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Barry Schwartz - Last Collection

Barry Schwartz


First off, I want to thank you for honoring me with this invitation to speak to you. It really means a lot to me to be recognized in this way.  As many of you know, I teach classes on decision making, on happiness, and on wisdom. Teaching classes on topics like these creates an incredibly strong temptation to give advice: how to make decisions; how to be happy; how to be wise. I have tried very hard to resist this temptation. But now, I’m going to succumb to it. Like you, I’m graduating tomorrow.  What can they do to me?

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So I’m going to give you advice. If there’s an overarching theme that unites the specific things I’m going to tell you, I guess it’s how to think about choice. Big surprise, I know. I going to offer a few suggestions about things you should keep in mind as you enter real life and Swarthmore becomes a dimming memory. Most of this advice comes from things that psychologists have discovered in recent years. I believe that if you follow this advice, your lives will go better. And if you live lives that exemplify this advice, other people’s lives will go better, too. 

This is a great time to be a psychologist. After years of being relegated to a corner of the world that dealt with alleviating psychic suffering and repairing damage, psychology is coming into its own as a discipline that has a lot to offer to both the private and the public sector to help institutions get better at what they do. The stranglehold that economics has had on all matters of public policy has been broken…or at least, has been loosened. The world has been taking us more seriously. You should, too. So take out your smart phones and start taking notes. This is the last thing you will ever learn at Swarthmore!

II. Choice: Learn to love constraints

So first, let’s talk a little about choice. If there’s a supreme value in American society, it’s freedom. Freedom, autonomy, self-determination—they are what we aspire to in our own lives, and they are what we expect our social and political institutions to nurture and protect. The political and cultural development of American society has seen an almost unbroken increase in the amount of freedom people actually get to experience.

And you all are at the pinnacle of this development. Never before has a group of people been so free to determine their own life course. Swarthmore encouraged you to study pretty much anything you wanted. And now that you’re graduating, where you live, what kind of work you do and when you do it, whether and how you worship, what you buy, how you look, whether and when you marry, whether and when you have kids—each of these things will be up to you. We’ve nurtured the kind of independence of mind and heart that will enable you to challenge social norms or legal constraints that once operated to nudge or even push you in one direction or another. We’ve encouraged you to believe that almost anything is possible. So you all are the embodiment of an American success story.

I think enhancing freedom of choice is a pretty compelling accomplishment. But what we are learning, as the experience of personal freedom continues to grow, is that there can be too much of a good thing—that too much freedom can be bad for your well-being. For along with all this freedom has come unprecedented unhappiness—depression, anxiety, use of psychological services and antidepressant drugs in astonishing numbers. Perhaps many things share responsibility. And an overload of freedom of choice is one of those things.

A wealth of options creates a problem that has to be solved. It forces you to have to put time and effort into decisions, even trivial ones. It causes you to worry, when you finally choose, that maybe you’ve made a mistake. It forces you to make tradeoffs. It raises your expectations about just how good the thing you finally choose will be. Expectations can get so high that no result will meet them, no matter how good it is. Massive effort in making decisions, passed up attractive alternatives, and disappointing results. This is not a recipe for well-being. Yet it is a recipe that more and more people feel compelled to follow. 

So, piece of advice number one: learn to embrace constraints. Constraints can be your friend. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if the fact that your romantic partner will going to med school in Philadelphia limits your job options to the Philadelphia area. It’s not such a bad thing if your desire to stay close to your family limits you to applying to law schools in the Chicago area. Yes, some constraints are abhorrent and should be resisted. But others are essentially what enable us to get through the day. Choice within constraints is liberating. Choice without constraints can be paralyzing.

Speaking of learning to love constraints, love may be the biggest constraint of them all. Think about how close relationships with other people affects freedom of choice. Part of what it means to be close to friends, family, or lovers, is that you have responsibilities, commitments, and obligations to other people. You can’t just come and go as you please. The decisions you make are affected by the needs and desires of others. In other words, close relations are constraints on freedom—they bind rather than liberate; they eliminate options rather than expanding them.

But it’s worth it. A great deal of research has been done on the determinants of happiness, and one key result jumps out at you again and again. The biggest single contributor to happiness is close relations with other people. The richer and deeper the social networks people have, the happier they are. So love brings happiness, even as it brings constraints.

