Why aiming for the best isn’t always good for you (Transcript)

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Why aiming for the best isn’t always good for you
November 7, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guests today are Barry Schwartz and Coco Krumme. Barry is a psychologist and one of my favorite intellectual provocateurs. He's best known for his TED Talk and best selling book on the paradox of choice, where he asks the question, “What if having fewer choices can sometimes make us better off?”

Coco is an applied mathematician with a doctorate from MIT, and recently released her first book, Optimal Illusions, about our cultural attitudes toward optimization.

Despite coming from very different disciplines, Barry and Coco have arrived at a common conclusion: aiming for the best isn't always good for us. I was excited to bring them together to rethink our obsession with efficiency and explore how we achieve success without sacrificing happiness.

I've known Barry for, gosh, 20 years now. But Coco, uh, we have not met.

[00:01:18] Coco Krumme:
I've known Barry now for, for 20 minutes. So it's been fun to, to chat a bit before you got here.

[00:01:24] Adam Grant:
20 minutes versus 20 years. We'll see who knows him better by the end. Good to see you, Barry.

[00:01:30] Barry Schwartz:
Good to see you, too.

[00:01:31] Adam Grant:
I, uh, actually originally was thinking I was just gonna invite both of you on to the podcast separately, and then I realized that using s-slightly different language, you’re, are both pushing our culture in, I would say, a common direction.

So I thought it'd be extra fun to see what sparks fly bringing you together and I'm delighted that you were both on board for that. It's fair to say that, ha, you both have some problems with maximizing efficiency and optimizing our lives. And I'd love to know how you got curious about this personally. So, Barry, let me start with you. I'd love to hear a little bit of the backstory, maybe dating back to the one relationship you've ever had and the one job you've ever had.

[00:02:08] Barry Schwartz:
Ha, well I wish I could say that all, uh, either of those things were the result of my being mature enough to know at the ripe old age of 14 that that was the way to live your life. But, uh, I was just born to appreciate good enough. Maybe it's the Eastern European heritage and escaping from the SSR and the Nazis that put a kind of pessimism in me so that when you found something that worked, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But it's only in retrospect that I realized that I had chosen the job that was for me the best possible job.

I certainly wasn't looking for the best possible job. I guess I was looking for the best possible spouse, but what great luck that I found her. I do know what got me on to the evils of maximizing, of trying for the best, and that is a close relation of mine is that way and has just a horrible, horrible time making decisions of any kind, no matter how trivial they are.

And it's just not worth the torture, and she knows it's not worth the torture, and she can't help it. And it's also an illusion because there is no best in most areas of life. And so you drive yourself crazy for no good reason. And economists love it, and anything economists love, I try to find problems with.

[00:03:44] Adam Grant:
Spoken, spoken like a true psychologist. Poke holes in anything economists believe.

[00:03:51] Barry Schwartz:
That’s my aim.

[00:03:52] Adam Grant:
I, Barry, I also, I also love your psychologist response to you know someone well who can't stop maximizing, and the way that you're gonna try to change her mind is you're gonna publish papers on it and gather a bunch of evidence that what she's doing every day is not good for her.

[00:04:06] Barry Schwartz:
Well, I tried it the more direct way, Adam, but I didn't get anywhere.

[00:04:12] Adam Grant:
Fair enough. Okay, Coco, that brings us to you. Uh, I think Barry just told us that from his point of view, and we'll get into some of the data as we go, but from his perspective, optimizing is not optimal. You have a book on this. How did you come to this realization? Were you one of the people who suffered from trying to optimize everything? Or are you like Barry, somebody who never really has and thinks everybody else is missing the boat?

[00:04:36] Coco Krumme:
Well, both in a certain way. And in some ways, I'm a recovering optimizer, although I've never been a very good optimizer, but optimization has been in the water for me for probably my whole life.

Maybe this is why you brought us together, but I've got Eastern European roots as well and a sort of a doom and gloom in my genetics. My mother got to this country because she was an optimizer. She was studying operations research and got a scholarship to go to Berkeley and finish her PhD there. And it was a, a ticket out of a, a country you didn't really want to be in at the time.

I grew up with two engineer parents. I grew up in the Bay Area, which was on the cusp of this tech boom and soon to become a, a center of optimization. And I just kind of had the feeling that it, it made me a little sick to my stomach. I was just waiting for things to fall apart and all around me, people were talking about scale and faster and bigger and better.

