There’s a little Japanese supermarket and diner a half-mile from our apartment where onigiri, Japanese rice balls, are made fresh every day. As an occasional treat, when my husband returns from his PO box close by, he’ll pick up a few for us. I always give him my first, second and third choices of flavors, knowing that because the shop is so small, some may not be available that day, or may have sold out. Sometimes, if it’s late in the day, I’ll even give fourth and fifth choices, to his bemusement.
I’ve always been a contingency plan kind of girl; I like to know that if my original intentions can’t be met that I have some other options in play. Occasionally I’m chastised for being so pessimistic about outcomes, but that’s not really the way that I look at it. To me it’s a matter of practicality and a way to manage my own expectations.
I was listening to a podcast during my run this morning, an interview of Julia Galef, co-founder for the Center of Applied Rationality (how marvelous how such a thing exists!), and one topic she touched upon was what success or failure for any given situations looked like for each of us. In her discussion, this distinction was part of the larger idea of then having systems in place to prevent self-delusion, but it got me thinking about what constitutes success.
In some senses, success is simple; the realization of a desired outcome. I set out to run 4 miles today; I ran 4 miles today. Success! Early on in my career, I knew I wanted to reach a point at which I could choose where I live, rather that be tied to a single job; we were able to move to San Francisco 6 years ago. Success!
Yes it’s a simplification – it’s usually not so binary, and I suppose that’s where the complications lie. And that’s where my love of establishing multiple acceptable options comes into play, because the creation of alternative plans expands the scope of expectation. If we can’t have X, Y is also an acceptable outcome, and Z will do in an absolute pinch. And thus we’ve given ourselves three possible paths to success, rather than one.
But isn’t one then settling for second or third best, you might say? It depends on what “optimal outcome” might mean, because it’s subjective. I have a friend who was house-hunting and whose starting point was a long list of criteria, which could most probably not be met completely. But he was clear about which criteria were non-negotiable, and figured that if he could find a place that ticked enough of the other boxes, that would work for him. He’s found a place, and feels like his search has been successful even thought he didn’t get exactly what he wanted. He chose satisfaction over perfection through an expanded definition of optimal outcome.
“Optimal” is self-determined. What falls within the realm of “acceptable” is self-determined. What if we decided to become comfortable with a variety of scenarios, rather than the one that we absolutely want right now (which we might feel differently in a few months/weeks/days)? If we can decide that we absolutely must have something, or that we absolutely need certain conditions to be met, we lock ourselves into a limited window of happiness. If we gently expand the scope of our wants (and/or our perceived needs), the possibilities for an increase in agreeable outcomes and the opportunity for success – or satisfaction – grows considerably.
In the end, I suppose that what I believe to be true for myself is that the more I enter into any situation with an openness to alternative outcomes, and make peace with Plan B (or C), the more I enhance my opportunities for joy and contentment and ease, and that simply makes life better. And that feels like the greatest success of all.