Thursday, November 5, 2015

Paul Revere and the Raiders – "Good Thing" (1966)

I really had a good thing
Such a good thing, baby

There's a famous mathematical problem that’s sometimes called the "The Secretary Problem."  

Let's say you are a senior partner at a big law firm, and you’re looking to hire the best legal secretary you can find.  (We call them legal administrative assistants now, but this particular mathematical problem is pretty old – hence, the use of the term "secretary," which you rarely hear today.)  

Assume that there are exactly 100 candidates for the job.  Assume also that at the end of each interview, you must decide whether to hire that candidate or move on to the next one.  That decision is final: if you reject an applicant and move on, you can't change your mind and call him or her back in if you decide a later that he or she was the best candidate after all.

(I think the woman in
red dress will get hired)
So it doesn't make any sense to interview all hundred applicants.  If you do that, you'll have to hire the last one to be interviewed, and there's only a 1% chance that the last candidate is the best one of the bunch.

The best strategy is to employ what mathematicians call an "optimal stopping rule."  Here, the optimal stopping rule is to interview and automatically reject 37 of the candidates, and then hire the first one of the remaining candidates who is better than (or at least as good as) the best of the first 37 interviewees.

If you follow that strategy, you will end up with the best candidate about 37% of the time.  (There's a good mathematical reason that both those numbers are the same, but I couldn't explain it to you if my life depended on it.)  That may not sound that great, but it's the best strategy there is – if you apply the strategy after interviewing more or fewer than 37 off the applicants, the odds of ending up with the best possible hire are worse.

Perhaps this will help:

This optimal stopping rule applies in many other contexts as well.  If you're a handsome young prince trying to pick a wife from 100 potential mates, you begin by dating 37 of them, and then reject all 37.  You continue dating and pick the first candidate who strikes you as better wife material than any of the first 37.  ("The Secretary Problem" is sometimes referred to as "The Fussy Suitor Problem.")  

The optimal stopping rule strategy works even if there aren't exactly 100 potential secretaries or wives to choose from.  Click here to read an article that gives you some practical tips on using this strategy to find a husband or a wife by age 40.

"Good Thing" was a #4 hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders in 1966.  I saw the boys perform it in Joplin, Missouri, in the summer of 1967.

But before we listen to it, let's see if using our 37% optimal stopping rule will enable us to pick out Paul Revere's biggest hit single.

Paul Revere and the Raiders released 40 singles between 1960 and 1976.  37% of 40 is about 15.

So we look at the band's first 15 singles and see that the biggest hit among them was "Just Like Me," which made it to #11 on the Billboard "Hot 100."

Then we go through the remaining singles one by one until we find one that went higher than #11.  As it turns out, the very next single the boys released – "Kicks" – was a #4 hit.  So we stop looking right there.

It turns out that "Kicks" and "Good Thing" tied for second place on the list of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ hit singles.  The band's biggest hit was "Indian Reservation," which made it all the way to #1 in 1971.

Paul Revere and the Raiders
The 37% optimal stopping rule only works 37% of the time, so the fact that it failed to pick the winner here shouldn't surprise us.  

But the strategy did identify the group's tied-for-second-biggest hit, which ain't bad.

You're probably wondering what the point of all this is.  (Unless you're a regular reader of 2 or 3 lines, in which case you've learned to never expect a point.)

The point is this: Le meglio è l'inimico del bene!

That Italian aphorism, which Voltaire included in his Dictionnaire philosophique (1770), is usually translated as follows: "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

The problem with insisting on what is perfect is that you will be dissatisfied with anything than is less than perfect – even something that is pretty darn good, which is usually the most you can hope for in this world.  But pretty darn good is usually wholly satisfactory if you're not expecting perfection.

If you were a busy lawyer who had 40 applicants hoping to become your secretary, and you managed to land the tied-for-second-best candidate out of the 40, would you be content?  Or would it nag you that you missed out on number one?

And if you were a handsome young heir trying to choose from 100 potential mates, would you be OK with tied-for-second-best?  Or would it torture you to know that Ms. Perfect had eluded you?

The answer to that question depends on whether you let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Remember: half a loaf is better than none . . . unless you have convinced yourself that nothing less than a whole loaf will do.  (Even nine-tenths of a loaf isn't enough for some people.)

One final note: even if you decide to settle for tied-for-second-best, you're not out of the woods yet.  You may still fall prey to letting the perfect be the enemy of the good by trying to make Mr. or Ms. Tied-For-Second change in order to better conform to your vision of Mr. or Ms. Perfect.

It won’t work . . . and Mr. or Ms. Tied-For-Second won’t be happy with you.

Here's today's featured song.  Its title is "Good Thing" – not "Perfect Thing."  It's not be a perfect song, but it's a really good song.  That's good enough for 2 or 3 lines, and it should be good enough for you.  

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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