Um, at the same time, I have looked for little ways in, in my life to be better and, um, more true to, to my values and, um, more expressive and expansive and doing the things that I love and that I think are good for the world. It, it, it’s maybe not optimization in the way we think about it today, but it, it, it certainly has involved elements of, of wanting to do that in, in the best possible way.

[00:06:04] Adam Grant:
You said you're a recovering optimizer. Is there an example or two of something that you used to do that you're not proud of?

[00:06:11] Coco Krumme:
I think it's more just ways of thinking that didn't serve me. I've always loved running, so I was never doing it because I was training for something in particular. Um, there were, were, have been times where I routinized it in a way that wasn't productive. I'm, I'm much more kind of flexible with it now. I just do it when I want to and have tried to do that, not in a, a dilettante way, but in a happy way and with a lot of areas in my life.

[00:06:45] Barry Schwartz:
I just wanted to add one thing that I got very much from reading Coco's book. You can only optimize with respect to things that can be measured and put on a common scale.

And what that does is it forces you to ignore, to put off screen all kinds of effects that are not easily quantified in the same way as the things that you actually care about. And so you do damage outside your frame. That's invisible to you all while optimizing inside your frame. And one of the things I took away, at least, from Coco's book is her awareness, growing awareness, that that's one of the consequences of optimizing is you destroy communities, you destroy individual people's lives, and none of those things get measured.

So to me, it's not just that it puts the focus in the wrong place. It's also a deception. The very idea is a deception.
[00:07:44] Coco Krumme:
And if, if we want to bash on economists a bit more, right, the, the economist's response to that is if something's left out of the frame, right, uh, an externality or, you know, just haven't incorporated it into the model, we'll just shove it in.

[00:07:57] Barry Schwartz:
Add it, yeah. But you also have to be able to measure it in a way that's commensurable with the other things you're measuring. And even if you shove it in, the, the measurement tools may distort it so much that you can't actually get what you're trying to get with the measuring instrument that you're using.

[00:08:14] Adam Grant:
I'd love to talk a little bit about what the costs are of maximizing efficiency and optimizing our lives. So Barry, talk to us a little bit about your maximizing, satisficing research.

[00:08:23] Barry Schwartz:
Half a century ago, more than half a century ago, Herb Simon, psychologist, economist, made this distinction between maximizing on the one hand, and satisficing, a term he invented, on the other. Satisficing is looking for good enough, maximizing is looking for the best.

And his argument was not that there was anything sort of logically wrong with maximizing, but that we simply didn't have the cognitive resources to do it successfully. It was asking too much of us. And in a world where, that where choice has proliferated the way the modern world has, it's easy to see how you'd spend your whole life looking for the best cereal and starve to death.

So he said that's an inherent limitation of all organisms. What isn't impossible is to be looking for good enough and able to notice better when it happens by accident. So you're satisfied with cornflakes every morning, and then you stay at a friend's house, and they don't have cornflakes, they have something else.

You have it, and you say, “Oh, this is better than what I have.” And so now you've got a new good enough cereal that's better than your old good enough cereal. And over the course of a life, you keep on escalating your, uh, standards as you encounter things that are better than the things that had been good enough before.

So we created a scale to assess people on this dimension and indeed people differed. Some people are more likely to think only the best will do and others less likely. And what we found in general is that maximizers do better, and they feel worse. They feel worse about the process of choosing, and they feel worse about the thing they've actually chosen.

Because one of the things that happens if you're a maximizer is that your standards keep going up. And the question you ask when you eat at a restaurant is not, “Was this a good restaurant?” But “Was this as good as I expected it to be?” And if your standards are very high, the answer to that question is invariably gonna be no.

And there's no room for pleasant surprises. You know, things can't be better than you expect them to be because you expect everything to be perfect. So we found this with people who were looking for jobs, college seniors. Maximizers got higher paying jobs and they were less optimistic, more pessimistic, more depressed, more anxious, more stressed than the satisficers who got worse jobs.

So that leads to the question: is it better to do better objectively and worse subjectively, or to do better subjectively and worse objectively? And I think in general, how you feel about your decisions is at least as important as how good they are on some objective scale. So that's what the work on maximizing and satisficing has been about.

[00:11:25] Adam Grant:
My read of the, the evidence that followed is that high standards are less of a problem than wide search. That it's not so much wanting a great job that then makes people miserable. It's the idea that I've got to compare the job in front of me to not only all the other offers I might get, but also every job that's ever existed in human history. And if there's a possibility that even one is worse, then I'm gonna be miserable.