You’ve had practice, here at Swarthmore, in caring for others. And you’ve richly experienced what it feels like to be cared for by others. The Swarthmore community is extraordinary for its kindness, its empathy, it’s humanity. You may be a little tired of seeing the same old faces, but you’ll be hard pressed to find or create a community to match the Swarthmore community after you leave. If you bring what Swarthmore has taught you into the world, you may be better able to develop and sustain the close relations that make for well-being after you leave.

Let me be clear about something here. I don’t think the constraints imposed by responsibilities to family and friends have always been a benefit. In past times, when the options were fewer and the responsibilities greater, such responsibilities may well have been correctly perceived as an excessive burden—as too big an impediment to being and doing what we want to be and do. But for most members of modern society, especially those in what’s called the “knowledge class,” having commitment to others set limits on what’s possible has become a blessing. Choice is good but, as Aristotle knew, there can be too much of a good thing.

III. Choice: Have reasonable standards

All this choice is a problem for everyone, but it’s a special problem for people who, when they make decisions, feel like they have to get the best—the best college, the best job, the best romantic partner, the best car, the best cell phone, the best investment. For people like this, choice can be a nightmare, for the only way to know you’ve got the best is by examining all the alternatives, by doing an exhaustive, and exhausting, search.  And the impossibility of doing such a search almost guarantees that you’ll regret decisions, even if they’re good. People who are satisfied with a good enough option can stop looking as soon as they find one, and relax.

Let me illustrate the problem with an example that might be especially salient to you all right now—finding a job. With a couple of colleagues, I studied several hundred college seniors throughout the year as they searched for jobs. Some of them were the kinds of people who are out for the best, whereas others were looking for a job that was good enough. Think about the agony that job-hunting can be if you’re out to find the best job. This job is in a great location, but that one offers the most interesting work. And that other one offers the highest starting salary. But still another one offers great opportunities for advancement. Yet another will allow you to do something that helps people. Another will allow you to have a great group of colleagues. And finally, there’s the one that’s located in the same city that your partner will be living in while she attends medical school. Why can’t there be a job that combines all these attractive features? So you’re disappointed before you’ve even had your first interview.

Then the interview process begins, and the good news is that if you’re the sort of person who seeks the very best, you end up with a better job than people who are satisfied with good enough. But…and it’s a big but…even though you’ll do better, you’ll feel worse. You’ll be more pessimistic, more stressed, more tired, more anxious, more worried, more overwhelmed, more regretful, more disappointed, more frustrated, and more depressed than people who are just looking for “good enough.”

And it’s not just about jobs. As Aziz Ansari points out in his book, Modern Romance, forming and sustaining intimate relationships can be a nightmare in the age of Tinder. There you are, you and your partner, having a romantic candlelight dinner. And each of you, when not swiping left, is looking over the other one’s shoulder just in case someone better walks by. FOMO is the operative term. If you spend your life gripped by fear of missing out, you won’t do much, and you won’t be terribly satisfied with what you do get yourself to do.

I know that being satisfied with good enough is not easy advice to follow. The kinds of folks who end up coming to places like Swarthmore are not likely to be satisfied with good enough, at least when it comes to the important things. There is a reasonably good chance that many of you have gotten into the habit of seeking—even demanding—the best, and of having the best demanded and expected of you. Well, I’m telling you to break that habit. Remind yourself that good enough is good enough. That’s piece of advice number 2.

IV. Raising kids

I want to illustrate this recommendation—that good enough is good enough—by discussing a part of life that is not an issue for you now, but soon will be, at least for most of you. At some point in the future, many of you will become parents. Whereas it may be possible to settle for a good enough car, a good enough phone, a good enough 401(k), even a good enough job, have you ever heard anyone say that “I only want what’s ‘good enough’ for my kids”? I haven’t. When it comes to our kids, only the best will do.

Ask your parents.

Some years ago, as my older daughter was anticipating the birth of her first child, she asked my wife and me to help her shop for a stroller. We went to the store and found dozens and dozens of options. Combined stroller-car seats, combined stroller-carriages, stand-alones, joggers, umbrella types, strollers that reclined to horizontal, those that reclined to almost horizontal, strollers with heavy duty wheels, strollers with lots of storage—on and on it went. Each type had its plusses and minuses. Making a choice took several hours, and we left feeling uncertain we had made the right one.

