Book Summary: Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar


Title: The Art of Choosing
Author: Sheena Iyengar
Publisher: Twelve
ISBN-10: 0446504114
ISBN-13: 978-0446504119
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It doesn’t what we are born with. One may be born in a mansion or in a slum. One may be born with perfectly working body parts or with disabilities. One may be born with supportive parents or with ones who judge and discourage you every day in your life. In the end, you get to choose how you live and you get to choose how your life should be in the future. You also get to choose how to feel about the circumstances you are in. Your choices are perhaps the most important things you do in your life. They have put you where you are today.

In the book ‘Art of choosing’, Sheena Iyengar, an Indian-origin psychology major with impaired vision, walks us through the several aspects of recognising your choices and how different situations make you choose in different ways.

Geography affects choices

Sheena highlights an important influence of geography on your choices. Being a member of the Indian community in the United States, she is able to look at how both Anglo-Americans and Asian-Americans choose different things. People of western origin are more individualistic. They like their choices to be autonomous, while not necessarily complying with the choices of others in their community. They see themselves as independent units in the society.

Asians make choices that are seen as good and acceptable within their community. For them, feeling of belongingness while looking good and being accepted within their community matters more. They see themselves as parts of a closely knit group who look out for each other.

Sheena goes on to remind us that choice is a complex matter and can mean different things to different communities. Rather than question people’s choices and judge them for it, it is important to recognise that the motivation behind different choices is different for everyone based on nationality, religion, culture, gender and age.

What is perceived as freedom?

While getting to choose for ourselves is a type of freedom, it is not the only thing referred to as freedom by everyone. For example, in capitalistic countries, freedom starts where the authorities step back and allow the markets to play out. Availability of products and their prices are completely determined by the market. Market chooses what it likes and what should be removed. Market determines the price based on supply and demand. While individuals have the freedom to choose from a wide range of products and services, his/her choices increase with the amount of wealth he/she possesses. But that also means that as the demand for something goes up substantially, the rich will pay more to acquire them, thus leaving the poor in the lurch. Ultimately, the poor cannot afford much and will have few choices to make or none at all.

In contrast, socialistic countries have the government taking part in every economic decision, even owning products and services. They make sure that prices are affordable for everyone. They offer heavy subsidies and make up for the losses through heavy taxation. While this stifles rapid growth, innovation, individual brilliance and effort, it also makes sure that the basic needs are available to everyone.

Are you unique or just like everyone else?

People like more choices and love to exert control over what they get to choose just for the illusion that they are different from everyone else. But in reality, most people choose exactly what others have chosen. This is evident from industries such as fashion, where more popular designs are chosen more often. The more viral a design becomes, the more it is chosen by new buyers at the expense of  the obscurely chosen ones.

E.g. if you are given a choice between black, brown and flourescent green jackets, you may discard the last one completely since it will usually be perceived as not combining well with your other clothes. While you believe that you have a choice and that you have picked one that suits your style, you have actually picked what many others already picked, i.e. ‘safe’ options like black or brown, while rejecting flourescent green, which would have made you truly unique.  It’s just that one doesn’t usually wear jackets that are too differently coloured and you are afraid to stand out.

Priya, my wife, sums this up in a nice phrase called ‘odd, but not unique’. 3 and 5 are numbers that are odd, but not unique, whereas 1 is a number that is both odd and unique. You don’t want to be that ONE who is odd and unique. You’d rather be part of a group of 3 to 5 people that the majority sees as odd, but you still fit in with a group who are just like you and have common interests to share.

Choices may be impulsive

Making a conscious choice requires a lot of reflection and deliberate thought. But the brain likes to conserve energy. When possible, it uses a set of guidelines that look like rules of thumb, but are actually shortcuts applied by the brain based on available data, so that it can avoid the hard work of deliberate thought. These shortcuts are called heuristics. Despite meaning well, heuristics often get in your way of making informed or optimal choices.

E.g. we often flock to a restaurant that has more people than to one that has fewer. The heuristic behind this choice says that if there are more people in one restaurant, it must be better. It is a mental shortcut to avoid making a decision while you are already hungry. However it’s possible that you may enjoy the food better at the emptier restaurant.

