Saturday, March 22, 2008

Two-edged sword

This is really about pros and cons, about trade-offs and the imperfect nature of the world we live in.

Too often, we can't have everything we want. Usually any choice we make has good and bad about it.

I was talking today with someone who missed their last deadline (grammatical note: I use "their" because there is no genderless third-person singular pronoun. This is a conscious choice; I know full well that some petty grammarian out there will think it's wrong. I write to be understood; if you can't understand that sentence, well, I doubt your ability to judge my writing. It should be noted that I don't need anyone's approval to post. If you have a dissertation reader that cares about using "their" in situations like the above, then you better think twice about whether you want to insist on using it.). This person was concerned about getting something to their advisor quickly. They were also concerned about giving the advisor something of insufficient quality. There's no perfect answer here. There are two ends of a spectrum: on one hand, something could be delivered to the advisor immediately. That would minimize the wait time. But to send something immediately means not doing any work on it....actually now that I think of it, the spectrum doesn't really have two ends, it just extends out from the one extreme. Instead of sending it immediately, one can work on it and improve it. The longer you work on it, the better it can be, but then the delay increases.
So there's a choice between quick and dirty, if you will, and slower and cleaner. Neither answer is perfect. Both answers have advantages. Both have drawbacks. And really there's not only two options, there's a whole continuum of answers. You can e-mail your advisor at 10:00pm tonight. Or midnight. Or at 9 tomorrow morning, or noon, or before the day is out, or you can mail it the next day, and so on.

One way of looking at this situation is to let it frustrate you. "I'll never get it right, darn it!" Another way to look at it is to see that this built in imperfection of the solution can free you. Whatever your choice, there will be a downside, so why not just make a choice, and decide to live with the situation?

We do this all the time: "Am I going to buy the cheap one that's low quality, or will I buy the expensive one that's high quality?" We don't always agonize over such decisions. Wouldn't it be nice to leave the agonizing over the thing out of it? We can make a decision and accept the cost of it without agonizing.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't look for a solution that doesn't have any drawbacks. But if such a solution isn't readily apparent, how much time and effort are you going to spend looking for it? The time and effort are costs you pay to look for that other solution. And can you be certain that the time and effort will be insignificant next to the gains of the better solution?

Our lives are filled with decisions; each possibility has strengths and weaknesses. To the extent that we can recognize and accept this, we're freed from the necessity of agonizing over the decisions--free to act and reap whatever benefit we can from our action.

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