Yes, you too can compare
apples and oranges and perform other feats of economic magic
by harnessing the astonishing power of honest decisions

You can’t compare apples and oranges. It’s a cliché in economics, a saying so widely used it has its own entry in Wikipedia. Everyone “knows” you can’t make a valid comparison if the two things you’re comparing are as different as an apple is from an orange.

Except that it’s not true.

Oh, there is a grain of truth in it, and that’s why so many people find it a useful saying. Sometimes people forget what they’re comparing and they make mistakes because of that. But when you really dig down to the root meaning of what’s being said, when people say that it isn’t humanly possible to form a comparison between apples and oranges, it isn’t true at all.

The Shamanic Economist

Rick Aster

I’m Rick Aster. I know something about the way people compare apples and oranges, or anything else, for that matter. Some of my colleagues in the banking industry were so impressed with my insight into the forces at work when people make decisions that they started calling me “the shamanic economist.” I spent years helping banks understand their customers’ decisions. More recently, I’ve been traveling around talking to people about how they can improve their lives by changing the way they make decisions. I want to say a little on that subject right now.

Apples and Oranges

I don’t know if you’ve seen, or heard about, the apples and oranges demonstration I do. In case you haven’t, here is, very briefly, how it goes. I show everyone an apple and an orange side by side and explain that it’s traditionally considered impossible to compare them to each other. But then, within a couple of minutes, an untrained volunteer from the audience has formed enough of a comparison to select one or the other. It was “impossible,” but they did it, so it must be magic! Or is it? After you see it, you say, “What was so hard about that?”

If you look at the whole process, though, there is something to learn from it — something more profound than learning that one of the most famous truisms of economics is not true. You might get the chance to watch a person stare at an apple and an orange, or any two alternatives they might be considering, for several seconds, or even a minute or two. Freeze that moment in your mind, if you will, and notice the situation. All the person has to do is decide what they want. Yet until they make that decision, nothing happens. Life comes to a stop, and everything is in suspense, until a decision is made. And then, after the decision is made, things start moving again.

That is the real reason I talk with so much enthusiasm about honest decisions. Those moments when you decide what you really want are economic magic. In life, nothing happens — at least nothing that you really want to happen — until you make a decision about what you want.

Suspense and Fear of Nothing

When you realize that nothing happens till you make a decision, you would think that people would be making decisions every chance they get. But they don’t. People postpone decisions. And while they’re waiting to make a decision, their life is on hold, in suspense, with nothing happening for them.

If you ever get into this pattern of postponing decisions, of “keeping your options open,” it can be a hard pattern to break. Nothing happens for you, every day seems the same as the day before, and you don’t know what you have to do to get your life moving again. It’s crazy, because all you have to do is decide.

What is it that makes decisions so hard? The reason, of course, is fear. And there is one fear in particular that lurks behind all the other fears that go into decision-making. That’s a primal fear I call fear of nothing. Whenever it becomes impossible to throw things away . . . to cancel appointments . . . to give up on failed projects . . . to cross things off your to-do list . . . that’s the fear of nothing in action.

Clutter and the To-Do List

The fear of nothing, the postponed decisions, and the life in suspense keep you from focusing on the present and the action you could be taking. Instead, you’re thinking about the past and the future, and it seems as if the past just turns into the future. There is an easy way to tell how much power you’ve given over to suspense in your life: look at the degree to which your life is controlled by clutter and a to-do list. Most people, over the course of a year, use about 10 percent of their possessions. That means that most of their possessions are clutter, taking up space but not helping them do anything. And most people, if they write their to-do list down, find that it is mostly the same list from one day to the next.

If this describes you, or if you feel like everything is dull and gray and each day is basically the same as the day before, then your life has come to a stop. The way to get things moving again is to address the clutter, and then the to-do list, until the fear of nothing starts to fade away and you have shifted the focus of your life from suspense back into action.

The Journey to A New Day

That’s the journey I describe in the book Fear of Nothing. It’s a process of overcoming fear by making decisions about clutter first, then the to-do list. It’s a process of gradual change, but by the time you’re done, the economic magic of deciding what you want will have transformed your life in ways that may seem impossible to imagine now. You’ll be surrounded by possessions you actually use. You won’t be working from a to-do list anymore, at least not all day long — you’ll be working on the things you’ve always wished you could get around to someday. Every day will seem new and different. Your home will seem larger and brighter, and your work will be easier and more productive.

Fear of Nothing - front cover

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