Second Best

October 21, 2013

By Gabrielle. Incredible chalkwork by Rajiv Surendra.

After finding this interview, I want to read Debora Spar’s book, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” Among other gems, she’s popularizing the term satisficing, which essentially means settling for something that is second best. You might not be the CEO, but you are recognized as a key contributor at work. Maybe you missed every PTA meeting last year, but managed to sit with your family nearly every night at dinner.

We talk about this topic so much here on Design Mom. Some days, it’s crucial for us to somehow achieve perfection in the work-life balance. Other days, we’re just happy if we’ve managed a shower before the day ends! Turns out, it’s all about manageable expectations. While none of us is seeking out mediocrity, we really do need to cut ourselves some slack when we’re not standing at the top of the mountain. Maybe we just need to climb a different mountain!

And here’s what she has to say about high school students:

“They’re coming out of high school exhausted. The pressure in high school is killing these kids. By the time they get to college, they have been fighting for three or four years to get the perfect SAT scores and get into AP classes. It’s a much wider set of pressures than when you or I experienced growing up. It’s not just grades, it’s extracurriculars. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve seen who have started their own NGO’s before they’re 18. Most people don’t know how to change the world by the time they’re 18. You see it particularly in the city, where most of the schools require community service. There’s something deeply oxymoronic about required volunteering. They have to have community service, they have to have sports, they have to have been president of a club. It’s just too much.”

What do you think? Does the idea of “satisficing’ appeal to you? And for those of you with high school students, have you felt the pressure? How do you and your kids, not to mention their school, deal with it?

P.S. – The one thing that troubles me in the interview is the discussion of Ms. Spar’s breast reduction at the age of 21. Apparently, her breasts were too much of a professional distraction. Thoughts? I’m sure you have some good ones!

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bambi October 21, 2013 at 11:33 am

I agree full heartedly!
I even wrote about it:

Love from Germany,


2 Tiffany L. October 21, 2013 at 11:44 am

David Brooks spoke at the Aspen Institute this past summer on the upcoming generation and the challenges they face with pressure to deliver. NPR recently rebroadcast the seminar, but here is the YouTube video. It’s worth listening to the entire thing, especially the Q&A. A lot of food for thought:


3 Erin October 21, 2013 at 12:05 pm

I found her comments about high school to be interesting and timely. My oldest is a high school junior who just took the PSAT this past Saturday. I’m so conflicted over his schooling at times. It feels like high school has become this sort of “perfection academy” where competitive parents are directing their kids’ activities 24/7 in the quest for acceptance to the “best” universities, and yet that does not feel right to me. She’s right, the pressure is there not only to have a 4.0+ GPA, but a huge range of extracurriculars as well as an area of “expertise”. I suppose I’m a bit old-school, but I still want my high-schooler to have some free time, to be home for family dinner most nights, to have a part-time job where he learns some life lessons, to look for opportunities to serve those around him without my direction, and yet sometimes it’s easy to feel guilt over not pushing him harder. Last weekend he came home and announced that he was going to spend Saturday helping his friend’s grandma move. A lot of his friends could not help because they were studying for the PSAT. I love that he saw this opportunity to serve and volunteered without any direction from me. Maybe that is what she means by “satisficing”? I can’t help but think, in the grand scheme of life, that this kind of spontaneous, unrecognized service, will serve him better in the long-run than me signing him up for so many hours at the local Habitat for Humanity so he can put it on his college app. Time will tell, but when I start to feel overwhelmed by the competitive nature of his high school, and with the intensity with which some of the parents are ticking off the ‘checklist’ for college applications, I remind myself that he’s super smart, funny, articulate, responsible and kind and that he will be a great “grown-up” even if he doesn’t make it into a university that will impress the neighbors!


4 Anna October 21, 2013 at 8:33 pm

I love this Erin! I think while we are in such pursuit of our children being the best, they are perhaps missing what’s really important!


5 Yvette October 30, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Good for you! I love your attitude.


6 Rachel October 21, 2013 at 12:28 pm

I agree with the concept but I don’t like calling it settling for second best. Best is sometimes subjective. And settling has all sorts of negative connotations that I fear still make women feel like they’re missing out, or making undesirable sacrifices to live a life they never really anticipated. Although who does anticipate the life they live? I believe that we all do what we want to do, and one of the joys of getting older is whittling down the list of things we want to do (career, motherhood, travel, making the perfect apple pie) to things that actually make us happy and work with the life we’ve created. And then those things don’t just become second best, but become the best for us.


