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Ep 60: The Benefits of Defeatism

Ep 60: The Benefits of Defeatism


I’m something of a defeatist.

This might seem like a surprising statement.

I like solving hard problems. I'll find creative solutions, work long hours, and do what is needed to get things done.

I work on challenges that other people have given up on.

That might not sound defeatist, but defeatism is, indeed, key to my ability to solve problems. In fact, I think it's key for every good problem solver I know.

If a problem exists for long enough for me to encounter it, it usually means others have tried to solve it. Many of those others were surely smarter, more experienced or better funded than I. Why will I be able to solve it?

Because, even though I really, really, want to solve 100% of a problem, I'm willing to give up on part of it and accept an imperfect solution.

It seems like there 3 general approaches to solving problems:

1) Perfectionist. You want uniformly good results and expect that uniformly good execution is required to achieve those results.

2) Optimist. You want uniformly good results but expect that those can be achieved with imperfect execution.

3) Realist. You do not expect to receive uniformly good results and do not attempt to execute perfectly.

Let's look at an example problem and see how each of these problem solving types approach it:

You're having a dinner party. You ask your guests for dietary restrictions and, unsurprisingly, most people have one. Some are vegan, some are gluten free, some can't eat nuts, etc.

The perfectionist will make a separate meal for everyone. They want everyone to be happy and expect that, in order to do that, care must be put into every meal.

The optimist also wants everyone to be happy, but feels that they can do this by making sure everyone has at least one dish they can eat.

The realist accepts that they can't make everyone happy. They plan out a meal that 80% of people can eat, and tell the other 20% that they need to eat before coming— but there will be plenty of wine and great conversation.

Every strategy has its pros and cons.

The perfectionist makes every guest happy but spends a ton of their own time and energy doing so. Are they gonna have another dinner party anytime soon? Probably not.

The optimist enjoys the prep and enjoys the dinner, but some of their guests are probably a bit perturbed. They weren't told that the only dish they'd be able to eat was the salad.

The realist has to tell some people that they can't accommodate them, but otherwise the dinner is happy all around. Those who don't get a meal at the party get advance warning so they can eat before coming.

Although all 3 strategies involve some tradeoffs, the realist, by accepting that a tradeoff will occur, is able to choose what they tradeoff and how that happens.

A lot of the startups I work with suffer from an optimistic or perfectionist mindset. They forge blindly ahead hoping everything will work out differently for them then all the other, failed companies. Or they spend many months working hard on the perfect product before releasing one version and failing.

Much of the work I do as an advisor is just getting them to identify and accept a tradeoff. I get them to understand that it's a success to accept defeat in a part of their business or product that doesn't really matter. I help them see that their competitive edge is derived from ignoring 20% of the problems that other companies are trying to solve, so that they can be 20% better on the problems they are solving.

I wonder sometimes if that same mentality can be applied to our national projects.

For instance, I think this may be the cause of our student loan crisis. We tried to provide a college education to everyone through guaranteed loans. We weren't willing to accept that not everyone was going to be able to go to any college they wanted. We went for 100% success. We didn’t think we needed to make a tradeoff. However, in the process of avoiding one known tradeoff we unknowingly made a much bigger one— skyrocketing college tuition. We wanted everyone to win and instead everyone became losers.

This might not sound very progressive— to give up on such an important problem as universal education. Especially coming from someone who's worked in progressive education for a while. But if we had given up on 100% success here we could have created a much better solution that enabled real educational outcomes without burdening students in $150K+ of debt. Other countries have achieved similar or higher employment levels to the US at 1/150th the cost, through a combination of technical schools, on the job training and Universities. They accepted defeat, and in doing so solved the real problem.

What do you think? Should we compromise when it comes to big national initiatives? Or is that an arena where we can't be defeatist?

You Probably Shouldn't Read This
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