Burn Your Ships: Options Distract Us from Our Main Objective

Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational

“In 210 BC, a Chinese commander named Xiang Yu led his troops across the Yangtze River to attack the army of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty. Pausing on the banks of the river for the night, his troops awakened in the morning to find, to their horror, that their ships were burning. They hurried to their feet to fight off their attackers, but soon discovered that it was Xiang Yu himself who had set their ships on fire, and that he had also ordered all the cooking pots crushed.

Xiang Yu explained to his troops that without the pots and the ships, they had no other choice but to fight their way to victory or perish. That did not earn Xiang Yu a place on the Chinese army’s list of favorite commanders, but it did have a tremendous focusing effect on his troops: grabbing their lances and bows, they charged ferociously against the enemy and won nine consecutive battles, completely obliterating the main-force units of the Qin dynasty.”

Excerpt from Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

Note: This reminds me of the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In the film, a young child (who would go on to become the world’s greatest sushi chef) faces a similar trial:

“I was in my first year of school. My father told me ‘You have no home to come back to. That is why you have to work hard.’ I knew that I was on my own. I did not want to have to sleep at a temple or under a bridge. So, I had to work hard just to survive.”


Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream - New York, New York (photo credit: Martin Adolfsson)

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream – New York, New York (photo credit: Martin Adolfsson)

In statistics, confounding is when things are mixed up to the point of confusion, such that it is difficult to determine what causes what. Why is this a concept you should care about? Consider the following textbook example, which is similar to some of the headline-grabbing claims you may come across in newspapers or on the internet:

“In New York City, researchers have documented a positive association between ice cream consumption and burglary. On days when New Yorkers eat lots of ice cream, the burglary rate tends to be high. On the other hand, on days when people refrain from ice cream consumption, these rates are much lower.”

Given the above findings, what sort of conclusions would you draw? A lousy newspaper may report the above as follows:

  • “Study Shows Eating Ice Cream Causes Burglary.”

Another media outlet may spin the same research in a different way:

  • “Is Burglary Causing Us to Eat More Ice Cream?”

But in both cases, we have to be careful never to jump to any immediate conclusions because it is possible that a confounding variable exists. That is, a third variable may be confounding (mixing up/confusing) the relationship between ice cream sales and burglary.

In the above example the confounding variable happens to be temperature. This is because when it is hot people eat a lot of ice cream. They also spend a lot of time outdoors and this increases the opportunities for burglary.

So while ice cream sales (X) and burglary (Y) appear to move together, this does not mean X causes Y or vice-versa. A third variable, temperature, is the culprit.

Researchers usually make an effort to identify and eliminate the effects of confounding variables but this isn’t always successful. So be sure to maintain a bit of a skepticism whenever you come across studies that claim some factor, X, causes another factor, Y.

Further Reading:

Statistics and Data Interpretation for Social Work by James A. Rosenthal
Wikipedia Article on Confounding byWikipedia

Related Posts:

Conjunction Fallacy

The ‘Nobel Prize’ Chauffeur


After receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918, Max Planck went on tour across Germany. Wherever he was invited, he delivered the same lecture on new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur grew to know it by heart:

“It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit in the front row and wear my chauffeur’s cap. That’d give us both a bit of variety.”

Plant liked the idea, so that evening the driver held a long lecture on quantum mechanics in front of a distinguished audience. Later, a physics professor stood up with a question. The driver recoiled: “Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced city as Munich would ask such a simple question! My chauffeur will answer it.”

Excerpt from The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli.

Constant Luxury is No Luxury At All

“But just as the human body didn’t evolve to deal well with today’s easy access to abundant fat and sugars, and will crave an extra cheeseburger when it shouldn’t, the human mind, apparently, didn’t evolve to deal with excess money, and will desire more long after wealth has become a burden rather than a comfort. A vast body of psychological evidence shows that the pleasures of consumption wear off through time and depend heavily on one’s frame of reference. Most of us, for instance, occasionally spoil ourselves with outbursts of deliberate and perhaps excessive consumption: a fancy spa treatment, dinner at an expensive restaurant, a shopping spree. In the case of the very wealthy, such forms of consumption can become so commonplace as to lose all psychological benefit: constant luxury is, in a sense, no luxury at all.”

Excerpt from Secret Fears of the Super-Rich by Graeme Wood.

Why Theory is Important

“Indeed, while experiences and information can be good teachers, there are many times in life where we simply cannot afford to learn on the job. You don’t want to have to go through multiple marriages to learn how to be a good spouse. Or wait until your last child has grown to master parenthood. This is why theory can be so valuable: it can explain what will happen, even before you experience it.”

