You Don’t Always Need the Best. What You Need Is “Good Enough”

The strangest hobby I’ve ever had is collecting credit cards. This was back about six years ago, when I loved “gaming” the system. How would I maximize my cashback, points and benefits without paying a single cent?

I mastered the credit card market and all its technicalities: the best cards for discounts and premium airport lounges, hacks to avoid paying fees, and I even paid off my student loan using credit cards.

Additionally, the coolest thing about credit cards like Visa Infinites and World Mastercards is they portray status — you’ve gotta reach a certain level of income to have ’em.

It was an insecure guy’s wet dream, and I was hooked.

While I started aiming for money and status, thankfully those haven’t been the only things I’ve been maximizing for. (I can imagine that would make me pretty obnoxious.) Instead, I figured out pretty early money isn’t a good measure for a great life. Money is more like a pre-requisite: necessary, but once you have enough — more isn’t gonna make a big difference.

So I started maximizing for other things. In fact, if there’s one big theme that connects everything in my blog, it’s this: getting the most out of life — whether it’s in the areas of money, career or relationships.

Thus far, it’s served me well. But in recent times, I’ve started to wonder if maximizing is really that great. For someone who’s spent years trying to extract maximum value from their life, is there a better way?

Maximizers vs Satisficers

In his popular book “The Paradox of Choice,” the psychologist Dr. Barry Schwartz broadly describes two kinds of people: maximizers (like me) and satisficers.

The stereotypical maximizer is someone who spends tons of time evaluating options before they make a best decision: like your geeky friend who draws up cost-benefit analysis spreadsheets for months before buying a new phone (which annoyingly tends to be the phone you recommended him in the first place).

Satisficers on the other hand, tend to settle for the first thing that meets their requirements: like your elderly aunt who’s thrilled with her 2019 Xiaomi.

I imagine most people who’re good at personal finance or pros in fields like accounting and law are maximizers. There are proven benefits to maximizing: maximizers make better decisions. They also make more money.

But guess who’s happier?

Right, research shows satisficers tend to be happier.

This isn’t to say one is better than the other. Don’t worry whether you’re a maximizer or a satisficer — I don’t think people can easily switch. Just understand there’s things to learn from the other side.

As for the maximizer in me, I’ve grown to become more easily satisfied. This is what I’ve learned along the way.

Struggling Between Growth and Satisfaction

Something I’ve written about extensively is how I’ve always felt I was an underdog. Like I constantly needed to prove my worth. When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with becoming an all-rounder.

I was pretty good at exams, but wanted to prove I could do other stuff. Hence trying to be good at sports and being popular with the girls. No, I didn’t want to be a geek. I wanted to be a jock; but a smart one. I wanted to be amazing in every area. To win. And thus, my lifelong obsession with self-improvement.

I don’t know if feeling insecure pushed me towards becoming a maximizer. Or if maximizers tend to feel insecure (are they secretly compensating for something?). What I do know is there’s a spectrum between satisfaction and growth. And there’s an art to balancing both.

I say art because you don’t wanna fall into any of the extremes. Constantly keeping score and trying to win is exhausting because even if you’re #1, you lose sometimes. Besides, everyone eventually gets old. On the other hand you don’t want to be easily satisfied with everything — that just ensures you get complacent; eventually extinct.

Surely there’s a sweet spot.

I like to call that sweet spot “good enough.”

What If 90% Is All You Need?

We’ve been very philosophical so far, so it’s time for examples. I was reminded of what’s “good enough” in personal finance, by Morgan Housel on Twitter recently:

Sure, personal finance is a lot more complex than three sentences. But if a young person today ignored everything else and just followed that advice for the rest of their life, would they do okay?

I think so. I think the 90% is good enough for most people. Heck, the 90% will probably make you do better than most people.

What are some other examples of the “Good Enough” principle?

“Good Enough” Examples

  • Health: Eat a balanced diet to keep your weight in the healthy range. Exercise 3x a week. Get >7 hours of sleep every night.
  • Investing: Buy low-cost, passive index funds or ETFs. Invest for retirement, decades away. Don’t interrupt the compounding effect of your retirement fund (e.g. EPF) by making early withdrawals.
  • Career: Work with good people who you respect. Never stop learning, whether it’s technical or soft skills. Be reliable and over-communicate, so your bosses and colleagues understand your work.
  • Relationships: Treat people with respect and empathy. Set healthy boundaries, especially with negative people. When you have issues, discuss them honestly.
  • Writing: Use the simplest words you can without losing your message. Make your point quickly and get out of the way. Edit ruthlessly — good writing is a bad first draft polished many times.

BTW this isn’t about life hacks. Fuck hacks. This is about fundamentals. Hacks are short-term easy things, whereas fundamentals are the (usually) harder, boring principles which will bring you long-term success.

How much pain would we save if we could just lean back, accept good enough for most things, and trust everything will work out in the long term?

I say good enough for most things. Because then, you’ll still have the time and energy to focus on a few things that really matter. In a funny way, the concept of good enough can fit in with maximalization. I like to call it Aaron’s Law of Life Optimization:

Focus your life on just a few critical things. For everything else, just get to good enough.

Applying “Good Enough” to My Own Life

What is it that you really want in life?

When I was in my twenties, I wanted to have everything: money, power, career and fame. But today, my life is very different from the dream state I once imagined.