[00:11:47] Barry Schwartz:
That's right. As long as you're looking for good enough, and you, your good enough can be higher than my good enough. But, when you're looking for good enough, as soon as you encounter it, you can stop looking. If you're looking for the best, you can never stop looking. And you're not only assessing how good your thing is, but you're also looking at the things your friends and acquaintances have in case maybe they're better than the things that you have, or the job that you have, or the romantic partner that you have.

So, exhaustive search is e-exhausting. And it also is defeating. So I think you're right. This is not an argument for settling for mediocrity. It's an argument for settling for good.

[00:12:34] Coco Krumme:
I'm curious, Barry, if anecdotally you, you see sort of the quotient of satisficers and maximizers. Has it been stable over time? Is it stable across cultures? Is it stable in one individual?

[00:12:47] Barry Schwartz:

[00:12:47] Coco Krumme:
Or do you see more maximizers as we, we go on with time?

[00:12:52] Barry Schwartz:
I don’t really have systematic evidence on that. We've studied it in several different cultures, and it doesn't look dramatically different. The one interesting difference is that in China, and this was not a representative sample, this was, uh, university-educated, city-dwelling Chinese people.

They were just as likely to be maximizers, but they were less disappointed by the results than Americans. But I don't have systematic evidence, and I certainly can't tell you whether the trend has increased. My sense is that the trend has increased because it's almost un-American to look for good enough.

You know, the word settle. Settle is not a neutral descripture, descriptor. If, if somebody says he's settling, that's a criticism. And what satisficing is is settling. And so it seems to me that the ideology that we live it amidst is one that keeps pushing us always to reject low standards, whatever that might mean, and demand higher and higher standards in the things we get and the people we spend our time with. But I don't really have evidence on that.

[00:14:13] Adam Grant:
Coco, I, I was curious to get your take since you, you had mentioned that you were bothered by the zeitgeist of optimizing. I, I’ve been teaching Barry's work on maximizers and satisficers for the better part of two decades and whenever I share the findings that he just summarized, there are knowing looks from students.

Like, they know this is a problem. But they don't seem to do that much about it. So why, why societally is this such a zeitgeisty idea? Why is it un-American to not maximize or not optimize?

[00:14:44] Coco Krumme:
I, I think it's fascinating, even how these sort of algorithmic principles or ideas have just percolated into our modern language and in such a striking way. In some ways, it's a very old American idea that we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, right? And we're the result of our work and we can go from zero to infinity. And we're in fact even delusional in our beliefs along those lines, obviously. And I think that's led to some really wonderful things, but taken to an extreme, it is making us miserable.

If we believe that on every axis, we should be seeking the best. And all of a sudden, as you guys alluded to, right, we have this explosion of options and sometimes we don't even know what the best is. So we spend a lot of time and energy trying to kind of search the social space and to first define what the best is, and then to try to get there.

[00:15:49] Adam Grant:
Do both of you think there's a danger of stopping a search? I'm on board with the idea of saying, “Let’s set the standard at what we think is actually good or excellent, depending on how important the decision is.” And then, you know, as soon as we find an option that meets our standards, we'll accept it. Is there a danger though, of tunnel vision? If we don't maximize, if we don't optimize, do we ever risk missing out on the possibility that maybe our standards were too low and we won't stumble across the better option? I think this is the, this is the nightmare scenario that maximizers deal with a lot. Like, no, if I stopped my search, it might be that the next job. Or the next date could have been dramatically better, and I didn't even know it was out there.

[00:16:28] Coco Krumme:
I'll just jump in there. There are some, you know, very successful techniques and in sort of algorithmic machine learning, right, around regret minimization. And I think we're all trying to do this in, in certain ways.

When we act as maximizers, that's part of the driving desire is to not miss out, to not regret things. One kind of folk wisdom answer I've found is instead of trying to minimize regret, you just sort of rewrite the story after the fact, right? When you cohere or adhere to a choice that you've made by retrospectively writing the story that it was in fact the best, you're more satisfied with that decision than if you continue to question it.

[00:17:15] Adam Grant:
So this is the, the “Don't make the right decision, make the decision right” advice.

[00:17:20] Barry Schwartz:
Hm. But there's also, Adam, more than one kind of tunnel vision. And you, you had one kind of thing in mind, which is you choose whatever it is, and then you sort of close your eyes to the possibilities that something better might turn up.

The other kind of tunnel vision, the one that worries me more is that the amount of energy and focus it requires to choose the best blinds you to aspects of the decision that might not have occurred to you would matter. And so you, you're less likely to stumble onto things that are surprising and how good they are.

