The Trap of Preference

I am a very particular person. I don’t like different foods to touch on my plate, and I know exactly which brand of chocolate is best. I tuck in the corners of my bed sheets every day. I have routines and systems for most things, all based on clear and detailed preferences. I know exactly what my taste is for just about everything in life.

So if I find myself in need of some plain black tea when not in one of my usual spots, and only Earl Grey is available, I have an internal fit: How can they not have regular black tea? What am I supposed to do??? But this is crazy. It’s just tea. And for as much as I don’t like Earl Grey, this is no crisis. It’s a helpful reminder that our preferences tend to rule over us and have too great a weight in our lives.  This is a reason to catch ourselves, and laugh.

A devotion to preference is why we have so much stuff and keep multiple versions of the same thing. In slightly different situations we’d make slightly different choices, so we prepare ourselves with the specific products to support these distinctions. We also like to have variations of things because they offer us small and particular advantages. Sometimes those nuances make us feel clever for recognizing and valuing these details. We like to share these with others because we want them to notice and appreciate not just the things we adore and collect and the stories behind them, but how they connect to our preferences and, therefore, our identities.

When our preferences become so specific and relate too closely with our identities, they become a complex wayfinder of our personality. It’s a mostly meaningless compass. We are not our preferences and our tastes should not direct our lives so acutely. This can cause more stress and become overwhelming.

Take buying basic items. This tends to be when our opinions become even more pronounced. If you want a new set of sheets, your choices are based on both general and minute differences, with decisions regarding online versus in-store purchasing, various price points, and quality distinctions, not to mention color, style, and pattern, where our design partialities become more aggravated. How do you choose? Whether you like Ikat or stripes, 600-thread count or a sateen finish, these tastes don’t define you. 

Devotion to preference generally speaks to a luxury- that of time and money. With time, we can research endlessly for just the right product to fit us exactly. We can get lost in a tailspin of myriad dialed up details that we forget that there is a whole life to be lived. With money, we can get the higher end stuff. Sometimes, this allows us to purchase items that reflect our values (ex. organic, fair trade, local), but this can also lead to stress about balancing doing the right thing and the other qualities we seek in an item.  

There seems to be a wider connection with other cultural shifts. Our industrious nation is focused on perfecting and promoting preference in the latest trend of products: from mattresses to underwear to razors to custom perfumes. The need to tweak and improve development isn’t inherently problematic, but it’s a sort of indicator species of where our society is headed. As anything continues to improve, a narrow-mindedness can emerge. A tunnel vision leads us down the rabbit hole of nuanced distinctions of basic products in response to the consumer monster of preference. The issue doesn’t lie solely with the paradox of choice, and the frustration and time-wasting it creates, but with the over engagement with minute details. So much so that the latest trends are less in content but, rather, in content curation. With endless information, products, and services, and mirrored particularities, curation becomes the purveyor of preference. It’s leaders and followers keep growing the idol of the tailored taste.

Our specific tendencies aren’t inherently problematic. It’s prioritizing these inclinations appropriately and recognizing that they shouldn’t define a person; that letting them lead rather than follow us is corrosive to our personal lives. They make life more complicated rather than simpler, and too focused on ourselves. If you prefer quilted toilet paper to ridged, by all means take advantage of that knowledge and get the quilted. But if there is no quilted to be found at the store, watch whether it affects your mood. Does a lesser toilet paper matter in the scheme of life? Certainly not. If it does, much like an indicator species, it’s likely a signal of another problem underneath the surface.

What is the exercise to awaken us to this addiction to our own peculiar proclivities? First, we must rewire our brains to acknowledge that we don’t deserve anything.  It’s great to get what we want but in no way does that mean we are somehow entitled to it. Another strategy is to practice denial of desire. Ignore your preferences for a day. Go with the flow. See what happens. If you want a particular item, don’t get it, even if you can. See what it feels like to desire something and then let it go. Train yourself to be okay with that and enjoy the freedom it allows.