• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Next Best Thing

Something new, not necessarily something good.


August 17, 2017

We are living during a period I like to call “The Age of the Next Best Thing.” We are offered so many options and choices, or at least the appearance of such, that we can always click on or navigate to something else. With the invention of call waiting, DVRs, and the Internet, consumers constantly are presented with the choice of either enjoying what they are watching at the present or click on something else.

It’s not long ago that we lived in a time dominated by broadcast media, when you were pretty much stuck with only a few network options. I grew up in this time. I remember having not many choices of what to watch on television, but having to negotiate with my siblings and parents which program we would watch. Now, if you don’t like what you are seeing, you just switch the program on your personal media device.

I remember a time when I answered the phone without knowing who was calling before I said hello. When the call-waiting feature became available, the idea that I could choose who to talk to didn’t occur to me for a long time. It seemed obvious to me that the person who called me first would receive my attention.

Today, people are caught up in a complicated system of conversations and relationships, both in person and via all their technologies of communication, simultaneously. I’ve seen people out to dinner together but carrying on completely different conversations through text, email, and occasionally even a Google Chat or Apple FaceTime session.  The next best thing is always around the corner, so the present here-and-now doesn’t always get priority.

How far we will let the next best thing invade all aspects of our lives? Even our notion of how to spend our time may shift. A new study reports that people are happier if they outsource less-desired tasks. That seems obvious to me, of course. I’m always happier when someone else cleans the toilet or takes out the garbage. Having said that, perhaps we should study the opposite: what do we gain by completing our annoying tasks rather than ignoring them in favor of doing more pleasing ones. Perhaps this method allows us to enjoy the anticipation of completing the annoying task and feeling the accomplishment of the dreaded task being over.

Ever since the New York Times published an article about open marriages last spring, I’ve been seeing more and more coverage about this topic, and even a fiction book about it. Certainly, open marriages are not a new phenomenon, but I’m not surprised about the current fascination with it. The idea of marriage, with its connotation of finality, doesn’t seem to gel with our age of choice. It’s made me think about other areas in life in which people resist making a commitment. I’ve been watching my friends send their children to summer camp, and many are picking camps that change its focus each week, like baking, theatre, sports, and even circus.

These children will be our future students, where we expect them to choose one college, one major (maybe two), and one degree. Will the one-college model make sense to students who have grown up with the idea that they can have multiple choices and can change their minds constantly? We are already aware of the number of students transferring between colleges. The most common reasons they cite for this decision are cost, a desire to move closer to or further away from home, or the school not being a great fit. But, what if another reason is that the idea of committing to only one school for that long no longer seems right?

I wonder if, living in the age of The Next Best Thing, we need to learn how to manage choices and decision-making, or build a practice of coping with not having choices. I’m not saying that we should submit to completing our worst chores all day long or stay married to the wrong person, but I am arguing for teaching the value of managing choices wisely, and for knowing when to accept a decision and stick with it.



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