7 Emma October 21, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Beautifully said, Rachel.


8 Kathleen October 21, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Yes, yes, yes. The term “second best” didn’t sit well with me either. I try to make conscious, thoughtful choices about how I and my family spend our time. I don’t have any illusions about being the perfect mother but I do try to be the best one I can be every day and often that involves just spending time with my kids reading books, listening to their thoughts and questions, and getting some kind of dinner on the table.
I think we need to let go of outside expectations and try to live the best life for us and our unique family and the individuals that make up that family. I know that’s sometimes hard to do but it’s a worthy goal.


9 Angela October 22, 2013 at 8:48 am

Just joining the chorus – ladies above have spoken eloquently. AMEN. :>


10 Molly October 21, 2013 at 1:36 pm

I agree about the comments about high school. My son started 9th grade this fall and we’re all on edge. Our church is showing the documentary “Race to Nowhere” tomorrow night and I’m really looking forward to gaining some insight in how we might help him achieve a better balance.


11 Liliana October 21, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Wow amazing how your topics hit always at the right time. Last night my daughter who is a junior in high school, was in tears telling how pressured she feels to get the perfect grades, to be in two clubs and be an officer in one of them, to keep up the work on her AP English class, and try to get a part time job… You are so right, these kids are getting burned out at such a young age… :(


12 Katie October 21, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Thank-you for this post! I loved it. This topic has been in my head for some time. I have a high pressure professional career that I juggle with mothering. I have a great set up and a really good balance, that only requires me to be in the office 3 days per week. And yet, I pine for the days missed at home and worry that a nanny sending my kid off to playschool is shirking my duty.

The interview and the comments about pressures in high school made me think of your kids going to the community high school, which decision and post I loved. I wonder whether we do a disservice to our kids by making them go to “top tier” schools, which puts so much pressure on excelling that there is little room for growing up and learning in organic and creative ways.

Thanks for this very interesting interview. I am excited to read the book.


13 cal October 21, 2013 at 3:09 pm

I tried really hard in high school, but I was never crazy, for various reasons I ended up going to community college for two years and then transferring to Cal, when I got to Cal there were many student who had tunnel vision to get in to college and were burnt out before it even started. I am so grateful for a more relaxed high school experience and even those two years at community college afterwards. I also think that the disappointment of watching all my friends go away to school without me was very important and maturing. In the end I am grateful everyday for not getting caught up in those expectations.


14 Melissa October 21, 2013 at 4:46 pm

I really think community college is a fantastic way to ease that transition from high school to university. I taught at one, my kids attend, and the pressure is different and the cost is so much less for families.


15 Super Starling! October 21, 2013 at 3:22 pm

In movies they sometimes show someone falling beneath ice into a lake, slamming their fists upwards to try to find another hole to get back out.

That’s what high school was like for me.

I had like five extracurricular activities, dance lessons, art lessons, all the classes imaginable, and was writing a novel. Toward the end of my high school career, I gave up, and somehow my GPA skyrocketed UP.

By the time I hit college, I didn’t care any more. I did well enough to graduate from the honors college of a large state school, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’d burned out by 17.


16 J October 22, 2013 at 8:01 am

I remember feeling relieved to finally go to college after an extremely hectic high school experience. The schedule in college was much more doable than my high-pressure high school days. And this was 20 years ago! Things have only gotten more intense since then. Heaven help us!


17 Heather October 21, 2013 at 4:19 pm

The first thing that popped into my head when I read your post was ‘Race to Nowhere.’ It’s a *must see* documentary made by a flimmaker mom. Very compelling. I saw it about three years ago and it was the final ‘push’ that led me to make the decision to pull my two oldest children out of public school and begin homeschooling them (they’re now in 6th and 3rd grade) and I have three more behind them. I do not want my kids to feel like hamsters on a wheel. What happened to playing outside? Daydreaming? Reading books for pleasure? Exploring nature? Playing kick ball with the neighborhood kids? Everything’s so highly structured nowadays that our kids can’t just *be*. I’m not one of those amazingly talented, organized, die-hard homeschooling moms. I do it because it just feels right — for right now. We take it one year at a time, one child at a time. But I can tell you one thing, I feel so grateful that my 9-year-old who has become a competitive gymnast in the last two years is home all day long before she heads off to the gym four days a week. I say it all the time, if she weren’t homeschooled she simply wouldn’t be able to do gymnastics because she would break under the pressure. Homeschooling’s not what it used to be (kind of odd kids and kind of odd moms neither of which seem to fit in well). Homeschooled kids are thriving and the resources for homeschooling are endless.


