Monday, September 12, 2016
DECISIONS: Is the Best the Enemy of the Good?
You are often faced with deciding whether what you’ve got is good enough.
How does the French maxim, “the best is the enemy of the good” relate to our choices…in business, romance, shopping, home selection, education?
This boils down to: should you be an optimizer or a “satisficer”? Demand perfection or settle for something less? Does close count only in pitching horseshoes…and hand grenades?
Too Many Choices?
Having more options seems better than having fewer, until you go to the grocery store and find a dizzying array of similar products.
It’s not just at the grocery store that we have a glut of choices. Prosperity and technological progress have opened myriad doors, once closed, among which we must choose.
Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz ascribes the explosive increase in depression in the U.S. partly to the tyranny of too many choices. Freedom with responsibility means we feel failure, making the wrong choice, more sharply.
Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre ironically wrote, “Man is condemned to be free.” Woman, too.
The recently published book Supersurvivors describes research that showed that the more investment options offered to employees, the smaller percentage of them end up investing in their company-subsidized 401(k) plans. This is called “analysis paralysis.” Too many choices.
Finding Mr. Right
One high-stakes decision is whom to marry. Dating gives you a set of options. You can stop dating and marry one of them. It may be easy to compare the one you married with the others, but what about those you might have met if you kept dating?
Wait for Mr. Right or settle for Mr. Almost-Right? How good is the current set of candidates? How many more opportunities are you likely to have?
If you must have the best, you’ll never know whether you have met him. You are doomed to be dissatisfied.
Getting the Best Job
As with finding Mr. Right, finding the best job/career is a challenge, with limited options and limited information. Employer and employee have only partial information. Once you take the job, the employer will be somewhat surprised and so will you. Hopefully, the surprises will be mostly pleasant.
Pursuing the best option is made difficult by the number of options, which can be too few or too many, and by a lack of knowledge about the present and future, with a large number of aspects to be considered.
Yes, we are told that for real estate it’s simply “location, location, location.” But even here, “location” can mean distance from work, distance from school, neighborhood amenities, sources of noise, transportation facilities, and elements of natural beauty….
Finding the best requires comparing them on the many characteristics that count to you and then finding a way to make trade-offs between being somewhat better in one aspect and a lot worse in another. If you are lucky, one choice will be as good as or better than all the others in the characteristics that count; that option will dominate, and you will rightly choose it. Otherwise, the choice remains difficult.
And Yet, Perfect is Beautiful
When creating something or seeking something, we know that perfect is to be preferred to imperfect…if available and affordable. Artists and businesses that create more nearly perfect artifacts or services can demand top dollar among those who can afford to pay. For such buyers, the best is better than the good.
What to Do?
When you must choose, recognize that perfection is nearly impossible to obtain, especially within your limits of options, information, time, and money. Then…try to be satisfied with your choice.
If the decision was hard, there was probably little difference among the finalists.
Have you been too choosy and lost a good opportunity? Have you settled when you should have held out longer? Do you find it hard to complete projects because nothing less than perfect will satisfy you?
Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D., is a former Harvard science professor. He still publishes, and he helps others write and publish their books via http://WriteYourBookWithMe.com. Douglas’s life's central theme has been his half-century romance with Tina Su Cooper, quadriplegic for over a decade due to multiple sclerosis, receiving 24/7 nursing care at home, care discussed at their website here.
Published in a somewhat edited form at