The secretary problem

You may have heard about the secretary problem in the context of hiring. But today, I’m going to tell you about how this applies to relationships, and choosing a life-partner.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept, let me quickly explain this to you.

Imagine an administrator who wants to hire the best secretary out of n rankable applicants for a position. The applicants are interviewed one by one in random order. A decision about each particular applicant is to be made immediately after the interview. Once rejected, an applicant cannot be recalled. During the interview, the administrator gains information sufficient to rank the applicant among all applicants interviewed so far, but is unaware of the quality of yet unseen applicants.

The question is about the optimal strategy (stopping rule) to maximize the probability of selecting the best applicant. If the decision can be deferred to the end, this can be solved by the simple maximum selection algorithm of tracking the running maximum (and who achieved it), and selecting the overall maximum at the end. The difficulty is that the decision must be made immediately.

Anyone in the market for a partner usually follows a similar approach - they meet a few people without too many expectations and keep an open mind to see where it goes before they find a benchmark or what the husband calls a CMP.

In the marriage market, there are two types of people:

  • people who identify their secretary quickly, and settle down

  • and, the ones who don’t

The ones who settle down with their first best prospective spouse dominate the arranged marriage market. The spectrum ranges from people who have low expectations to people who get very lucky. To be honest, there’s not much to be said about these fellows. So, maybe let’s talk about

… The ones who don’t?

I have a friend who’s been in the market for a while now, but it’s been impossible for him to find “the one” since his secretary dumped him. They were in love, or that’s what he thought. He’d been in love before, but there was something different about this one.

That’s the thing with unprecedented physical intimacy - once you throw it into the mix, suddenly you’re much more in love. You start believing it’s meant to be. So, naturally, he thought they were meant to be together and when they broke up, he couldn’t believe it.

He blamed himself for years, he still does. Some part of him still lusts after her and longs for her, but this insecurity prevents him from making a real connection with anyone else.

He’s been meeting so many interesting women over the years, but it’s always been either her grammar, her lack of passion, a lack of spark or her crazy mother. But in his head, he believes his ex is the best he could have got. In fact, with each passing day, this belief just gets more and more re-enforced as his subconscious begins to erase all the bitter memories.

You are in love -> Experience unprecedented physical intimacy -> Feel off more in love -> Lose power in the relationship -> You get dumped -> You think it’s your fault, but in reality, shit like this happens for no good reason -> You obsess over this person like a madcap -> Refuse to open up to anyone new, yet think that you are doing everyone a favour by meeting new people -> While you don’t find a new partner, you feel fairly accomplished for having been in love at least once -> The high begins to wear off as you meet more people who are less interesting -> People start rejecting you because honestly, no one wants to be with someone who doesn’t make any effort to build a connection -> You start questioning your worth -> Take a break from the market -> Get back -> Take a break -> Get back again… And before you know it, a decade goes by.

The ONLY thing that would salvage this situation is luck, and let’s face it, how many of us really have it. Right?

Touche, huh? Wait, but what now?

Why don’t you scroll up, and re-read the secretary problem and follow the wiki link to explore the solution. Somewhere in there lies a bit of solace.

Your ex is definitely not the best you can get, he/she is at best a benchmark, contrary to what your phallus thinks. Yeah, that’s who’s been doing the thinking for you off late. So, listen, the best lies ahead of you, so just look up once.

I have another friend who was stuck in a similar limbo after having dated a couple of men, unable to find a partner in the arranged marriage market, especially after a bad break up. She told me she loved her ex for being so confident and sure of himself, except she didn’t really like that they fought so much all the time.

But that didn’t stop her from comparing every guy she met in the market to her ex. She knew he wasn’t the best she could get, but she actually wanted to outdo herself by finding a guy who would not only be independent thinking like her ex, but would also be meek enough to agree when he would rather disagree.

Now, anyone who is vaguely rationale can tell you that the statement is a bit of an oxymoron, and it’s almost impossible to have both. While, she was right in believing that her ex was her secretary benchmark and that she needed to outdo herself, she wasn’t optimising for the right improvements.

So, naturally, she was stuck in a bit of an infinite loop until she was made to realise why she wasn’t finding anyone better than her ex. Anyway, she got married earlier this year, to someone who is independent thinking and doesn’t hesitate to disagree when he needs to, but also, loves who she is now, unlike her ex from four years ago. Oh, and they fight all the time, but she knows better now.

If you find yourself comparing everyone to your ex, know that the best is actually yet to come. The best solution to the secretary problem till date suggests that there is a 37% chance that a best candidate is selected. Not sure if this solution accounts for mutual matching, so let’s say there’s a 50% chance someone you’ve chosen also likes you back, that’s 18.5% chance you will end up selecting the best candidate from among the ones you interview. 

Now, 18.5% is by no means a small number. 

For those of you who are having trouble believing that this is a significant number, I’m reminded of these lines from Shantaram.

Some loves are like that. Your heart starts to feel like an overcrowded lifeboat. You throw out your pride to keep it afloat, and your self-respect and independence. After a while you start throwing people out - friends, everyone you know, and it’s still not enough. The lifeboat is still sinking, and you know it’s going to take you down with it. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of people. I think that’s why I’m sick of love.

The hardest bit about love is not falling in it. Actually, that’s the easy bit, because it usually happens when you least expect it. Staying in love is the hardest. Right after that is falling out of love. Disassociating every part of you from a relationship that you invested every bit of you in, is most definitely the hardest thing to do. You may have lost a lover, but remember, at least you’ve found yourself new secretary benchmark.