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Defensive Decision Making: What IS Best v. What LOOKS Best

“It wasn’t the best decision we could make,” said one of my old bosses, “but it was the most defensible.”

What she meant was that she wanted to choose option A but ended up choosing option B because it was the defensible default. She realized that if she chose option A and something went wrong, it would be hard to explain because it was outside of normal. On the other hand, if she chose option A and everything went right, she’d get virtually no upside. A good outcome was merely expected, but a bad outcome would have significant consequences for her. The decision she landed on wasn’t the one she would have made if she owned the entire company. Since she didn’t, she wanted to protect her downside. In asymmetrical organizations, defensive decisions like this one protect the person making the decision.

My friend and advertising legend Rory Sutherland calls defensive decisions the Heathrow Option. Americans might think of it as the IBM Option. There’s a story behind this:

A while ago, British Airways noticed a reluctance for personal assistants to book their bosses on flights from London City Airport to JFK. They almost always picked Heathrow, which was further away, and harder to get to. Rory believed this was because “flying from London City might be better on average,” but “because it was a non-standard option, if anything were to go wrong, you were much more likely to get it in the neck.”

Of course, if you book your boss to fly out of Heathrow—the default—and the flight is delayed, they’ll blame the airline and not you. But if you opted for the London City airport, they’d blame you.

At first glance, it might seem like defensive decision making is irrational. It’s actually perfectly rational when you consider the asymmetry involved. This asymmetry also offers insight into why cultures rarely change.

Some decisions place the decisionmakers in situations where outcomes offer little upside and massive downside. In these cases, it can seem like great outcomes carry a 1% upside, good outcomes are neutral, and poor outcomes carry at least 20% downside—if they don’t get you fired.

It’s easy to see why people opt for the default choice in these cases. If you do something that’s different—and thus hard to defend—and it works out, you’ve risked a lot for very little gain. If you do something that’s different and it doesn’t work out, and you might find yourself unemployed.

This asymmetry explains why your boss, who has nice rhetoric about challenging norms and thinking outside the box, is likely to continue with the status quo rather than change things. After all, why would they risk looking like a fool by doing something different? It’s much easier to protect themselves. Defaults give people a possible out, a way to avoid being held accountable for their decisions if things go wrong. You can distance yourself from your decision and perhaps be safe from the consequences of a poor outcome.

Doing the safe thing is not the same as doing the right thing. Often, the problem with the safe thing is that there is no growth, no innovation. It’s churning out more of the same. So in the short term, while you may think that the default is a better choice for your job security, in the long game there’s a negative. When you are unwilling to take risks, you stop recognizing opportunities. If you aren’t willing to put yourself out there for 1% gain, how do you grow? After all, the 1% upsides are more common than the 50% upsides. But in either case, if you become afraid of downside, then what level of risk would be acceptable? It’s not that choosing the default makes you a bad person. But a lifetime of opting for the default limits your opportunities and your potential.

And for anyone who owns a company, a staff full of default decision makers is a death knell. You get amazing results when people have the space to take risks and not be penalized for every downside.

Footnotes
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    Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hyku/3474143529

What’s Staying the Same

I want to know the future. So do you. However, our desire to know the future leads us to seek answers to unanswerable questions.

The question, “What’s going to change in the next 10 years?” is a popular one in nearly all industries. The siren song of avoiding uncertainty and knowing the future is hard to resist. Having the answer is the equivalent of signaling to the world that you’re an oracle.

The best thing? No one will remember how wrong you were.

To capitalize on what’s going to change in the future, a lot of things have to go right. Not only do you have to speculate the changing variables correctly, but you have to guess how they will interact. And you have to go all in on that version of the future. On top of that, you have to hope that your competitors thought you were crazy and didn’t invest resources in that version of the future. This is why it rarely works, and when it does it’s mostly luck.

While predicting the future is important, it’s often not knowable. We’re speculating, but our brains convince themselves otherwise. Plausible answers about the future tend to cement as reality in our minds. We convince ourselves that we know something that is not knowable.

The range of possible futures is always changing, a lot like electrons. Electrons baffle physicists because they are hard to pin down.  Any attempts to locate them require the use of energy.  Electrons are so light that the energy we use to locate them changes their location. In the same way that shining a light on an electron will change its position ever so slightly, investing in a particular version of the future will change the probability of that particular future ever so slightly. Complicating things further, it’s not a single-player game—it’s a multi-person game and the odds are always changing.

