12.20.2013

Deciding When 100% is Worth Pursuing

Since I am trained as an economist, it will not come as a surprise to you that I think about life in terms of trade-offs.  But so does everyone else, I think.  It doesn't mean we go around doing an actual cost-benefit calculation every time we make a decision.  Except that, it kind of does mean that.

Maybe not with numbers, but in a broader sense, we weigh the trade-offs in our live all the time.  Deciding whether and where to go out tonight, picking a major in college, sleeping in or waking up early...in life, in the big and small things, we're constantly thinking about how best to spend our scarce time, energy, and money.  We may not be maximizing our financial bottom line, but we're maximizing something: the long-term good we can do in the world, the pleasure we can enjoy right now in the moment, the enhancement of our reputations, the minimization of discomfort or embarrassment.

With that framework in mind, consider that for the vast majority of us, our lives consist of a lot of different things.  We are workers and fathers and citizens and baseball fans and recreational tennis players and lovers of Scandal and the list goes on and on and on and on.  We invest a little bit of time in a lot of things because to do the opposite - invest a vast majority of our time into one or two things - is seen as sub-optimal in whatever way we are trying to maximize our lives.

Perhaps that is because doing only one or two things in life is considered boring.  But perhaps that is because of another economics concept, that of diminishing returns.  (Yes, I've managed to throw "cost-benefit" and "diminishing returns" into a blog post in the first four paragraphs.  I'm astounded that you've read this far.)  Diminishing returns says that if I spend an hour a day exercising, good for me; two hours a day, even better, but at some point adding hours doesn't do so much more for me that it's worth spending that hour.

In life, we spend time on things up to a certain point, and then we back off, because we only have a finite number of hours, and we decide that that next hour is better spent on something else, where our gain will be greater, than on something we've already spent a sufficient amount of time on.  And that's a good thing, because we're happier and better for it.  For example, if I spend too much time at work, at some point I stop being a good dad; that extra hour spent at work might be better deployed getting a good night's sleep, having quality time with my wife, or making my daughter's Christmas musical.

This may seem painfully obvious.  But if you grew up with any sort of impulse towards achieving 100% success in something, it can be jarring to realize that going from 90% to 100% may be so time-consuming that it is actually better to be satisfied with 90% and then to devote the extra time it would've taken you to get to 100% towards something else in life that will give you happiness as well.  In other words, going from 90% to 100% may be an incredibly inefficient and wasteful expenditure of time and effort.

I am reminded of this perspective when I read in Wired Magazine about what it will take to completely eradicate polio from the world.  Polio vaccination is one of modern times' truly great achievements: as recently as 1988, there were 350,000 cases of polio, and today there are only 223 (that's a 99.94% drop in 25 years).  But to get all the way to zero will require a Herculean effort and billions of dollars of investment.

I am not necessarily arguing that it is worth it to expend those resources to get to zero; I know very little about public health writ large to be able to say that that's where we should focus.  I am saying that sometimes we have to make choices to be OK with 90% so that we can be deployed elsewhere.  And sometimes we have to make choices to be wildly inefficient and wasteful so that we can get all the way to 100% because 100% is just that eternally important. 




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