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Our family recently experienced one of those things that is stressful in the moment but funny after the fact. No threat to life or reputation, just something you wished you could avoid. As we were discussing it afterwards, one of the kids parroted back to me some pearls of wisdom that I’m sure I’d said. It had helped them navigate the situation and it gave me some comfort that not everything I say is complete nonsense.

As some of you who know me might get, it made me think about why I said what I’d said. One thing about family sayings that are heavily repeated, someone believes them deeply enough to resurface them that often. That is why when I have that sort of a verbal tic, and it’s brought to my attention, I think about what it says about me.

It’s All About Choices

One phrase that drives me around the bend is it is what it is. No, it isn’t. I had been feeling that this was becoming more and more common a phrase. It seems to be.

A Google Ngram chart that shows the occurrence of the phrase "it is what it is" usage within its corpus.  The chart has multiple lines that run relatively straight along the bottom and then spike up after the year 2000 marker.
A Google Books Ngram chart of the phrase “it is what it is”

I was waiting to give an interview and was listening to the panel before me discussing the property speculation on Maui. There was a sense that the panelists felt that this driving out of the locals in favor of those with wealth wasn’t good but, as one of them put it, “it is what it is.”

It is fair to say that you will not hear that coming out of my mouth. I tend to police my own use of language so that I avoid starting sentences with Look! or other imperatives. For what it’s worth, I don’t tend to police other people’s use of language in real-time unless it’s racist or similarly hurtful in an individual or broad sense.

There’s a phrase I grew up with—I think it’s British, at least in my case—that captures the essence of what I was contemplating in my own family’s recent situation. It’s to be getting on with it. It embodies a sense of having an undesirable set of circumstances but that there’s no sense in just moaning about it. What had happened in our family wasn’t great but it wasn’t the end of the world either. You do what you can with the resources you have. In the same way that you choose what you say, you play the cards you’re dealt. Unlike it is what it is, there’s only acceptance that you have cards to play. How you play them is your choice. You might discard them, ignore them, and so on (whatever people with cards do). You might even fold and be dealt again: change a job, walk away from a license at its termination, and so on.

Decision-Making Choices

Criminy Jean, I hadn’t realized Donald Rumsfeld had made a book of his platitudes. Those of a particular age may remember his “you go to war with the army you have, not the one you wish you had.” That should have been a red flag: you also have the choice not to go to war, you war-mongering freak. He’s like a dollar store Sun Tzu.

We often are faced with decisions where we are lacking the resources or information we think we need to achieve the result we want. The elasticity of time available is one of those resources. When you have a lot of time, you can afford to look around to see how you can change the cards you’re dealth. If you are limited on time, you need to just go with what you know.

That doesn’t mean rush forward unquestioningly; it means you have to watch for the risks in real-time, without having an opportunity to look for or map them out ahead of time. This can make decision-making tricky if you are uncomfortable moving forward without fleshing out all the possibilities. How do you make the optimal decision if you have sub-optimal resources?

A concept that I’d read about but have never engaged in is min-maxing. While my gaming tends towards games that can be min/maxed, it isn’t really my style. I like to play with the cards I’m dealt. My characters are never really optimized to beat world bosses but since most of my game is crafting and engaging in relationship building, it’s not likely I’m ever going to notice.

I’d been wracking my brain for a few weeks after the event, because I knew there was a concept for what we were discussing. I suddenly recalled a word that had escaped me since, what, university? Satisficing. As I read the Wikipedia article, I felt like I was reading a bit about myself. The part that jumped out at me was:

The distinction between satisficing and maximizing not only differs in the decision-making process, but also in the post-decision evaluation. Maximizers tend to use a more exhaustive approach to their decision-making process: they seek and evaluate more options than satisficers do to achieve greater satisfaction. However, whereas satisficers tend to be relatively pleased with their decisions, maximizers tend to be less happy with their decision outcomes. This is thought to be due to limited cognitive resources people have when their options are vast, forcing maximizers to not make an optimal choice. Because maximization is unrealistic and usually impossible in everyday life, maximizers often feel regretful in their post-choice evaluation.

Satisficing in Personality and Happiness Research entry on Wikipedia

I don’t think there’s any doubt that I’m a satisficer. And sometimes I’ve worried about that, because we sometimes live in a maximizer world. My family has moved around a lot and my partner and I have bought a number of homes and sold them as we migrated. One phrase that has come up frequently in our house buying is leaving money on the table. I’ve heard it when we sell a house, when I negotiate a salary for a job, or when I talk to legal publishers about legal contracts.

In maximizer terms, it’s getting the best deal. One perspective is that people who leave money on the table are weak negotiators and are losers and are making mistakes.

Or, as my partner and I have discussed, you can worry less about what the other person is getting (or thinks of you) and focus on what you are getting. If you are satisfied with the outcome, and are informed enough to understand the value or risks involved, and have a true choice to accept or reject a situation, then why does it matter what the other person got?

Fairness. Being taken advantage of. Regret. Being seen as a loser. Being second-guessed by others.

We face so many decisions that include both the actual result and how we feel, or are made to feel, about the actual result. We might be made to feel greedy for asking for a higher salary even though it’s what we feel our value is worth. We might avoid signing a contract or publisher license because, although we can afford it and it’s responsive, we’re worried we’re being taken advantage of by the sale person.

It makes me think about negotiating contracts. How much of the anxiety we have over negotiating contracts is because we worry more about how the outcome is perceived as opposed to what the outcome is? How much time do we spend making choices—in life, at work—that involve searching for the maximal benefit when it may not really exist?

I have wondered if technology exacerbates that condition. There’s always a new phone or a new computer or new bicycle or new kitchen gadget. Do we experience analysis paralysis in part because we’re worried about committing to the now when the new is almost here. But the new is always almost here or businesses would go out of business.

I don’t want to suggest that satisficing requires being satisfied. It’s more about how much optimization you seek or need. I think that unsatisfactory situations arise all the time. But if you’ve considered what it is you value in a given situation—your salary, your license needs, your living or work conditions—then you will know if you are satisfied or not. For example, I’ve left jobs because that personal view of value—what I was worth, and what I was worth to others—was no longer aligned.

The Wikipedia article on satisficing indicates it may be genetic. That makes sense to me because I see it in my siblings and parents. And now in our children. Or maybe it’s just because we see family members do it—or our parents wax on—that we do it. One of our kids recently moved west for a job. They didn’t have the ability to house hunt and so rented a property sight unseen beyond what was posted online. It echoed property decisions my partner and I have made, putting a contract on a house as soon as we see it because we are able to make an estimation about how likely or not there are better choices to be made and we have a high degree of comfort with our choice. No FOMO.

I notice it most often at work when I feel like I may be making decisions too quickly. I have had to mentally stop myself and take a pulse or gather information. One law librarian for whom I have a great deal of respect described to me her communication style. When she was making a decision, she made a list of everyone who might want to know or be included. It didn’t mean that those people were making the decision. She was making sure that people had the opportunity to be included.

I’ve smiled a lot since this family event. As I said, it worked out fine, optimally if anything. But perhaps the most important thing it reflected was the need for flexibility in rapidly changing circumstances. I’ve been so pleased to see that our kids are absorbing—or were born with—that awareness. It’s reawakened in me the need to stop dwelling on situations that may not have turned out how I’d hoped and to focus on the cards I’ve been dealt and think more clearly about what results would make me satisfied. Then I can make decisions about what to change. I think we can all lose our way sometimes and it was good to have a reminder.