Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, is one of the eight Indians in Thinkers50, a global listing of world's best business minds. In an interview with Alokesh Bhattacharyya and Anand J, she explains the importance, and the methods, of choosing correctly.
On the problems of choice
Choosing is the dominant problem of today. We are allowing choice to make us helpless, whether it be too much or too little. Both are equally problematic.
On making the right choice in this environment
If it's something that doesn't really matter to you, then just pick the first thing that looks good. And don't worry about it. If it's something that matters to you, and you don't have the time, then ask an expert. If there's something that really matters to you and you don't want to ask an expert because you don't think they will get it right, then invest the time to understand the choices, categorise the choices. And don't just do it in one day. You'll have to spend the time. Study the choices carefully, and then figure out which one is the best.
A lot of times, our choices also depend on the kind of person we are. What I would choose between three choices would be different from what person B would choose from the same options. We would like to have your expert view on this just to understand if there is any deep relationship between the kind of people we are and the kind of choices we make.
I think it all depends on your goals. If you have one goal, it will lead you to choose X, and if you have another goal it will lead you to choose Y. I don't think we are as different as people might think we are. Where we differ are where our local goal resides.
On allowing others - especially experts - to make choices for us
We should allow them to help guide us, to understand the choices, but we should not allow them to make it for us. For example, you're trying to decide whom you will marry. That is one way to guarantee that everyone will get involved. Let's imagine you are choosing between several girls. Now, you ask yourself which one you like. Your thoughts will tell you who you like right now. But it cannot tell you who you will like tomorrow or 10 days from tomorrow or 10 years from tomorrow. Maybe it's based upon looks, maybe it's based on what you're feeling at the moment. Then you look at these girls, and do a pros and cons analysis to decide who will be a good wife. You do an pros and cons analysis, and say okay, I like girl A, but girl B is the best for me. but the only thing the pros and cons analysis will tell you is what you should like 10 years from now, not what you will like. So you are actually not able to answer the most important question: what will you like in 10 years? That is the question you really want to answer.
So now you ask your parents. Now your parents will tell you what they think you should like. So that's not actually helpful. What you do now is you look at your parents' generation to see who are the people who ended up with a girl like A, and who are the people that ended up with a girl like B. And you don't ask them who's happy. What matters to you is, who do you think is happy? That your gut can answer, your heart can answer. Then you do a pros and cons analysis of your parents' generation and see if you are likely to feel like them, given your circumstances. If you can do that analysis, then you will make a much better judgement than seeing which girl can make you happy. So, that's how your parents are helpful. Do not let them make the choice, but you let them inform you of all the consequences of the choices.
On whether the right or wrong choice can make the difference between long-term success or failure
Clearly there are some choices that end up becoming deadly for people. But I am a very strong believer that to make a choice work out - and it isn't just one choice, you're actually making choices every day - is part of your job in life. You shouldn't let a choice become deadly. If you're monitoring it, you won't let it get deadly. Even if you're stuck (with a bad choice), you will have another set of choices that will help you alleviate it. If you're stuck in a bad career choice, find things other than your job that complement your happiness.