Choice overwhelm

It is easier to choose from three choices than from ten. Our mind can process the evaluation of lesser choices, but can get overwhelmed by abundance. But people still crave for more choice than less, because more gives the illusion of abundance.

Too many choices are overwhelming. Source:

In a supermarket, it is common to see 20 varieties of toothpaste and 40 varieties of dips, ketchups and side dishes. When overwhelmed, the mind stops evaluated the items for their merits and looks for ways to whittle down the number of choices, the most common being categorising and sorting by price and then picking the cheapest one.

Choice in a field requiring expertise

Some fields require training, practice and expertise to make the right choices. For the untrained, making such choices is hard. Their choice usually ends up sub-optimal. It is in the best interest of everyone to offer little or no choice to such people, but simply offer them a product or service with defaults. Choices should be kept open for experts though.

Laptops are fairly new to India. The computer economy a decade ago was driven by assembled computers, where people were often tasked with picking their choice of hardware, such as the hard disk, processor, RAM, etc. Since people had no expertise in the field, they used to pick options that were cheaper or more popular. In the end, they’d have a cheap, but a sluggish and outdated computer trying to run the latest operating system.

With laptops, the decision of the hardware combination is made by the manufacturer. People have been happily using laptops for more than a decade now and no one is going back to assembled computers anywhere. But assembled computers do exist for the experts who want a fine-grained choice and the ability to swap old parts for new ones every few months.

Difficult choices

Choices such as pulling the plug on a comatose patient or institutionalising a juvenile son can be traumatically hard. In such cases, there are three things that can happen.

a. Those in authority make the decision, execute it and tell the affected person about it.

b. Those in authority present the choices to the person who’ll be affected and let them decide, without offering personal suggestions or biases.

c. Those in authority present the choices, state their own preference and then nudge the affected person to decide.

Study after study show that those caught in situation b were more traumatised after the event, because they felt the guilt of having directly influenced the difficult outcome. Those is situation ‘a’ were at peace since the decision was not theirs. Those in situation ‘c’ were at peace too despite having made the decision themselves. In this case, this was because they believed that they had done what was best as prescribed by an experience authority.

The red button syndrome

Some choices have adverse outcomes. It is better that people don’t know about those choices at all. However even the worst choices will find their way to people, whether we like it or not. One such choice is addictive smoking. In a utopian world, smoking as a choice shouldn’t exist. But we are stuck wit it.

The usual reaction is to ban those choices. But some personalities suffer from what we call the ‘red button syndrome’, which is the impulse to rebel, to break the rules and to go against any restrictions, either boldly or through creative ways. E.g. some people boldly smoke in public to make a rebellious statement, whereas some people take to alternatives such as vaping. The name ‘red button syndrome’ is so named because some personalities feel forced to press a red button which has a warning ‘Do not press’.

Red button syndrome. Source:

An outright ban will not work for such people, because they feel the need to exercise their choice even if the outcome is adverse. The enforcers need to get creative about it, such as heavily tax cigarettes so that the smokers need to think twice before lighting up.


Choice and decision are complex processes. To master them takes a lot of practice. So much that it is actually an art. That is why Sheena calls it the ‘Art of Choosing’.

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Coming up: An experiment with veganism

Priya (my wife) and I have read several articles on veganism. Both of us are vegetarians. Our diet is made of whole grains, grain flour, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables. In addition, we also consume milk thrice a day and use milk-based products such as curd and ghee in ample quantities.

The range of articles on veganism goes from absolute fanaticism to hateful criticism. It is difficult to determine solely based on polarised opinions whether veganism is really life-changing in a positive way or just a fad. So we have decided to embark on a one month experiment in the December of 2019. If things work wonderfully during the experiment, like it has for hundreds of thousands of vegans, our new year resolution will be to turn vegans long term. Otherwise we will pretend that the month-long experiment never happened! Continue reading Coming up: An experiment with veganism

Experience the joy of travel without the travel

Joy of Travel

If I got paid Re.1 for every time I heard people say ‘Travel is my passion’ I’d have been a wait..a billionaire may be. But most of them do not pursue their travel passion it due to lack of time, expenses, not having sufficient holidays, spouse not willing, friends ditched at the last minute, parents said no and several other excuses we generally find for not pursuing what we want to. But do we really need to travel to experience the joy of travel?