18 gayle October 21, 2013 at 4:42 pm

My daughter is almost two decades out of high school. Unfortunately (because she was smart in middle school) she got accepted into the one academic public high school in San Francisco. I couldn’t believe how much homework they had! Turned out horrible for her. It was competitive to the max; unfortunately she wasn’t. Completely turned her off school and she refused to go to college as a result. She actually wanted to drop out of high school, but I managed to keep her in. Sigh.
As for the question of it being ok to be “second best”, boy, even as adults we’re talking mega-competition. What about just doing your own best, in a loving, creative, balanced way? Lastly, personally I could never understand why women got breast implants (and I know a lot of small breasted women, the majority of whom were “ok” with their body as it was, though I know there are a lot of stories women have about feeling “inadequate” or “less than sexy”, etc… I always had pretty big boobs that got bigger as I got older. I took care not to wear low cut dresses so that I would not have to peel men’s eyeballs off my chest. It’s awful having that kind of attention, de-humanizing being seen as a sexual object. Finally after years of physical discomfort with the weight of large breasts (back/neck pain, straps cutting into shoulders, underwire cutting into ribs) I made the difficult decision to get a breast reduction. I was 64 at the time, a year and a half ago. Best thing I ever did. So much more comfortable in my own body. Didn’t do it for anyone else.. just for me. There’s lots of good and bad reasons to have surgery; it’s never an easy choice (when it’s optional). Taking care of ourselves, being kind and as non-judgmental as possible is a good thing. We often never know the whole story.


19 Melissa October 21, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Our daughter had a 4.5 GPA, was in the extracurriculars, did the volunteering, etc. She did all the things, loved school, and got into her choice college and all the others she applied for. And then whoosh, the bottom kind of dropped out because while she was an amazing student and citizen, the financial promises didn’t come through. She got scholarship offers but they were so much lower than expected. She thought there would be more by way of grants and scholarships, and they just DON’T EXIST anymore. We kind of knew this the more we researched it, and were still able to send her to her choice school, but she was disheartened that all the work and time spent racing through the week didn’t really add up the way she expected.

And then she actually started school and within a year had dropped out. Then she dropped out of another school. It was overwhelming for her to lose all the structure her high school had provided, to lose the identity she had forged while doing the million activities every week just to win those coveted, and often promised, scholarships that don’t exist like she thought.

On the flip side, I have a homeschooled kid too. Like Heather said above, he had done activities as well but he has TIME for them. He really got to engage in his extracurriculars and choose the ones he truly enjoyed, spend time with his friends, do more meaningful and deeper schoolwork, volunteer because he wanted to and believed in the organization, and when he started college this fall he already knew how to work independently and his identity wasn’t linked to his high school persona.


20 mandi@herbanhomestead October 21, 2013 at 5:57 pm

What an interesting article! I do not have teenagers yet, but my husband has been a youth pastor for about 16 years now and I work alongside him. It has been eye opening to see how much the life of teenagers has changed just in the past 15 or so years. Our kids now are overburdened to the max. They are constantly tired and worn out. They are living on caffeine to survive. Now when we plan retreats on the weekends we carve out time for them to just sleep! Because none of them are getting enough. I could go on and on about this, but I suppose it’s enough to say that it is a very real problem that needs to be rectified before all of our “future leaders” completely burn out before they hit 21!


21 Nora October 21, 2013 at 6:31 pm

The definition of satisficing is a term I learned in high school science that meant not necessarily settling for second best, but rather stopping at the first option that met all required criteria/ticked all the boxes (and that could be less than second best!). The idea is to review all options before deciding the best one.
My son just entered high school. I am blown away by the amount of “other” stuff that he has to be doing. I did not go through high school in the US. My university acceptance was based on my top 6 high school prep credits scores (which I selected for consideration.) No extra activities (sports etc) were required. No SATs either. Shockingly we still had sports teams and drama clubs etc. It was done because…students enjoyed it. Not because they had to. We are trying to sort out Comm Service possibilities and he just dropped playing soccer to focus on grades, so now we need another sport. He had 3 days off and slept til noon.
Listening to other parents discuss their kids’ activities is exhausting let alone actually doing it. Too much!


