“These vegetables turned yellow,” the customer said, holding up a bag of unidentifiable produce.
I could hear her discussing the situation with a clerk as I strolled the aisles of Ubud’s premier organic vegetarian establishment, Down to Earth, peering over offerings of kombucha and cacao as I tried to choose between three varieties of hummus.
“Can I get a refund?”
“But they turned yellow,” the customer replied, her face clouded with confusion. I have no idea what the original color of the vegetables was, but I’m guessing something other than yellow.
The clerk remained unmoved. It was a standoff, the tension only broken by the arrival of a shipment of almond butter.
Vegetables and their brethren, fruits, turn colors. They go bad. They are what our grandparents might call “perishable”. You know what doesn’t go bad so quickly? Fruits and vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides. Genetically modified produce that has been designed to last longer. Del Monte fruit cocktail in a can. Those modern innovations had at least two effects. First, customers could buy more food in advance because it would last longer, reducing the amount of time shoppers needed to spend in the market. Second (and related to the first), they gave customers more flexibility in preparing meals at home because people could keep a greater variety of food in their kitchen.
Many people do not want to eat produce that has been sprayed with pesticides, genetically modified, or laced with preservatives. There are a variety of reasons, but the primary one is health. Unsure of the long-term effects of these types of foods on the human body, many want to err on the side of fresh. That’s a great thing. There are consequences, however. One of them is time. Organic food doesn’t last as long, so we have to eat it as close to the time as it was harvested as possible. That’s just how it goes.
But the customer could not understand that she had to prioritize. Did she want something that lasted longer but may not be as healthy? Or did she want something that was organic but that would have to be eaten quickly? Given two options, she chose both.
Given two options, she chose both.
Anyone who deals with clients understands the conundrum well. Nearly every project manager asks prospective clients to prioritize between three criteria: low cost, high quality and short timeframe. You can definitely get one, you can swing two, but you can’t have all three. Yet the inevitable reply from clients is, “Well, of course, it needs to be high quality, but we need it by the end of the month. Oh, and we don’t have any money budgeted so it has to be cheap.” With that, the client believes it has effectively pushed the problem onto the business’s plate. But businesses can’t solve clients’ inability to prioritize. They can only work within the limitations they have been given.
I am just as guilty of this mentality as anyone. I enjoyed living in Uganda because everything was so laid-back. But I hated that it took so long to get anything done. I could not accept that these were two sides of the same coin. I demanded both casualness and efficiency.
Life is filled with conundrums that we choose not to see as mutually exclusive. We want to lose weight without being more active. We want a well-paying job but don’t want to work more than 40 hours a week. We want that beer to be less filling and still taste great. In short, we have trouble making sacrifices.
The problem is particularly acute with my generation because we were raised to believe we could have it all. (That’s right, parents, I blame you.1) We didn’t have to prioritize or make sacrifices because life would unfold for us neatly, as though we were predestined for success. Sacrifice was something our parents and grandparents had to do when raising us. It was not a theme of the modern age.
We were special. We merely had to dream it to achieve it. Our ideal jobs would come floating down to us after we graduated from college. Sure, we might struggle a bit, but we knew what to expect after watching all those television shows about young people in New York and LA. Struggling meant drinking draft PBRs instead of microbrews, getting tall Starbucks cappuccinos instead of ventis, renting a studio apartment in Brooklyn, and working as a paid intern at a hip magazine. But eventually, someone would see our awesomeness and we’d be rewarded for the time we spent slumming it. We’d be promoted to editor, move into that two bedroom in Manhattan and begin hosting cocktail parties in our parlor. The time of sacrifice would be over!
But the system doesn’t work that way. It never has. We work that way. Millions of us struggle to “make ends meet” but never consider downgrading our satellite TV subscription or taking public transport instead of buying a car. Refusing to make tough choices, we instead close our eyes and swipe our credit cards. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously theorized that people faced with an extreme event like death go through “five stages of grief”: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance. As a species, we have trouble getting to the acceptance stage—not just with extreme events, but with any event. When confronted with an obstacle, we deny it, then lash out against it, and try to bargain our way out before having a sulk. This is not to imply that we can’t have happiness, only that choosing one path precludes the possibility of going down another. Happiness lies in accepting that fact of life.
Refusing to make tough choices, we instead close our eyes and swipe our credit cards.
We think we can have it all—that the universe will bend to our individual whims. We apply this principle to every facet of our lives, including our grocery shopping. The fact is, if we want to buy organic, we have to shop much more regularly (no monthly trips to Costco), and plan our menus better.
This may sound like an inconsequential point blown out of proportion. It’s not. If we can’t even figure out the most important features of our produce, how can we expect to make the truly big decisions? How will we decide between security from terrorism and the civil liberties that keep us free of unwanted government intrusions? How will we choose between higher taxes and more government programs? How will we know when to watch Police Academy 6 and when to watch Robocop?
Regardless of what we choose, there is a downside, a sacrifice. Whether it be shopping at the supermarket, budgeting for the year, or choosing a job, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We need to remember to eat our vegetables.
- And that Vulcan, Dr. Spock. [↩]