As a parent of twin two-year olds, I rarely get to eat at restaurants. Let me correct that statement. I miss dining at restaurants where I am greeted by someone other than a grown adult dressed like a rodent or a 15-year old handing out balloons. Thus, when I dine, I feast. There is no guilt when I choose the most expensive entree on the menu. This usually means that I'm ordering lobster. The creme de le creme. Ambrosia of the sea.
I'm on a budget so for me, lobster is a treat. People who eat lobster regularly are different from most of us. Members of posh country clubs. Parents that name their kids Muffy or Biff. But what is it about lobster that makes it so damn expensive? Don't get me wrong, a soft, buttery lobster tail is downright delicious. But why is lobster given such exalted status?
You might be surprised to know that it wasn't always this way. When Europeans settled in New England in the 1600s lobster was only eaten by the poor and helpless. In some colonies, there was even a rule that prisoners could only be fed lobsters once per week. Anything more was considered "cruel and unusual punishment." I'm serious. The ocean shores of Massachusetts were littered with lobsters. Anybody could run down to the shore and grab one. Richer colonists didn't want to eat like the minions, they wanted something rare and difficult to find. Lobsters were cheap. People who ate lobsters were cheap. I envision the downtrodden at that time. Lying in the gutter, a drunken man in tattered clothes slowly clenches his dirty fingers around a lobster tail. Cringing with disgust, he bites down. As if things weren't bad enough, this crustacean was all he could find to eat. If only there was a more satisfying meal such as a can of spam or sardines...
So what changed? After all, lobsters are lobsters. What changed was people's perspective. As lobsters became scarce, people began to view them as more valuable. Only the mightiest, richest people were eating lobster. Everybody wanted to be like them and lobster was in style.
But this isn't just about lobsters. It's about how things change depending on our perspective. For instance, we often equate intelligence with getting good grades and doing well on national achievement tests. Well, what about the illiterate 8-year boy in Brazil who runs a jewelry store, handling money transactions and complex negotiations on a daily basis? How can anyone say he's less intelligent? It depends on the context.
Then there is the manager of a textile factory searching for new employees to cut fabrics into curtains by hand or machine. Two people apply for the job with the same skills and qualifications. Now one of them happens to be deaf. Who should they hire? Forget morality, forget affirmative action, who should they hire? If what the manager is interested in is someone who can sit for hours at a time at a machine without being distracted by other people, wouldn't the applicant who is deaf be at an advantage? In this situation, their disability becomes an advantage. In a similar vein, if I was playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, it would make more sense to choose blind people to be on my team than sighted people. In certain situations, strengths become weaknesses and weaknesses become strengths. But if we're narrowly focused, if we are rigid in our thinking, we forget to pay attention to the broader picture.
When we are open and curious, we recognize that situations are rarely black-and-white and we are better equipped to handle the uncertain, ambiguous, gray zone between. If we rely on categories, labels, rules, and what other people say and do, we will miss out on the rich complexity of life. We will make less optimal decisions. We will be less creative and less productive, and feel less autonomous.
Who says lobster is the best dish on the menu? Why should I listen to them? Peel back the curtains of why things are the way they are. When we do, we increase our flexibility and in turn, our opportunities for pleasure and meaning. Sometimes we prefer a corn dog, sometimes we crave lobster. Who cares about what society values, it's arbitrary. Being curious liberates us.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. For more about his book and research, go to www.toddkashdan.com.