Beyond that, once you shine the light on what’s going to change and how this time is different, you may forget to look at a simpler and more important question: “What’s not going to change in the next ten years?”

Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett agree on this question being the more important of the two. Think about that for a second. The leader of one of the most innovative high-tech companies in the world and the leader of one of the most boring conglomerates in history both agree that a question about what’s not going to change is more important than one about what will change.

Bezos realizes that energy and effort put into predicting what’s going to change is a speculative bet. It might work, and it might not. The hope is that if it works it pays off spectacularly, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t cost you much.

While investing in what’s changing is risky, investing in what stays the same is not. Bezos realizes investments in what doesn’t change will still be paying off in ten years. “When you have something you know is true, even over the long term,” he said, “you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Predicting what’s going to change is hard. Predicting what’s going to stay the same is relatively easy. Think about the dotcoms. Everyone was running around and saying this time would be different—everyone but Warren Buffett. He was sitting in his office in Omaha asking himself what would stay the same.

Alice Schroeder, Buffett’s authorized biographer, explains it this way:

There is less emphasis on trying to reason out things on the basis that they are special because they are unique, which in a financial context is perhaps the definition of a speculation. But pattern recognition is his default way of thinking. It creates an impulse always to connect new knowledge to old and to primarily be interested in new knowledge that genuinely builds on the old.

While you can’t know what’s going to change in the future you can intelligently speculate on it, which is the best path. The safe play is to invest resources into all probable futures. This conveniently keeps options open, allows you to tell the board of directors with a straight face that you’re working on it, and makes you better off than had you not explored the future. The problem, again, is that the game has many players. While most companies took the same safe strategy as yours, someone—somewhere—went all in on this particular version of the future. That company is now being expensively acquired, by you or someone else.

The important point is that while you’re doing that, you should be inverting the problem. Answers to what’s going to stay the same in the next ten years, while boring, offer the best investment opportunities.

The Surprising Power of The Long Game

It’s easy to overestimate the importance of luck on success and underestimate the importance of investing in success every single day. Too often, we convince ourselves that success was just luck. We tell ourselves, the school teacher that left millions was just lucky. No. She wasn’t. She was just playing a different game than you were. She was playing the long game.

The long game isn’t particularly notable and sometimes it’s not even noticeable. It’s boring. But when someone chooses to play the long game from an early age, the results can be extraordinary. The long game changes how you conduct your personal and business affairs.

There is an old saying that I think of often, but I’m not sure where it comes from: If you do what everyone else is doing, you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else is getting.

Ignoring the effect of luck on outcomes — the proverbial lottery ticket —doing what everyone else is doing pretty much ensures that you’re going to be average. Not average in the world, but average to people in similar circumstances. There are a lot of ways not to be average, but one of them is the tradeoff between the long game and the short game.

What starts small compounds into something more. The longer you play the long game, the easier it is to play and the greater the rewards. The longer you play the short game the harder it becomes to change and the bigger the bill facing you when you do want to change.

The Short Game

The short game is putting off anything that seems hard for doing something that seems easy or fun. The short game offers visible and immediate benefits. The short game is seductive.

  • Why do your homework when you can go out and play?
  • Why wait to pay for a phone in cash, when you can put it on your credit card?
  • Why go to the gym when you can go drinking with your friends?
  • Why invest in your relationship with your partner today when you can work a little bit extra in the office?
  • Why learn something boring that doesn’t change when you can learn something sexy that impresses people?
  • Why bust your butt at work to do the work before the meeting when you can read the executive summary and pretend like everyone else?

The effects of the short game multiply the longer you play. On any given day the impact is small but as days turn into months and years the result is enormous. People who play the short game don’t realize the costs until they become too large to ignore.

The problem with the short game is that the costs are small and never seem to matter much on any given day. Doing your homework today won’t give you straight A’s. Saving $5 today won’t make you a millionaire. Going to the gym and eating healthy today won’t make you fit. Reading a book won’t make you smart. Going to sleep on time tonight won’t make you healthier tomorrow. Sure we might try these things when we’re motivated but since the results are not immediate we revert back to the short game.

As the weeks turn into months and the months into years, the short game compounds into disastrous results. It’s not the one day trade off that matters but it’s accumulation.

Playing the long game means suffering a little today. And why would we want to suffer today when we can suffer tomorrow. But if our intention is to always change tomorrow, then tomorrow never comes. All we have is today.

