The Over Examined Life

Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living”. This was the defense he offered for teaching kids about philosophy (a crime punishable by death). He was still executed. The American psyche has a pervasive belief that we should examine life to find the best possible existence.  The media is constantly offering glimpses into the lives of “the rich and successful”. Implicitly, this arouses jealousy and a desire to become them. Business magazines offer highly generic insights on how they achieved success.

A school and parental system tells kids that they can be anything for the first twenty-ish years of their life. Anything! Students still make make a few non-committal choices when they go to college and pick their major (assuming they are lucky enough to do that). Suddenly, they graduate and now they must pick a direction. Despite the fact they can be “anything”, they must pick something. So they do. Then they spend years wondering if they are on the “best” path. They ask friends if they like their job and compare it to their own.

Consider this: you decide to go out for dinner. But where do you go? Sometimes, 15 minutes passes. Thrillist is consulted. Foodie friends are texted. Chrome is pushed to its limit with open tabs. In the end, you pick somewhere and probably doubt your choice.

I won’t address the major life choices (marriage + career), but at least for the small decisions, I like to satisfice. Satisficing is combination of satisfying and sufficing. Satisficing is about making a choice that is good enough. The goal is to quickly arrive at a decision that is satisfactory. It’s not about making the best choice. The “best” is elusive and subjective. Good enough is much easier. If you live in a major city and a restaurant has been around for a few years, it’s probably good enough. Bad food goes out of business very quickly.

I suggest using a heuristic, such as highest review on foursquare, to make a quick decision. You could also ask a friend and take the first suggestion. Alternately, you can visit a place you already like and spend time getting to know the people who work there. For medium stakes decisions, I’ve found it helpful to create a deadline for a decision. Don’t analyze past this deadline. Funny enough, I often find I go with my gut anyways. Not that my gut is necessarily right, it’s just rare to find a silver bullet of information even with more analysis. Without that silver bullet, gut is usually the decision maker.

Recently, I found myself deciding where to get dinner with a friend. Instead of consulting any lists, we went to the first place we walked past. It was that simple. I ordered the first thing on the menu that looked good enough. It was a great meal because I wasn’t even aware of the awesome options I didn’t know about.

Many people are familiar with the paradox of choice*. If you give consumers many options, they will be less satisfied with their decision than if they had fewer options. Capitalism has given us many choices. So much choice implies that there is a best one and we somehow need to pick it.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, the over-examined life is impossible to enjoy.

*Some research suggests the paradox of choice doesn’t replicate in other experiments and therefore is not a real thing.

2 thoughts on “The Over Examined Life

  1. I strongly contend that you misunderstand what Socrates was referring to as, “The Examined Life.” He never meant to suggest that a review of your decision making was leading the examined life.

    Instead, it’s not the decisions you’ve made, but your motivation and beliefs that provoked that decision in the first place that is the examined life. Society is chock-full of unexamined beliefs like, “Everyone should want to go to college,” “Schools educate people,” and “Jobs and money are, maybe, the most important parts of a person’s life!” Once you examine and question these beliefs, you can quickly see that the decision of which major to take was a minor one at best, and one’s stress over it is pretty laughable. You only took it seriously because you were told to, because your parents, teachers, and wider society continually told you that school is important and getting the answers to how you want to live your life is important too – and you believed them without trying either opposite or transcendence beliefs on for size.

    Almost invariably the people that live the examined life wind up rejecting the larger portion of society’s nonsense. Those that buy into it almost invariably live unexamined lives. It’s this that Socrates condemned.

    1. I appreciate the thoughtful comment. Picking a restaurant is a trivial decision. However, this post is also aimed at the bigger, philosophical questions of life. It’s just easier to examine the idea through the lens of making a small decision.

      By default, I examine ideas, especially big questions around how to live life. My default response is to question societal values. Few ideas are logically consistent enough to withstand withering scrutiny. After heavily examining life and exploring several different lifestyles, my working theory is that there is no definitive answer. There are different ways to live life that all have pros and cons. None will ever be perfect, but many can lead to rewarding life. This post is my declaration of the decision to spend less time examining life and more time living it.

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