How to Optimize Every Decision in Your Life and Accomplish Nothing

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Even the greatest minds fear missing out. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, contributed substantial advances to quantum mechanics and particle physics, discovered the cause of the Challenger Shuttle disaster and popularized science as a witty and successful author, faced this fear when confronted with a menu.

How many different dishes should he order from a menu before settling upon a favorite? Feynman used probability theory to solve the problem. Below is the formula he developed with Ralph Leighton

The number of dishes to try = √2(Meals remaining at restaurant+1) - 1

Fear of missing out is a paralyzing force. It even drives geniuses to mathematics for consolation. Having calculated the number of dishes to try, Feynman could rest, his mind at ease knowing that in all likelihood, he was eating the best plate on the menu.

With the panoply of options before us as founders, investors, managers and employees, the fear of missing out on key meetings, conferences, marketing initiatives, employment candidates, investment opportunities is rampant. There is always one more meeting to attend, one more person to meet, one more option to consider.

Within that last meeting, we seek assurance and validation that the choice we have made is the right one. But the byproduct of the relentless pursuit of the “best” can be debilitation. FOMO diffuses attention, sapping the focus which is often so necessary to success.

Feynman quelled his fears with probability. Most of us won’t approach problems with the same rigor. But all of us are seeking the same peace of mind.

I think it comes down to accepting that, as is written on Facebook’s walls, done is better than perfect. It’s more important to keep moving forward with a good decision than to slowly optimize for the best decision every time.

I don’t need a menu, thanks. I’ll have the spaghetti and meatballs.

Published 2013-02-03 in Culture 


I am partner at Redpoint. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 20,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.


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