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The Optimization Sinkhole
What if there's no such thing as the perfect coffee maker?
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I am an adult who has purchased too many coffee makers. Maybe you are too. Maybe, like me, you keep buying one of the three that Wirecutter — a “best of the best” Consumer Reports-style site now run by the New York Times — has recommended. And maybe, like me, you keep realizing they suck.
This morning, the Wirecutter OXO rec overflowed all over the counter. It does this with such regularity that we’ve taken to describing the number of days since an overflow the same way a construction site boasts the number of days without an accident: “SIX STRAIGHT DAYS WITHOUT A COFFEE APOCALYPSE.”
An unreliable coffeemaker feels like a liability. Any malfunction that early in the day (before you’ve had coffee!) can send your life off-kilter. “You just need to get a better coffeemaker,” you might say. Or “have you tried pour-over.” Yes, obviously, I need a better coffeemaker; what do you think I’ve been trying to do with all these damn coffeemakers? And yes, I’ve tried pour-over, but that solves the actual coffeemaker problem but then creates a whole new set of problems.
The point is: there is no such thing as the perfect coffee-making situation. There will always be compromises. But that understanding defies optimization culture, whose core tenet is that there is one item, one process, one routine with the capacity to blunt every cumbersome corner of our day. Its logic promises that if we amass or uncover or commit to enough of these hacks, our lives will become seamless, managable, easy.
A fantasy, sure but a deeply motivating one. I’ve been thinking the promise of optimization since interviewing Elise Hu about the ultimate aims of K-beauty earlier this week — and even more so after reading L.M. Sacasas’s recent meditation on Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique, or “the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.”
Sacasas explains technique as “the one best way.” The Wirecutter Pick, sure, but also “the chip clip that will change your life,” “the cooling sheets that will cure your insomnia,” and “the morning cold plunge routine that will change everything.” If you can just fill your life with those truly superlative things, and follow these superlative routines…your broken life will mend itself. And who knows what sort of greatness awaits a mended you?
"One under-appreciated consequence of believing there is such a thing as the ‘one best way’ in every aspect of life is subsequently living with the unyielding pressure to discover it and the inevitable and perpetual frustration of failing to achieve it,” Sacacas writes. “And not only frustration. It produces anxiety, fear, compulsiveness, resignation, and, ultimately, self-loathing. If there is “one best way,” how will I know it? If I have not found it, have I failed? And is it my fault?”
In this way, the quest for the best — or for the hack that will actually make some part of our life less cumbersome — throws a veil of dissatisfaction over our days. I look around the room and I see a laundry basket in need of optimization, an unsatisfactory rug, house plants that should be growing more. I need better tupperware, a kitchen remodel, some trick to clean my exterior windows that isn’t just me spending hours cleaning my exterior windows.
Instead of looking around my living space with gratitude for the soft comfort I’ve built for myself, inflected with my peculiar tastes and preferences, I see lack. And that dissatisfaction becomes a sort of lingering fog, dampening my experience of the world.
Of course, dissatisfaction is good for consumer demand — and you can see baked into the marketing for dietary supplements and cold plunge tubs to decluttering tools. It’s the beating heart of the wildly popular fridge restocking TikToks. And it’s all over remodeling culture, and the ethos that every room can and should be redone to match your very specific needs and aesthetic and taste, and once you’ve finished the cycle, you go back to the beginning and start all over again.
Contrast contemporary remodeling culture with the consumerism of the Greatest Generation, who bought houses at unprecedented rates….and often never changed them. I think of my Grandparent’s house in White Bear Lake, Minnesota — built in the early ‘60s, decorated with a mix of family heirlooms and sturdy ‘60s furniture, then effectively unchanged (down to the bedcovers for my mom and aunt’s twin beds) for the next fifty (fifty!) years. Truly, the biggest change to the house was my Granddad swapping out his word processor for a Gateway 2000.
Some of this tendency was a hand-me-down of Depression-era conservation and thrift, but some of it, too, was just an aesthetic satisfaction with good enough. Design once, and live with it. (To be clear, this sort of satisfaction did not extend to, say, women’s appearances or performance of domesticity within the home — that was always a place of lack — but it hadn’t fully overflowed onto the living room couch.)