[00:18:02] Adam Grant:
I want to get both of your perspectives on other strategies for getting the good without the bad, because the, the inevitable question when you hear the objective-subjective trade off is, “Okay, I want the success that comes from high standards, and I want the happiness that comes from knowing when to accept the option in front of me.” So what other techniques can you both recommend to us?

[00:18:24] Coco Krumme:
I always get a little annoyed at this kind of question because sometimes it's phrased in this kind of overly like a, a sort of calculating way, right? And you're sort of optimizing the process off, ofinding optimal success and happiness. I see it so often where optimizing the process of, of slowing down, or, you know, where we like, “What's the optimal time to listen to my 15 minute meditation app so that I could be optimally productive after I meditate?”

[00:18:58] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I, I hear that Coco. There's a part of me that says, though, and I, I say this, begrudgingly, economists are right. Like, there, there is a limit to the number of hours we have in the day. We have, uh, time and attention are our scarcest resources. And so, if we don't ever try to optimize them, we're gonna waste them.

[00:19:15] Barry Schwartz:
Or you'll waste them searching for the thing that will protect you from wasting them. So how often do you settle down on a Friday night to just relax watching a movie, and you go to Netflix, and two hours later, you turn off the TV and glumly go upstairs having seen no movie because you spent two hours trying to decide which movie to see?

So economists talk about opportunity cost, and every second you spend searching is a second you are not spending experiencing the thing that you might have chosen with a more limited search. If you devote all your energy to search, you don't have the time or energy left to build.

[00:20:02] Coco Krumme:
I, I think Adam's question is a, a good one, despite my knee jerk reaction, right?If, if I can rephrase it a little bit, it's how do we balance between sort of drifting aimlessly through life and overly focusing on one specific goal? And for me, it's involved sort of increasingly adhering or cohering to what I've known and in some ways are sort of my true values and principles and hopes and dreams and desires.

[00:20:35] Adam Grant:
I think, I think this goes to a few of the practical strategies that, that I've found helpful and also have some grounding in evidence. So, I wanted to put a few on the table and, and get either or both of you to react to them. So, and this segment is really for the recovering—or not yet recovered—maximizers and optimizers who are with us.

So, Barry, you advise that we should choose when to choose. And I remember when I first read that advice, I thought, “Okay, I should maximize more on important decisions and less on trivial decisions.” So choosing which college, which job, which partner, a little more sensible to maximize than which restaurant or which Netflix show. And then over time, I've started to add to that equation also, not just how, how much does the decision matter, but also do the options really differ objectively or only subjectively.

[00:21:28] Barry Schwartz:
This does seem un-American because it seems like you're giving away some of your autonomy. You need a new phone, a new cell phone, and your friend recently got one, and you can just call your friend and say, “What'd you get? How do you like it?”

Now, is there a better cell phone out there? Possibly, maybe even probably. Does it matter? Almost certainly no. So there's a kind of sense in which you delegate decisions to other people, and you become the expert in one thing, and somebody else is the expert in some other thing. And to the second point you make, which I encountered as what's called the principle of the flat maximum, which is once you are in a region of excellence, the differences among options are either nonexistent or non-discoverable, you know?

Is, I, there's a, there's a cartoon that I show when I give talks of a young woman with a sweatshirt that says “Brown” in big letter but “My first choice was Yale” in smaller letters. Now, if you go to Brown with that sentence in your head, you're not gonna get as much out of Brown as you otherwise would, because every day you'll be thinking life would be better at Yale.

Are there differences between Brown and Yale? Of course there are. Are there differences that you can know about in advance? Almost certainly not. And a lot of those differences are gonna be the result of happenstance, who your roommate is in your freshman year, who happens to be teaching Bio 1 when you take it, stuff like that.

So, you're already in the region of unimaginable excellence, and there's no reason to drive yourself crazy about this, deciding which of these incredibly excellent places is the place that you should be spending the next four years. But it's hard, this is a, I don't know what your experience has been, Adam. I find it impossible to convince young people that what I just said is true.

[00:23:29] Coco Krumme:
I wanted to kind of talk, just as an editorial aside, about, like, these, um… If somebody called it sort of like mass customization, that I think is increasingly sort of a trend or aimed at the millennial generation, where you are made to feel that your choice. You’re, you're given these, this limited set of options, right?

