If you and I are going to stay sane this year — sane as in healthy, of sound mind, common sensical, practical — then we’ll need to practice what I’ve come to call the precious s’s: satisficing and skipping.
Satisficing is what we do when we accept an available option as satisfactory rather than working to find or obtain the optimal option. It’s getting gas at the station nearest your house rather than driving all around town to save five cents per gallon. It’s buying the car that your knowledgeable friend recommends rather than becoming knowledgeable about cars yourself. It’s getting a simple, pour over system for making coffee rather than researching and obtaining the best possible way to make the best possible coffee from the best possible beans.
Satisficing isn’t my word: it’s Nobel winner Herbert Simon’s, and it combines the words satisfy and suffice. I first came across it years ago in Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind, and this past summer I found Barry Schwartz’s more extensive treatment of the concept in The Paradox of Choice. So like almost everything I write about, it's a great thing I've found buried in the reading, a thing that saves me a lot of life.
But Dave, this sounds an awful lot like just not caring about anything. And like being a lazy jerk who doesn't care about his coffee.
Right. The whole trick of satisficing is figuring out when to do it and when to do its opposite. And the opposite of satisficing is maximizing. We want to maximize the most important, precious, and essential few things, and we want to satisfice or skip the rest. And it's only by satisficing and skipping the rest that we're actually able to build lives or careers that are defined by focus versus triviality.
(So, Dave, what should I satisfice? I wrote a book on that, but I'll take a briefer, more open-ended swing at it below.)
Barry Schwartz argues that “it is maximizers who suffer most in a culture that provides too many choices” (229). Hmm… a culture that provides too many choices… wait, that's mine! And, if you're reading this, that's yours!
So what do we do? Schwartz, a social theory professor at Swarthmore College, counsels readers to “learn to embrace and appreciate satisficing, to cultivate it in more and more aspects of life, rather than being merely resigned to it.”
The trouble with this counsel is that we can only satisfice with conviction and delight when we’re clear on what it is that we’re about. So answer some questions:
- In your work in education, what is it that your work is meant to produce?
- What is the fundamental purpose of your work?
- What is the Everest you're aiming at? The peak toward which each lesson climbs?
The actions most closely connected to your answers to those questions are the ones you want to maximize. Spend more time understanding your content, understanding students, understanding the art and science of connecting the two. Administrators, spend more time studying leadership, teacher development, and working within crazy constraints.
And you've got to be picky. In my book, I recommend six areas for professional focus, and I tend to satisfice 3-4 of those areas each year for the sake of maximizing my growth in 2-3 of them.
But why, Dave? If all six are important, why not maximize all six, each year? If your'e still reading, you know why: you can only maximize a precious few things if you aim to also be sane. So think carefully and repeatedly about those big picture questions above; be clear on what your work is about and how best it is to be done.
And then satisfice the rest, with glee.