Past Midway Ramblings on Business & Life

Overthinking a Solution

While working on my Master’s degree in Acoustics at Penn State, our lab professor (we’ll call him “Dr. Dave”)1 wrote a computer program in C to randomly place students in different teams for each lab throughout the semester. This would prevent us from working with the same people every week. A high-tech solution to completely randomize lab teams for the whole semester at the push of a button. Smart. Geeky smart.

As luck would have it, a statistical anomaly occurred. Dr. Dave’s algorithm randomly assigned the same people to the same teams for nearly every lab. A few people swapped around here and there, but it was mostly the same teams each week. This was like flipping a coin and getting heads 10 times in a row. Possible, but not probable.

Some students noticed and suggested Dr. Dave re-run the program to get “better” random team assignments. However, Dr. Dave insisted that because it was a “rare event within a statistically random Gaussian distribution”, the teams would stand.2  Afterall, re-running the program to get “more desirable results” is akin to just picking the teams ourselves. Do we just keep re-running the program until everyone is happy with the team assignments? How many times do we run it?

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Dr. Dave and learned a lot in his lab. This is just a story I remember and found humorous for two reasons:

  1. He actually took the time to write a program to randomly assign teams.
  2. On principle, he remained true to the scientific method, even when the results were the exact opposite of the intended purpose.

This is a great example of overthinking something.

Optimal Thinking – from Soccer

23 years later,3 I got resolution to this dilemma of overthinking.

I was playing a friendly, pick-up soccer game. During the game, a guy attempted a difficult pass (a more complicated play than required) which lost the ball. His teammate commented critically,

“Don’t overthink it.”

A second teammate added, “Don’t under-think it either.”

Another player topped it off with, “Yeah, put just the right amount of thinking into it.”

The idea that we can put just the right amount of thinking into something is both humorous (in this case) and profound.

I had written more here about balancing our thinking-resources against the benefit of the outcomes but decided to delete it… lest I overthink this blog post.

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  1. Because that’s his real name.
  2. The irony.
  3. Also known as “last week”.


By Andy Jones
Past Midway Ramblings on Business & Life

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