Sheena Iyengar, 40, is a professor at the Columbia Business School. She is better known as one of the world’s influential thinkers on the problem of choice. Excerpts from an interview with Nishita Jha:
Could you tell us a bit about how the process of analysing choice began for you?
I think it was really the interplay of three factors that influenced my study of choice. First, that I was born to Sikh immigrant parents living in North America. These two worlds offered two entirely different narratives about how to live one’s life. Second, I developed Retinis Pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that left me blind by the age of 15. In response I learnt how to focus on what I could do and be, rather than what I couldn’t. Finally, I began formally studying choice in college, because of the interests that emerged from my experiences.
Can any theory on choice be universal, given that our choices are often governed by the socioeconomic context we are born into?
We’re born with an ability and desire to choose. That is not to say all of us have the same choices in life. One thing that binds us all is how we ultimately draw on choice for survival. Steven Callahan, for example, survived 76 days adrift in an inflatable raft in the Pacific. Describing his state of mind after the accident, he wrote: “I now have a choice: to pilot myself to a new life or to give up and watch myself die.” Similarly, Joe Simpson survived a near-fatal fall while climbing in the Peruvian Andes. His account also described his thinking in terms of a choice: “The idea of waiting alone and maddened for so long had forced me to this choice: I’ll crawl until I could find a way out, or die in the process.” These stories highlight the fundamental power that choice has for all of us.
Given the different ways in which we order our experiences — how would you reconcile the importance of choice with chance or the notion of a predetermined design.
Any one of us could tell the story of our lives in terms of fate, chance, or choice. None of those narratives could be disproven or proven. What really matters, though, is to understand the consequences of how we choose to tell the story of our lives. Choice allows us to be proactive. But with choice comes the burden: What do I choose? How do I get the most out of my choice?
In the end, we all benefit from knowing when to tell our story in terms of fate, in terms of chance, or in terms of choice, and from knowing which narrative will help us to cope best with the limitations that we come up against in life.
The Naming Of The Bard
Why are there so many conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s plays? James Shapiro gets to the heart of the literary plots, says Arul Mani
THE QUESTION of who actually wrote the works ascribed to Shakespeare is the original coconutshy — just about everybody has had a go. An anonymous author in my Standard Three textbook related this: “A pandit from Mysore named Sheshappa Iyer travelled to England, learnt English and wrote these plays.” Years later, I opened a newspaper to find Muammar Gaddafi holding forth about how the racist Thatcher government was suppressing the fact that an Arab named Sheikh Zubair had made a similar journey.
Contested Will points us towards prominent doubters like Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James and Sigmund Freud. But it devotes itself, rather sensibly, to the camps that have drawn the most support: the Baconians, who offer Francis Bacon as the real author; the Oxfordians whose candidate was the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere; and the Stratfordians, who believe that Shakespeare was a natural-born genius.
James Shapiro’s proposed consideration is not so much directed at the content or the truth-value of these theories, as it is towards looking at who proposed which author, why the theories came into being and on what assumptions about authorship they seem to rest. The first section of the book notes how Shakespeare came to be deified in the 1700s. Paucity of information on him led readers to look for autobiography in the works, a trend that resolved into doubts about whether a man of humble origins and ordinary personal life could have been their author.
Muammar Gaddafi said the racist Thatcher government was hiding Shakespeare’s identity: Sheikh Zubair
Shapiro is at his best while writing about Delia Bacon, the brilliant, selftaught American whose advocacy of Francis Bacon was both her making and her unmaking. She left behind moments of defeat in writing and in personal life to propose that the polymath had presided over a literary roundtable which assumed Shakespeare’s identity and wrote the plays to safely circulate republican notions in Elizabethan England.
The section on the Earl of Oxford is rather involved, but makes for interesting reading. In a work titled‘Shakespeare’ Identified, the unfortunately named Joseph Looney advanced the notion that Hamletwas both the work and veiled autobiography by the said Earl who bemoaned the loss of a happy, ordered medieval world to modern anarchy. Freud seems to have been captivated by this nonsense — perhaps because he saw Hamlet as the ground for his notion of the Oedipus complex.
Shapiro reveals his Stratfordian sympathies early on, but wins our confidence by refusing to attack the conspiracy theorists he opposes. He allows their arguments to collapse under the weight of their assumptions, permitting himself only an occasional, wry aside. He unearths convincing evidence to show that Shakespeare could have been author and occasional co-author, his humble origins notwithstanding.
Contested Will is literary history the way it ought to be, combining breadth and detail without overwhelming the reader with either. Shapiro’s uncluttered style and compelling story-telling, makes this a book that scholar, student and layman can equally enjoy.
A book that means a lot to you?
A collection of Bob Dylan’s lyrics
A book that has inspired you as an actress
The British actress Harriet Walter’s book Other People’s Shoes. In it she says, ‘Acting is what I do with who I am.’ It puts a lot of things in place for me.
A book you would love to see made into a play
Tales from Firozshah Baug by Rohinton Mistry. It would be a hilarious, moving and crazy play. Also, Roddy Doyle’s A Woman Who Walked Into Doors would make a great solo piece.
A book that changed your idea of India
Shantaram. Colaba where I grew up never seemed the same again after reading this.
A book that best describes falling in love
This is a bit of a cliche but it would have to be Romeo and Juliet. It is the language of pure passion.
The character you identify with the most
On stage it’s Melissa Gardner, my character in AR Gurney’s Love Letters. She is me and I am her. For some reason I identify with characters in most of the great Irish novels.
A book you couldn’t finish?
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It was boring
A book you didn’t want to end?
In recent times, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie. I can’t wait for her next book.
Your favourite genre
I just like a good yarn. Any genre will do.