And that you could customize in, in a certain way, whether it's with room decor or a meal somewhere, an outfit, and you're allowed to feel that that's special because you've sort of chosen it, even if it's from this, this limited menu of options. I'm curious what you guys think about that.

[00:24:12] Barry Schwartz:
I think it's an invitation to make things worse. The more you give people the opportunity to customize, the less reason people ever have to be satisfied with good enough since they can make it better. And if you allow them to customize on five dimensions, they'll be asking, “Why couldn't I customize on the sixth dimension also?”

And I had this incredible experience where I gave a talk once, and there was a guy taking photographs of the event and he was listening to my talk while he was shooting and afterwards he came up to me and he said, “You know, I make most of my living by doing weddings and other big deal affairs. And I switched from film to digital, because that way I could give my clients so many more options to choose from.” Because it's free basically to just keep snapping digital photos. And he said, “And what happened was nobody ever made a wedding album, and you've explained to me why: because they couldn't decide which 40 pictures to put in from the 4,000 that I sent them.” He was going broke because wasn't making any money selling wedding albums to his clients because he'd given them too many essentially equivalent options to choose from.

[00:25:32] Coco Krumme:
You’re a, you’re a satisficing purist, it sounds like.

[00:25:35] Barry Schwartz:
I well, I guess.

[00:25:38] Adam Grant:
Coco, where do you come down?

[00:25:40] Coco Krumme:
Like Barry, I'm sympathetic to that view that it's a false solution. I think in the short term it might be a sort of band aid, right? It's not solving anything, but I think there is a certain slice of the younger generations that really feels… adrift and, and miserable and not sure why. And I think if there are these mass customization, it's maybe a trivial example, but these sort of guardrails placed on overthinking and rumination, you know, that's maybe a healthy thing in the short term. I, I, I do think it's a bandaid because ultimately that's not gonna solve where we're sort of at culturally, in terms of like, how do we make good choices that, that derive from our values rather than this weird algorithmic thing modeled after computers, but not that's just making us unhappy.

[00:26:45] Adam Grant:
Yeah, well, that , I think that maybe is a, a good segue to a couple other individual strategies. And I want to, I want to come back to some other collective steps we might be able to take that, that could move the needle since you're both a little skeptical of mass customization.

I'm fascinated by the evidence in decision making research that we're often better at giving advice to others than we are at making choices for ourselves. And my read of the evidence on that is that basically when you choose for yourself, you’re more likely to consider all the different criteria that matter and all the different possible options.

Whereas when you advise other people, you zoom out, you focus on just the couple of most promising options and the few most important criteria. And that brings wisdom. Uh, curious to hear both of your takes on the idea of saying, “Instead of trying to make this choice for myself, let me find somebody else who's grappling with a similar dilemma, or even have them play my role and talk them through what I think they should do.” And maybe that helps me see the bigger picture.

[00:27:41] Barry Schwartz:
This seems extremely plausible to me because, you know, you edit the advice you give to other people in a way that you don't edit the self talk. But the trick, it seems to me, is to convince yourself that you're like this other person. This other person is less discerning than you are.

So, this other person won't care about all these other things, but damn it, you do. So, so it’s one thing to give another person advice, and then it's another thing to take the advice that you've just given to this other person and apply it to yourself. And let me just say one other thing, uh, about the important decisions versus the unimportant ones. That point you made a few minutes ago, Adam. We’ve done some research that shows that when the set of options is large, even trivial decisions become important because people think that these are decisions that are reflections of who they are.

So what Coco was saying about being true to your values, when there are two kinds of jeans, the jeans you buy are irrelevant to your values. When there are 2000 kinds of jeans, the jeans you buy are a statement to the world about your values. And if you follow Adam's advice and have very high standards for the really important things, well, everything becomes a really important thing. So that turns out to be not terribly helpful. Because we care a lot about the self that we present to the world.

And if every decision is, uh, information about you as a self, as an identity, then every decision is an important decision. And we have good evidence that that happens.

[00:29:31] Adam Grant:

[00:29:32] Barry Schwartz:
You disagree?

[00:29:35] Adam Grant:
I dis—I disagree that it has to be that way. I believe your evidence, but I, I think most people have the maturity to take a step back and say, “Alright, the consequences of the identity signal I send by the jeans I buy, maybe less important than the choices I make about how I treat other people. And so I'm gonna focus on the higher stakes, more consequential self expression opportunities.”

[00:29:59] Barry Schwartz:
Well, maybe.

