Freedom From Choice

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • AJ Jacobs Editor at large, Esquire magazine

When I was very young -- nine or ten -- I asked my parents to explain communism. My mom summarized it this way: In the Soviet Union, you don't have any choices. You can only get vanilla ice cream.

I was horrified. Understandably so. Only vanilla? No Baskin-Robbins' 31-derful flavors?

For most of my life, I've loved freedom of choice. Fetishized it, even. It's the American way. It's why I went to a college that had no core requirements and where you can go through all four years writing papers about the usage of umlauts in the names of eighties heavy metal bands (Motley Cru, Motorhead, etc).

I still think communism is a terrible system, and I'm still glad that I got to write a paper on umlauts, if not major in the subject.

But I recently spent a year trying to follow all the rules of the Old Testament for my new book The Year of Living Biblically. And one of the more interesting revelations from my year was this: There are advantages to having freedom FROM choice.

You don't want to give up all choice, of course. An all-vanilla world would be a sad world. But I experienced first-hand the how a life of restricted choice can be satisfying, even paradoxically liberating - especially as our choices multiply like cable channels.

I recently did an interview on in which I talked about how disoriented I was after my year ended. Without all my rules, without the stable architecture of biblical living, I felt unmoored and unanchored. I was overwhelmed by choice.

My know-it-all brother-in-law Eric Schoenberg - who teaches behavioral economics at Columbia - likes to lecture me about an experiment at a grocery store by researchers from Columbia and Stanford. They set up two tables offering free tastes - one had six flavors of jam, the other had 24 flavors of jam. Oddly, more people bought jams from the table with six flavors. The conclusion was that the other table was just too much, too many options.

Living biblically takes away a lot of those jam jars. What should I do on Friday night? Stay at home with the family. Should I waste my time reading about Cameron Diaz's love life? No. Should I give ten percent of my salary to the needy? Yes. Should I tell the truth about why I missed a deadline? Yes.

My dad always talked about how his hero Albert Einstein owned seven identical suits -- so that he wouldn't waste any neuronal activity on choosing what to wear.

In one of the more extreme instances of this, I learned from an Orthodox Jewish man that there is a rabbinically-approved way of putting on your shoes. You put on your right shoe. Then your left shoe. Then you tie your left shoe. Then you go back and tie your right shoe. It sounded like crazy talk to me when I first heard it. But maybe it's not all that different from Einstein's suits.

On the other hand, I learned an equally important lesson from my year of living biblically: abdicating too much choice is dangerous. You have to choose wisely which rules to obey in the first place.

There's a term -- cafeteria religion -- that is supposed to be a disparaging phrase. It describes those who pick and choose instead of following all of a religion's edicts or principles. But after my year, I think cafeteria religion is just fine. After all, there's nothing inherently wrong with cafeterias. I've had some delicious meals in cafeterias. I've also had some turkey tetrazzini that made me dry heave for several hours. It's all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness -- instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance. Inspiring leaders may not know everything about food, but maybe the good ones can guide you to the parts of the cafeteria with the freshest meals. They can be like a helpful lunch lady who...okay, I've taken the metaphor way too far.

AJ Jacobs' new book is The Year of Living Biblically. For more, visit He has since shaved his biblical beard.