Gift of Learning

Before it was cool to be nerdy, before NBA players started wearing glasses for fashion, before billionaires made tech a lifestyle, before girls grew up enough to see the charm in dorkiness, I was kind of already there. An unwitting trailblazer. I was reading Nancy Drew mysteries while the popular kids at day care were getting laid at recess or doing whatever it is popular kids do.

Consequently, I grew up with a vocabulary much flashier than my game with girls. And much later on in life, I practiced if not mastered the art of attracting potential mates with a sheer awkwardness often perceived as humor. I smashed one girl who said she found me “intriguing.” Like a science project? You want to be penetrated by a science project?

Nowadays in my post-30 age bracket, reading and learning for self-improvement are quite common if not the norm. But again, I’ve had that mindset for a while. I actually paid attention in college classes, or at least in staccato bursts when I could overcome my wandering mind. And before all that overpriced, publicly accessible knowledge fades completely, I wanted to share a tidbit relevant to Christmas.

In a behavioral economics class, I learned about models that explain when preferences and choices deviate from what one might expect from a rational decision-maker. What better case study than females?

No guy in the history of the world has ever been excited about finding a Christmas gift for a girl. The more thought you put into it, the farther you end up from the mark. That’s because trying to navigate the mind of a woman is like exploring a black hole, where standard laws and logic break down.

I got my fiancée a Polaroid camera last year because she loves pictures and instant gratification. The gift made sense to me, but has served primarily as a paperweight on the bookshelf.

Resting on the shelf a foot away from the camera is the book Unbroken, another unsuccessful gift of mine. She likes buying books, even though the library is down the street, and was enthralled while reading Wild. So I figured another nonfiction story of human spirit and resilience converted into a major motion picture fit the bill. Yet Unbroken remains untouched.

The topper was a dress from REVOLVE with a ludicrous price-to-fabric-amount ratio. I chose it because one night months before, she made me stop what I was doing and walk over to look at this dress on her tablet. She called it the most beautiful she had ever seen.

I took a mental snapshot. When it came time to shop, I had to sift through myriad mind-numbing dresses on the website because filtering by “gold” and “shiny” only gets you so far. I found it, bought it, and continue to wait for her to wear it for the first time.

In short, don’t play a guessing game that you can’t win. You will not defeat an opponent who refuses to play by actionable rules. Go ahead and lie to yourself with “It’s the thought that counts” — which a kindergartner could identify as a euphemism for “This gift provides no utility for me.”

Economists much smarter than I declare gift-giving (outside of liquid assets) to be an inefficient allocation of resources. So don’t try to get too cute and fancy on the 1-yard-line with Marshawn Lynch in the backfield. Run the ball. Simply ask for a long list of presents that she would buy for herself. Make it long enough to manufacture some element of surprise as to which and how many you will pick.

Then, lean toward buying more small gifts rather than fewer large gifts. The idea, which I recall from that class a decade ago, is perhaps intuitive: Four $25 gifts seem more valuable to the recipient than one $100 gift. A female coworker chimed in that you should wrap them separately, too.

Methinks this effect is more pronounced at higher dollar values because appreciation is not immune to diminishing returns. If you were to buy your wife a car for Christmas like in those ridiculous but kind of awesome Lexus commercials, she would be happy — but not at a level commensurate to the price. It’s tough to comprehend $30,000 in one lump sum. If you got her $30,000 worth of dresses, shoes, purses, jewelry, spa dates, Fitbits, Barbies and what not, the dollars would go further.

I suggest creating a Google doc of potential gifts and adding approved entries regularly. Don’t be afraid to get specific and ask for links. The drop-off in surprise is dramatically offset by the increase in utility. Plus, as the list grows over time, she might forget some of the dated items and be genuinely surprised.

All this sounds calculating if not callous, but I’m just trying to learn and apply here. It’s a lifelong process of enrichment that at the very least should help make many more Christmases just a bit merrier for all parties involved. Cheers to 2016.