It’s practical. I work hard at my day job as a salaried employee, not a rich Internet solopreneur with 100,000 USD passive income. I occasionally have heated discussions with my wife over trivial matters, instead of baller living with four girlfriends who call me Master. In my middle-class condo parking lot, I have an old second-hand MyVi instead of the Ferrari I once dreamed about.

Maybe the insecure younger me would have looked at my life today and laughed: “Is this all there is to life? When did you give up on your dreams to conquer the world and settle?”

And the older, wiser me would reply: “One day you’ll realize there are just a few important things in life, and everything else is secondary. As long as you have those covered, nothing else really matters.”

It would be tough for the younger me to understand. But I hope he would listen and think about it seriously. And no matter how many months or years it’d take him to explore and eventually realize these truths, I hope he’d come back to me someday and say:

“Actually, that sounds okay. It sounds good enough.”

 

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Pic from Pexels: Sirirak Boonruangjak


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24 comments

  • Your story sounded very much like mine. i always wana be the all rounder/ jack of all trades.. i once dream to be the first malaysian female grandmasters in chess untill i realized i wasnt that talented enough..then i drifted myself abroad taking gap years dreaming to be a globetrotter only to discover i wasnt hippie enough. i graduated in engineering but started my career in IT and only finding my true calling what I can call a career being sales manager in retail world. I look forward to reading your blog on periodically basis

    • Thanks Naja for sharing your story!

      What a journey it’s been. Am glad to hear you’ve found your true calling, and may the journey only get sweeter from here on. All the best!

  • I did a search of “is good enough enough” and your article popped up. Refreshing, concise and uplifting. Thanks for the words – they seemed to be good enough for today!

  • Another inspiring one! The first time I came across your blog was when I was looking for wisdom in buying a car a couple of years ago (your article was helpful!) I appreciate your perspective on life and your principles. The word fundamentals has been resonating in me. Read something this morning about Arnold Palmer’s father who taught him golf and said that there are two vitals aspects about keeping golf simple and fun – fundamentals, and attitude. His father believed that if a player mastered basic fundamentals, then his swing and his entire game would develop naturally (and of course, the practice to make it happen). Arnold went on to eventually win over 92 championships and gained acclaim as a golf-course designer.

    Thanks again!

  • First time I’ve read one of your pieces, and it resonated with me very strongly, especially this part: And the older, wiser me would reply: “One day you’ll realize there are just a few important things in life, and everything else is secondary. As long as you have those covered, nothing else really matters.” I’m 58 and have had enough personal and career hardships to know the wisdom in those sentences. At this point I’m most proud of the fact that my adult kids call me to talk about their day and ask for my advice.

    I signed up to get on your mail list and am looking forward to future articles.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words Brian. Really appreciate your support, and hope I can continue bringing value!

  • I love and resonate with this piece very much. It was a privilege to read and a timely reminder as my 2021 begins, with all its sets of new challenges.

    Thank you, Aaron. I wish you the best this year bud, stay safe.

  • I’d posit this article is based in theory. As humans, as primates, we are conditioned to win, improve, negotiate, analyze, experience, try, etc etc etc. If Everyone truly took this advice and lived it, would we all become monks? Many try monkhood but eventually come back to regular life. Sure, monkhood is great, but we still need a bit of a struggle in our lives. Would we all be happier if we quit social media and stopped listening to the news? Maybe for a while. I just think there is a degree of the human experience that likes struggle. That likes a challenge. That likes some resistance in all areas. Life is always changing and we are always adapting in micro ways whether we are conscious of it or not. It’s also human nature to try and simplify by theory, then live different in actuality. So yes, take the good from this article, and realize that as humans, life can not be too so simplified for too long. And a bit of challenge is okay. Growth should not be discouraged for the sake of making our lives too comfortable. Only if desired for a while. Life is a dynamic expression of expansion and contraction. Life is only static in theory but lived dynamically.

    • Thanks for sharing Kevin. Having written this myself, I can assure you it’s also based on personal life experiences. 😀

      Also, it’s not about becoming monks/simplifying/avoiding challenges. What I was trying to say is there’s a sweet spot between satisfaction/growth, and I hope everyone finds it for themselves as how I seem to have found mine.

  • At the moment, I have reach the point of I don’t even know what I want for birthday gift. Right now, all I care is about simplicity, comfort, serenity, health and love. I’m just happy for what I have. hehe

  • Asian parents should apply this to the expectations they put upon their kids too. Hehe.

  • You’re still maximizing, my dear bro! You just realized money is not Life, ego is not Life and appearance is hollow.

    You still chase Life to the max, it’s just the definition has changed.

    • Hi Heng,

      Thanks for dropping by. I don’t think I will ever stop being a maximalist, but I’m much happier with the balance I have today.

  • And the older, wiser me would reply: “One day you’ll realize there are just a few important things in life, and everything else is secondary. As long as you have those covered, nothing else really matters.”

    One sentence sum it up perfectly.

    Keep writing dude.

  • Awesome article, as always!

    I have been thinking the same for a several weeks about all the ambitious things I have thought during my college year and what I have achieved so far (I am 27 years old). Looking back and my current condition, I am starting to think that it is okay not to have everything, just get enough with everything I have.

    Stay healthy and happy in life, bro.

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