The paradox of choice at Stanford

Oct. 16, 2018, 2:00 a.m.

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table.

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

So how should I presume?

For the past three weeks I felt like Prufrock from T.S Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” paralyzed and without a clue on how to presume.

When you get to college, you get to start over and invent your identity. In fact, you get to invent your identity every day. Every morning when you wake up, you get to decide what kind of person you want to be. Our identity is almost a matter of choice. Isn’t that a privilege?

Not really.

Conventional wisdom claims that maximizing welfare means maximizing individual freedom. To maximize individual freedom, we must maximize choice. At Stanford there’s an abundance of choice. There are around 74 majors, 11,796 classes, 658 clubs, 12 overseas campuses and 18,207 friends to be made.

I would argue that too many choices, paradoxically, produces paralysis rather than freedom. When there are so many options in front of you to choose from, it’s hard to choose at all. And if you do overcome the paralysis and choose, you want to make the perfect choice. That, however, is nearly impossible.

With the abundances of choices, it’s too easy to think about how a different choice could’ve been better. All these “what ifs” and “maybes” make people regret and less satisfied with the decision they made, even if it was a good decision.

When there are hundreds of options, you think to yourself that one must be perfect. It’s as if our expectations have escalated. Although what you have is good, it’s not the perfect that you expected. With sayings like “The secret to happiness is low expectations” and “Expectations are the root of all heart break,” our happiness seems to be undermined.

As fall quarter began I frantically went through articles about the best classes to take at Stanford to compile a list so large there was no way I could fit it into the 12-15 units range my academic advisor recommended. I would sit through one class wondering if another class would’ve changed how I saw the world more. And then the activities fair occurred I felt like a child picking between mint chocolate chip and strawberry sorbet only to realize that there was rum and raisin ice cream.

Whether choosing classes, clubs or ice cream flavors, the bewildering array of choices that flood our exhausted brains restrict us instead of free us. Right now, I’m trying to make decisions based on which option won’t make me look back and wish I chose differently. However, I’m still dizzy with hesitations and confronted with the question “How should I presume?”


Contact Helena Zhang at helenaz ‘at’

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