, maximizers may not always want what they get” (p. 149).
As a Rhodes Scholar considering the many doors available to me, I suspect I may resemble a Whole Foods shopper paralyzed by an immense selection of organic green teas. If able to overcome this paralysis and make a purchase, the careful shopper may return home, brew a pot of loose leaf, and find that, despite reviewing his options for 9-? minutes, a pang of dissatisfaction nags. This discontentment may sound like a contrived yuppie psychological ill—something to be written off because only the very privileged could suffer from it—but if the act of considering options really does undermine well-being and thus our potential to do good work in the world, the maximizers among us might benefit from paying greater heed to the choice process and its challenges.
Having a sense that, faced with tradeoffs, the more options we forgo, the “more” we are in effect giving up, some of us seek the escape of not having to choose. “I want to keep all my options open,” says a scholar who’d like to combine non-profit, academic, and business pursuits. Regarding summer plans, another scholar debates between working for a presidential primary campaign, interning at Google, or taking time to “think, read, and write”—but really desires to do all three. For me, this means resisting the disciplinarity of academia despite my hope of becoming a professor and university president—or maybe a….
For others, the solution is to go with prestige as a form of external approval. But, in many ways, the Rhodes is the end of this line. Yes, we may receive more awards or grants, but there is no external authority “out there” waiting to give us a pat on the back and reassure us that our hand has been well played. For a group of people who, in many ways, have gotten where they are by seeking to please and have received the constant confirmation that comes along with being a pleaser, the real challenge is being our own evaluators and finding our own sources of satisfaction.
Here at Oxford, I often struggle with the necessity of giving up options or settling on something less than “perfection.” I endeavor to think through and clarify what “success” would mean for me personally and on a variety of fronts. I consider the ways choice paralysis could impact not only my career but my relationship decisions as well. I attempt to align values and goals, interests and responsibilities, and to create a coherent mosaic of often discrete and at times contradictory elements. And I find this process all the more difficult given a general dearth of mentorship here.
So which door should we choose? Or, as a beginning step, which doors should we remove from consideration? Frustratingly, I have no answers to these questions, and perhaps my personal answers would have no relevance to others. I do know that while we have big, multifaceted dreams, the hard reality is we must take small steps to get there. (The trick here, of course, is discerning which small steps to take.) A steady mosaic of life won’t be achieved by age twenty-six. It took a succession of efforts—some small, some large—to reach this point in our lives. Can we learn to be satisfied with the reality that we can only pass through one door at a time, or will we eternally search for the mirage of a door that leads simultaneously to two rooms?
I also suspect we may find comfort and aid within the Rhodes community (or some semblance thereof) itself. With so many interdisciplinarily-minded, schizophrenically-passionate people about, we are bound, at the very least, to find companions in our efforts to sort through these challenges, if not excellent sources of guidance and sanity. Though our lives are singular, we are bound together by the search to create a career and a life that pulls together a diversity of interests, brings positive change to the world, and achieves balance amidst the many open doors. In the end, this may be the real gift, the true opportunity made available by the Rhodes.
Wait a second. I think perhaps that conclusion is too neat and tidy—too wrap-up-the-valedictory-and-send-graduates-off-into-the-worldfull-of-hope, too lifestyle-magazine-I-learned-to-embrace-life’s-challenges-by-finding-joy-in-the-little-things. I began working on this piece last Trinity term in an effort to make some sense of this aspect of the “Rhodes experience,” and that closing line is what I told myself (and any potential readers) when I first put pen to paper. And I do think there’s some truth to it. But a couple seasons later, I’m still stuck, and not for lack of trying. In fact, during a Labor Day gathering, two 2005 scholars and I mapped out and analyzed the post-Oxford range of possibilities. Despite our best attempt to impose form on this amorphous challenge, we were left with more questions than answers. To be frank, I think many of us are stuck, and the resources for unsticking are in short supply.
Nearing the end of Michaelmas during this, our second year at Oxford, the days are growing short and cold and most of my classmates and I are beginning to sort out what comes next. Some may postpone such decisions for another year or two as they pursue D.Phils. Of late, a handful of firms have emerged from the mentorship abyss to help us with this choice, hosting recruiting events and hoping to inform and woo potential applicants. In the case of Google, this took the form of an extravagant party in London. As many things do, these happenings have elicited pointed e-mails on the Rhodes listserv or, at the very least, biting comments amidst more lighthearted postings. Are America’s “best and brightest” mindlessly or, worse, greedily “selling out”? In my mind, the better question is this: are we successfully preparing students to tackle complex problems in an increasingly complex world while leaving them high and dry on how best to apply their newfound knowledge and skills?
Poring over public sector job postings, openings for newly minted graduate students that aren’t essentially paper pushing or research-based seem few and far between. For those scholars looking to leave academic study, the question arises: where are jobs that would challenge me intellectually, provide an avenue for working on high-level problems, and allow me to have an impact? Should I do something entrepreneurial (try my hand at a writing career, for instance, or, a crowd favorite, “start my own non-profit”) or look for a position well within the establishment? Should I follow my idealistic side or my pragmatic side, and could the two be aligned? Are my expectations just totally unrealistic? What can I do now that will prepare me for and launch me into the things I see myself doing in ten or twenty years? Many of us feel we have a strong set of qualities and skills to “bring to the table.” But where is the table?
So while confronting choice paralysis, many scholars also seem to be encountering a discouraging dearth of immediate opportunities, and both struggles are further entrenched by a simultaneous shortage of guidance. As I have suggested, we can certainly be each other’s greatest supporters and advisees in many aspects of life, but when it comes to taking the next step, even self-reliant self-starters need the input of more experienced mentors. As we squeeze out of Oxford rich and wonderful experiences, we are haunted by anxiety about what comes afterwards and we flip through the AARS directory—filled with people who’ve somehow managed to make this transition!—looking for suggestions it doesn’t contain.
In Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” the speaker appeals to his beloved: “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” On the topic of youthful love, the choice is clear: embrace! But for those of us haunted by time’s winged chariot in another sense—that our years to make an impact are finite—what should be our response? While I acknowledge that attending an intimate liberal arts college biased me in favor of mentorship, I wonder: Can we move beyond choice paralysis without genuine guidance and counsel? Or are we destined to depart Oxford nagged by the question: Which door?
* Iyengar, S. S.,Wells, R. E. & Schwartz, B. (2006) “Doing better but feeling worse.” Psychological
Science, 17:2, 143-150.
Oxford University’s “dreaming spires.” Image Credit: James Morrissey.
© Katharine K. Wilkinson