by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Are you a “satisficer” or an “optimizer”?  If you don’t know the difference, this is the blog for you.  And you should know the difference, not only for yourself, but for the people around you.  It’s one of the keys to knowing how to play well with others.  For instance, I’m heading out on an international trip in a couple of days with nine of my closest friends.  Many logistical decisions will be in flux, and the satisficer versus optimizer struggle will be real.  Just like it is every day in your local ministry settings.

An optimizer is a person who is focused on always making the absolutely best possible choice.  If they’re buying a coffee maker, they do three days worth of research on exactly the best coffee maker that not only meets their every potential coffee making need, but also looks stylish on the kitchen counter, as well as being a deal to brag about.  If they are going on a trip to a new city, they are obsessed with eating in THE best restaurant, according to all available reviews.  If they are hosting an event, it has to has to feature all of the latest and greatest trends.  They always have the best, most up-to-date gear, and they are evangelists about promoting that gear to you.  They are very passionate about their choices.  They love gadgets, and they know what is cool (and definitely what’s not).

If they don’t feel like they have had an optimal “best of the best” experience, they grieve what might have been.  They have an acute case of FOMO (“fear of missing out”).  If they make a trip to Rome and are only able to do two out of three of the top-recommended activities there, as determined by their favorite travel website, their trip was a disappointment.  They can’t stop thinking about the one thing they missed.  If they eat at a 4.5 star-rated restaurant and later see a social media post from a friend who just enjoyed a meal at a 4.7 star-rated restaurant, they can’t fully enjoy the delightful meal they did have – after all, they missed out on an even better meal!

They are closely related to their cousins, the “constant complainers,” who always lead off with what was wrong, rather than focusing on what was awesome.  [This condition is very common among worship leaders who cultivate a habit of calling out every little thing that went wrong in the morning service even before the final praise song has been finished.]

Satisficers, on the other hand, are characteristically happy with adequate, even if less than optimal, options.  The word itself, satisfice, is an amalgamation of the words satisfied and suffice.  They are satisfied with an answer that will suffice to meet the needs at hand, without feeling the need to feed the endless hunger for the perfect version of a solution.  Their coffee maker makes basic coffee – it doesn’t have 76 wireless network integrated computerized features.  They walk down a street, look in the window, and if a restaurant seems pleasant and the patrons seem happy, they’re good with trying it out.  They’re okay with reading an occasional novel that’s just okay, rather than a life-changing work of literary heartbreak or ecstasy.

There is an argument to be made that satisficers are, in general, more content moment by moment, a little happier in general, and definitely less stressed.  While it’s great to have some optimizers in your life – because they will absolutely introduce you to cool gadgets, great experiences, and pefectly-tuned itineraries – satisficers are more flexible to work with and less demanding as partners.

Ministry, is a field that attracts optimizers (because it attracts people who are by nature “moving on towards perfection.”  But ministry needs more satisficers.  Not slackers, mind you!  Not shrug-their-shoulders and don’t-give-a-darn “whatever” leaders.  But more people who are happy with a good available option rather than obsessed with the unobtainable golden ticket.

This is perhaps counterintuitive because we are inspired in ministry by stories of bigger and better, audacious goals, and improbable miracles.  We need those.  They are part of our discipleship culture and a feature of our biblical heritage.  But they are a special category, and day-to-day ministry is nuts and bolts relationship building and getting things done in growth, healing, and wholeness, the stuff of practical schemes and grinding it out for the good.

Ministry leaders too often sabotage sufficiently good initiatives and pooh-pooh sufficiently good ideas (and even the people who propose those ideas) because they are on a quixotic quest for someting even bolder, better, more bombastic.  Such thinking invokes one of my all-time favorite aphorisms: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Optimizer thinking, taken to extremes, creates real problems:

  • It undervalues good, if less than stellar, ideas.
  • It undervalues people.
  • It causes delay – we never pull the trigger on anything because we are looking for a better option.
  • It creates stress.
  • By definition, it elevates some opinions as obviously more important than others and thus is a tool of an authoritarian leadership style.  (Compromise – the mark of democratic, participatory leadership – results in a need to be satisficed, as opposed to the stylized, idiosyncratic results that frequently stem from optimization.)
  • Over time, it cuts off entire lines of thinking and entire approaches to ministry.

This is not an argument against consistently seeking better, improved versions of the things we are doing.  It is an argument for getting underway with a good, if imperfect, idea and giving it time to evolve. It is an argument for experimentation as a core value.  It is an argument for doing the best with what we have at the moment as a catalyst for future growth and change.  Sometimes the person who may have the vision to perfect an activity or program will only see that opportunity to shine when they are actively exposed to the unperfected version.

We tend to read biblical stories as exercises in optimization (“God’s pefect plan” and all that), but there is a tradition of reading the biblical narrative from a satisficer perspective.  This is the inspiring popular focus on the way God uses unlikely people to do extraordinary things.  Over and over we see God plucking leaders from those who have been underestimated.  They are people who do not seem to have the requisite skill set for the mission of the moment.  They don’t fit the expected mold.  They are not the people who would be given responsibility by the optimizers in charge.  And yet God uses them.  The resources at hand may seem laughably inadequate for the goal that has been established, and yet God transforms them in unexpected ways, and they are more than sufficient after all.

God can use even mediocre initiatives to accomplish important things.  God can certainly work through perfectly adequate programs and activities.  (Not that this is a goal we should pursue, but we should take comfort in the truth that God can even accomplish important stuff through poorly run programs, activities, and initiatives.)  Satisficer leadership brings to mind another of my favorite aphroisms: “Let me pray not to have the things I want, but to want the things I already have.”

We are each given resources and contexts and conditions in which we find ourselves with an opportunity to use what we have at hand to accomplish the things we are called to accomplish.  Let’s embrace those.  It doesn’t mean we can’t hope for more, can’t dream of blessings and surprises.  But we definitely should look be looking discontentedly in the direction of the supposed talent and resources that others have and use that an excuse not to grow and thrive in our own garden.

How do you think of yourself, as an optimizer or a satisficer?

I’m a satisficer in general (with certain exceptions, as is true of us all; I am very snobbish, for instance, about pie; you’ll have your thing).  While traveling over the next couple of weeks, I’ll tag along to the “it” cafe someone has targeted with their extensive research of ratings and reviews.  And that will be fun.  But I’ll also slip off to explore plenty of random alleys and take a seat where the spirit leads.  If there turns out to be a comically bad stop or two, I’ll have that story.  You’ll be reading about it here!

Would you say your local ministry functions with more of a satisficer or optimizer approach?  What would you identify as the pitfalls of an over-reliance on either strategy?  Have you known optimizers who have made your life miserable?  Can you take being a satisficer too far?  How we can help the people we lead find a good and useful balance in their lives, understanding the ways that making “good enough” choices can keep us moving in a positive and blessed direction while reducing stress and anxiety.