Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Practice (continued): getting better, but not best

Miladin had a perceptive comment about "best". It reminded me of the rhyme I learned as a kid:
Good, better, best
Never let use rest
'Til our good is better
And our better, best.

The propaganda for the existence of "best" (which I think the two of us agree is a myth) clearly starts early. Where does it come from? It's possible that the notion of "best" is wired in; our brains could come with a built-in notion of a superlative, and with reaching that superlative a built-in drive. However, I think one can get by without this assumption; relativism will suffice.

Comparisons are the stuff of life. All living beings act on the basis of A being more or less desirable than B. This mate is more fit than that one; this food is better than that food; this place is safer than than place. Along with comparison comes preference, that is, making the choice of one thing over another. This then leads to a series: C better than D, better than E ... In principle, of course, there will always be a B better than D, and an F worse than E. Since we're finite beings, however, it's a good simplifying step to assume that the series is finite, and that C is the best one can do. It facilitates the decision, which is evolutionarily adaptive; if you always keep waiting for something better to come along, you'll never get laid, fed, or secure.

Anxiety is the stuff of life: animals are always striving to do better. If they don't, their genes won't survive. Focused anxiety is more tolerable than the free-floating kind, and hence the endless search for "best". Many cultural artifacts are designed to reassure us that "best" exists, and that there is therefore hope of respite from our anxiety. To take two stereotypical examples: romances where the heroine eventually lands the man of her dreams and lives happily ever after; and sport, where every game has a result, and every contest (in America, at least) has a winner.

In a more honest world, the doggerel might read:
Good, better, ... um
Never let us bum
'Til our good is better
And the rest - stay mum

Miladin also sought advice on how to organize time better. I have two recommendations. David Allen's "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" is a great self-help (!) guide to creating actionable To-Dos. Since a lot of stress comes from a big reading load, I'd recommend Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book"; for a quick intro to it, see the last chapter in Robert Hagstrom's "Investing: The Last Liberal Art" .


Bret Battey said...

I had a boss who had some wonderful advice/perspective phrases. Among those was "Don't let the best be the enemy of the good." I continue to reference that phrase years later. Simple, profound, somewhat ambiguous -- and a good self-check to consider whether one is keeping things in perspective.

It was an important point for me as a obssessive-compulsive graduate student when the lightbulb came on fully: "Nothing I achieve will satisfy me." What a freeing realization!

I like the book references. I'll have to add them to my long wishlist of books that I'm not getting read! Although sounds like maybe I should prioritize the meta-reading item. ;-)

Pierre de Vries said...

That’s very good advice. My S.O. observed that I would always discount anything I achieved, since I believed that whatever I could do was by definition trivial. My physics/math training is partly responsible; all those textbookslittered with “and it can be shown trivially that…”, which in fact meant “a lot of sweat and two pages of equations will prove that…”