22 Celeste L. October 21, 2013 at 7:52 pm

The first time I encountered the term satisficer was in Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice. As I recall, it was not put forth as settling for second best; rather, it was a way to move past becoming paralyzed or anxiety ridden over the myriad choices we face in life. In many circumstances, the author suggested, choosing a good option is preferable to an endless quest for the perfect option.

I’m curious to know whether Ms. Spar is claiming this as an original idea. Whatever the case, I have practiced satisficing many times since reading Mr. Schwartz’s book.


23 Grace October 21, 2013 at 7:54 pm

This is interesting. I’m twenty-three so getting into college is still fresh enough in my mind. As a high schooler, I just accepted that it was what needed to be done. But I always felt second best. I was the co-captain of my swim team, not THE captain. I was the treasurer of A.P. English Club, NOT the president. I was the co-founder of a new club my “colleague” and I created together after watching the Invisible Children documentary (we called the club Students in Action). And I was a mere member of Key Club whereas one of my best friends was the president. Even though I accomplished A LOT, I remember feeling it wasn’t ENOUGH. And when I didn’t get accepted into my top school (UCLA) I blamed myself for not doing more. Now that I’m older I see how corrupted the education system is (especially in higher education) and it’s become one of the big reasons I myself want to become an educator (hence getting my teaching credential at the moment). I want to read her book desperately! Thanks for bringing this to light, Gabrielle.


24 Linda K October 21, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Another great topic Gabby – and great comments from readers. So fun to pop by Design Mom: there’s always something fresh and thought-provoking. Thanks for that!


25 Karen October 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm

This makes me think of another book – “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown. The subtitle is – Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Of course, I’m an adult who went to college 20 years ago (and I don’t have kids). So, it’s easy for me to take this approach (or to try to). Secondary degrees are required to get any kind of job that will support you (depending on where in the country you live). However, I do struggle with wanting to be “the best” at something… to leave my mark. The idea of being enough as I am is difficult to embrace. Which leads me to my favorite quote – Comparison is the thief of joy.


26 Gio October 21, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Speaking of pressure on high school students, have you seen this film? It changed our lives.


27 Kate October 21, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Very happy to see you addressing this topic, but I agree with others taking issue with the definition of satisficing as accepting “second best”. I think it just means having a clear expectation in your head of what you’re looking to accomplish/obtain, and then stopping as soon as you’ve reached that point instead of (needlessly) going further. What you’re getting in the end is not second best. You’re just achieving your desired outcome in the most efficient way.


28 Sabrina October 21, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Wow, I am afraid for my children! They are still very young, so we haven’t had to face the pressures of college acceptance. However, I already feel pressure to have my kids in lots of activities and they have homework in Kinder and first grade with notices if they don’t complete things correctly and on time, and this is just in the local public school. I don’t remember this kind of pressure in high school, and definitely not in the first few grades of school.

I graduated from college less than 10 years ago, and, quite frankly, I never worried about getting in. I did well in school (but, I was by no means the very best of my class) and I did participate in a few things, mostly choirs and such. However, I didn’t feel like I had to have a sport and be a president of anything. I got into the schools I applied to and got scholarships. I really don’t think I am that amazing either. What has happened in the last decade that has made college acceptance so intense?

I don’t want to see my kids get burned out, think they aren’t good enough or start to hate learning because of these ridiculous pressures. I think teaching our kids satisficing skills early on is extremely wise.


29 Margaret Petry October 21, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. I’m a high school teacher, but the demographics of my (small, charter) school are not the high-achieving kids. They’re the kids who are working hard to make up for freshman and sophomore mistakes and still graduate on time.

By the way, can we ask for an update on how Ralph and Maude are doing in their new, different high school? Would one of them ever be interested/ allowed to do a guest post? :-)


30 Erin October 22, 2013 at 1:38 am

I went to a not so great public high school with no AP classes offered and only 2 language classes. I was a great student, but it wasn’t difficult in that school. I had some extra-curricular activities, but nothing special. In my senior year I got into the Ivy League university of my choice. That was over 20 years ago. When I think about it now I realize I would never get accepted there today.

When I was in college, I took a class and taught in the local school district as part of that course. It was what was called “under-resourced” in those times and was in a struggling neighborhood (West Philadelphia). While my university had lots of resources and thousands of folks who could have helped, my professor was adamant that such community service NEVER be a requirement for graduation. He said the last thing a community needs is a bunch of people coming in who don’t really want to be there. There were only 12 of us in the class, but we all had our whole hearts in it.


