Imagine this scenario: you’re a boss with a string of job candidates to choose from. You have to make the final decision on each candidate at the end of each interview. If you make an offer to a candidate, you cannot interview the others; if you don’t make an offer you can never hire that candidate again.
That’s a hard decision to make. With these kinds of constraints, how are you going to maximize your chances of hiring the best candidate?
At what point in the process do you say, “Alright, I’m just going to hire the next candidate that is better than the previous ones?”
This is the “Secretary Problem,” sometimes known as the “Marriage Problem” – and mathematician Martin Gardner solved it in 1960.
The Solution to the Formula for Making Hard Decisions
Here’s the formula’s solution: after you have interviewed 36.8% of all the candidates, just hire the next candidate that is better than the previous ones.
Essentially, the formula proves that 36.8% is the optimal stopping point. Don’t hire or marry any candidate within the first 36.8% of the group, but after that, simply choose the first one that is better than the first 36.8%.
As a practical example, if you had to interview 50 candidates, starting from the 19th candidate onward, you should hire the next candidate that is better than the first 18 ones.
Note that this doesn’t mean you will always select the absolute best candidate (you may end up with second best if the very best candidate is in the first 36.8%), but this puts the chances of you doing so at 36.8%. Pretty decent odds given the situation, I would say!
36.8%, by the way, is the value of 1/e, where e is the base of the natural logarithm. You may or may not have recognized that little alphabet from your high school math classes.
For the mathematically-inclined who want to know exactly how the solution was derived, you can read about it here. You can also check out the more reader-friendly Wikipedia page on the Secretary Problem.
How Practical Is the Formula Really?
Like all math problems and formulas, there are always some strict constraints that don’t make it as practical as we would like.
For example, if you were going over a list of job candidates, you could most likely just interview them all and call back the best one after. No need to make a definitive offer at the end of each interview.
However, since there is always a risk that in the interim the candidate may accept another job offer, it might be wise to follow the 36.8% rule, especially if you know the candidates are in high demand.
Making Hard Romantic Decisions Using the Formula
What about when we try to apply it to the romantic department? Well, since you (probably) can’t date a whole string of people and then go back and select the best one like in the hiring process, the problem now is that you don’t know how many candidates there are in the first place!
How you can you determine 36.8% of a number if you don’t even know what that number is?
Good news, because mathematicians have figured that one out, too, and the answer is still 36.8%! Only now, it’s 36.8% of the total time.
Here’s how it now works: let’s say you gave yourself a certain period to find a suitable lifelong romantic partner – 5 years for example. After 36.8% of 5 years, which is about 672 days (or 1 year, 10 months, and 3 days), you should just propose to the next romantic partner who was better than the previous ones.
Making hard decisions is part and parcel of life; and no mathematical formula will be able to help you with all of them. That said, it is useful to know that in certain scenarios, there is a formula we can use to maximize our chances of obtaining the most favorable outcome.