[00:29:59] Coco Krumme:
How interesting, right, that a, and a sign of our decadence that these things even, I mean, you, you both use the word identity, right? What a recent phenomenon that any material thing is intrinsically tied to who we are. That's something that didn't exist 50 or 100 years ago, even.

[00:30:24] Barry Schwartz:
No, no. Who you were was essentially something you inherited.

[00:30:27] Coco Krumme:

[00:30:27] Barry Schwartz:
You know, you were a particular nationality, a particular ethnicity, a particular race, a particular religion, and you might spend the rest of your life trying to free yourself from all of that, but it was an inherited set of characteristics. Now it is an acquired set of characteristics. And what's good about that is you're free to invent yourself. And what's bad about that is that you're free to invent yourself.

[00:30:54] Adam Grant:
I love that. Okay. One other strategy that I want to get to is the idea of making your decisions irreversible. And Barry, I learned about this one from you, and then, not too long ago, I read a Rebecca Shiner paper showing that maximizers pick reversible decisions, because they're always worried that they might have made the wrong choice, and they want to get the redo if they can.

[00:31:17] Barry Schwartz:

[00:31:17] Adam Grant:
Satisficers opt for irreversible choices, knowing that they don't want to spend their whole lives second guessing. Like, should I have ordered soup instead of the salad? And then everything could have been different. But there were some extreme maximizers in the sample who opted for the irreversible decisions as a forcing mechanism. Is that what more of us should be doing?

[00:31:37] Barry Schwartz:
Imagine there are two boutiques side by side, and they carry very similar merchandise, and one of them has a very liberal return policy, and one of them has a draconian one. What human being would shop in the store that won't let you return stuff? So, again, I think this is extremely good advice and advice that is almost impossible to follow.

And maybe with this extreme maximizer thing, people have learned enough about how tortured they are by decisions that you're right, they're binding themselves to the mast and more power to them that they have developed the insight to know that this is actually a helpful thing for them to do. I don't see mass producing this for general consumption.

[00:32:27] Adam Grant:
Well, this is, I mean, this is so interesting to me, Coco, because there's a theme that's bubbling up here, which is a lot of the individual solutions that make sense in principle are hard for people to practice. And I think you are a clear exception to this trend. I know you, you moved to a remote island and you live in a cabin?

[00:32:48] Coco Krumme:
Yeah, I mean, it sounds more exotic than it maybe is. Earlier I, I said I was a recovering optimizer and I didn't really have a, a great example. But what comes to mind now is Barry talked about the, the small decisions and the big ones. I've always been good at the big ones. I had this internal drive and the sense.

The small ones. Oh my goodness. You ask anybody who knew me back in the day, I, I would just get hung up on these things until I learned that in our decadent, rich world, these small choices, they are reversible. It's an extreme privilege and one, you know, my parents may not have had. And I don't know if our children will all have, but given we're living in that world or, or maybe we shouldn't sweat the small decisions. And it's okay to have fun trying to maximize those or use the return policy liberally. I, I think one thing you learn as you start making larger decisions in life and irreversible decisions is that there is a growth and a joy in making those decisions that are irreversible, and it's not something that was apparent to me when I was young. But the more I make them, the more happy I am with their irreversibility. It's just sort of the way things are. And, and that's, that's wonderful. That's the beauty of life. We only have this, this one shot.

[00:34:05] Barry Schwartz:
And it forces you to try to cultivate that one shot that you've taken. To turn it into the best version of itself that you can. So this goes back to the distinction I was making before between the problem is the search versus the problem is what you do with after having conducted the search. The thing about un, non-reversible decisions is you're stuck and the question you ask is, “How can I make the best of the life situation that I'm currently in?” What kind of work can I do to make this a good state of affairs rather than a disappointing state of affairs? And with a lot of things like the work we do and the romantic partnerships we make, it really is in the work that you put in tather than in the selection that you make.

[00:34:56] Coco Krumme:
I do think there is this feeling that the consequences of making a quote-unquote “wrong decision” in maybe my and Adam's generation, or even the next generation, are far more significant than, for example, in yours, Barry. And I'm curious what you both think about that.

[00:35:18] Barry Schwartz:
I think you're right. I think that, again, to some degree as a result of social media, to some degree a point you made earlier, Coco, because it's so easy to compare what you're doing to what everyone else on the planet is doing, the stakes of all the decisions we make seem higher and bad decisions seem much more consequential.

When, when there was less freedom of choice and when there was less affluence, making the best of a bad situation was sort of standard operating procedure. That's how people live their lives. And no one wants to live their life that way now in rich countries. So I think it is worse. I had an easier time than you do.

