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Op Eds

The Cost of Opportunity

By Diana McKeage

Nearly two months have passed since the Crimson’s Fifteen Minutes magazine ran the anonymous piece “I Am Fine,” but as the semester switches gears, its resounding message about mental health is just as relevant. As “I Am Fine” illustrated, what we don’t always hear are the sincere doubts that go further than complaints, and question how it is humanly possible to take advantage of everything happening around campus in this final month. In 2004, Professor Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore College, published a strong answer to these gut-wrenching questions: The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. Schwartz’s argument, that living in a world of opportunity can be paralyzing rather than liberating, speaks to life at Harvard enormously, and especially when considered alongside the overwhelming response to “I Am Fine.” However “obvious” their conclusions may seem, these brilliant writers both urge us to limit ourselves—in expense of energy and expectation of what we can accomplish—so that the lives we choose for ourselves will constantly satisfy us rather than disappoint.

Discussing his book, Schwartz asserts that “the official dogma of all Western industrial societies…runs like this: If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom.” Given that, in Western industrial societies, people generally have their basic needs taken care of by the government and their own occupations, what could be better than individual freedom? From Enlightenment philosophy to America’s unwavering commitment to freedom, this notion of the inherent goodness of freedom goes unchallenged, and perhaps rightly so.

According to Schwartz, however, the next part of the unquestionable tenet is the very part which brings us down: that “the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.” As Harvard students, we are certainly familiar with this idea; one of the most appealing and terrifying aspects of life at Harvard is the access it grants to absolutely anything. The weight of the permutations of lives one could lead on this campus is often crippling, if not paralyzing.

It can be easy enough to stay focused when the routine is straightforward: Class. Pset. Rehearsal. Essay. But what happens when we think about how we ended up where we are, and what we could have done differently? What if, outside Hilles, I had turned left instead of right at the Activities Fair? What if I’d known myself like I do now right when I came to Harvard? What if I hadn’t gone to Harvard? Speaking directly into the average student’s daily whirlwind of doubt, Schwartz’s book argues that “infinite choice is paralyzing”and “exhausting to the human psyche.” We set unreasonably high expectations, and then question and doubt every choice we make. Any student who has woken up with a chilling malaise will understand Schwartz’s point when they ask themselves, “What do I do now?”

The answer to this question that emerges both from Schwartz’s book and from “I Am Fine” is to limit yourself—and not the most intuitive thought to circulate among the ideologies of maximization and achievement permeating campus life. But there is much to be said for the simple mantra of active decision-making and total immersion in activities, whether they be academic, extracurricular, or social. Otherwise, as a blockmate of mine once told me, “If you think about Harvard in terms of opportunity costs, you’re always going to be miserable.” We need to remember that what keeps Harvard thriving is not that every student takes advantage of every single opportunity. Rather, Harvard’s beauty lies in each student’s ability to pursue what he or she cares about, and find friends with shared interests, no matter how nestled the niche. The writer of “I Am Fine” vouches for such equilibrium reached through limitation: “By concentrating my energy on the people and activities that I care most about, I have gradually begun to get past all Harvard has taken and realized just how much it can give.” If we are bound to maximize our freedom by maximizing choice, we can end the cycle of doubt by choosing one, or a few, out of many options and committing ourselves to what we have chosen. After all, engagement is much more satisfying than regret. Schwartz ends his book by emphasizing the merits of “choice within constraints” and “freedom within limits.” As student expectations and anxieties swirl in the last month of the academic year, we would do well to remember this simple philosophy.

Diana T. McKeage ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a literature concentrator in Winthrop House.

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