The Long Game

The long game is the opposite of the short game, it means paying a small price today to make tomorrow’s tomorrow easier. If we can do this long enough to see the results, it feeds on itself. 

From the outside, the long game looks pretty boring:

  • Saving money and investing it for tomorrow
  • Leaving the party early to go get some sleep
  • Investing time in your relationship today so you have a foundation when something happens
  • Doing your homework before you go out to play
  • Going to the gym rather than watching Netflix

… and countless other examples.

In its simplest form, the long game isn’t really debatable. Everyone agrees, for example, we should spend less than we make and invest the difference. Playing the long game is a slight change, one that seems insignificant at the moment, but one that becomes the difference between financial freedom and struggling to make next month’s rent.

The first step to the long game is the hardest. The first step is visibly negative. You have to be willing to suffer today in order to not suffer tomorrow. This is why the long game is hard to play. People rarely see the small steps when they’re looking for enormous outcomes, but deserving enormous outcomes is mostly the result of a series of small steps that culminate into something visible.

Conclusion

In everything you do, you’re either playing a short term or long term game. You can’t opt out and you can’t play a long-term game in everything, you need to pick what matters to you. But in everything you do time amplifies the difference between long and short-term games. The question you need to think about is when and where to play a long-term game. A good place to start is with things that compound: knowledge, relationships, and finances.

 

This article is an expansion of something I originally touched on here

Hemingway, a Lost Suitcase, and the Recipe for Stupidity

The best intentions are no match for the havoc caused by stress, tiredness, and unusual circumstances. Even though we know these things can negatively impact our decision-making abilities, we override the caution needed to combat them with faith in our rationality. This failure to recognize our natural vulnerabilities affects everyone. In December 1922, it resulted in a lost suitcase that changed Ernest Hemingway’s life.

Hemingway, then 23, wrote fiction at night while covering the Lausanne peace conference on assignment for the Toronto Daily Star. Married the year before, Hemingway missed his wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, back in Paris. He asked her to join him in Lausanne. This invite resulted in all of Hemingway’s work ending up in a suitcase.

“I have long held that stupidity is very largely the result of fear leading to mental inhibitions.”

— Bertie Russell

It’s unclear whether Hemingway asked Hadley to bring his work so he could show it to an editor who had taken an interest in him, or she brought it for another reason. Perhaps she thought he’d want to work on something over the Christmas break and wanted to give him all the options. Whatever the reason, the intentions were good. Hadley believed in Hemingway’s talent as a writer, and she was financially supporting them so he could pursue his artistic goals.

Sick at the time, Hadley managed to pack everything she could find, including the originals, the carbon copies, and all handwritten notes for a novel in progress, into a single suitcase. When she arrived at Paris’s Gare de Lyon, a porter offered to take her bags to her compartment. Right before the train was to depart, Hadley realized the journey would be long and rushed off the train to purchase a bottle of Evian, leaving the bags momentarily unattended. The suitcase was gone when she came back. Devastated, she cried for the entire eight-hour train ride.

Unaware of the loss, Hemingway waited for his wife at Lausanne station. When she arrived in tears, he said nothing warranted such sadness. Whatever was bothering her could be worked out together, he assured her. Hadley finally told him what had happened.

Laughing, Hemingway told her not to worry because he had carbon copies of all of his writings. Hadley could barely bring herself to tell him that those too were lost. In disbelief, he rushed back to Paris. In his memoir of those years, A Moveable Feast, he recounted: “It was true alright and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.” All his work was lost.

At this point, Hemingway wasn’t the Hemingway we know today. None of his fiction had been published. Only two very short stories remained in Paris, “Up in Michigan”—which Gertrude Stein had called unpublishable—and “My Old Man,” which was out with an editor at the time.

In a way that would make Marcus Aurelius proud, rather than give up, Hemingway found an interesting way to adapt to the reality of the situation. With the pressure of time, Hemingway shifted his writing style to shorter sentences, cleaner paragraphs and more readable prose. He could write faster this way. Four years later, The Sun Also Rises would be published and become a bestseller.

The lessons we can draw from Hemingway are obvious. It’s a classic story of a struggling artist who has a setback but overcomes it to achieve huge success. Disney created a multibillion-dollar company on the back of stories like this one. But almost everyone misses the lessons—hiding in plain sight—offered by Hadley. And when it comes to avoiding catastrophic errors, we should pay close attention.

