Yesterday, I listened as my elderly barber recounted — again — his decades-long summer vacation routine: same drive, same motel, same swimming pool, same restaurants, same boat ride on the Erie Canal.
The world presents us with incalculable possibilities. Why do we so often reject them in favor of stale habit? Why are we inclined to sabotage opportunities for novelty?
Same old same old
Consider the tyranny of the status quo. In Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein report results of a 2001 retirement enrollment study:
- If a new hire had to check a box to opt in to a retirement plan, enrollment rates were less than 20% after three months gradually increasing to 65% after three years.
- If a new hire had to uncheck the box to opt out of the retirement plan, enrollment rates were 90% immediately and 98% after three years.
Having to uncheck the box and opt out makes it 4.5 times more likely a participant would enroll in a retirement plan than if she had to check the box to opt in. Stunning, really, that a decision as consequential as enrolling in a retirement account is so massively influenced by whether or not a box is checked or unchecked.
As the retirement enrollment example demonstrates, the status quo has powerful control over our lives — and to thwart it, we have actively to fight it. Yet how often have you heard someone say, “I don’t [fill in the blank…]” or “I won’t […]” or “I can’t […].” Why do we limit our choices and self-impose barriers to exciting new possibilities? Why do we actively capitulate to and reinforce the status quo in this way? What is the life-long toll of “I don’t,” “I won’t,” and “I can’t” on a rich and fulfilling life?
New and novel
So often, we accept the trajectory we are on, succumb to inertia, relax and go with the flow. We allow past experience to restrict our future choices. We can be lazy, boring, even fearful.
Yet we have the capacity to alter our trajectory, redirect momentum, boldly forge a new course. We are free to challenge established patterns, seek adventure and pursue novel experiences. They are everywhere around us. If you’re not seeing them, you’re not looking.
Embracing the comfort of the status quo is a scourge. Pursuing the adventure of novelty, its tonic.