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.”
– – –
Pic from Pexels: Sirirak Boonruangjak