Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Hearing last week’s Radio Lab regarding the paralyzing effects of too many choices reminded me of how often unexpected success comes to people who are new to painting who have few materials and don’t know how to use them.

Barry Schwartz, the author of the Paradox of Choice and long-term professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore discussed the crisis of confidence his graduating seniors feel as the world opens up for them. Anxiety arises with the thought that the many possible doors that they don’t choose upon graduation, may close.  “People don’t know what to do.  They don’t know how to choose.  Students who have every possibility available to them crowd student counseling center.” They are plagued with the possibility that they might not choose as well as they could. They feel regret and that begets stress which hampers performance.

Neurologist Oliver Saks, author of ten books, Awakenings among them, describes his daily life and the extreme limits he puts on his choices in order for him to spend his energy on the things he cares about most. He essentially eats the same thing every day— a large bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, a noon meal of herrings and black bread, tabouli and sardines for dinner. Snacks consist of an orange and an apple and orange Jello.  He puts a single dollar in his pocket as he walks past the neighborhood chocolate shop where he buys one single dollar’s worth of broken, 72% chocolate.  He said more than one dollar in his pocket would cause him to eat more chocolate than is good for him, so he limits his ability to buy it. This does not bore him.  He says he enjoys each meal with “equal relish”.  It allows him to keep his internal life active, growing and evolving.

Malcom Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point discussed how people’s limited capacity for handling options can negatively affect performance when given too much to think about.  He quotes a study that shows how people make bad choices once under the stress of trying to juggle too many options. It says the human brain best handles 7 digits, plus or minus 2. When study participants, who were asked to remember a series of numbers, were interrupted with a choice of snack consisting of either chocolate cake or fruit salad while walking from one room to the next, those who had to remember only 2 numbers almost always chose the fruit salad.  Those who felt stressed by having to remember 7+ digits almost always chose the chocolate cake. What happens to our decision making when we have more choice? The emotional brain wants the cake.

When do we choose, how do we choose?  Do we limit?  What’s the right amount of choice?

I realized that my foot injury limited my choice of actions each day.  And, contrary to what might seem like hardship, those 5+ months of boot-wearing were so much less stressful than when my choices had a wider scope.  Despite the discomfort, I found myself happier, I slept better, I ate better and I was more productive in the ways I value the most.

Translate to our weekly endeavor—“Necessity is the mother of invention.”  Or perhaps–few choices make for more creativity.  So in the spirit of fun and ease in the New Year, this week I will provide you with a limited amount of choices for subject and color.  Have white and black paint and a cool neutral like Payne’s Grey and a warm neutral like ochre or sienna, and of course a substrate and tools.  But other than that, your choices will be how to deal with the limited amount of “input” you are given in terms of paint and subject. The challenge will be to “make do” with what is in the bag and if you don’t like the results, it’s not your fault.

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