My children had an easier time than their children, and whether there's some way to steer the ocean liner in a different direction, I don't know, but certainly the direction it has been going in is one that sort of makes it a bigger problem for each generation than it was for the generation before.

[00:36:33] Adam Grant:
I want to ask a few lightning round questions. You ready? What's the worst piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

[00:36:36] Barry Schwartz:
I was advised that I was too young to make a lifelong commitment to a romantic partner. I did not take that advice. I've now been married for 56 years.

[00:36:47] Coco Krumme:
I was advised that moving to a small community would mean isolation, the end of an intellectual life, and doom and gloom, and none of those things have, I've actually found just the opposite.

[00:37:01] Adam Grant:
Next question. What's a book you would recommend?

[00:37:04] Coco Krumme:
I loved a book I read about a year ago called When We Cease to Understand the World. It's by Benjamín Labatut, and it won all kinds of awards. Um… The reason I liked it is that it's this, it, miraculous blend of fiction and nonfiction delving into some of the early 20th century's mathematicians and philosophers and exploring kind of how an idea comes about.

[00:37:33] Barry Schwartz:
The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi changed the way I think about the world.

[00:37:40] Adam Grant:
An excellent segue to my next question, what's something you've recently rethought?

[00:37:44] Barry Schwartz:
Efficiency. The pandemic taught me that the price we pay for an excessive focus on efficiency is resilience and robustness.

[00:37:55] Coco Krumme:
My example is far more trivial, but it's goat cheese. I never really gave, gave goat cheese a chance, and then a few years ago I decided I was uncivilized to, to not like it, so I've been slowly bringing it into my life.

[00:38:13] Adam Grant:
Alright, and then finally, what's a question you have for me?

[00:38:16] Barry Schwartz:
How the hell do you manage to do all the things you do?

[00:38:20] Adam Grant:
I don't have a real job.

[00:38:25] Barry Schwartz:
Ah. I didn't think I had a real job either, but I can't get as much done as you do.
[00:38:30] Adam Grant:
I constantly feel unproductive. This question is very hard for me to answer. I think maybe I set unreasonable goals for how much I'll accomplish.

[00:38:37] Coco Krumme:
If you weren't doing what you're doing, or anything adjacent, what would you be doing?

[00:38:45] Adam Grant:
I really can't imagine doing something else, but there are days when I miss being a diving coach. I think that would be a lot of fun. Alright. Back to a couple other things I wanted to make sure we talk about. So we've talked about some sensible but difficult to implement strategies for individuals to avoid excessive maximizing and optimizing. Let’s talk about what larger society can do. Schools, workplaces, communities. Where would you land? What are the big changes we should make?
[00:39:16] Coco Krumme:
I always get really shy when it comes to prescriptive recommendations because I don't feel remotely qualified to begin to suggest them. So instead of recommendations, I'll kind of list some observations that I think are interesting. I think it's interesting that we see increasingly these trends towards the more local, towards community, and a certain turning inward in various ways.

Basically, I'd say since… it became most notable at the beginning of the pandemic, and I think to the extent that communities can work with that trend, it will be exciting, right? Here, just in this little community I see just this amazing involvement in, like, local institutions, right? Like local agriculture, the library, the centers that, you know, help distribute food to people who need it, emergency preparedness, people volunteering for EMS and fire services. So kind of leaning into that, whether it's in a rural place like this or in a big city, to me, that's exciting.

[00:40:33] Barry Schwartz:
We all need to figure out what kind of a fishbowl people can live in effectively so that there are constraints on what people have available and what they can do, but the constraints are not so limiting and so imposing that people feel like they can't possibly carve a meaningful and satisfying life out within those constraints.

The mistake we've made collectively is to think that the fishbowl is the enemyof freedom and possibility. Some fishbowl is needed and the challenge is to figure out what it has to contain.

[00:41:13] Adam Grant:
Barry, you've, you've proposed that as a radical way to solve some of these problems in college admissions, that we should just set a standard for what it takes to be considered for acceptance at a school. Each school can have their own criteria. And then we should just run a lottery.

[00:41:30] Barry Schwartz:

[00:41:31] Adam Grant:
And accept whatever students win the lottery. Whenever people hear this idea, they think you're mad. Yeah, I don't think you're crazy. Explain it.

[00:41:37] Barry Schwartz:
Not only do I think I'm crazy, I think that the, the alternative, the current practice is what's crazy. Here's the point. Stanford rejects 96% of the people who apply. Now, what percentage of the people who apply to Stanford do you think would be a successful Stanford students? 50%?

