Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Green Eggs and Ham, but for Grownups

We used to feed our dog a particular brand of food.  She ate it for years without complaint, though, to be fair, I’m not sure what a complaint would have looked like.  At one point, though, her brand was recalled for some horrible mishap at the plant, so we had to get her a different brand.  She absolutely wolfed down the new stuff.  When I mentioned it to someone who cares for dogs, she mentioned that every time there’s a recall, owners report that the dogs like the new food better.  It may or may not be that they like it better, she said, but they like the break in the monotony.  Owners just don’t think to deviate from a good enough solution until they’re forced to, at which point it seems retrospectively obvious.

The Times had a good piece a few days ago about something similar on the London Underground.  When some routes were blocked off for construction and riders had to find other ways to get to and from work, a non-trivial number of them found ways that were faster than their habitual ones.  They stuck with the new routes even after the old routes reopened.  They had stuck with relatively inefficient routes out of habit, until the habit was forcibly broken.  

Anyone familiar with Dr. Seuss’ oeuvre will recognize these as variations on the story of green eggs and ham.  The unnamed hero wouldn’t eat green eggs and ham until Sam I Am wore him down, at which point he discovered that he liked them.  The earlier refusal was revealed as little more than prejudice, probably based on habit.

The unnamed hero, the London commuters, and so many dog owners fall into the same trap.  They (we) are a little too quick to discount or dismiss alternative possibilities.  A good enough solution seems good enough to not bother looking for an even better one.  

And there are times when that makes perfect sense.  We’ve all had the friend who could never make even a simple decision.  In deciding where to get dinner, sometimes almost any decision is better than no decision.  Incessantly trying to maximize everything in life would be exhausting and self-defeating.  Sanity requires picking battles.  Perfectionism can prevent actually getting anything done.

But in academia, in particular, I’ve noticed that we’re sometimes a little too quick to dismiss possibilities.  We’re a little too close to Sam I Am, leaving perfectly good green eggs and ham uneaten because they don’t match our inherited notions of what good food looks like.

(For that matter, I’ve long wondered why there’s no blue food.* But that’s another post.)

On my campus, we’ve down Open Houses in the fall and spring for years.  They had always been in a “trade show” format in the arena, with various programs in booths next to each other.  Last Fall, for unrelated reasons, that became impossible.  So we switched to using the entire campus.  This year, given the option, we stuck with the entire campus.  It’s a pretty campus with some terrific facilities, so why not show it off?  But it took the force of circumstance to compel the initial change.  If not for that, we’d probably still be in the arena.

Sam I Am enabled a breakthrough because he didn’t stop.  There’s a lesson in there...

*Blueberries are more purple than blue.  “Blue” cheese is mostly white.  The mystery remains.