So what happened? Stuff got cheaper, and cheaper stuff breaks more, and planned obsolescence (of technology or couches or clothes) is essential to an ever-expanding economy. Social media made it possible for us to not just compete with the Jones next door, but every Jones we’ve ever met or followed on Instagram. I’ve always found the influence of social competition to be overblown, or at least imprecise. Instead, like Cacacas, I think the ultimate driver is the possibility of perfection, exemplified by the curated and omnipresent feed, filled with normies theoretically just like you.
The scroll doesn’t make you feel jealous, per se. I don’t even think it makes you feel shame, at least not in the way we usually think of it. It’s aspirational: it makes you feel like if you could just find the capital and discipline, you could touch perfection too.
Remodeling is the attempt to find “the one best way” with our physical spaces; wellness culture is “the one best way” with our bodies; productivity culture is “the one best way” with our work lives. And like all quests for optimization, they’re sinkholes. You think you’re standing on solid ground, just scrolling your phone dreaming about a steam oven and downloading a new list-making app and listening to someone on TikTok emphatically tell you you’re doing [blank] wrong, but then you look up and realize you’re not just trying to make a few things better, or easier, or more straightforward — you’re dissatisfied with your whole damn life, and have been for some time.
A few months ago, I was talking about remodeling culture with someone I’ve known since we were young kids. I spent a lot of time in her home, and I never remember it being remodeled. I do remember it feeling old, or at least older than my house, in that cozy, lived-in way. She told me that remodeling culture makes you look at every place in your living space and see it as broken — which strips it of its capacity to comfort you. Others might still feel welcome and warm in them, but you, the person who spends the most time there, have blocked yourself from experiencing the space of home as a place of solace.
Which is ironic, right? Because remodeling is supposed to make your house feel more welcoming, just as wellness culture is supposed to make you feel more “grounded” in your body and productivity culture is supposed to feel more confident and in control at work. Instead, they just introduce you to areas of your life you didn’t even realize needed optimizing. But now that you’ve seen them through this lens, you can’t regain your old vision of yourself or any semblance of satisfaction. Again: a sinkhole.
This is the point where someone deep in the throes of one of these improvement cultures — or even just dead-set on finding the perfect coffeemaker — might tell you: But I like it. It’s fun for me. It’s my hobby. It gives me pleasure. If you’re an interior designer, if you see home space as an artistic tapestry, I get this; I believe you. But I also believe that we’ve collectively become very good at mistaking the feelings of optimization, organization, and control for fun. Organizing your fridge is not fun. Neither is watching someone do it. It is satisfying, and it is satisfying because it offers a flicker of control amidst the natural and amplified chaos of our lives.
Productivity culture thrives during economic downturns; organization culture takes off for parents (particularly mothers) of young children; beauty and wellness culture explodes in your early 30s; remodel culture starts in the late 30s and continues for decades, peaking, I’d argue, in the years after kids leave the home. All times, of course, when control feels fleeting. Yet instead of directing attention and energy towards the sort of structures that could make us feel less insecure — whether unions or deeper friendships or school year reform — we focus it on the self and the space around it. Somehow, the more money you have, the more significant the problems seem. But no amount of personal renovation can satisfy this type of lack. We’re all in our private sinkholes, miffed about the coffee maker, browsing new serums and rethinking the wallpaper.
Is this the point in the newsletter where I offer ONE COOL TRICK to change the way you think about your life? Wouldn’t that rule? But the very idea that we can “fix” this mindset is, well, optimization culture. “Fixing” suggests altering or shifting the existing parts. This bullshit requires dismantlement.
But what does that even begin to look like? For me, it’s looking at my body, my self, and my spaces through the eyes of a friend who loves me the most. It’s extending that posture of grace for others. It’s talking back at the part of me that worries something is “off-trend” or will “look dated.” It’s finding that busted-ass coffee maker funny. Annoying, sure, but annoyances are part of the rich tapestry of life. It’s figuring out the parts of my living space that are precious to me, as we did in the Friday thread this week, and extending that feeling. Not the cost, not the aesthetic, but the feeling.
It’s knowing the most precious and interesting parts of me are the ones that optimization culture would sand away. It’s remembering, over and over again, what a blessing it is to be simply, overwhelmingly, satisfied. ●
I’d love to hear how you’re cultivating satisfaction with your self and your spaces and just generally resisting optimization — and I know others would as well.
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