There is no “best”!

This morning (early February), checking my internets…

On the mother’s forum, a woman asks, “When is the best time to move my child from our room to her nursery?  She’s 7 months now, are we too late?”

Money Reasons asks, as he often does, how to optimize some part of his life that isn’t a linear optimization problem.  This time he’s asking how to find the best job fit.  In the past he’s talked about optimizing his children (ironically… he mentioned wanting to optimize his kids in a post we wrote about how there’s no best way to raise children).

We’ve talked about satisficing before… but maybe it’s time to mention it again.

There’s no best job.  There’s no best way to raise kids.  There’s no best way to live your life.  There’s only your way.  There’s only your path.  Some are better than others along different dimensions… happiness, wealth, health, time, location… but choices are so multidimensional and there are so many tradeoffs that it is impossible to optimize along them all.  And trying to just causes stress and unhappiness.

How to be happy?  Well, people who have some measure of good enough and stop searching after they find it are happier than those who keep rejecting in search of something better.  People who take what they have and justify it as having been the best choice for them at the time are happier than people who constantly regret their choices.  Even in controlled randomized experiments where the choice is induced.  That’s what the happiness literature says.

Yes, keep trying to better yourself.  But have objective standards, tangible goals.  There is no best.  There will ALWAYS be something better.  There will always be someone smarter, prettier, more talented.  (And that can be a Good thing!  Wouldn’t you rather be surrounded by people who can teach you things and help you grow?)  There will always be a bigger pond.

And, in point of fact, most of the world isn’t a single line in which it’s obvious that A is better than B is better than C.  That’s why we have the phrase the Grass is Greener on the other Side.  It’s very easy for A to think B’s situation is better and B to wish he were in A’s spot.

Do you still try to optimize everything?  Some things?  Where do you fall on the optimization/satisficing spectrum?

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36 Responses to “There is no “best”!”

  1. Everyday Tips Says:

    I am such a perfectionist, and I hate it. It adds so much stress to my life, but I don’t know how to turn it off. I have no idea if my actions are the best or the worst, but whatever I do, I always want it to be the ‘best’.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Read the Paradox of Choice!

      Also, a lot of the gifted books have chapters on perfectionism. That was the main reason I started researching the subject– our preschooler was exhibiting signs of it, and no amount of reading The Little Engine that Could was helping. We had a lot of conversations about practicing and growing and making mistakes, and we talked to his teachers about the problem which made a HUGE difference, though I’m not sure what they actually changed. Whatever it was it helped a lot.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    I feel like I’m a generally happy person despite the fact that I am never satisfied with where I am in life. I think it helps that I always have goals that I’m working on. I’ll never be at my destination, but that’s ok. I like the knowledge I’ve gained over the years and wouldn’t want to go back to being 20 again…I wouldn’t mind my 20 year old body but that’s about it.

    I also think it matters as to who you surround yourself with. I tend to push myself harder athletically when I hang out with people fitter than me. I think that’s true for other areas as well.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Absolutely. I am a big, big fan of trying to be the dumbest, least talented person in the room, because then I can try to stretch and reach up to the level that the other people set. When I am the one setting the level, I get antsy.

  3. Molly On Money Says:

    I’m like First Gen, a generally happy person that always has goals I’m working towards.
    One of my kids is like yours. From a very young age she would freak out if something wasn’t done a particular way. At the age of 3 she could give you directions to any of our regular haunts in town. The problem was if I went a different way she would chastise me on the entire drive to our destination! I can make her crazy in my laid back manner.
    I’ve made the focus positive. She very observant and can picks up detail in a crazy way. I encourage her to build on these gifts in ways that make her happen rather than frustrated. My dad has the same characteristics. As a kid I watched him battle with with his ‘perfectionism’. His office would be a mess and yet his bed had to be made without any wrinkles (and I mean no wrinkles). As he got older his compromise was not to iron the sheets.

  4. T.Smith Says:

    This is so true. And to add to this, a person could choose between two options and either consider it a blessing or a mistake based on the result, when they have no idea if the other option would have had better results. The person may perceive the other result would be better, but there are too many unknowns to actually prove that.

    Still, I tend to forget this on a regular basis and assume that one day I’ll get it perfect.

  5. Debbie M Says:

    What shocks me about your original example is that question. What if it is too late to move the 7-month old to her own room? I guess she’ll just have to stay there until she’s 70 and you die of old age? Huh?

    I’m good with the making small steps, mostly in the right direction. My problem is with not having enough data. If only I had enough data, then I could make the “right” decision. But you often can’t get enough data, at least not until it’s too late! (And then at least you can warn other people, but as Cat Stevens sang, “If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them they know, not me.”)

