Sunday, March 16, 2008

Closing Doors

"The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors" by John Tierney of the New York Times. (By now, it's possible that you have to register in order to read the original article.)

He starts out discussing a Chinese general who took his army into battle and set things up so they couldn't retreat. They had to win or die. Dan Aierly had written a book, "Predictably Irrational", that spawned Tierney's column. Aierly did some expirements at MIT, where he's a professor of behavioral economics, that showed people's penchant for "keeping their options open", even when it's clearly in their best interest to close some doors.

Apparently, this is about having that feeling of loss. It's a feeling people will do just about anything to avoid. So, we don't break off bad relationships. We hang on to our stuff "because it might come in handy someday" or "as soon as I throw it out, I'll need it." Sometimes doors close so slowly we don't see that in our rush to keep all options open, we can pay a huge price. Airely's example is working long hours while your children's childhood slowly slips away. Those hours you might have spent with your kids can't be regained, so that's a closing door.

Speaking of work, choosing a career has major closed doors. If you choose one, you're giving up others. I know a lot of people, often super creative people, who can't pick one art to focus on. They write, paint, and make music. They don't make progress into making money at any of them because they don't put enough practice time into any one to get good enough at it to make a living. Or people like me who love and are curious about tons of stuff, so we take classes and learn about them. After a while we get bored with that subject and move on to something else. Barbara Sher talks about that phenomenon in her book about Scanners. I've found several things I'd love to cobble together into income-producing work, but I haven't figured out how to connect them yet. Maybe I never will get them all going, but maybe I can work enough of them so I don't get bored and quit before I make any actual cash.

This phenomenon is also why people like the Sidetracked Sisters and the Fly Lady got their jobs. They're helping people deal with the doors closed by being unable to get rid of excess stuff. They call one door "CHAOS"--Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome. Excess stuff also causes you to waste enormous amounts of time looking for things. Your budget takes a hit if you go out to dinner because you didn't have time to do yesterday's dishes because you were looking for stuff or otherwise dealing with clutter. Or you pay late fees because you couldn't find your bills to pay them on time. And so on.

It's interesting how much of it isn't the stuff itself. It's the emotion attached to the stuff that causes the problem. Examples might be: sentimental feelings because "it's a family heirloom". Or getting rid of it means a dream absolutely won't happen, such as selling a musical instrument you haven't touched since high school, thus giving up any dreams of being a musician. Or you feel guilty because you bought the wrong whatever, often clothing items, and you feel like you're throwing money away if you don't keep them. So you plan to wear or use the stuff and don't follow the plan because you really don't like or want or need this stuff.

Ditto for the career choices. You don't want to give up all of your choices in order to pursue one, so you don't pursue any. You "keep your options open", but spend years in nowhere, dead-end jobs that don't cover the rent, let alone all of your expenses. Or you don't focus on one art, so you scatter your attention among lots of things. Then you never make enough money to give up the day job, and even if it's paying your way just fine, you hate it and yourself because you want to work at your art full-time but can't afford it.

The conclusion is that sometimes we need to close doors. Aierly talks about one door most people close and how they do it. He says when we marry, we close the doors to other relationships. We do it by telling other people we're making that choice. That public statement is one of the main ways we use to help us close that door. But this idea shows why the commitment-phobes have the problem. They can't face the loss of a possibly better someone they might meet in the future. So they refuse to close that door and commit to one relationship.

Airely says that those social connections can help us with other doors, too. I've seen that in the Fly Lady phenomenon. People write to her about how following her advice and flinging out the stuff has helped their lives. By writing, they're making public their commitment to getting rid of stuff they don't use and don't love. Making it public makes it easier to do. But he says he struggles with it himself. After all, he's human, too.

Obviously, recognizing the problem is one thing. It's pretty easy to see it and it's effect on your life. But it's often hard to change because we don't want to deal with the feelings of loss. Sometimes, after reading yet another story of how much junk people's parents left for their kids to deal with after their deaths, I wonder if the incredible personal losses of friends and family that pile up on us as we get older isn't partly behind that phenomenon. Some elderly people cling to their stuff because it's something they can keep from leaving them, unlike their friends and relatives who are dying. I suppose this thought, at least in part, comes from having attended more funerals in the past year than in my whole life up to now.

I'm not sure exactly how to deal with this phenomenon in my own life. So much of the stuff we were looking forward to using again after we moved out of my mother's house was destroyed and I greived, not over the stuff, but over the loss of the life I was looking forward to. We've gradually rebuilt a lot of that life and so I'm feeling more comfortable with sorting and weeding out the rest of the stuff in our boxes. I can see, though, that the clutter in all areas of our lives, not just "stuff clutter" is one result of not being willing to close doors. And that clutter keeps us from clearly seeing what will bring the most joy to our lives. Until we clear the clutter so we can see what will bring us joy, we can't figure out how to bring that joy into our lives.