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New York, New York

Columbia '14 | urbanite | foodie | explorer | aspiring ukulelist | wanderlust 

Thought Sketches



The Dangers of Convenience

Sarah Chang

I think too much of what we allow to happen in our lives is guided by convenience. The friends we have, the people we associate with, the cities we live in, the jobs we take on. Unless there was deliberate intention to break the chain of obvious-next-steps, everything we do is a continuation of what we had been doing or something anchored by our immediate past.

It makes sense. What is readily available seems safe. It's predictable, it's familiar, it's effortless. Convenience is just so... tempting. Why put yourself in a position to face the foreign and unknown?

Because convenience is an unassuming and stealthy creature.

Its danger lies in its stealth, in that these small day to day things pass by unnoticed, but in the end, rarely sum up to the big picture grand visions we see for ourselves.

I think this happens because of two reasons.

  1. It’s easy to “fall into things”, and when consequences are incremental, they seem inconsequential. 

    Take social psychologist Leon Festinger’s famous experiment on social ties. In the 1950s, Festinger set out to answer a question: What is the most powerful predictor of friendship? Could it be similar background? Common hobbies? Memorable bonding experiences? 

    He conducted a study at a housing complex in MIT and found that to a startlingly degree, functional distance (the likelihood that people would come in contact with each other as a result of architectural design) was by far the most important factor. 

    In other words, how physically close you live to somebody in a random group is the greatest determinant of future friendship. 

    In fact, 41% of students considered their closest friendship with those who lived next door, 22% with those who lived two doors down, and 10% with those who lived at the opposite end of the hallway. 

    Surprising? A little...though I'd say more concerning.

    The incremental consequences mean that it becomes so much more difficult to break away from these daily interactions slowly molding into almost attainable friendships. Then all of a sudden, we realize these people closest to us have already assumed their new roles as closest friends, literally and figuratively.

    Perhaps you say, like-minded people tend to pick into similar areas to live. But certainly there should be other metrics built around interests, values, or hobbies that are more telling and prescribe greater longevity for friendship than housing preferences, no?

    Let's put this into context: How many of our closest friends are a function of close living quarters or happenstance? Does this mean that unknowingly, we have been settling all of lives? Is our lack of effort to be more intentional in branching out to blame?

    While we'll never have a definitive answer to these "what-if's", it’s disconcerting to realize a major part of who you are could have been constructed by these default, arbitrary circumstances.


  2. We still believe in the power of convenience because we mistaken it for efficiency.

    Anything that saves time and improves productivity is ostensibly good, but efficiency presumes a baseline output for reduced time put in, whereas products of convenience do not necessarily. We really need to look at what we value and if our motive to save time is for the right reasons.

When we value time savings above all, it's likely that we relinquish other benefits that are only attained beyond a certain threshold of time put in. Think of "going the extra mile" or doing more than is expected. 

When everyone else around you performs at a similar level, often it's that extra bit of diligence or that incremental addition of detail that differentiates you and ultimately provides the biggest dividends. 

If these same ends were achieved by efficiency, then the product would be equally high in quality. But if the process was motivated by convenience, there's no incentive to exceed expectations, and this competitive advantage is forgone. 

The convenient choice is rarely the best choice, and perhaps some of the blame can be put on unpredictability—

  • That it is impossible to know enough of what we want to either build our lives around this nebulous, faraway goal or determine where to optimize our time and effort.
  • That everything works out in the end, so we observe and tell ourselves.
  • That people who are successful didn’t know what they wanted either until they got close enough to see it.
  • And therefore, we might as well bide our time until that major stroke of insight hits us or something more concrete emerges that allows us to have a better grasp of where committing to the harder route may lead.

But yet, I think that’s simply a convenient excuse. 

I could never accept the idea of "ending up" doing something or being something by attributing it to a lack of control. When you make a deliberate effort to chart your own course, what you benefit from is compressed time. Certainly, you might work hard for the wrong thing and move farther backwards from your goal by going vigorously in the opposite direction. But the difference is that you know this early enough, and it makes the route not taken clearer and more obvious than ever. 

The decision to deliberately search and take on all that is not readily available is a formidable one. What convenience rewards us is a familiarity that implies reassurance, ease, and certainty. 

But given our privilege, great fortune, and endless opportunity, is that honestly the height of our aspirations?

I'd like to think not.