Friday, May 4, 2012

Optimal

The other day as Luke and I talked about writing software, Luke said, "In the end there's exactly one optimal way to do something. Wouldn't you agree with that?"

I said, "Well, yes and no. There are lots of situational factors to take into account. If money's no object, but time is of the essence, then you optimize one way. However, if you're short on funds and have more time than you know what to do with, then you optimize another way."

"Yeah, but still, all things being equal, then there's just one optimal way to do something, right?"

"Right, theoretically."

"Theoretically?"

"Yeah, it's only in theory that all things are ever equal. However, if it were the case, then there would be only one optimal path. After all, optimal is a superlative."

Our discussion got me to thinking about optimizing. The first question is: optimize what?

It's easy to optimize if you know what you want to optimize. Do want something to be the cheapest? The quickest? The best? The most colorful? The easiest to maintain? The most durable?

Each of these goals determines a vector (or path) of optimization. If you're clear on what you want, them optimizing is easy; you can pretty much google the answer.

What happens when you want more than one outcome, when you want something done cheaply, quickly and well? What if the goals are at odds with one another? There's an old saying in engineering: cheap, fast or good, pick two.

Sometimes, you have to pick. What exactly do you want to optimize? You have a great band that gets along well. You enjoy playing together and like each other. Your drummer isn't great, but he gets by and is fun to be with.  One day you're approached by an amazing drummer with lots of connections; he'd like to join your band. You know that having him in the band would get you a lot more gigs and help you to land a recording contract. What's the optimal path?

You're having a party and your house catches fire. You've got a 100 buckets down in the garage and pond full of water. You could wait for the fire department or get everyone to grab a bucket and carry water from the pond. However, your partiers may get their clothes muddy and some are wearing expensive party outfits. What's the optimal path?

In the end, everything we do is optimized. The question is not one of whether or not, it's one of: to what end?  To what end is your method optimized? Time and money? Entertainment value? Educational value? Building relationships? Destroying relationships? Being recognized? Remaining anonymous?

You might say that no one ever has a problem making something optimal.  The challenge lies in aligning the optimization with the goals.


Here's the thing: if you ever notice that your goals and methods are not aligned, then forget about optimizing. Instead, identify the goals towards which your methods are aligned and spend time reconciling your real goals with the goals you thought you had.

Real goals? Thought you had?

Yup. Your real goals are not always your stated goals. For example, your stated goal might be to finish college and get a good job, whereas you're real goal is to make your mom proud of you or to get your dad off your back. Your stated goal might be to become a guitar god, when you're real goal is to become a chick-magnet.

Sometimes we state our goals so frequently and vociferously that we start to buy into them. After all, the best liars are the ones who believe the lie. You might argue that when you buy into your stated goals and become a true believer, that your stated goals become your real goals?

That could be, but I doubt it. Whenever you do this, you sense an undercurrent of anxiety and doubt.  Although you believe, you doubt. Something nags at you from inside, something on which you can't put your finger.  So you sincerely believe, but you don't believe.

How does a true believer discover that he's fooled himself. First you pay attention to your internal nagger and follow up on your suspicions.  Second, you look at all the places where you seem to be shooting yourself in the foot because your goals and methods don't align; it seems that your methods aren't optimized.

Rather than forcing alignment, you take a look at where your methods are taking you. Your methods and how they're optimized are like a compass always pointing at your true goals. Follow the compass needle and you'll float right past your stated goals to the ones you hold internally.

Once you see them, you might think, "Hmm... do I really want to go here?"

You may find your true goals distasteful. You may find your true goals impossible. You may find your true goals impractical or juvenile.  Nonetheless, optimization doesn't lie.

Do you ever consider yourself to be your own worst enemy? Do you frequently shoot yourself in the foot? Perhaps your goals aren't really your goals. Towards what goals are you optimized?

Happy Friday,
Teflon

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