Good enough is perfect, perfect is bad

Jan 8 JDN 2459953

Not too long ago, I read the book How to Keep House While Drowning by KC Davis, which I highly recommend. It offers a great deal of useful and practical advice, especially for someone neurodivergent and depressed living through an interminable pandemic (which I am, but honestly, odds are, you may be too). And to say it is a quick and easy read is actually an unfair understatement; it is explicitly designed to be readable in short bursts by people with ADHD, and it has a level of accessibility that most other books don’t even aspire to and I honestly hadn’t realized was possible. (The extreme contrast between this and academic papers is particularly apparent to me.)

One piece of advice that really stuck with me was this: Good enough is perfect.

At first, it sounded like nonsense; no, perfect is perfect, good enough is just good enough. But in fact there is a deep sense in which it is absolutely true.

Indeed, let me make it a bit stronger: Good enough is perfect; perfect is bad.

I doubt Davis thought of it in these terms, but this is a concise, elegant statement of the principles of bounded rationality. Sometimes it can be optimal not to optimize.

Suppose that you are trying to optimize something, but you have limited computational resources in which to do so. This is actually not a lot for you to suppose—it’s literally true of basically everyone basically every moment of every day.

But let’s make it a bit more concrete, and say that you need to find the solution to the following math problem: “What is the product of 2419 times 1137?” (Pretend you don’t have a calculator, as it would trivialize the exercise. I thought about using a problem you couldn’t do with a standard calculator, but I realized that would also make it much weirder and more obscure for my readers.)

Now, suppose that there are some quick, simple ways to get reasonably close to the correct answer, and some slow, difficult ways to actually get the answer precisely.

In this particular problem, the former is to approximate: What’s 2500 times 1000? 2,500,000. So it’s probably about 2,500,000.

Or we could approximate a bit more closely: Say 2400 times 1100, that’s about 100 times 100 times 24 times 11, which is 2 times 12 times 11 (times 10,000), which is 2 times (110 plus 22), which is 2 times 132 (times 10,000), which is 2,640,000.

Or, we could actually go through all the steps to do the full multiplication (remember I’m assuming you have no calculator), multiply, carry the 1s, add all four sums, re-check everything and probably fix it because you messed up somewhere; and then eventually you will get: 2,750,403.

So, our really fast method was only off by about 10%. Our moderately-fast method was only off by 4%. And both of them were a lot faster than getting the exact answer by hand.

Which of these methods you’d actually want to use depends on the context and the tools at hand. If you had a calculator, sure, get the exact answer. Even if you didn’t, but you were balancing the budget for a corporation, I’m pretty sure they’d care about that extra $110,403. (Then again, they might not care about the $403 or at least the $3.) But just as an intellectual exercise, you really didn’t need to do anything; the optimal choice may have been to take my word for it. Or, if you were at all curious, you might be better off choosing the quick approximation rather than the precise answer. Since nothing of any real significance hinged on getting that answer, it may be simply a waste of your time to bother finding it.

This is of course a contrived example. But it’s not so far from many choices we make in real life.

Yes, if you are making a big choice—which job to take, what city to move to, whether to get married, which car or house to buy—you should get a precise answer. In fact, I make spreadsheets with formal utility calculations whenever I make a big choice, and I haven’t regretted it yet. (Did I really make a spreadsheet for getting married? You’re damn right I did; there were a lot of big financial decisions to make there—taxes, insurance, the wedding itself! I didn’t decide whom to marry that way, of course; but we always had the option of staying unmarried.)

But most of the choices we make from day to day are small choices: What should I have for lunch today? Should I vacuum the carpet now? What time should I go to bed? In the aggregate they may all add up to important things—but each one of them really won’t matter that much. If you were to construct a formal model to optimize your decision of everything to do each day, you’d spend your whole day doing nothing but constructing formal models. Perfect is bad.