Most of us are not chronically stupid. We make many good decisions and accomplish some amazing things. But we commit acts of stupidity once in a while, usually when we fail to recognize how certain variables are making us vulnerable.

Stupidity is not the opposite of intelligence. My friend Adam Robinson has perhaps the best definition of stupidity I’ve come across, defining it as the overlooking or dismissing of conspicuously crucial information.

Stupidity is overlooking or dismissing crucial information.

There are some things you should know about stupidity. Stupidity is easier to see in others than ourselves. Stupidity is easier to recognize the farther we are from the act. And stupidity is stubbornly difficult to see in the moment, often only becoming apparent when the outcome is known. This is why it is so important to recognize what the variables are that increase the chances of us doing something stupid. Stress, being tired, being in an unusual situation, these are all things that make us vulnerable to stupidity.

Back to our story: Hemingway shares some blame here, for not separating his originals and carbons. But more interesting are the details that affected Hadley’s decisionmaking at the train station. She was outside of her normal environment. She was rushing. She was ill. Each of these things on their own can increase the odds of committing an act of stupidity. Combined, they meant she was significantly vulnerable to errors in judgment.

Although Hemingway recovered, and arguably became a better writer because of it, the loss of his work was devastating to both him and his wife at the time. Only the benefit of hindsight gives this episode a decent ending, something that is no guarantee for most stupid decisions.

Members of the Farnam Street Learning Community can discuss this article and its implications on the learning community forum. If you’re not a member, you can sign up today and see what you’re missing. 

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How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape our Reality

“We can select truths that engage people and inspire action, or we can deploy truths that deliberately mislead. Truth comes in many forms, and experienced communicators can exploit its variability to shape our impression of reality.”

***

The truth is not as straightforward as it seems. There are many truths, some of them more honest than others. “On most issues,” writes Hector Macdonald in his book Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, “there are multiple truths we can choose to communicate. Our choice of truth will influence how those around us perceive an issue and react to it.”

We are often left with several truths, some more flattering to us than others. What we choose to see, and what we share with others, says a lot about who we are.

“There is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.”

— William James

Competing Truths

According to MacDonald, there are often many legitimate ways of describing a situation. Of course, it’s possible for anyone to cherry-pick the facts or truths they prefer, shaping the story to meet their needs. MacDonald offers an apt demonstration.

A few years ago, I was asked to support a transformation programme at a global corporation that was going through a particularly tough patch. … I interviewed the corporation’s top executives to gather their views on the state of their industry and their organization. After consolidating all the facts they’d given me, I sat down with the CEO in a plush Manhattan executive suite and asked him whether he wanted me to write the ‘Golden Opportunity’ story or the ‘Burning Platform’ story of his business.

These two phrases, “Golden Opportunity” and “Burning Platform,” describe two different approaches to telling the same story, or in this case promoting the same plan. The first describes the incredible potential the client company can realize by transforming itself to meet growing demand. The profit is out there for them if they work together to make the necessary changes! The second phrase refers to internal struggles at the company and a potential downward spiral that can only be arrested if the company transforms itself to correct the problems. Both stories are true and both are intended to create the same outcome: supporting a painful and difficult transformation. Yet they can create very different impressions in the minds of employees.

MacDonald illustrates how when we interact with someone, especially someone who knows more than we do, they have an opportunity to shape our reality. That is, they can shape how we think, our ideas and opinions about a subject. Our perception of reality changes and “because we act on the basis of our perceptions” they change not only our thinking but our actions.

Spin Masters

I remember watching ads on TV when I was a kid claiming that 80 percent of dentists recommended Colgate-Palmolive. I wondered if my mom was trying to kill me by giving me Crest. I wasn’t the best in math, but I reasoned that if 80% of dentists were recommending Colgate, at most 20% were recommending Crest.

Of course, that’s exactly what Colgate wanted people to think—the survey was in comparison to other brands. But that wasn’t the whole story. The survey actually asked dentists which brands they would recommend, and almost all of them listed several. Colgate wasn’t lying—but they were using a very distorted version of the truth, designed to mislead. The Advertising Standards Authority eventually banned the ad.

People use this sort of spin all the time. Everyone has an agenda. You can deceive without ever lying. Politicians get elected on how effective they are at “spinning truths in a way that create a false impression.” It’s only too easy for political agendas to trump impartial truth.

