Thursday, July 9, 2009

Less is more

I love that saying, "Less is more." It says so much with just three words, and it's true in so many ways. A former co-worker of mine once opened a document review by telling his manager that he had taken the "less is more" approach. His boss just told him that he liked "is more." but I almost always lean the opposite way. I'm almost always a fan of less.

For example, I always keep the Easterlin Paradox -- basically the scientific proof that more money does not bring happiness -- in mind when choosing jobs and I'm a huge fan of Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice. But really, and this will sound odd, my leanings go back to the Cold War. Well, not really to the Cold War itself, but to a discussion of the Cold War I had in graduate school. Interestingly, mutually assured destruction, despite the arms race it created, is actually a great example of why" less is more."

Let's say you're President of the United States, and you're pretty worried that Russia might shoot a ballistic missile at the US. Naturally you want to know what to do if something does come to pass, so you sit down with your top advisers and hash it out. At the end of the day, you boil it down to two real options: retaliate or let it slide.

At first glance, retaliate seems the obvious way to go. I mean, you can't just let your people get nuked! But, then you get to thinking about it, and you realize, "Hey, what if Russia did the same thing. We'd just keep retaliating until we're all dead."

So then, you start thinking maybe you should just let it slide, keep losses to a minimum. But, then you think,"Man, if Russia knew I was just going to let it slide, they could bomb us whenever they wanted!"

At this point, the dorky economist in the corner, raises his hand and says, "Uh, Mr. President, uh, I think I may have a solution. What if we set the controls so that we have to retaliate."

"We just said retaliating won't work! Weren't you listening!"

"Well, uh, I didn't say we were going to retaliate. I just said we'd set it up so we'd retaliate if they fired a missle at us. That way, they'd never fire one. If they did, it would just be assuring their own destruction."

"You mean that by forcing myself to retaliate, even if I don't really want to, I can actually prevent an attack? That's brillant! Get me the Pentagon!"

In game theory, they call that making a "commitment." By committing to retaliating, you prevent an attack. And, that's the insight. By commiting to a course of action -- sometimes even one that in the moment might be tough -- you can sometimes reach a better outcome.

Now say your a recent college graduate and you're thinking of teaching in a challenging under-resourced school. You know its the most rewarding thing you could do, but you also know that the first year of teaching can be tough. You're a little worried that after a year your friends cushy, higher paying jobs might be tempting. You know the money won't make you happier (see above), but you want to make sure you stick to your principals and see it through.

Here's where one of the many small brillances of Teach for America steps in. You make a public two-year commitment. So whenever its been a long day, or whenever you're tired of being underpayed and overworked, you have that extra support. You remember that, "I said I was going to teach for two years, and I'm going to see if through." And, what do you know, at the end of two years 6 out of 10 of corps members stay in the classroom. They got over the hump and they're off to great careers in education.

Now say you're a guy who's thinking about running 37 miles to raise money for a charity, and you're worried you might get sick on your first long run in the cold, foggy San Francisco weather. Well, let's just say I'm glad I made a commitment :)


  1. Matt, I am amazed by what you are doing and your incentive to do this. I went back to your first post and was quite touched. Keep the good work (and the good will up) and you will have a supporter here :)

  2. Thanks Dandan! Its great to have your support!