Stop Over-Optimizing Everything

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Since the glory days of Babe Ruth, with only a few dips here or there, home runs have been king in baseball. But over the past decade or so, an interesting phenomenon has occurred. Home runs are still emphasized above all else, but strikeouts are up, and the percent of time batters make contact is down. Why? Players are smarter.

With the rise of analytics, we’ve seen shifts in how we value everything, from walks to stolen bases to sacrifice bunts. Every outcome can be assigned a value. And what that has led to is a kind of barbell effect. You have players who swing for the fences or attempt to draw a walk, but not much in between. Instead of idolizing the contact hitters of days past, players are more purposeful with that contact.

Although not to the same extreme, it’s similar to what we’ve seen in the NBA. Gone are the days of Rip Hamilton pulling up for a mid-range jump shot. We’ve optimized our way to a place where the top 300 spots to shoot in the NBA are either right under the basket or beyond the three point mark. There is no in between.

Sports aren’t the only place where we see this shift in emphasis. As writer ​Derek Thompson has outlined​, movies are the same. Over the past few decades we’ve been inundated with sequel and reboot madness. The comic book mega universes, Mission Impossibles, Fast and the Furious 23, and just about every successful kids movie has a sequel. Movie studious fund known quantities. The idea of an original picture has largely gone by the wayside. Why? It’s economics. A known quantity is more likely to be a hit. And hits have an outsized effect. They need the home run to survive. Singles won’t do.

In many areas of life, more knowledge and data has led to optimizing for an outcome. We optimize for hours of sleep, productivity, exercise routines, and our kids sporting activities and academic prep.

But optimization comes at a cost. Baseball is struggling. NBA ratings are down from their peak. The movie industry is in disarray.

When we over optimize, we lose quality. Maybe not in terms of the bottom line, but in terms of things that we don’t regularly quantify, or perhaps that are impossible to measure altogether: qualities like enjoyment, artistry, and meaning.

Think of it like this: right now, I could take an AI bot, train it on all of the best tweets that myself, Brad, or better yet, James Clear, has tweeted. It would then spit out all of this pseudoprofound bullshit designed to go viral. And it would probably work (Just look at tech bros social media right now…where it’s impossible to decipher between what is real and what is a bot—the singularity has occured!). But to me, something is lost there. It’s not truly profound. It’s not engaging with an audience. It’s not testing ideas and learning. It’s synthetic. It might lead to a desired outcome, but it lacks curiosity, intrigue, and enjoyment. If I consumed AI tweets all day, it would turn me into a numb, pessimistic automaton, and train my audience for nonsense that appears helpful but has no meaning behind it, instead of wrestling more nuanced ideas.

It’s the same with the rest of our lives. We optimize our routine for productivity, forgetting that most breakthroughs come when we are mindlessly going on a walk or fiddling around letting boredom work its magic. We optimize our child’s chances at getting the athletic scholarship in soccer by specializing early and paying for a private coach; yet in doing so, we neglect the unstructured play that may seem pointless and inefficient in the short term, but pays off massively in the long haul. When ​researchers​ have studied athletes who actually make it to the top, they tend to have more unstructured play than their peers, whereas overly structured sporting activities is tied to fear of failure and burnout.

The point is that optimization often backfires, even for the results we desire.

Let me use one more example. Believe it or not, track and field used to be a big sport. Back in the 1960s, over 150,000 people showed up to watch a two-day track meet between the USA and USSR. Over 5,000 people showed up just to watch the Soviets practice! Even into the 1980s track was still big business. But it’s slowly dwindled to its current state.

While there are a lot of reasons for this, one is that we’ve over-optimized the sport in the wrong direction. Instead of optimizing around competition between rivals (e.g., US vs. USSR meets), we optimized around the track and field equivalent of a home run: the spectacle of a fast time or world record. Every big time meet became the same. For about 60-75% of the race, you watch everyone in a line follow a rabbit, who now follows pace lights, and then finally, once the prelude is done, you watch the final 25% of racing, which is often just one or two athletes trying to hang on to the pace to ‘astonish’ you with a fast time. But because it’s hard to set a world record, 99% of the time you’ve been set up for disappointment. We’ve lost the artistry, the allure that actual competition and start-to-finish racing brings.

The decline of track and field is yet another example of what happens when we optimize around a narrow outcome, chasing the go big or go home ideals. It’s why many of us pine for the era when Hollywood had original ideas, and reminisce about the ‘glory days’ of sport.

AI might be a godsend for certain hard sciences. Hopefully it helps us decode complex and gruesome diseases such as cancer and ALS. But when it comes to softer and more humanistic pursuits, perhaps we need the messiness more than we think. As AI floods social media, writing, movies, and everything else with optimized content for likes, shares, and addiction, it’s even more important to look the other way, to embrace the messiness that leads to intrigue, artistry, and meaning.


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