The Three Types of Communicators

“It’s not simply that we’re being lied to; the more insidious problem is that we are routinely misled by the truth.”

In Truth, Macdonald explores the effects of three types of communicators: advocates, misinformers, and misleaders.

Advocates select competing truths that create a reasonably accurate impression of reality in order to achieve a constructive goal.

Misinformers innocently propagate competing truths that unintentionally distort reality.

Misleaders deliberately deploy competing truths to create an impression of reality that they know is not true.

We may feel better believing there is one single truth, and thinking everyone who doesn’t see things the way we do simply doesn’t have the truth. That’s not…true. Everyone, including you and me, has a lens on the situation that’s distorted by what they want, how they see the world, and their biases. The most dangerous truths are the credible ones that we convince ourselves are correct.

One idea I find helpful when faced with a situation is perspective-taking. I construct a mental room that I fill with all the participants and stakeholders around a table. I then put myself into their seats and try to see the room through their eyes. Not only does this help me better understand reality by showing me my blind spots, but it shows me what other people care about and how I can create win-wins.

Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, goes on to explore partial truths, subjective truths, artificial truths, and unknown truths. It’s a terrific read for checking your own perspective on truth, and understanding how truth can be used to both inform and mislead you.

Sex on the Beach with Montaigne and Descartes

In the second installment of our FS Bar series (see here for the first), philosophers Montaigne and Descartes discuss the utility of experience, what kind of knowledge we should seek, and sex on the beach. As always, they are attended by our intellectually curious bartender Kit.

The door to the FS Bar opens and Montaigne enters. He takes a seat at the bar as Kit finishes slicing a bucketful of limes. As Kit will tell us later, never, ever eat bar limes because no one ever washes them.

Montaigne: (Taking a seat) What a lovely evening.

Kit: That it is. I walked in today, and it was so great. What can I get you?

Montaigne: May I see a menu please?

(Kit hands him one)

Montaigne: It is truly amazing, the variety of drinks one can make. (After a bit of flipping) What do you recommend?

Kit: What do you like?

Montaigne: Something I’ve never had before. Something surprising.

Kit: (Smiles) How about a Sex on the Beach?

Montaigne: (Chuckles) If it’s anything like the real thing, then it’s likely a lot better in theory than in practice.

Kit: Aren’t most things? I make mine with blackcurrant liqueur. It’s gorgeous.

Montaigne: Let’s give it a whirl then.

(Pause while Kit begins to prepare the drink. Just as she’s placing it in front of Montaigne, the door opens and Descartes walks in. As he reaches the bar he notices Montaigne and quickly turns his head, hoping not to be noticed.)

Montaigne: Ah Rene, my old friend. What brings you out on this beautiful spring evening? Don’t tell me you felt the urge to enjoy the weather?

Descartes: (Resigning himself to sitting with Montaigne) Just taking a break. My brain needs a rest.

Kit: Evening. What can I get you to drink?

Descartes : A glass of red wine. A Merlot or a Syrah, please. Old vines. No tannins.

Montaigne: You should have what I’m having. It’s sublime.

Descartes: It’s lurid. How many colors are in that glass?

Montaigne: It’s sex on the beach.

Descartes: (Raises a brow) It’s not my thing.

Montaigne: Of course not. I imagine it would be quite difficult to ignore the sensations produced by all those grains of sand.

Descartes: (Rolls his eyes) You always deliberately misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with experience, I just don’t pretend that my life should stand for the life.

Montaigne: I was just pointing out that the physical experience of sex on a beach might produce some knowledge. Certainly you would learn if there is any relation between one’s propensity to be amorous and the perceived comfort of the execution. Some grain of truth as it were. (Chuckles to himself)

Descartes: Truth only for me. Who am I to say what other people would enjoy? I have seen enough in my travels to think that there is little in sexual encounters that one could consider to be absolutely standard. At least I wouldn’t leave to posterity my ramblings about how my passions were affected by the rhythm of the waves or some such nonsense.

Montaigne: Ah, this is always where you and I disagree. Human experiences need not be universal to teach us something worth knowing.

Descartes: To give us ideas, maybe. But in terms of knowledge we can rely on, experiences are essentially useless.

(There is a pause. Descartes gulps down about a third of his wine while Montaigne continues to sip his drink.)

