Why are we all running ourselves ragged?
In 2009 Kathryn Stockett released The Help, a novel about African Americans working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s.
Towards the end of the story, one of the housekeepers (and main characters) Aibileen Clark asks of the lead antagonist, white housewife Hilly Holbrook,
“Ain’t you tired, Ms. Hilly? Ain’t you tired?”
In the story, Hilly Holbrook takes up a fight with nearly everyone.
In real life, we mostly pick fights with ourselves. But I beg of us the same question:
“Ain’t you tired?”
We run ourselves ragged.
We make exhausting demands of ourselves, raking ourselves over lists and steps and personal inventories of self-improvement and self-perceived flaws, magnified under our own ongoing, private persecution behind closed doors.
We try to balance this out by poring over countless articles all promising “the one thing,” or dutifully bookmarking or handwriting full lists of numbered things. We read. We research. We Google. We gulp positive affirmations and motivations and self-help by the handful, chugging it down in big swallows before our brain has a chance to catch up with the act and make us admit: we’re scared. And we’re hurting ourselves.
We feel inadequate. And then we convince ourselves the feeling is also our problem. We pound more articles, we coerce, we force, we plead.
In Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice, he mentions two terms coined by psychologist Herbert A. Simon from the 1950s:
maximizers and satisficers.
A maximizer is a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every decision is the best that could be made. “The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases.”
Remember the mathematical concept of infinity? If you take a number and divide it by 2, over and over, you’ll never reach a perfect zero — there’s only one never-ending long tail, or plateau, that goes on forever.
And it’s important to understand:
It’s not linear. It’s not y improvement for each x effort. Over time, as we optimize, we work harder for less:
At a certain point, mathematicians and statisticians have the sense to pull the plug, cap the thing at “critical values,” and call it day.
So why don’t we?
We keep chasing the tail of perfection, forever doubling down on our efforts only to whittle out an infinitely smaller optimization. We disregard the diminishing return in it, too caught up in the anxiety and compulsion, and we exhaust ourselves in the process.
A satisficer doesn’t do this. He or she doesn’t worry about whether it’s The Best; but rather only focuses on enough.
A satisficer understands — and respects — critical values.
And satisficers, it probably goes without saying, are decidedly the happier of the two groups.
They have enough sense, like mathematicians and statisticians, not to run themselves into the ground in endless pursuits.
Happy people stop before they hit the long tail. They stop before they’ve gutted themselves over mere perceptions of improvements. They call it quits before they bleed themselves out.
Happy people do enough to be happy, and then don’t sabotage by spending twice the effort for half as much more. And they most certainly don’t do that over and over again.
Happy people get good returns on their time and emotional investments. They know how much to give, how much to ask, and when to stop.
Happy people ain’t tired. At least not anymore.