Excerpt from How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen.

Don’t Believe the Hype. 30 is Not the New 20. (How to Make the Most of Your 20s)

Aged 25. His Team Spent $500,000 on the Thriller Video.

Aged 25. His Team Spent $500,000 on the Thriller Video.

This is an essay to myself as a reminder to make the most of the time I have.

You have a lot of energy now. Your body will begin to slow down when you are older, so work like crazy but always make time for play.

Build something. Write a book. Master a craft. Put in the hours in your career. Now is the time when you don’t have that many responsibilities and your body can take whatever you throw at it. Think of it as a period of acceleration because later, you will have to slow down.

Stevie Wonder produced four number one albums between the ages of 21 and 27 (he was lucky enough to repeat the feat in his 30s).  Michelangelo completed one of his greatest works, the statue of David, aged 26. Albert Einstein, while working as a patent clerk six days a week, managed to raise a family in his twenties, and introduced the world to e=MC^2 at the age of 26. Michael Jackson produced his greatest albums between the ages of 20 and 29 (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad).

Of course these people are freaks of nature. Not all of us have such talent. But who is to say we can’t have our own little victories in our twenties, before ambition dims and responsibility settles in? The twenties are the most vibrant period in which to pursue wild goals. And don’t give me your 9-to-5-too-busy-at-work, excuse. Didn’t I just mention that Einstein held down a full-time job as a patent clerk, raised a family, and in whatever time he had left over, worked on some of the greatest scientific theories ever, all in his twenties?

You are young. Use the energy you have in your twenties to do something you can look back on with pride.

Okay, maybe I am glorifying the twenties a bit. Much can be achieved at a more mature age. And there are many examples. For instance it is not unusual in the film industry for people to peak in their thirties and beyond. Quentin Tarantio’s career, for example, didn’t really take off until his 30s (although he wrote Resevoir Dogs in his late twenties). And in the business world, a good number of CEOs are in their late thirties/forties/fifties. With that being said, I bet you these people were “rising stars” in their twenties, working their butts off!

It’s not all about work though. You don’t want to look back and wish you socialised a bit more, attended a few more parties, or travelled more. I’d rather have my hangovers and jetlags before I’m a pensioner. And I’d most certainly rather have my junk food now before I need to worry about a diet. Your body will be more fragile in later years. So enjoy it now and make the most of your energy. It won’t last forever.

Too much choice is bad. Limits are good.


My New Bedroom (Limited to 3 Colours)

“Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. But that’s precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.”

Excerpt from Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

Undeveloped Potential. Unrealised Dreams.

“Many aspiring artists, for example, have at some stage to deal with the harsh truth that they are merely quite good and do not have what it takes to be truly exceptional. Potential that appears unlimited to youth may look more finite when seen through more experienced eyes.

Jean-Paul Sartre denounced potential for the false comfort it gives us through thoughts of what we could have been if things had been different. For him, a person is ‘nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is’. It’s a false comfort to tell ourselves we could have done more, if circumstances had favoured us.

Sartre insists that ‘reality alone is reliable; that dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, expectations unfulfilled’. To dwell on potential is to define ourselves negatively, in terms of what we are not, rather than positively, for what we are.

Potential left undeveloped is nothing more than a hypothetical ability that belongs in our dreams, not as a ghostly presence in our actual lives.

Excerpt from The Shrink and the Sage by Julian Baggini and Antonia Macaro

Photo by Lisa Elmaleh, LisaElmaleh.com

How to Get a First – #1 University and College Student Guide Bestseller (on Amazon.co.uk)

This morning I woke up to find that my book had made it to the top of Amazon rankings for the the following categories:

  • #1 in University & College Guides
  • #1 in Educational Advice
  • #1 in Student Life

A massive thank you to all the students and people who have ordered a copy. Rankings are not the ultimate reward to me but I happy the book has made it this high! This way, it might get a bit more exposure.

With that said, there is still quite a bit of promotion and marketing left to do. I hope that this will help more students learn about the book and try some of the advice I compiled from high-flying students, educational psychologists, and my own experience.


My First Book is Now Officially Published!


After two years in the making, my first book has been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

I remember writing the first draft without ever thinking that it could possibly come to this. Sure, I believe in myself. But I also tend to be pretty realistic about things and while becoming a published author is something I dreamt of, I never really expected it to happen.

So the book is finally out and I am excited to hear what the student population, on the whole, make of it.

If you would like to get a copy of the book the following stores currently have it in stock.