Effort + Randomness + Imperfections = Exciting

As long as it's not Frustrating.

How much do you enjoy effort?

A few questions to consider:

  • Do you enjoy driving, or someone driving you around?
  • Do you enjoy making breakfast, or someone making you breakfast?
  • Do you enjoy getting things done or getting things that are done?

For me, it's usually the former.

But the full answer is a bit more complicated.


The IKEA effect

I've seen two slightly different interpretations of the IKEA effect:

  • ❤️ We value something more if we've put effort into creating it
  • 💔 We overvalue garbage if we've put effort into creating it

The latter is somewhat unfair to IKEA, to be honest. Really, it's the best! Minimalist furniture that's easy to assemble and relatively inexpensive.

Their stores are a delight, too. I enjoy wandering around even if I don't buy anything. And don't get me started on their ~$0.50 hot dogs.

As to the IKEA effect, I noticed it long before I even heard the term. In my case, it's the former interpretation:

Things that take a little effort and aren't perfect tend to bring me more joy than the perfect stuff I get with zero effort.

In other words, Effort + Randomness + Imperfections = Unpredictable = Exciting.

Predictable = Boring, Unpredictable = Exciting

Enough theory. Let's head down to the grocery store and into the fruit aisle.

Hungry for apples? The ones you'll generally see are the "perfect" ones:

  • Perfectly red (Red Delicious)
  • Perfectly green (Granny Smith)
  • Perfectly sweet (Fuji)
  • Perfectly balanced (McIntosh*)

Perfect to the point of boredom. Perfectly unexciting.

Just like the process of buying them from the store, in fact. The only thing to make this even less exciting is grocery delivery. No randomness, no imperfections, no effort.

Now, let's forget the store and go for a nature walk.

See that abandoned apple orchard? Let's find an apple tree and shake it. Maybe even climb it. Get a scratch in the process. Trample a bush or two to pick a few apples.

How do they taste? How does it feel to eat them?

If you're lucky, they're perfectly imperfect. A little too sour, but also sweet and juicy. Perhaps with a tinge of bitter. Crisp and crunchy, but not jawbreakers.

And you gathered them yourself! Like a true hunter-gatherer. Be proud.

That's what makes life exciting. Fun.

Some other examples of Boring vs Exciting:

  • Grocery delivery vs in-store shopping. I don't hunt my food, so I have to get it somewhere. But I don't order groceries online. It feels too easy. I do enjoy making regular trips to the store and cooking my own meals. Just enough effort to be enjoyable.
  • All-inclusive resorts vs Airbnbs. I absolutely loathe staying at all-inclusives when I'm abroad. Super boring. Mega boring. If it's up to me, I'll do a rental road trip while staying in Airbnbs. Effort. Exciting.
  • Being driven vs driving yourself. I don't like taxis and I don't like being a passenger in general. If I can drive, I'll drive. Carsharing over Uber any day. Doing, not getting done.

There's of course a limit to this.

Too much unpredictability can make your life worse. It stops being exciting and starts being frustrating.

When Unpredictable = Frustrating

There's a certain threshold of effort, randomness, and imperfection beyond which unpredictability becomes frustrating.

Unpredictable stops being Exciting when:

  • The Effort required is too high. If the nearest grocery store was an hour's drive away, I'll get delivery more often.
  • The Randomness is too high. If half of my Airbnb experiences were trash, I'd stay in hotels more often.
  • The Imperfections are too high. A.k.a. low quality. If carsharing only offered dilapidated beaters, I'd be Ubering more often.

And in some cases, even a little Unpredictability is Frustrating. I enjoy sour apples, but not sour Apples.

Here's when Unpredictable generally makes my life worse, not better:

I want my software to be Predictable. A long time ago, I used to be a Linux fan. Slackware, Gentoo, Arch Linux. Maximum effort. Maximum unpredictability. It would break and I would fix it. And again. Tinkering with the sources was fun.

Then I grew up, and suddenly spending time getting software to work stopped being exciting. It started being frustrating. I had so much going on in life that the last thing I needed were software issues.

I switched back to Windows 7 and never looked back. It was amazing how sleek and robust it felt. It just worked. Predictable = Good.

I want my devices to be Predictable. My early smartphones were all Androids. I was stereotypically anti-Apple. And I enjoyed tweaking every little thing I could.

Then I got tired of Android updates changing things up. Again and again, I would have to get used to things being different with no apparent reason or benefit. Or my phone would just turn into a laggy mess and I'd have to get a new one. Frustrating.

I remember the day I got my first iPhone. It was a used iPhone 5. I had to overcome my anti-Appleness, but there was no decent Android alternative. And I was amazed at how it just worked. And it kept working for years. Fast. Intuitive. Stable. Predictable. Never looked back. Predictable = Good.

It's important to me that all my devices feel like this. My AirPods are like magic. I love my Dell XPS**. The iPad is great. Even my Ubiquiti setup***.

I want my home to be Predictable. The idea of owning a house terrifies me. I grew up in apartments, and I love living in an apartment. Lots of people around, zero maintenance. From what I've heard, owning a house is a bit of the opposite.

I want my people to be... scratch that, that's a whole different story. I want my people to come in all shapes and sizes.

And in many cases, it's not strictly one way or the other.

Embrace Unpredictability

You can't get rid of all Unpredictability without throwing the Excitement Baby out with the bathwater.

This used to frustrate me, but eventually, I learned to embrace it:

  • I like the idea of serendipity. I'm always open to new challenges, experiences, and opportunities. I enjoy living just outside my comfort zone. Unpredictable = Good.
  • But I hate unwelcome distractions. I'll do everything I can to mitigate them. Too far outside my comfort zone is no good. Unpredictable = Bad.

And while I enjoy putting together my IKEA furniture, there are days when I'd rather have a wardrobe magically appear in my room, fully assembled.

So what gives?

I have a few takeaways for you:

  • Embrace unpredictability. It can make your life more exciting, not just frustrating.
  • Know your tolerance for it. The better you know yourself, the more likely you are to embrace randomness.
  • Don't settle for predictable and boring. Try new things even if you're 99% sure you won't like it. You're probably wrong.

A few little experiment ideas:

  • If you're used to takeout, try cooking. But really, give it a proper try. Don't half-ass just to say "I told you I hate it".
  • If you're used to jeans and t-shirts, try a new style. It's how I ended up with Aloha shirts, a yellow bomber jacket, and red Adidas track pants. After a decade of black and camo, no less!
  • If you're used to Red Delicious, get a box of assorted apples from your local farmers' market. And do climb that apple tree when you see it. It's fun.

Stay open, don't settle for boring, keep experimenting.

That's how you discover a better life.


* McIntosh and Champion are alright. If I can't get any of my favorite local varieties, I'll go for either of these every time.

** Interestingly enough, I never made the switch from Windows to Macs. I tried to make myself love Macbooks. I really did. But it always felt like a downgrade. It made my workflow harder, not easier. So at least for now, I stick with my beloved XPS.

*** Ubiquiti devices are known for their design and price, but not for their stability. As an ex-Ubiquiti PM who's seen stuff, I still love them.