Montaigne: (To Kit) My friend here is quite famous. Have you ever heard “I think therefore I am?”

Kit: (Looks at Descartes) You said that?

Descartes: (A touch uncomfortable) Yes. I mean, it has a specific context. It was the one thing I could think that proved I existed. The only thing I could not doubt was that I could doubt.

Montaigne: Unfortunately he doubted away everything else, including his body. (Shakes his head)

Descartes: Which you think is ridiculous.

Montaigne: Which I think is nonsensical. You could be a brain in a vat, but to what end? It doesn’t stop you from feeling sadness, or make your farts smell any less.

Descartes: And is that really the point of philosophical inquiry? To validate the functions of the body?

Montaigne: No. It’s to make sense of ourselves, and through that to try to understand what we are a part of. But things don’t have to be unchanging in order to be true.

Descartes: (Looking more than a little wistful) All I wanted was to find the foundation. The things we know so that the rest could stand on something secure. What good is claiming knowledge if it can be easily torn down by logic or the next scientific discovery?

Montaigne: So if you can’t know everything you might as well know nothing?

Descartes: No. But the subjective distracts us. We can’t hope to know anything if we don’t put some objective rigour around it. (Pause) Didn’t you notice, when you were in school, that eventually everything seemed to contradict something else you’d learned? Look at all those ridiculous aphorisms people are always throwing out there. One day they’ll tell you that ‘slow and steady wins the race’ then the next it’s ‘the early bird gets the worm’. It’s empty, situation-specific nonsense. And people fall for it. Every damn day. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a few bits of knowledge that, no matter who you were or what situation you were faced with, you could always count on to be true?

Montaigne: (Sighs) Maybe Socrates is the only one who got it right when he hinted that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.

Descartes: (Shakes his head) I don’t accept that. We come into this world vulnerable and ignorant, dependent on the needs of our bodies and the teachings of those around us. But at some point, surely we can turn our brains to filtering what we have taken in, being honest about the junk, and letting go of needing anything other than knowledge.

Montaigne: Ah my friend, this I’m not sure we can do. We are not only shaped by our experiences, we are our experiences. We contemplate love through the lenses of our hurts, and life through the lenses of our losses.

Kit: It’s an amazing idea though. To be able to understand life the same way as math. To know that one plus one will always equal two.

Descartes: (Running his finger around the rim of his glass) That is the goal.

Montaigne: Well, you proved your own existence. That is something.

Kit: So, if we know we’re alive, at least we know we’re all going through it together.

Descartes: (Looks miserable) Actually, I only know that I exist. You could be a robot.

Kit: But if you know you exist, can’t I use the same logic to know that I exist?

Descartes: Yes. But we can only know this about ourselves. Not those around us.

Kit: It sounds lonely.

Montaigne: And no way to live. Imagine that your lover, your best friend, your children, are robots. When I do I feel only a profound isolation—and seriously question the point of living.

Descartes: Like I said, the goal was to get on a foundation that couldn’t be shaken. No matter what.

Montaigne: But what good is a foundation if you can’t build anything on it?

Descartes: (Looking like he doesn’t really want to get into it) Why don’t you enlighten us with one of your pithy observations? You can tell our lovely bartender here your theory about the effects of reducing drunkenness.

Montaigne: It is a good theory. (He turns to Kit) We drink less, which according to health professionals and moral arbitrators, is a social victory. But the effect of this is more sex. We obviously can’t get by without any vices, so the less we drink the more we lust.

Kit: (Looking a little surprised) I’ve never thought of it that way.

Montaigne: (Shrugs) We seek pleasure. There is nothing surprising about that. And as far as pleasures go, good sex is infinitely preferable to good wine. Drunkenness, really, is not so great. In extreme, you lose knowledge and control of yourself.

Descartes: Sex doesn’t exactly lead to clarity of mind. As Shakespeare said of lust, “enjoyed no sooner but despised straight.” Getting it doesn’t stop the wanting.

Montaigne: Which is why it’s so important to be just as careful in choosing your vices as anything else. But although they are equally vices, they are not equal vices [i].

Descartes: And you think I’m nuts for wanting some knowledge that I can count on every day.

Montaigne: (Raises his glass) Cheers then, to trying to figure it out. Regardless of the outcome, it is certainly something worth striving for.

(Descartes smiles and accepts the salute. Fade out.)

[i] Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics). M. A. Screech, tr. London: Penguin UK, 2004.