Optimization is the millennial affliction. (There was a trenchant Buzzfeed essay a while back that delved into how this impulse drives our generation to burnout.) Since seeing that insight articulated in plain, stark language, I’ve been more conscious of its truth in my own life.
Take today’s breakfast stop at the local Starbucks. I lived through an everyday manifestation of that optimization impulse, and I have to say, it’s more than a little disturbing in retrospect.
But first, some context:
- I keep a strict budget that covers, among other things, expenses for food and dining out. This has been a bit strained lately.
- My Starbucks card needed a top-up if I wanted to buy anything with it.
- I was 2 stars away from another free beverage.
- There was an ongoing mobile app promotion that granted 5 beverage stars if I bought 5 lunch or bistro food items.
- I have been tracking my nutrition lately since this tends to affect my mental health.
Somewhere along the process of taking in all this information, my leisurely weekend breakfast morphed into a quest to make the most of my upcoming Starbucks transaction. The goal was simple: walk away from the counter with food and drink in hand, my budget and nutritional goals intact and my Starbucks card sporting as many new beverage stars as possible.
The one big problem? The only remotely appetizing thing in the display case was a turkey ham sandwich — a breakfast item.
(You could say that there was a multitude of bigger problems with the situation, such as:
- How much I have apparently started caring about a rewards program that is ultimately designed to reward a multinational capitalist bastion with even more of my money
- How anybody who simply wants to get out of the house and read a bit apparently can’t do so without digging into their wallet
- How I was getting a coffee at Starbucks, ye old purveyors of over-extracted coffee, of all places
- How I was drinking coffee at all despite drinking mostly black tea all week and already getting coffee the night before, even when I know damn well what too much caffeine does to my brain
Or how about:
- 0. How I unthinkingly — automatically — started tackling the whole situation like an honest-to-goodness word problem to solve
I’d agree with you on all counts — just not at the moment that counted, since I was too far down the optimization rabbit hole, AKA Problem #0.)
My mind was running through options and charting outcomes all the way to the counter. There was a mozzarella and tomato sandwich that looked slightly less forlorn than all the other lunch food — maybe I could buy that instead? But it used focaccia bread, which I don’t like, and it would definitely have less protein than turkey. Should I try the new cold brew? But mornings demand a hot drink. How much did I need to add to my card? Which drink would be the most economical and the least offensive to my palate?
I walked up to the counter still searching for the best possible solution, never mind the words to actually convey it.
It’s funny when, where, and how you end up re-evaluating what you know of yourself sometimes. (Tsk. You think you know a person — the only one you even have any hope of claiming to know completely — and then you walk out of the house one day and you’re not who you thought you were.)
Introversion and a constant flirtation with misanthropy have always been hallmarks of the image I have of myself. (Don’t ask me why. These might or might not be relics from my teenage turmoil phase.) And yet! And yet, that fraught morning, I was genuinely grateful to be yanked into small talk with an overly chipper barista.
It was decision time. One way or another, the pursuit of the optimal had to end.
I topped up my card, placed my drink order (brewed coffee, or the most inexpensive way to let Starbucks know you really don’t care about the company’s core product), and then there was no escape. Bend the limits of budget, nutrition goals, and palate to get one step closer to extra benefits from the reward program? Grab what I wanted and rue the missed beverage stars and lost time to rack up rewards?
The barista’s expectant smile started dimming. I floundered.
It was ridiculous. So much uncertainty — and not just mine at that point! Baristas do heroic work putting up with indecisive customers every day, let me tell you. So much mental energy and time devoured by an ultimately inconsequential problem.
To hell with it. In what was probably the most toothless, superficial act of defiance I will ever carry out, I smiled and ordered the turkey sandwich.
The next order of business was finding a spot so I could set down my breakfast and chew over (heh) the disturbing little crisis that had played out in my head. I scanned the relatively empty cafe and, horror of horrors, there was an outside table with a good view of the lake; a stool at a shared worktop with better height; comfortable couches that nevertheless would be better suited for bigger parties; and even more options downstairs.
To think that one can escape the chokehold of optimization with a single, forlorn breakfast sandwich is foolishness. But we Sisyphuses must imagine ourselves happy, I suppose, because how else could we persist?