Finding the right match is hard. Matchmaking is a time consuming, costly endeavor - be it making friends, dating, finding the right career or hiring the right employee. When should you stop meeting people, changing careers or interviewing candidates? Simply put when is enough, enough?
People aren’t designed to be satisfied. It's our nature to continue searching for the next best thing. Once we achieve a milestone we receive fleeting satisfaction, followed by a familiar yearning for the next big challenge. This phenomenon is known as the Hedonic Treadmill. People have a natural state of happiness. After achieving one success people return to their "steady state" of satisfaction. The Hedonic Treadmill describes the endless restlessness experienced by people in the elusive search for the right match.
So in light of elusive satisfaction at what point do you embrace your current job, career or candidate? Well, luckily this problem was solved (theoretically) by a mathematical theory popularized in the 1960’s.
While this problem can be applied to dating and making friends, for the sake of being on topic we will focus purely on getting the right career and the right person for your company.
The theory itself is known as the secretary problem, which is an application of optimal stopping theory.
The scenario goes like this. An administrator wants to interview a known constant number of secretaries and is unaware how good each candidate is. Candidates are interviewed in a random order, and only a small number of the applicants that applied for the job are interviewed.
The problem has some conditions which are not as useful in a real-life application of optimal stopping theory, but will be explained here. Once interviewed every secretary is rejected and cannot be recalled. After an interview, an applicant’s quality can be determined. However, the remaining applicant’s quality remains unknown.
The theoretical solution to the problem is to interview 37% of the people who applied, reject the interviewed 37% and choose the next best candidate who was better than the interviewed 37% of candidates. This method gives the administrator the best chance of finding the right match for any sample size whether it’s 100 candidates to 100 million. This is considerably better than randomly choosing applicants which only guarantees a 7% chance of success.
There are some obvious limitations to this theory. Assuming a pool of 100 candidates if you interview the first 37 and they are all terrible, but the 38th is marginally better and the 39th is exceptional - you will be still be stuck with a bad (38th) candidate. A similar problem could be the first candidate is exceedingly exceptional, in fact the best, but by following the theory they would have to be rejected and you would interview the entire pool of candidates never able to find the next best applicant.
With obvious limitations to the problem, you are probably asking why this is useful?
While the model is theoretical it does provide some useful wisdom about searching for the right match.
It is far from wise to take the first thing that comes along, but it is equally silly to constantly search for perfection. With the constraint of time by getting an idea of your options, it is easier to decide on the right job, career or candidate. Setting a limit on how long you will keep trying until you find something that fits your needs and ensures a happy medium is found.
If time is not on your side you can settle on looking at the first 30% of your options, or if you have more time you can search through the next 60% of options to find the right match.