Friday, June 13, 2008

Choice and responsibility: self-help or just good economics?

A recent post on Zen Habits talks about taking responsibility, pointing out that many people fail to take responsibility for their lives; everything is someone else's fault. As a teacher, I see this all the time in my students (the excuses are generally more creative than 'the dog ate my homework' but they are excuses nonetheless). But as an economist, I have a hard time dealing with people who take this too far. Economics is the study of choices and what I try to get across to my students is that economists simply don't believe one can ever say, "I had no choice". Sure, some decisions are so trivial (do you get up when the alarm goes off or hit snooze?) or so easy (your money or your life) that we may not think twice about them but they are still choices - other people (or even you, on a different day) may choose a different option and when you do one thing when you could have done something else, then it's a choice to do what you did, conscious or not.

Usually when someone says they "had no choice", what they really mean is that the consequence of the alternative was so awful that the choice was obvious. But while it may be horrible to consider disappointing your parents or losing your job or even dying, that doesn't mean you have no choice about going to college or working overtime or handing over your wallet. Now I'm certainly not advocating that students drop out of school or employees tell their bosses to to jump in a lake. My point is just that when you realize that all your actions are choices, it's harder to play the victim, to avoid taking at least a little responsibility.

I don't want to sound like an unsympathetic hard-ass. I'm as likely as the next person to bitch and moan when faced with choices that suck. But the upside of seeing that everything is a choice is that although you can't avoid some responsibility, it also means you gain a lot of control, over the good AND the bad. As I like to tell my students: being between a rock and a hard place isn't fun but at least you have options! Making good decisions requires being clear about the costs and benefits of your options but first you have to recognize that you HAVE options. I often think that if I can just get this one idea across to my students, to get them to REALLY believe it, then I will not only have taught them some economics but I will have helped them to become better people.


Beth said...

I love this post!! And I love the link between self-help and economics. I think that it's so important for people to make conscious choices - and even when you might be in a life-limiting circumstances (on benefits or dealing with an illness) you still have choices.

Today I was with a coaching client (not a baby decision client!) and we were looking at the issue of her moving forward and getting more management experience. She started in the initial perspective or way of looking at the topic of being stuck - of feeling like she had no choices and couldn't get the experience she needed. So I had her stand up and look at the issue from different perspectives/ways of being. By the end, by doing this, by changing how she looked at and was with a topic, she changed not only how she felt about the topic but came up with some great actions to progress her forward.

Too many people just stay in an intial place of stuck/passivity because it's a familiar place and because it's easier than pushing ourselves to change.

Jenn said...

Thanks Beth! When I'm dealing with my students, they tend to focus on the downside of having choices (i.e., they can't escape some of the responsibility) but I am hopeful that as they mature a bit, they will also see that there is a big upside in feeling like you have more control over your life. I think just realizing and acknowledging that you have choices in the first place can often lead people to do something, because they can't just say it's out of their hands anymore.
(btw, enjoy your holiday!)