[00:42:01] Adam Grant:

[00:42:03] Barry Schwartz:
Oh, certainly more than a third, because everyone knows how damn hard it is to get into Stanford. So chances are pretty good at least half, and I would bet even higher than that. How much difference do you think there is among the various people who apply to Stanford? They're all outstanding students. So if you just made a binary decision, “This person will be successful at Stanford, that one won’t." And put all the people you think will be successful into a hat and then pick them at random, you'll end up with just as good a class as you end up with, with current practices.

And this is the most important part. Kids will not completely distort their lives in high school so that they can get into Stanford, because it won't help. You just need to be good enough and lucky, so you can actually cultivate the things you're interested in, like diving instead of always looking to your left and to your right and asking, “How can I be an iota better than my best friends?” So it, I don't understand why this isn't obviously the right way to do it.

[00:43:17] Coco Krumme:
It sounds un-American to me.

[00:43:17] Barry Schwartz:
Oh, it is com—it is completely un-American, and people hate the idea that important things in life happen by chance.

[00:43:28] Adam Grant:
But they do anyway.

[00:43:30] Barry Schwartz:
You think? If you understand how much of our path in life is the result of, of happenstance, you may be a little bit more sympathetic to the life paths of other people who are less successful than you. They're not less deserving than you. They're not less talented than you. They're just less lucky than you. I think there's an enormous benefit that accrues to acknowledging the role of luck in our lives. And that is also completely un-American.

[00:44:06] Adam Grant:
Coco, what do you think of this idea?

[00:44:08] Coco Krumme:
Oh, I think it's fantastic in theory. It'll never happen. No offense, Barry.
[00:44:13] Barry Schwartz:
Well, I think the Supreme Court decision may push for a radical rethinking of admissions. So, you know, now that affirmative action is not implementable, except in devious ways, it may open up the way people think about admissions more broadly than otherwise they, it would have. And so I agree with you. It's extremely unlikely that anyone will do this, but I no longer think it's impossible.

[00:44:41] Adam Grant:
I do think there are some more modest experiments that we could try. So one would be, I would ask colleges, just, just only take two extracurriculars. Don't allow students to submit more. And that will at least scale back the arms race a little bit that's happening currently.

Another thought is, “What if colleges ran admissions like medical residency matching?” Where I rank my schools, and then I only get into the highest one on my list that will take me. And then I never have to wonder about all the others.

[00:45:13] Barry Schwartz:
Well, I, I mean, I think those are half measures, but half measures are better than no measures.

[00:45:18] Coco Krumme:
My secret hope is the bottom will fall out on the whole, the whole college, I won't call it a scam. I'm certainly a beneficiary of inflated external view of what these credentials signify—

[00:45:35] Barry Schwartz:

[00:45:35] Coco Krumme:
—but I think the whole thing is due for a restructuring, uh, in terms of how we're educating people and, you know, what skills they're actually learning that are good for society rather than simply good for reaching the r—next rung on the ladder. I want the American college system to, like, be totally, like, thrown in the trash and recycled and reinvented. I mean, like, why are so many kids going to college and getting into enormous debt in the first place? Like, where are trade schools when we need people in the trades and there are huge shortages there? Where’s the encouragement to strike out and, and figure out a path from scratch rather than following this formula of like, “I'm gonna fill out these admission bubbles simply because that's what my high school guidance counselor told me to do.” So that would be my, my radical proposal.

[00:46:34] Adam Grant:
Well, we've clearly solved no problems in the world, but hopefully we've left everybody confused with a greater degree of complexity than they had before. And I just want to thank you both for joining.

I think my biggest takeaway here is that the more you struggle with a choice, the more likely it is that there is not a right choice. So instead of agonizing over whether you've made the best decision, it's probably worth picking an option. And then trying to turn it into a good decision.

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard.
Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

This has been great fun and not at all optimal.

[00:47:46] Coco Krumme:
Thank you, Adam.

[00:47:47] Barry Schwartz:
Felt pretty optimal to me, Adam.

[00:47:51] Coco Krumme:
I just want to emphasize Barry's joke, because I don't think, uh, in case we missed it, right? I thought that was a joke, right? It's what a satisficer would say. Of course, it’s not… Just as it should be. It was perfect.

[00:48:05] Adam Grant:
Right over my head. A satisficer's language for optimizing. Hilarious. Well done. Thank you both.

[00:48:10] Barry Schwartz: