The end is nigh for the hopes and dreams of many elite American high school seniors, courtesy of the rejection mills that Geneseo—somewhat grandiosely—refers to as “peer institutions.” Many seniors at Geneseo are similarly breathless in anticipation of graduate school admissions decisions. This year’s season of disappointment has gotten an injection of sanity in the form of Frank Bruni’s Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be, which tries to convince applicants and their parents of the meaninglessness of getting into and attending top-tier colleges. He instead emphasizes the importance of making the most of the college experience itself.
If it accomplishes nothing else, the admissions process teaches the valuable ability of settling. Years ago, I wrung my hands when I didn’t get into Cornell University. I was just denied a research internship, so the experience was much less traumatic. For the sake of psychological health, it is critical to be satisfied with less than the best school and the best possible outcome. But it should never be acceptable to aim for or be satisfied with less than the best possible version of ourselves.
Research at Swarthmore College led by psychologist Barry Schwartz has illumined some of the problems associated with accepting nothing short of the “ideal.” In Schwartz’s vision, people can be broadly categorized as “satisficers” and “maximizers.” Satisficers are generally content with choices or outcomes that are “good enough,” while maximizers expend more time, effort and mental anguish to obtain what they see as optimal. According to Schwartz’s work, those who fall on the satisficer side of the spectrum tend to report lower levels of stress and higher levels of—you guessed it—satisfaction.
An oft-cited example of this phenomenon on a large scale occurs in Denmark, which has been perennially styled as the “happiest country on earth.” Many attribute this adorable accolade––at least in part––to janteloven. Janteloven is a multi-layered characterization of the Scandinavian people as deemphasizing––or even frowning upon––intense personal ambition. Danes do, in fact, tend to set humbler aspirations from childhood through adulthood than Americans. The middle class is currently undergoing a crisis over the failure to achieve the American Dream; accepting the Danish Reality seems to have mental health benefits.
For the type-A personalities among us, it seems worthwhile to avoid wasting our capacity for decision-making on choosing the perfect place to eat lunch or the perfect computer to buy. “Good enough” is just that. But whether that logic should extend to bigger choices and aspirations such as settling for a “good enough” college or a “good enough” marriage is a tougher question.
Statistics argue against the pursuit of perfection. The likelihood of being admitted to Harvard University as an undergraduate is just above 5 percent. The chances of getting into Stanford Medical School are about half of that. Aspiration and expectation need not be equivalent, however.
As a high school student, I worked like someone who wanted to be competitive for top institutions. I applied to six elite colleges and was rejected by all of them. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have done anything differently and I continue to aim higher than I ever expect to land.
If hoping for the best and never even imagining the worst causes such pain for very little payoff, it isn’t worth it. But that’s not a reason to start working any less hard. Being satisfied with “good enough” outcomes doesn’t mean becoming satisfied with ourselves, which is the only sure way to halt growth as professionals and people.