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the everyman memoirs

The official blog of author Tali Nay.
JUL
17

The Traveling Salesman Problem

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As a person somewhat prone to annoying things like worrying, perfectionism, and overanalyzing (and also as a person who has seen If/Then), I’m fascinated by the traveling salesman problem, which has to do with determining the best way to make a series of deliveries or stops. I’m by no means a savant for college addresses, commencement or otherwise, but I came across one given last year that opens with this very dilemma, and the mathematician speaker pointed out just how quickly actually determining the “best” option becomes impossible.

With 3 stops, a salesman has only 6 possible routes. Pretty easy to identify the best, shortest one. With 4 stops, we’re up to 24. With 5, we’re all the way up to 120. By the time you reach 10 stops, we’re almost unbelievably up to 3,628,800 possible routes, and with 20 stops, that jumps to 2,432,902,008,176,640,000, a number of options that even if you had a computer analyzing at a rate of 1 Billion routes per second, it would still take 72 years to check them all.

OK, so maybe there aren’t *that* many possible paths we can take in our lives, but I do think we get hung up too often on wanting to determine the “best” path. The best option. The scenario, the job, the city, the spouse, the ultimate combination of circumstances that would be better than all others. What this address did was remind me that it’s simply impossible to know if the decisions you are making, the life you are choosing, is the one that would make you happier than any other. You can do your homework, sure, and you can make some educated guesses based on what you know about yourself and the thing you are choosing. But after that, it’s nothing more than the proverbial leap, and if you spend too long trying to guarantee you are making the “best” decision, you’ll paralyze yourself into doing nothing. Ever. And you’ll regret your lack of action.

Think back to your bible study days on this one, but remember the parable of the talents? The speaker of this same college address tied in this story rather ingeniously by reminding the students that the servant who (literally) buried his talent was cast out. Banished. Sent to hell. Or whatever. The point is, even though he didn’t lose a single cent of that money, the bigger thing at play is that he didn’t even try to do anything with it, so afraid he was of losing it. See, it doesn’t really come down to whether or not we screw up, but life has more to do with us actually doing something, regardless of whether or not what we did was the best possible thing we could have done.

We’ll simply never know what the Best Possible Thing is, so that thing you’ve been wanting to do, that thing you’ve been looking into, that thing you feel like a crazy person for trying even though it’s all you can think about, I say do it.

It’s either that or wait 72 years for the computer to figure it out for you.

Your move.