In fact, even for big decisions, you can’t really get a perfect answer. There are just too many unknowns. Sometimes you can spend more effort gathering additional information—but that’s costly too, and sometimes the information you would most want simply isn’t available. (You can look up the weather in a city, visit it, ask people about it—but you can’t really know what it’s like to live there until you do.) Even those spreadsheet models I use to make big decisions contain error bars and robustness checks, and if, even after investing a lot of effort trying to get precise results, I still find two or more choices just can’t be clearly distinguished to within a good margin of error, I go with my gut. And that seems to have been the best choice for me to make. Good enough is perfect.

I think that being gifted as a child trained me to be dangerously perfectionist as an adult. (Many of you may find this familiar.) When it came to solving math problems, or answering quizzes, perfection really was an attainable goal a lot of the time.

As I got older and progressed further in my education, maybe getting every answer right was no longer feasible; but I still could get the best possible grade, and did, in most of my undergraduate classes and all of my graduate classes. To be clear, I’m not trying to brag here; if anything, I’m a little embarrassed. What it mainly shows is that I had learned the wrong priorities. In fact, one of the main reasons why I didn’t get a 4.0 average in undergrad is that I spent a lot more time back then writing novels and nonfiction books, which to this day I still consider my most important accomplishments and grieve that I’ve not (yet?) been able to get them commercially published. I did my best work when I wasn’t trying to be perfect. Good enough is perfect; perfect is bad.

Now here I am on the other side of the academic system, trying to carve out a career, and suddenly, there is no perfection. When my exam is being graded by someone else, there is a way to get the most points. When I’m the one grading the exams, there is no “correct answer” anymore. There is no one scoring me to see if I did the grading the “right way”—and so, no way to be sure I did it right.

Actually, here at Edinburgh, there are other instructors who moderate grades and often require me to revise them, which feels a bit like “getting it wrong”; but it’s really more like we had different ideas of what the grade curve should look like (not to mention US versus UK grading norms). There is no longer an objectively correct answer the way there is for, say, the derivative of x^3, the capital of France, or the definition of comparative advantage. (Or, one question I got wrong on an undergrad exam because I had zoned out of that lecture to write a book on my laptop: Whether cocaine is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor. It is. And the fact that I still remember that because I got it wrong over a decade ago tells you a lot about me.)

And then when it comes to research, it’s even worse: What even constitutes “good” research, let alone “perfect” research? What would be most scientifically rigorous isn’t what journals would be most likely to publish—and without much bigger grants, I can afford neither. I find myself longing for the research paper that will be so spectacular that top journals have to publish it, removing all risk of rejection and failure—in other words, perfect.

Yet such a paper plainly does not exist. Even if I were to do something that would win me a Nobel or a Fields Medal (this is, shall we say, unlikely), it probably wouldn’t be recognized as such immediately—a typical Nobel isn’t awarded until 20 or 30 years after the work that spawned it, and while Fields Medals are faster, they’re by no means instant or guaranteed. In fact, a lot of ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting research was originally relegated to minor journals because the top journals considered it too radical to publish.

Or I could try to do something trendy—feed into DSGE or GTFO—and try to get published that way. But I know my heart wouldn’t be in it, and so I’d be miserable the whole time. In fact, because it is neither my passion nor my expertise, I probably wouldn’t even do as good a job as someone who really buys into the core assumptions. I already have trouble speaking frequentist sometimes: Are we allowed to say “almost significant” for p = 0.06? Maximizing the likelihood is still kosher, right? Just so long as I don’t impose a prior? But speaking DSGE fluently and sincerely? I’d have an easier time speaking in Latin.

What I know—on some level at least—I ought to be doing is finding the research that I think is most worthwhile, given the resources I have available, and then getting it published wherever I can. Or, in fact, I should probably constrain a little by what I know about journals: I should do the most worthwhile research that is feasible for me and has a serious chance of getting published in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s sad that those two things aren’t the same, but they clearly aren’t. This constraint binds, and its Lagrange multiplier is measured in humanity’s future.

But one thing is very clear: By trying to find the perfect paper, I have floundered and, for the last year and a half, not written any papers at all. The right choice would surely have been to write something.

Because good enough is perfect, and perfect is bad.

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