Why do we travel?

We travel to meet new people, experience new things, learn new skills, be exposed to a whole new world. But is it mandatory to travel to be able to do these things? Is it not possible to do this in the place we live?

Continue reading Experience the joy of travel without the travel

How India360 travel made us better?

Have you heard of people come back from long trips and say ‘Travel changed us. We are now better people’. What does travel do to change you ? We had written about our learning from India360 earlier. But this time I want to give a very objective view on how travel can change you based on a renowned model of measuring personality traits Continue reading How India360 travel made us better?

Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Title: Deep Work
Author: Cal Newport
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
ISBN-10: 9780349413686
ISBN-13: 978-0349413686
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In a generation that is constantly distracted by several inputs, either from too many electronic devices or by the constant interruptions of a an open plan work space, Cal Newport is a contrarian emphasising that several hours of work where you are uninterrupted by devices or humans is essential if you want to perform ground-breaking work. In his book Deep Work, he classifies all important work that requires total focus and utmost concentration as deep work or the type of work in which you need to work hard and dive deep down into the depths of your brain or body to find focus and achieve your goals. All other work  which keep you busy, but have no significant change in your life, say checking emails, chatting with your colleagues over work and commuting as shallow work. Continue reading Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

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Book Summary: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

David And Goliath

Hardcover: 320 pages
Language: English

  • ISBN-10: 0316204366
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316204361

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Malcolm Gladwell, in his book ‘David and Goliath’ covers the story of unlikely success. Instead of the cliche of how persistence and hard work pays, he analyzes the stories in depth and brings about how the underdogs chose a different path to win the game and how this learning can be used by us all.

Continue reading Book Summary: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

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How to work on feedback?

We have received feedback, filtered through it and determined it is appropriate and given by someone competent with a good understanding. What next?

Take a deep breath

Critical feedback is hard to accept for anyone, not just you. It hurts to know that you are not perfect, the world is not love in with the way you are. And unlike many cliches, they are probably right and it is up to you to make changes in your life for the better. For all its obviousness, it is still not an easy thing to do. So if you are sitting in front of the one who has given the feedback, thank them and tell them you will seriously consider the feedback given to you.

Try not to feel enraged and get defensive. Don’t get apologetic without understanding thoroughly. Don’t try to pass on the blame or call it a misunderstanding by the other person. Just breathe and let the feedback sink in your head.

Continue reading How to work on feedback?

5 thought-changing books you should read this year

Priya and I read several non-fiction books every year. Usually our yearly tally is 20 books each. We also summarise most of the books we read. You can read them in the Book Summaries section.

In this post, we have picked 5 books that are our favourites. Reading these books have replaced some cliched and flawed thoughts about talent, personal finance, productivity, psychology and concentration. Continue reading 5 thought-changing books you should read this year

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How to take a compliment?

We often work hard to get noticed. Dress up well to get attention. But many times we are uncomfortable when finally the hard work pays off and attention is showered on us. We deny, deflect and feel uncomfortable with the attention and praise. It is surprising yet true, that compliment more than insults unnerve us and take us by surprise.

Lets look at what are the appropriate ways to take a compliment

Accept and say ‘thank you’

Often ‘Thankyou’ with a smile is the most sincere way to accept a compliment. You may elaborate on the thanks but never negate the acceptance.

Compliment: “That’s an excellent presentation. You really owned the crowd.

Bad response: “Thanks. But i forgot a few points in between. I think I could have done a lot better.

Good response: “Thank you.
Better response: “Thank you. I am glad you liked it
Thank you. I really worked hard on it and am very happy to know I got through to the audience

Continue reading How to take a compliment?

Treat your brain like a two-year old child to beat procrastination

You have heard productivity gurus often say that in order to go to the gym the next morning, you have to lay out the clothes near your bed at night, or perhaps even sleep in them. This sounds like excellent advice. But despite that friction-busting move, here’s what happens in the morning.

Alarm clock: RRRRiiiinngggg!

You: Okay, let’s go to the gym.

Your brain: Whiiiiiiiiine…. I want to sleep. The bed is comfortable. I am not getting up.

Continue reading Treat your brain like a two-year old child to beat procrastination