The Maximization Curve

In 2003, a professor at a tiny liberal arts college in suburban Philadelphia wrote a book that helped guide me through my late twenties and early thirties. The book provided clues about my behavior and how it compared to those around me. I’m convinced it helped me avoid some stress in my life.

Even now, ten years after the book was written, I’m still learning more about one of its tenets — that there are two types of people: maximizers and satisficers. The professor is Barry Schwartz, and the book is The Paradox of Choice.

Opposites Attract

My wife and I married seven years ago and dated for three years before that. As I read the book, I surmised that my wife was a maximizer, always looking for a deal and often wondering if she got the best result. This tendency, just as described in the book, sometimes led to a sense of paralysis when a decision was required.

Looking inward, I classified myself as a satisficer, fine with my decision even if I arrived at said decision without much research and deliberation. The difference is going to a store to buy a pair of jeans and walking out with jeans versus not buying the jeans and continuing to look for better jeans.

Not That Shaun, the Other One

This pattern repeats itself in my life over and over. When my daughter was two years old, the availability of every episode of Shaun the Sheep on Netflix caused a sort of paralysis in that she could never decide which episode to watch. Even when she would pick one, she often would immediately want a different one.

I have a coworker who, at lunchtime, is always asking others what they are ordering—and not just for the sake of conversation. Instead of deciding what he really wants (because he honestly doesn’t know), he’ll choose whatever someone else orders. That way, he never has to worry that he made the wrong choice.

For years I lived as though this was an either/or proposition. People were either maximizers or satisficers. Pick your bucket, because that’s who you are. It’s very satisficer of me to think as such. How meta.

But a week ago, I came to a realization that it’s not all or nothing. Everyone is at once both a maximizer and a satisficer.

We’re All Everything

For some things in life, I know exactly what I want and don’t think twice. But other decisions cause me hours and days of “what if” thinking. This came as a shock to me, since I self-identified as a satisficer only to realize that I am inconsistent. I came to picture it as a curve.

my maximization curve

Take a look at my maximization curve. It has a typical bell shape. On the left are the serious issues: whom to marry, what house to purchase, should I have kids.

On the right are the frivolous decisions: what do I want to drink, what should I wear today, what TV show should I watch.

The middle is where things get blurry, and this is where a big chunk of life sits. In my job, for example, I’m constantly thinking about what technology to pursue. Even if I decide to use a certain class of web technology, there are numerous sub-options.

On the surface, the numerous options sound great for software architects like me, but it can cause that buyer’s remorse feeling. What if I decide to go with a particular open-source project only to discover two years later that its creator abandoned it to go work at Facebook?

My wife, on the other hand, has a maximization curve that looks like a flipped version of mine. She has as much trouble deciding what drink to order at Starbucks as she does picking out furniture. But the in-between is no problem for her.

my wife’s maximization curve

Hard is Hard. Easy is Easy.

For me, the ends of the curve leave little for debate. If a topic is very serious, like buying a house, the ability to move to a new house is not simple. It’s not something you can decide and execute in a weekend. Since it’s so difficult, worrying about changing it is foolish. Basically, you can’t change without a lot of additional effort.

On the other end, the frivolous issues are so easy to change that I waste no time wondering if I did the right thing. I’ve decided that Coke Zero and skinny vanilla lattes are my beverages of choice, so I order them whenever possible. If I decide to mix it up, so be it. Next time I’ll do something else.

But in between there are issues that are more malleable, and those are the ones that keep my brain active all day, every day. Often it’s the innumerable decisions related to work. I’ll come up with a design only to think it awful two days later.

I thought I had my life figured out. Turns out, I only had the ends sorted —and now I want to flatten the curve.

What does your maximization curve look like? Do you want to change its shape, or are you already satisfied?

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