Thus was I introduced to parenting in modern America: an endless series of choices. Cribs, highchairs, baby foods, diapers. Nursery schools and pediatricians. Medical decisions when your pediatrician refuses to tell you what to do. Breast or bottle feeding. Books, videos, TV shows. Screens! And as the child gets older, the choices grow more numerous, and they seem more consequential. Public, private or parochial school. Academic enrichment after school, or sports (which sport) or music (what instrument). Summer camp (which type), when to permit ear-piercing, how to regulate internet access and cell phone use, what kind of restrictions to place on TV-watching.  How do parents cope with the seemingly limitless alternatives—with all the dizzying information and awesome responsibility?     

Based on what I’ve already told you, it seems clear that they don’t cope too well. As choices proliferate, parents have a harder and harder time making decisions. And because all parents are likely to want the best when it comes to their kids, the child-rearing decisions they must make will be nerve-wracking. Ask your parents.

I believe that parents who put pressure on themselves to make the best choices for their kids are making a mistake. They may end up with better strollers, teachers, pediatricians, schools, and recreational activities. But the burden they bear, and the price they pay, will be reflected in their interaction with their kids. The time parents spend finding the best stroller is time they will not be spending playing with or talking to their child. The time they spend finding the best books is time they will not spend reading them to their child.

Beyond all this, the aspiring parent provides the child with a model of perfection, one that may well create a great deal of stress, anxiety, indecision, and dissatisfaction in the child when she is making her own decisions. It may induce parents to take too much control over their children’s lives. In efforts to provide their kids with a wide array of exciting and educational activities, parents may so overschedule them that the children have no time to be by themselves—to imagine, to create, or just to hang out. Indeed, kids may have no time to be themselves, or to figure out what kind of selves they want to be. I am convinced that kids will, in general, be better served by good enough strollers, and maybe even good enough teachers and pediatricians, and relaxed, happy parents than they will by the best strollers, pediatricians, and teachers and anxious, unhappy parents. 

While we’re on the subject of parenting, there’s one more thing I want to mention. How many of you have thought actively as you have been plotting your future about how you are going to integrate your career plans, whatever they are, with being a spouse and a parent? Raise your hands. What the data say is that women ask themselves these sorts of questions all the time and men do it…about never. So this has to change. The feminist revolution will be an incomplete revolution so long as it remains true that women, but not men, think about managing family and career. This problem is everybody’s problem. Yes, “parental leave” is a step up from “maternal leave,” but it isn’t just about handling the first few months after the child is born. It’s about handling the demands of parenting from start to finish—from birth to independence (which I put at about 25 or 30). The single biggest thing men can do as allies in the move toward gender equality is to be exactly as consumed by the challenge of balancing career and family as women are. Until that happens, the march to gender equality will remain incomplete and inadequate. I know that kids may be far in the future, but the time to start thinking about them is now…for everyone.

V. Choice and expertise: Love the truth

My next piece of advice is related in a way to the extraordinary freedom of choice you have. I often tell people that they should choose when to choose. In the modern world, the only way to have the time you want to devote to the things that matter is to allow others to make some decisions on your behalf. Which others?  Respected friends, family, doctors, financial advisors, Consumer Reports.  The list is long.  What I’m telling you is that you should rely on “experts”—people who know the domain in question, and ideally people who know you—to take some of the burdens off your shoulders.

So let’s talk a little bit about trusting experts. This is an odd recommendation to people who have spent four years learning to question authority, to be autonomous decision makers, and to trust themselves above all else. If you are going to trust experts, there have to be experts. And in order for there to be experts, there must be some body of knowledge—some set of truths—for them to be expert about.  It has been, and remains fashionable, especially at selective institutions like Swarthmore, to attack the very notion of expertise—of truth. You have your truth and I have mine. Everything is relative, a matter of perspective. What people call “knowledge” or “expertise” is really just power in disguise.

This turn to skepticism and relativism about truth is in part a reflection of something good and important that has happened to higher education and intellectual life in general. People finally caught on to the fact that much of what the intellectual elite thought was the truth was distorted by the limitations of their perspective. Slowly the voices of those who have been excluded have been welcomed into the conversation. And their perspectives have enriched our understanding enormously. But the reason they’ve enriched our understanding is that they’ve given the rest of us an important piece of the truth that was previously invisible to us. Not their truth, but the truth. It is troubling to see how quickly an appreciation that each of us can only attain a partial grasp of the truth degrades into a view that there really isn’t any truth out there to be grasped.

People have long understood that imperfections of language and limitations of individual, idiosyncratic experience create a thick veil that obscures how things really are. The aim of serious inquiry has been to lift that veil to get at the reality that lies beneath it.  What is now being suggested by some is that when we do manage to lift the veil, we’ll only discover another one, and another, and another. In other words, “it’s veils all the way down.” Veils are all there is.

You’ve surely encountered this view of things. And you may have found it extremely seductive. It makes intellectual life a whole lot easier.   When a fellow student says something in class with which you disagree, you don’t need to worry about finding a way to challenge that view and make a case for your own view. There’s no need to struggle through disagreements to get to the bottom of things if there is no “bottom” of things. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. It’s the great democratization of knowledge. Everyone’s got it in equal amounts because there really isn’t, after all, any of “it” to have.

Stephen Colbert captured the current skeptical attitude toward truth perfectly when he coined the term “truthiness” in the early days of his brilliant TV show. Colbert argued that we have become more or less indifferent to what’s true, and have concerned ourselves with what’s “truthy,” something that kind of, sort of sounds like it could be true. A few years later, the distinguished philosopher Harry Frankfurt took up the issue in a more serious way in a book called On Bullshit. I know.  It doesn’t sound like a very serious book, but it is. Frankfurt distinguishes bullshitters from liars. Liars, he says, care about the truth; they just violate it. Bullshitters, in contrast, are indifferent to the truth. They are interested in truthiness. If the truthy thing they say happens to be true, then fine. But it’s basically beside the point. One could imagine that at least one of the contestants in the current race to succeed Barack Obama has seen Colbert, and read Frankfurt, and taken them to heart.

I think that this kind of attitude about truth is a moral disaster. Morally, an attitude like this chips away at our most fundamental respect for one another as human beings. When people have respect for the truth, they seek it and speak it in dialogue with one another. Once truth becomes suspect, relations between people become efforts at manipulation. Instead of trying to enlighten or persuade people by giving them reasons to see things as we do, we can either ignore them or manipulate them to get them to do the things we want them to do. In the absence of respect for truth, all dialogue becomes a Nike ad. So this, I think, is the moral price of radical skepticism.

Practically speaking, the digital world has exploded with the democratization of “expertise.” Everybody has an opinion about everything. Which of these opinions should be taken seriously? Which self-proclaimed expert actually knows something? How do you begin to find that out?  

So, your Swarthmore education may have given you a problem by making you suspicious of expertise. But on the other hand, your education has also given you the wisdom and judgment to evaluate claims to expertise so that you can determine which opinionators you should actually be listening to. What I want to emphasize is that the effort to find experts you can trust is worthwhile. You simply won’t be able to make all the decisions you have to make, and figure out all you need to figure out, on your own.

I also want to point out that the truth is never easy to find. It’s hard work. To be willing to do the work, you have to love the truth. You have to be passionate about it. I hope that Swarthmore has given you this passion for truth. If it hasn’t, it has failed in perhaps the most important of its missions. Indeed, in the absence of love of the truth, places like Swarthmore really have no justification to exist. They should all become trade schools. So piece of advice number three is love the truth.     

VI. Find work that matters

Not far behind close relations with others as a significant source of well-being is meaningful, satisfying work—work that challenges, that stimulates, and that adds value to the world. Others have referred to work like this as a “calling.” For people with a calling, it is the concrete products of what they do, and not just personal advancement or material reward, that provide satisfaction. People with a calling are doing something that will not lose its value, even if they are stuck doing it, with no prospects for advancement, for the next 25 years. 

To some degree, whether your work is a calling or not depends on the work. But to a large degree, it depends on the person—on you. Psychologist Amy Wrziesnewski did a lovely study of people who worked as cleaners in hospitals. These people are at the very lowest rung of the hospital’s status (and pay) hierarchy. Nonetheless, Amy found that many of the hospital cleaners thought of their work as challenging, highly skilled, respected, and central to the hospital’s mission. That’s because they saw their work not as mopping floors, but as doing whatever was needed to contribute to the health, safety, and comfort of the patients. And they thought their work was no less essential to achieving those goals than the work of surgeons or nurses.

