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Second-Best Solutions

Show up for difficulty when it makes sense, stand down when it doesn't, and become a better person inelegantly rather than not at all.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
4 min read

Not long ago, I would have judged the hell out of this - an ad suggesting that parents ought to buy fancy ear plugs in order to better tolerate the noisiness of family life.

earplugsmom.jpg
earplugsmom.jpg

Instead, as it happens, I have spent the past 18 months actively attempting to cope with varying degrees of parental anger and withdrawal. The birth of my youngest son turned my pair of mostly-charming daughters into an unruly, deafening pack. Crying, screaming, whining, and even loud playing greatly increase my baseline stress level and prime me for meltdown when things start to get difficult with the kids (toy snatching, hitting, falls).

Previously I actually had no idea I was so noise sensitive - living alone for most of my adulthood, it was relatively easy to control my environment without even realizing it. Oops!

FIRST-BEST VS. SECOND-BEST SOLUTIONS

In some sense, the first-best solution to noise sensitivity is to become sufficiently less noise-sensitive such that it recedes as an issue in your everyday life. Unfortunately, becoming less noise-sensitive is difficult to literally impossible, and may take a long time if it ever happens at all. Think: desensitization exercises, mindfulness practice, mantras and reframings, etc.

As such, we might ask... what makes this first-best solution really best? It's the "best" in terms of requiring personal wherewithal and growth, but its expected value is actually lower than the second-best solution... earplugs.

Buying earplugs doesn't require the same kind of effort as a long journey towards noise equanimity, and it lacks aesthetic appeal. Sure, opting for the second-best solution may sometimes be a simple instance of "chickening out."

But, even if you can't tell this from the outside about someone else, a choice towards the second-best can also be the wise outcome of considered decision.

How can we make these decisions well?

HOW TO DECIDE BETWEEN FIRST- AND SECOND-BEST SOLUTIONS

All-things-considered decisions are tough, and there aren't hard and fast rules for them. But, here in the abstract, I can point you towards a good handful of considerations to take to heart in determining whether the second-best option is a cop out or totally prudent.

Some questions for consideration:

  • In what regard is the "best" solution in fact the best? What are the inevitable tradeoffs?
  • Does the first-best option offer benefits that will compound greatly later down the road? (this could justify slower or more uncertain change)
  • Does the second-best option necessarily reflect or indulge clear moral vice? (deal-breaker)
  • What externalities does each prospective path create?
  • Is the choice exclusive, or can you do both?
  • What is the opportunity cost of each option? Does one free up time/money/energy for other high-value things?

At the end of the day, it may be possible to transform the situation through intention and careful choice rather than possibly-doomed but noble-seeming action. You might be able to do the seemingly-worse thing for very good reasons.

EARPLUGS FTW

To return to the opening example... earplugs pass the second-best tests. A parent with young children may wish to become less noise-sensitive like as a bucket list goal, but in using earplugs judiciously now s/he may indulge no vice - the point is not to negligently lock oneself in a closet with the earplugs, but to make the activities of parenting more tolerable.

Even if becoming less noise-sensitive would offer far-reaching lifelong benefits, if achieved, there is reason to believe that people never habituate to irregular noise, so this noble task is more likely to be a fool's errand. Anyways, children will soon learn to lower their voices, or become old enough to be left unsupervised.

In the meantime, it harms children greatly to be subjected to outbursts and meltdowns by a highly noise-sensitive parent: this cost is too high for innocents to bear.

Taken together, these circumstances warrant a temporary crutch, and indeed one is available. If I hadn't relatively quickly lowered my temper with breathing exercises and changes in lifestyle, I'd be wearing my nighttime earplugs all day. If you need to, you can too.

OTHER POSSIBLE SECOND-BESTS

  1. It might be best for me to stop messing with my fingernails, but after decades of failed attempts to quit I have finally "solved" the problem by wearing fake nails all the time. It costs only around $10 per week and saves me from constant willpower drain and low-level sense of failure.
  2. It might be best to save money by chopping one's own produce, but if it's truly bound to rot in the fridge and head for the bin then just buy the prepared produce items already.
  3. It might be best to find a totally new job, but if you can't muster the motivation then the next best thing is to mentally recommit to your current job (rather than just flounder in work malaise for a few months/years).
  4. It might be best not to own "too much stuff," but if you enjoy your stuff and realistically aren't going to stop owning it the next best option is to keep it reasonably well-organized.

CONCLUSION: IN MILD DEFENSE OF THE SECOND-BEST

Lots of people have internalized a critic who views every second-best solution as simply an opportunity to wuss out and stay mediocre. This creates much (avoidable) cognitive dissonance and behavioral stagnation.

Of course, when you really think about it, a best solution that isn't feasible simply isn't the best in the first place.

Show up for difficulty when it makes sense, stand down when it doesn't, and become a better person inelegantly rather than not at all.

P.S. For more on non-ideal productivity, check out Stupid Problems, Stupid Solutions and Painfully Tiny Goals.

Pamela J. Hobart

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.