Different- Not Better

America: the land of opportunity, freedom, and choice. A.K.A., the land of capitalism, transience, and paralysis.

Photo by Kawin Harasai on Unsplash

Although the United States doesn’t rank the highest on the human freedom index, we Americans still retain a significant level of autonomy over our lives. We decide for ourselves what to do for work, where to live, who to marry, whether or not to exercise, and which flavor of which brand of which type of potato chip to buy.

As we’ve grown accustomed to this level of specificity and frequency of choice, capitalism, transience, and paralysis have become engrained in our culture. We can’t help but seek counteroffers and bargains even in areas as sacred as personal relationships and our own well being.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’ve been tempted to take a raise for a job I hate instead of looking for something more fulfilling. I’ve been tempted to replace dying houseplants with seasonal blooms from Trader Joe’s (for only as long as they’re flowering, of course). I’ve been afraid to commit to a partner for fear that “the one” is still out there, somewhere.

Conventional wisdom like “the grass is always greener on the other side” feels condescending and banal. I stopped listening to this advice by the age of ten, and I wonder how many people never truly listened in the first place.

As I’ve grown older, though, I think I’ve unwittingly refined this proverb. It’s not that you’re doomed to a life of unhappiness regardless of which choice you make — that’s both depressing and oversimplified. Obviously some choices are much worse than others and obviously happiness is, to a large extent, a conscious decision. However, in a world where we put so much pressure on ourselves to find “the best grass”, we need some respite from the endless, fruitless search.

What people fail to realize is that there is no single right choice — there are multiple. For instance: if there are 8 billion people coexisting on this planet with you, can you truly have only one soulmate? Even if you have 8,000 soulmates, each of them would still be “one in a million”.

Hence my new motto:

“Different, not better.”

Exhibit A. I‘m in a committed relationship with my eight-thousand-in-eight-billion boyfriend, but he’s obviously not perfect (nobody is). I’m sure there’s at least one man on this Earth who, unlike my boyfriend, shares my hobbies, likes Sunday picnics, and can afford to buy me a yacht. But such a man would definitely not also be as sanguine, brilliant, and heterodox as my boyfriend.

In any decision, the pros should far outweigh the cons in both quantity and gravity… but every choice will inevitably have cons. When comparing two options, it doesn’t make sense to defect if the magnitude of the cons is equal across both; by definition you stand to gain nothing, but you’ll sacrifice whatever effort you’ve invested up until that point.

Exhibit B. I live in the apartment of my dreams, but the arbitrage lies in the fact that it’s in a sketchy part of town. I know I could find something in a nicer neighborhood with more amenities, but it’d likely be more expensive and wouldn’t have as many south-facing windows.

There aren’t any deal breakers about my current apartment, and I’ve found ways to work around its shortcomings. I could decide to move somewhere else, but I’d have to deal with the pains of apartment hunting, moving, and settling into a new neighborhood. I have better things to do with my time than that.

Exhibit C. I live in San Francisco, and many of my friends and coworkers are escaping to New York. While that might be the right move for them, I believe New York is different from San Francisco- not better. Sure, New York is more cultured; it’s the home of musical theater, high fashion, and world renowned restaurants. But it’s also more stressful and congested… and winters are not my thing. I’d be trading rats for cockroaches and incestuous tech-bro culture for hedonistic careerist mania.

In every decision we make, we are faced with opportunity cost. We can’t live in both New York and San Francisco at once and, even if we somehow managed to bounce between the two, we wouldn’t enjoy either to their full potential.

The opportunity cost will always tempt us, though.

Realizing that there is more than one right choice can either torture us with the temptation of something shiny and new, or comfort us with the knowledge that there’s a higher probability we chose correctly. That’s why I emphasize “different, not better”.

Conventional wisdom has its merit also. Assuming we’ve chosen one of the best options, there is so much happiness to be derived- if we actively choose to. It’s not intuitive to “stop and smell the roses” — especially in ever-changing capitalist markets — but there’s literally no point in caring how good your decision is if you’re not actually going to savor it.

If you’re going to care, care a lot. Invest a lot.

The grass is greener where you water it. :)



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