Futile attempts at maximization

Photo by Tyler Meuter

“Has anyone here tried to make plans with anyone in the past couple years? It is the most frustrating experience. Because what happens anytime you ask someone to do something nowadays? ‘Hey, you want to go do this fun thing? … Maybe! Maybe! I could try, we could see, maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe … ’”

Aziz Ansari said that last year as part of a stand-up routine at a Madison Square-Garden show, but the accuracy of the bit is sickening. Commitment to a singular plan, idea, vision, name, major, career, partner … It seems to be embarrassingly difficult for millennials. There is always a perceived chance to improve on the current experience, always a chance to reach the “maximum” level of satisfaction. Perhaps instead, it is a fear of loss. In this case, the aversion-inducing loss is the possibility of a missed experience.

To many, desires to accept one selection are overridden by what appears to be a wealth of possibility. A 2012 study found that more than half of adults in the U.S. and UK age 18–34 want to participate in everything due to a distinct fear of missing out on something potentially important. And it does not take a genius to intuit that a chief cause may be the looming presence of social media and the constant inter-connectedness it brings.

Indeed, this millennial generation’s obsession with all things electronic has a critical downside. Despite now feeling never more than a click, tap or swipe away from chatting with any friend you fancy, the very act of staying connected acts similarly to a drug. The greater amount of time one dedicates to keeping up to date with everything, the more the brain builds up tolerance. It comes to expect that kind of ever-present barrage of stimulation. Combine that with the fact that there will always be an endless stream of friends posting pictures and updating statuses, and the end result is a sinking feeling of always being behind the curve of information.

Therefore, one can never achieve “maximization.” A chronic fear of missing out will only perpetuate itself through a vicious cycle of training your brain what to expect. Can the brain be trained to circumvent fears about missing out? Of course it can.

Forcing oneself out of their default state of thinking is something everyone should strive to do. Endeavoring to see the world from varying angles can only serve to do good for all. It can be applied here; taking the view of someone else who might be ditched in the midst of a search for greater enjoyment should give some amount of pause to anyone.

Yet, even if one can get through the bars of that cell, the question still has to be answered: should we ever truly be satisfied with any experience? Couldn’t there actually be something out there more worthwhile of the precious limited time we have? And if so, shouldn’t we be going after it with all the vigor that can be mustered?

It’s indeed possible. But there is no definitive way to measure enjoyment. And attempting to gauge relative enjoyment of a theoretical experience you might have been able to have is an exercise in lunacy. You will never have the best car, nor the greatest spouse, nor will you ever be the happiest you could be. It is ridiculous to expect or to believe in these things, but the dogma of “Never settle for less!” is still beaten into kids today by every kind of authority-figure adult you can find.

And there is some merit to that. Encouraging kids to succeed is always something to be lauded. The problem arises when the goal of perfectionism is introduced. Presenting flawlessness as attainable will only ever lead to frustration and discouragement.

One might argue that you can definitively have the most of something. Someone has to be the richest person in the world after all. Still then, the only way to measure yourself is via comparison against others.

This being flawed in general aside, it is worth asking what the value is in being better than someone else. Unless you have succumbed to the primal instinct to compete with each and every other person, such a thing should not be of much importance at all to you.

Though maybe its source in this day and age is novel, the concept of fearing a missed experience is not new at all. The term “kiasu” has been in the Hokkien vernacular for generations. Its meaning can be interpreted in English as “afraid to lose out,” and is used primarily when describing one who exhibits anxious or selfish behavior.

To me, kiasu sounds like a very apt designation for the flaky planners that plague society today.