You may be familiar with the feeling of scrolling through Netflix and being unable to choose which movie to watch. I had the same feeling while working in one of the world’s largest bookstores. When my options were massive, I was crippled by an inability to commit to a single pursuit.
There is a study that touches upon this topic using jam. A shop presented its customers with a selection of 24 jams for a period of time, then switched to a selection of only 6 jams later for a different set of customers. The results: more people were attracted to the larger selection of jams. However 30% of customers bought a product from the smaller selection while only 3% made a purchase from the larger selection.
The study suggests that when confronted with an overload of choice, we tend towards paralysis. We can see this not only in choosing books and movies, but in careers as well. As children, when we are told that we can grow up to be anything, is it possible we are priming ourselves to not commit to anything at all?
With respect to media, it is helpful to think about Jorge Luis Borges’s short story about the fictional Library of Babel. This library contains all the written text imaginable. For ever book on one subject, there exists a polar opposite. There are multiple editions of the same book that are different only by one letter. Some men pick through the library for books that contain the meaning of life, but all go insane in their search.
It is impossible to conquer the Library of Babel, much like it is impossible to keep up on movies and books at the rate they are being produced and at the ease at which they can be accessed. This is why I have taken to the philosophy that the most important thing is often what is directly in front of you.
Method One: Take Individual Recommendations Seriously
My friend Josh picks books to read as such: someone will recommend something, and if he likes the person, he’ll give it a go. This way the choice of what to read is made for him, and at the very least he will understand the person who recommended the book a little bit more. I find this to be an elegant solution, since it grounds the choice in a directly applicable context: friendship. Whenever someone I like recommends a movie or a book, I am more inclined to commit. It narrows the choice and also provides the opportunity to connect with the other person’s interest. While small-talking with a customer at the cafe, he suggested I watch the movie “The Void” and I immediately did so. At my local burrito spot, one of the servers mentioned that he saw an excellent weird movie called “Santa Sangre”, a film I would have never considered watching before that moment.
This method, letting other people do the picking for you, is also a way to shake up your routine, or to introduce some creative chaos into your life. Too often we get caught in a cycle of comfortable media rotation. Introducing other people into your media consumption makes it more likely you will see or read something that will change your life.
Method Two: Ride The Wave
Sometimes, we don’t want other people to make choices for us. I know that sometimes I just want to sit down and relax and watch something that I’m interested in. Instead of trying to pick the best thing, if I let go and let my intuition guide me, I will often commit to something more easily. It’s kind of what makes going to a a bookstore magical. There is a serendipitous element to choice in which it is not you doing the choosing, but rather the circumstances around you.
An acquaintance of mine put it elegantly: “I just ride the waves,” she said, in regards to picking what TV show to commit to. Fighting against the tidal wave of media is fruitless, and much like browsing the Library of Babel for a specific title. Instead, what if we were more inclined to reach out and pick a smaller section, or to let subjects find us instead of the other way around?
There was a time I used to ponder the question “What makes people intelligent?” I concluded that a huge factor that contributes to intelligence is the ability to recognize learning opportunities in your immediate surroundings. The smartest people find curiosities in their walks to work, while staring at their ceilings, or when making small-talk with strangers. It becomes less about picking quality content, but instead bringing a quality thought-process to the content. The most important thing is often what is directly in front of you.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that we all should actively seek out the truth and do adequate research when needed. However I think that choice-paralysis can stop us from being motivated to learning new things. I would rather more people pick up books than avoid them completely because they don’t know where to start. Sometimes starting is the hardest part, and to overcome the overwhelm, it is often best practice to let the media find you.