    Fortunately, libraries and the internet and google and blogs were invented and are accessible to me, so I get to have a lot more data than ever before!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, there’s a lot of that with parenting… lots of new moms trying to do the best thing. I always say that we did everything “wrong” but it all turned out ok anyway. In fact, if anything DC is the exact opposite of what everybody warned us against. No way ze wants to stay in our bed, ze weaned on zir own, ze’s not particularly clingy, and so on and so forth.

      Definitely, who knows what the right decision is… if we were all omniscient and prescient… well, that would be really weird. Though sometimes those mommy forums just spread bad advice… a person has to be careful!

    • bogart Says:

      LOL … love this point about “I guess she’ll just have to stay there …” Indeed.

  6. bogart Says:

    I’m a major satisficer, though it has been odd to be at a point in my existence where I’m not working toward the sort of major goals I used to … college, Ph.D., getting an academic job, working toward tenure (albeit I departed while otherwise still on that road), getting pregnant (which took as long as the Ph.D. and cost a lot more). A perfectionist, no, but prone to setting my eye on distant goals and plodding toward them, yes.

    I also have the annoying habit of telling friends with college-bound kids and those college-bound kids themselves, as they do the bizarre “college tours” that have become de rigueur in my social set, that, “What you do once you get to college is more important than where you go.” Which is actually sort of my approach to any number of life decisions, so at least I get points for consistency.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That all sounds incredibly mature. It’s so weird being a grown-up.

      One thing with trying to get pregnant was the thought that no matter how hard I tried and how perfect I did everything, there was still a chance that it just wouldn’t work no matter what I did. But… eventually it did, so I’m not sure I learned that lesson(!) And hey, I was a size 6 and more healthy than I’d been since like age 12 while trying. Just can’t get the motivation to be that way if someone else’s life isn’t on the line.

  7. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    I am definitely a satisficer, but I consider myself a very careful one. That is, I will make a strong effort to get sufficient information to make a good decision, but once I have collected the amount of information I have decided ahead of time to deem sufficient, then I make my decision. I am not at all an agonizer over decisions.

    It is pretty funny to see PhysioWife and me at a restaurant. I look through the menu once, and then quickly and confidently pick what I want. She reads the menu over and over and over, fearful that whatever she picks, she is going to miss out on something that would have been even better. She’ll even ask other people what they think she should get, and also ask them what they are ordering as a point of information for her decision-making process. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life asked anyone else what they think I should order in a restaurant, and I only ask people what they are ordering out of sheer curiosity or for discussion purposes.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sometimes I just ask DH what he’s deciding between and tell him we’ll get both. Mainly that’s when I’ve passed the point of no return on the hypoglycemic scale. Those are dark times (until someone brings me food).

    • Comrade PhysioProf Says:

      Oh, and this anecdote does remind me also that the same person can be a satisficer or an optimizer, or be decisive or an agonizer, depending on the context. For example, while PhysioWife is an optimizer/agonizer when deciding on stuff like food or clothes, in her professional context, she is a decisive satisficer.

    • bogart Says:

      LOL, oh, yes, I meant to add that. Drives me crazy … go out for a meal with someone and they can’t decide what to order. Look, it’s lunch! Or dinner. Just pick something and go with it. Er, no offense to CPP’s wife intended and really, I’m perfectly polite about this in context, in person, but it does puzzle me: is every meal that important?

      I do tend to find “go-to” options at places we frequent, and then, well, go to them.

      DH still mocks me for having once ordered deep-fried bone marrow when we were traveling (er, not around here). But when else was I going to get the chance to try it out? Turns out not to matter vastly: I didn’t enjoy it all that much. But more due to blandness than outright offensiveness (unless bland is offensive).

  8. Money Reasons Says:

    I think that is a “best” and it all relative depending on your sample size…

    If you sample size is 10 kids playing soccer there will be a best, if 1 millionaire kids playing soccer, again there will be a “best”…

    I approach “Optimization” is being the best configuration that you can do, not the “Best” in an absolute term.

    In life, there is a “best” time period to stop and start certain things, and if you don’t biology will prevent you from even trying.

    So I’m playing the role of the optimist, I say go out and try things, invent things, do things that make you feel alive instead of watch TV and following a path layed out by the thoughts of other people.

    If I just let thing happen, I wouldn’t be debt-free (including my mortgage) and expecting to be a millionaire in 8 or 9 years on a middle income wage.

    Remember if we believed everything we read by experts, we would all think that the earth was flat, and airplanes wouldn’t exist (let alone the existence of TV).

    And now, I’m going to type a saying that someone else said (lol, how’s that for ironicy…): “Failure to plan is planning to fail”…

    Whatever work best for you though, it’s all relative.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      No, seriously, read the Paradox of Choice. Satisficing has nothing to do with letting things happen to you.

      In 1 million kids playing soccer it is unlikely there will be a best on all dimensions. That makes no sense. There may be a best kicker via one measurement but not another measurement of kicking. Who is the best team player? There’s no way to measure every element that goes into that and rank order all of them… who is to say what element is more important than another?

      And I’m not really sure what you’re talking about in your statement about experts. Not only is it factually incorrect, but I’m not sure what it is referring to.

      • Money Reasons Says:

        I was rushing. Drat, I noticed a typo in the word irony above too…

        I’ll check out the article: “Paradox of Choice” if I find time (which is becoming much more valuable than money lately).

        In the 1 million example, there will be a “best” overall player, or a best goalie, or a best forward, etc.

        I think there is a optimal way to raise your kids, but very hard to determine such a way. I think we should all try to do our best job of it, but we are human, and in being so, limited…

        By experts I mean that just because someone write a book or article on a topic, doesn’t mean that it’s the only or right answer. Shoot, I even find that a book written about a topic at one period in time, may not be correct in a different period in time. Social science is like that, just like politics…

        Though I see your point, I don’t think believe it works for everybody, at least not me… But hey, I’m special ;) (lol)

        I try to optimize myself and kids to live without regrets. I don’t want to look back some day and wonder about the “What ifs”, especially if those “what ifs” are because I didn’t try hard enough…

        You seem very “Driven”, I’m sure you know what I mean :)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Book– Paradox of choice is a book. It is also a very good book that I have read and, as an expert, can tell you is an excellent book that brings together excellent research. Maybe instead of wasting time researching things that you’re not going to buy because you can only buy the best thing at the lowest price (and that lowest price also has to be the lowest price across time) or you will feel regret, you should spend some time reading the book. You can put it on the treadmill while you work out.

        People who optimize have many more regrets than people who satisfice. They “what if” too much. The book was written exactly for you. I don’t think you do see the point and you won’t until you read the book yourself. You’re going to continue writing post after post about how anxious you are that you’re not optimizing X, Y, or Z and how you waste all this time and mental energy trying to optimize X, Y, and Z and never actually getting anywhere. Time that would be better spent relaxing or heck, delivering pizzas at minimum wage.

        By trying to optimize you are doing exactly the opposite. If you really want to optimize, you have to satisfice instead. Anything else is a big waste of time and angst.

  9. MutantSupermodel Says:

    In my world, this is the whole “good enough” situation. I read somewhere, “‘Perfect’ is only temporary. ‘Good Enough’ lasts longer.” And that’s pretty much what I try and remember. Good enough is nice and stretchy with lots of room to wiggle in. Perfect (best) isn’t nearly so flexible.

  10. Squirrelers Says:

    I’ve given up on being a perfectionist. I don’t have time for that anymore, at least in most things.

    The thing is, there a few people who I know who are still perfectionists as they’re getting older – and haven’t mellowed. This is in even the mundane type of activities. Not worth it, and causes undue stress for yourself and others.

    It’s great to strive to do our best, but at some point we need to be happy with good enough. There are diminishing returns to our efforts in many things, so why invest energy for little return – when you could be happy otherwise?

    • Rumpus Says:

      I’ve mostly given up on being a perfectionist due to time too. Last night while staying up late writing a conference paper at the last minute I got a fortune cookie (scavenging for food in the break room) with the quote “Better to finish now something imperfect than to finish never something perfect.” So I finished the paper and submitted. (Then the next day I looked to see what I’d actually submitted and almost the first thing I saw was a typo.) The value I place on time increases pretty much in proportion to my age…and so I often end up shaking my head at how my students spend the time they have.

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  14. Shalom Says:

    One societal concept of “best” that has always ticked me off is the romantic idea of The One – you know, that there is one person made for you, your Prince Charming or your Dream Girl. Honestly? There’s, what, 6 billion people in the world and I can only be happy with 1 of them?

    I’m just not that special, really. My version of “there is no Best” used to be “There is no Prince Charming.” I did marry a prince if a man, and he’s pretty darn great, but I still don’t think he was the only one for me (until I, you know, said vows that MADE him the only one for me…).

    My mantra has since expanded to include “There is no House Charming” and “There is no Job Charming.” If you believe in the existence of the Best (or the Charming), you likely will have a lot of trouble fully committing to anything or fully enjoying anything.

    I read The Paradox of Choice a few years ago. All I really remember is that having a small range of choices makes you happy, but a big range makes you unhappy; that choices you know you can’t back out of make you happier than ones you can undo (you’re happier with stuff you buy that’s non-returnable than with stuff that can be taken back at any time).


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