This post is inspired by the Radiolab episode on the same subject. For those of you not familiar with Radiolab, it’s an NPR show and podcast which covers variously interesting subjects from an inquisitive, pop-scientific yet usually fairly intellectual perspective. Occasionally it delves into the schmaltz that some NPR shows are infamous for, but the shows are largely informative and entertaining. The episode on choice was particularly… choice.

But what does this have to do with me? Likely this is a similar phenomenon to that when you learn a new word: you tend to notice it everywhere. Since listening to that episode I’ve been examining the role of choice in my life in a different way. Some anecdotes:

– I was out for a walk with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. We were chatting about her intent to investigate tree planting next summer. While it would be extremely easy for me to get sidetracked on funny tree planting stories (lord knows I sure as hell had plenty to tell that day), the point is that I found the entire process of tree planting extremely calming. Once I had settled into the routine and learned the ropes, there was nothing that I needed to worry about, nothing to choose. At any given minute I knew what I was doing and what I was going to be doing next. Wake up, make lunch, plant trees all day, come home, eat dinner, go to sleep, repeat. My choices consisted of “ham and cheese or PB&J sandwiches for lunch today?”, “filth-encrusted blue cargo pants or filth-encrusted green cargo pants?”, or “which scarcely-playable CD should I listen to?”. (that second choice was soon obviated by the blue pair literally disintegrating) As someone who often feels the need to inspect decisions from every angle, the loss of choice was (paradoxically) liberating.

– The aforementioned Radiolab episode contains an interview with Oliver Sacks, who has chosen to give up choice in his diet. Every week, his housekeeper brings the same groceries, and he eats the same meals and snacks. Every day he buys exactly one dollar of 72% cocoa-content chocolate from a store in his neighbourhood. As modernity has provided limitless choices for many in the developed world, he has chosen to spare himself some of the torment of decision from the areas of his life where he can allow it. I’d go into further detail on the episode, but if your ears have an hour to spare, I’ll just recommend you give it a listen yourself.

– I’ve often enjoyed letting chance rule in small parts of my life. Most recently, and most randomly, I was out for a walk with someone I see slightly more often than once every few years, and we were at a loss as to where to go. Having always wanted to try a randomized approach to moving through the city (as inspired by Situationist International and psychogeography) I rolled a die* to determine our direction and we set out. Granted, we only managed two rolls before my ingrained, order-loving, direction-finding tendencies took over, but it was a pleasant introduction to a different approach to participation in the city. I’ll have to give it a slightly more committed attempt and report back… and hope that the cruel vagaries of chance don’t have me walking around the same block for hours.


* yes, it was a four-sided die, 1-N, 2-S, 3-E, 4-W (and nerdier yet, it was a virtual four-sided die)