31 Amy October 22, 2013 at 7:47 am

I find it interesting that Ms. Spar on one hand decries that freshman women are coming to her college already burnt out, while on the other hand is President of a super elite college that is part of the problem. It is extremely competitive to get into Barnard, and the (three) young women I know who go there worked their tails off in high school, with a lot of anxiety, eating disorders, and perfectionism and not any free time. They are all neurotic messes. So perhaps Ms. Spar could actually do something about the problem, rather than simply being in charge of an institution that keeps raising the admissions bar.

Also, my kids go to a very academic independent school, from which many kids go to the Ivies, or the “little Ivies,” or other really highly sought-after schools. I am conflicted – my kids are getting an amazing education, but they work so hard, with no free time. Part of my job is to create a stress-free home for them, but I do not like that they cannot hold part-time jobs and can barely help with chores on the weekend. Race to Nowhere is spot on.


32 Heidi October 22, 2013 at 8:17 am

This is such a timely discussion! Our oldest child is a sophomore in high school and is already putting so much pressure on herself to do well academically, including planning ahead for her spring AP tests, and be involved with extracurriculars. My husband and I feel so conflicted. On the one hand, of course we want her to do “well” and go to a “good” college. But the flip side is we worry a lot about her burning out-and always discuss the option of community college first (which she dismisses right now). I just don’t know how to opt out of this. I also fear that Common Core will just feed into this more!


33 Michelle Gallo October 22, 2013 at 12:05 pm

I almost deleted this post without reading it. I’m so glad I didn’t. The subject of high school pressure has been a hot button topic in our house ever since this school year started. We have two high schoolers and they have been attending a “college prep” catholic high school. My oldest is a Junior, and he has Asperger’s, my daughter is a “gifted” Sophomore in Honors, and AP classes. We haven’t been able to take a family vacation during the school year (August to June) for the last two years because of the amount of work they are given. They have 3-5 hours of homework a night, homework every weekend, and homework over every break and holiday. Besides moms, who else works those hours? Our son is now suffering from anxiety and depression, and our daughter is becoming affected as well. Our son wants to be homeschooled, but our daughter doesn’t want to leave her friends. All this for 15% of our annual income. Neither of them is going to MIT or Harvard, nor wants to. Yet they are all on the same track whether they are in advanced classes or regular. My kids tell me stories of their classmates getting drunk and doing drugs, it’s no wonder. As a recovering perfectionist I’m killing myself with stress trying to do the right thing by them. The public schools in our area are out of the question (over crowding in the “good schools”, bullying and gang activity in the rest). I keep looking for the “good enough” answer (a term I prefer to second best), where we don’t all end up in therapy!


34 gina October 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Oh soooo much I want to add to this! I’m loving this discussion! With our daily family of three cultures and my international life abroad, it’s amazing the way these extra two questions: 1) raising children & grading their success and 2) defining success as mother is magnified!! I could discuss this for hours with you and your readers! I’m keep returning to see what’ up here … as I’m shirking my duties! Must leave it at this today but, bravo for a wonderful discussion with an obvious audience!


35 Corina October 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm

I am in the throes of trying to navigate this American High school system…and I could bore you for hours with the issues we are facing already with my freshman daughter. She is struggling in some classes and underwhelmed by others. However I wanted to say I think I had a lightbulb moment when I realised that in all of this confusions, pressure and hoolpa about Advanced Placement , honors, college prep this and that …I have come to suspect that my daughter, if I leave it to the conselor and the school, and my daughter (at 14 she should not be allowed to make these choices unsupervised) , that she will not meet the requirements of university entrance in the our home country where students begin their degree coursework straight away. There is no Pre-med, pre -law etc. I have had to begin our research very early in order to make sure this does not happen and it looks like we will be pushing uphill, not because of her level of ability, but because of the mindset that has her already put in a box because she is also very artistic. I have also come to feel that the American High school system would be vastly better for students, if there the emphasis were taken off competitive sport being the focus of school spirit, and there was an option to complete everything in 5 years instead of 4. That way they could reasonably do it “all” ie academics, sport and other activities…without killing themselves . They are ridiculously over-committed, and chronically overtired. In what other world do High school students “need” coffee? And in amongst it all- they want a DRs note because she has a weak stomach (sometimes medical things make her feel naseous/faint). Already I think the school has me earmarked as a problem parent!


36 jessica October 24, 2013 at 3:25 pm

i like the idea of taking the pressure off to be perfect! something all us moms need!


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