Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Asymptotic Limits

Originally posted on September 14, 2011

This is the property of infinitely approaching a limit while being mathematically barred from achieving it. It’s a useful concept not only when studying hyperbolas back in high school algebra, but also insofar as it applies to our tendencies to speak of ideals as attainable. Although there is an element of just liking fancy words—I confess to this—, but also I think this is a useful term! It applies to such goals as:
– full complete absolute enlightenment
– perfectionism in life
– getting a hospital absolutely germ-free
– getting all mistakes out of a book before submitting it to publication (i.e., perfect proof-reading)
– feeling that you’ve packed everything you’ll be needing for that trip,   or
– being a manager who satisfies everyone.

When pursuing a goal that involves an asymptotic limit, you discover a declining yield in proportion to your efforts. The more work you put in, the further along you get, but then it takes 10 times more work to advance another inch, and 100 times more work to advance an inch beyond that. Finally, it takes an infinite amount of work to get within an infinitesimal distance from the infinitely pure goal. My response to this problem is the wisdom of recognizing when some effort is “good enough.”

One Response to “Asymptotic Limits”

  • Maximilian says:

    Hi Adam,
    I like this idea of recognizing the point where your effort is “good enough”.
    I call it seeing when your return on invest gets so low its not useful anymore.

    But actually I guess this only applies to goals that are done for some kind of extrinsically motivated outcomes. If someone loves to meditate and study, then he might not care for “efficiency” in the sense of getting much out of his actions.
    Perhaps this law does apply only to “tedious work” or if an activity takes up so much time that other needs are neglected?


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