Swarthmore, I hope, has taught many of you what it’s like to do something that really matters. It has exposed you to many people who, as they clean your rooms or wash your dirty dishes, feel and act as if they are performing tasks that are essential to the College’s mission. It may even have taught you what it feels like to start each day looking forward to the work you have to do. If it has, you will be better prepared to find your calling, or to make your work a calling, than you otherwise would. And I hope you all do.

But beware. The problem with callings is that you can’t make work a calling all by yourself. Most of the time, for work to be a calling, it needs to be supported by the right kind of institutional structure. As a doctor, you may feel “called” to serve your patients in a particular way, but in the modern world of medicine, you may find that unless your practice generates adequate revenues, you won’t be allowed to do it the way you think it should be done. As a teacher, you may feel called to excite and educate your pupils in a certain way, but if you are under pressure from administrators to adhere to a rigid curriculum so that scores on “big tests” will be good, you won’t be able to teach the way you think you should. You are going to be challenged to find work to do that you regard as a calling, in a setting that will allow you to do that work in the right way. I know it seems trite, but this piece of advice amounts to find work that’s a calling. And in addition, as you rise through the ranks, and start having supervisory control over the work of others, you should do what you can to make their work a calling too.


But enough about you! All this talk focused on what you can do to make your life happier seems out of place here at an outward looking, socially responsible institution like Swarthmore. What about the rest of the world? And what’s so important about happiness anyway? Surely it’s better to have a few hundred miserable college graduates improving the lives of millions than it is to have them tending to their own gardens, with smiles on their faces, oblivious to the suffering that’s going on elsewhere.

But taking seriously some of the suggestions I’ve given you will contribute not just to your well-being, but also to the well-being of others. If you take some of my advice, and you’re not looking for the cheapest fare, the coolest apartment, the skinniest jeans, you will have some time on your hands. And I think I know what you should do with that time. You should spend it getting to know and understand all the people in your life—your lovers, your children, your parents, your friends, your patients, your clients, your students. And here’s why. The really, really hard thing in life is getting it right in your social interactions. The hard thing in life is knowing how to balance honesty with kindness, courage with caution, encouragement with criticism, empathy with detachment, paternalism with respect for autonomy. In the course that Ken Sharpe and I taught on practical wisdom, the main point we emphasized was that there are no rules or formulas that tell you the right thing to do in all your social interactions. You have to figure it out case by case—person by person. You have to use your judgment. You have to be wise. And the only way to figure it out is by knowing the other people involved well—by taking the time to listen to them, to imagine what life is like through their eyes, and to be open to being changed—even transformed—by them. 

In a world that hurries by, forcing you to make decision after decision, each involving almost unlimited options, it’s hard to find the needed time. Though you surely won’t be doing it deliberately, your effort to get the best car will interfere with your desire to be the best friend. Your effort to get the best job will intrude on your desire to be the best parent. And so, if the time you save by following some of my suggestions is redirected, with wisdom, to the welfare of the other people in your life, you will not only make yourself happier, you will improve the lives of others as well. It’s what economists call “Pareto efficient.” A change that benefits everybody.  So cultivate wisdom in yourself, and while you’re at it, nurture it in others.


Let me wrap this up. Some of you may be leaving tomorrow a little disappointed with your Swarthmore education—not because you didn’t learn a lot of things, but because you are less sure now of what you want to be and do than you were when you started. What were these four years for? I’m reminded of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:

Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.

I think you actually are wiser than before, even if you are uncertain about what your future holds, and I have tried today to offer a few tips for those of you who feel what Vonnegut was talking about. There are those who, even if they agree with my analysis, think tips like mine are unnecessary. They have a view that society is largely self-correcting, and that it will essentially automatically diagnose its mistakes and change accordingly. 

I don’t believe that society, or individuals, automatically self-correct. I think acts of will are required. And I have tried to suggest several things that you should will for yourself and for others, and work to achieve. I wish each of you a life in which good enough is good enough—a life filled with love and with work that is a calling. A life as part of a community that listens to you just as you listen to it. And I thank you most sincerely for honoring me with this invitation to speak to you. Congratulations to you all and to your families.