Not wanting the best

Four years ago, around the time I started thinking about design, one of my friends visiting Princeton remarked to me how much he liked the campus, because he could feel all the care that was put into its design. At the time, I (in my head) immediately disagreed with him, one of my dominant objections being: if the people who designed campus really cared about student life, they would make more direct routes (diagonals) between buildings.

I look back on that response now and find it really amusing. Not only have I cultivated a lot more appreciation for Princeton’s campus since then (funny how our experiences shape our perceptions of a place 😊), but my design sensibilities have also evolved. I used to think that good design was all about efficiency—how can I best enable the user to accomplish their goals?—but that’s engineering, not design!

It may be kind of weird to read that, because the logical consequence is not wanting or designing for “the best.” But I think that in design and in life, it’s more important to focus on enabling a range of experiences, rather than on optimality. For instance, it would certainly be more efficient if all of the grass at Princeton were replaced with cement, but what kind of experience would that be? Campus would certainly be less beautiful.

I’ve been reminding myself of this mindset recently while traveling. It’s really easy for me to get stuck into thought patterns like, “I want to eat at the best restaurants” or “I want to make sure I get the most out of this trip.” That’s one of the main reasons why traveling can be so stressful for me (usually in the days right after I arrive, before I remember that “the point of travel is to be flexible”1), because I feel this pressure to have the best experience. I don’t identify as a perfectionist, but this is definitely a perfectionist tendency. Aggressively checking TripAdvisor/Google reviews/Yelp, feeling like I have to check certain places/foods/experiences off a list, documenting everything to prove something to people afterwards… In so many crucial ways, overplanning shelters you from experience. And I’ve realized that having a life full of experiences, a range of experiences, feels so much more rich and desirable to me than a life filled with attempts at getting the best. It’s also really liberating.

I want to close with this quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist that has been on my mind recently. Spoiler alert! The context: after Santiago goes to the Egyptian Pyramids to search for his treasure, he gets beat up and robbed, and doesn’t actually find anything. But in the process, he learns from one of the thieves where his treasure actually is. This quote is from when he goes to that location and starts digging.

“You old sorcerer,” the boy shouted up to the sky. “You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of gold at the monastery so that I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters. Couldn’t you have saved me from that?”

“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you would’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”


1Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes