Practically everyone considers an ability to make great decisions a valuable skill. Given an equal starting point the people who are able to make the best decisions in a situation tend to be more successful. This is why executives who consistently make better decisions than others in their field get compensated so well. It’s difficult to repeatedly make good decisions in an environment where the information is chronically limited and with constant time constraints. Sure some analytical and computational skills acquired during an MBA program are of help, and yet some executives still consistently make better decisions than their peers.

In a lot of day-to-day life, unlike in gambling where random chance slants the tables in the house’s favor, a majority of our decisions are made subconsciously. This is an artifact that psychologists have been studying and exploring for some time and the general consensus is that behavior is mostly driven by our habits or our emotions at the moment. The combined effect of all these decisions, accumulated over months and years are what determine the extent to which someone will be able to achieve their goals and how successful they will be in almost every endeavor from choosing their major in a university to whether they should concentrate on their career or personal relationships instead, to whom they will choose as their spouse and if they’ll want to have many children or none.

But humans are also creatures of habit. Even Aristotle remarked more than 2000 years ago: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” And while there will always be some element of luck or misfortune in day-to-day life, it is also self evident that developing a habit of making better decisions in contrast to worse decisions has the potential to significantly improve one’s accomplishments and satisfaction with life.

While when asked most people would say they would only choose what makes them happy, the actual results are far from pleasant: if you only choose to go after what makes your happy then how is it possible that you also (inadvertently) get a dose of unhappy with it? Maybe you think that a new gadget or a better living space or a vacation would make you happy – of of course in the short term all of those things would increase your level of happiness – in the long term there are a lot more variables and often that extra cookie we crave for and enjoy (happiness) eventually leads us to dismay (repentance, torment, feelings of failure and major unhappiness) when we put on a garment we’ve had for a while and it no longer fits. In retrospect perhaps that cookie wasn’t worth the weight-gain and the new TV wasn’t worth the extra interest on the credit card. Maybe you’re even more unlucky than you thought and that vacation to the Bahamas turned out to be a nightmare after canceled or delayed flights, a layover in a regional airport and loss of half of your luggage. On top of that it rained all but one day during your stay on the island. Maybe going on vacation or buying a bigger TV wasn’t such a great decision after all?

As it turns out similarly how people fall in different places on the Introvert-Extrovert scale there is also a similar scale for the way that people make decisions. In a book “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz he terms the two extremes of the decision making scale as Maximizers and Satisficers. Similarly to the Introvert-Extrovert distribution, most people fall somewhere along that continuum in a fashion more-or-less approximating the ubiquitous Bell Curve although in reality this would also be shifted more toward the side with satisficers at the extreme end. That is that while there will be few individuals who are either extreme Maximizers or Satisficers the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle with varying degrees of natural inclination in one of the directions. In his book Barry Schwartz repeatedly makes the point that given a preponderance of choice most people feel overwhelmed and either don’t make any choice at all – implying that sorting through all the options for a best one is overwhelming, or having made the choice people tend to not be as satisfied with their decisions. What isn’t stated in the book is that resignation to make a choice renders individual preferences irrelevant – the person might as well have no choice in the matter at all.

The difference between the two extremes is easy to notice if you consider the following example: Two people are in need of a new TV because their old one broke. It has been some time since they purchased a new TV and the current market seems teaming with hundreds of new options and new technologies. Not only are there different brands to choose from but the customer also needs to decide on the following list of options of a new TV: screen size, resolution, if 3D is an option, Plasma or LCD or LED, how heavy is it (for mounting on the wall), how many input and output ports are available, if the speakers are built-in, if the TV can be connected to the internet without a set-top box, and the sale price.

Observing the behavior of Sam the satisficer we might see him measuring his living room to see how big a TV his current stand can fit and deciding on the price range that would fit his budget. Sam would then drive down to a local electronics store and choose a TV from 3-4 models on display that meet his criteria. He would then set up his new purchase, turn the TV on and get comfortable in his lazy-boy in front of his new TV feel very satisfied that he was able to find a TV good enough to meet his expectations.

Max the maximizer on the other hand would behave very differently from Sam. Besides deciding on his budget and screen size, Max would also consider the distance between his lazy-boy and the TV to pick the best resolution the human eye can discern from that distance. He then would research failure rate between varying brands of TVs, power consumption difference between Plasma and LCD and LED – because he watches a lot of TV the difference would add up over the years to hundreds of dollars. Max would then research different types of 3D options and internet connectivity for his new TV and inventory all the things he would need to connect to the TV to make sure his ultimate choice would have enough ports to connect everything. After such and exhaustive research Max would peruse internet forums and read many product reviews before finally settling on the one model that would maximize the value he gets at the lowest possible price.

Unfortunately for Max despite his decision being objectively a lot more refined and “better,” studies show that his satisfaction subjectively would consistently be less than that of Sam’s because there is always a chance that he could have picked an even better match to his needs if only he’s done more research before hand or held out for the new model that came out on the market a week after he bought his new TV.

Inherently there is nothing wrong with either approach. Depending on a situation either a maximizer or a satisficer would come out ahead. The danger lies in applying the wrong method to make a decision in a given situation. In choosing a spouse for example someone like Sam might end up with a wife who wasn’t that great a fit but Sam considered it a good-enough match at the time but as time went on what seemed like minor incompatibilities he was willing to overlook caused major riffs in his marriage over the years. Perhaps there were many other women who would be even more compatible with Sam. If only he’d make a bit more effort his married life could have ended up a lot more fulfilling.

For Max the danger is that while he would hesitate to commit to a particular partner because she doesn’t fit all of his requirements, he might maximize himself in to living a life of a lonely elderly bachelor. If only he’d be willing to give up his eternal quest for the absolutely-the-best-option he would have found several other potential mates who while objectively wouldn’t qualify as a perfect match in every category, would still be very compatible with Max and they would be able to enjoy many happy years together.

In reality, most people behave just like Sam and cumulatively all those decisions are costing us dearly. Because most of our decisions have minor impact on our life and because there are so many of them we develop a habit of satisficing. Given an array of choices we don’t choose the best option – we choose the very first satisfactory option. Instead of choosing Great we unknowingly settle for good-enough. And like most established behaviors this satisficing, settling for the good-enough, means instead of gravitating towards the best we instead gravitate towards the mediocre. Mediocre jobs, mediocre relationships, mediocre cheeseburger at a fast food chain.

Instead of maximizing on what is important to us we tend to simply do what is familiar – habitually satisficing our way to the Mediocristan even when that’s not in our best interest.

Perhaps similarly to the differences between personality types, after all while extroverts socialize and appear more lively and happier on the outside, it is the introverts that often contribute the most groundbreaking discoveries; while majority of satisficers deliver the average a handful of maximizers would be able to deliver something remarkable. And maybe the only difference between Sams and Maxs of this world is in what kind of decisions they make repeatedly. While some people will repeatedly strive for happiness by satisficing, by deciding to accept the average but respectable good-enough, others refuse to settle in the ongoing pursuit of greatness while shouldering the cost of continuing dissatisfaction with anything but the absolute personal best under the circumstances.

But maybe there’s no difference at all between these two types. Maybe Sam and Max are actually both maximizers – the only difference is that one maximizes for greatness while another for as little effort as possible. Unfortunately while both introverts and extroverts can apply their personal strengths to contribute positively to the world, among satisficers and maximizers only one type can contribute something worthwhile.

Contributing something great starts with the decision to not settle for anything but the very best. Greats of the past didn’t muddle their way into being maximizers – they decided to behave as such. Once they decided to be great there was no option to remain a satisficer. And just by looking at their accomplishments in an objective sense it’s self-evident that maximizers make better decisions because they get better results.

Maybe it’s politically incorrect, maybe it’s against the current worldview. Maybe your guru lied to you. Maybe the only way to make great decisions is to stop maximizing for happiness and maximize for results instead. Because happiness based on great achievements, which are a result of great decisions, is qualitatively different than happiness drawn out of laziness and resignation to good-enough.