It took Clare Trapasso nine months of scouring the market in three states, touring dozens of homes, losing multiple bidding wars, and rescinding another offer on a fixer-upper that would need more work than they could afford to put in, before she and her partner finally closed on a cute, renovated Cape Cod outside of New York City last year.
Along the way, Trepasso, who is a writer for Realtor.com, learned a few things that no amount of writing about the housing market could teach. If you're on the hunt for a house, her article could be valuable to shortcut what has become a very complex system.
Like home buying, finding a job can take an emotional toll. You get your heart set for a company, the job's specs seem tailored to you, and then… nothing. Human attitudes for big decisions like buying a house and finding a new job range from deep despair to “it wasn't meant to be.”
On the employers' side, attitudes range from “no compromises,” which could reveal inability to prioritize, to letting the chips fall where they may with radical resume filtering machines and personality-attitudinal tests, which at best reveal risk aversion. At worst they signal a desire to have a “chip to choke” in case the best test takers turn out to be not so good for the business.
Technocrats won't hesitate to point out that tech makes operations easier. A coordinated series of techniques for reducing the amount of information that requires processing, technology is a method of control that supports efficiency. Bureaucracy is also a technology. Think about that for a moment, nobody is responsible.
But is this a problem of the individual facing the decision, or is it one of the system? A little bit of both.
The paradox of choice
We're immersed in a culture of more. In neoclassical economic terms, the incentive is to acquire, accumulate, buy, consume, and get bigger. There's an infinite amount of choices goes the narrative. But more choices don't translate into better outcomes.
In fact, the opposite is the case: they may make you less satisfied with your choice. Greater choice paralyzes us and makes us poor strategists. When we're called to make decisions of consequence, more creates confusion, it buries signal under a mountain of noise. Options become a distraction.
More options become a delaying tactic
that prevents us from doing the work
of making clarity around
who and what creates value.
Choice is good up to a point. Psychologist George Miller suggests that the optimal number of choices is seven, plus or minus two. There's a reason why ratings go up to five stars. In surveys, three is the optimal number. Schwartz found that for jams, the optimal number is six. It beat 24 at a 31 vs. 4 percent conversion rate in an experiment conducted at a grocery store in Menlo Park, California.
So why are companies constantly trying to cast a wide net? Since in the culture and narrative of business we've come to view everything through an economic lens, it's the perceived “opportunity cost.” Psychologist Dan Gilbert says that the way in which we value things depends much on what we compare them to.
In The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz says the central tenet of western societies — freedom of choice — has not made us freer and happier but rather more stuck and dissatisfied.
When it comes to houses and neighborhoods, well, you have a physical list of attributes. So you start with something concrete and match it to your taste. then of course, you have the logistics of ironing out the details. When it comes to people, opportunity cost is sneakier, because the person you pick has three to four months of perfection to live up to your process.
More for the sake of more also means
we've lost the ability to say when
enough is enough.
Focus is better, but focus is work. Knowing what to choose is an outcome of discovering what is suitable for your path.
How do you get to good enough?
We have all wrestled with this question—what is the point of diminishing returns between value and effort? When is something “good enough?” Children feel the excitement of learning more strongly than the fear of the unknown. For adults the balance is reversed: we stop learning when we’re afraid of leaving the safety of what we know.
So perhaps this is a good starting point. To get what we want, we often do need to commit to changing our behavior. In Triggers, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith says that chasing the last bit of improvement is not worth the time and effort. Economist Herbert Simon calls this “satisficing,” rather than chasing perfection.
When you have a recommendation by someone you know, someone with impeccable taste and knowledge, you typically follow their advice. Ask me about Italian food or how to assemble an outfit, and you cut through the avalanche of choices. If I know you even a little, you'll be delighted by the suggestions and pleased with the results.
Context, such as specific situation or domain, and relationship closeness do help take up part of our cognitive load, or mental effort. The problem is when we don't put enough care into what we say and what we do with others. We end up disappointing people, creating issues, and even destroying relationships.
Picking a brand of pasta, a mustard or flavor of jam has low risk consequences. When your motivation is marginal, good enough works. It also works when you're trying something new, or in volunteering situations, as long as you deliver what you promised. Because the consequences to your reputation are still there.
When we make decisions about the point of diminishing returns to judge what is “good enough,” consider the practical aspects of work — the project, program, or article you can tweak and improve. But careful of the impact of your behavior on your work, and life, relationships and self-esteem.
Especially in American culture, even your identity has become a matter of choice. You don't inherit an identity and the loose social construct doesn't create a definitive one anymore; you get to invent it. And you get to reinvent yourself as often as you like.
But is that choice truly yours? Any story is a mirror of the trends and biases of the culture that produced it. Culture moves at a slower pace and draws from a larger narrative that gives meaning to the past, explains the present, and provides guidance for the future. This is how history keeps repeating itself.