A General’s Discipline for Removing Options

Demarketing requires discipline: the discipline to decide what you’re not going to do, and then the discipline to stick with the decision.  Some people have this kind of discipline in spades:

Xiang Yu was a Chinese general in the third century B.C. who took his troops across the Yangtze River into enemy territory and performed an experiment in decision making. He crushed his troops’ cooking pots and burned their ships.
He explained this was to focus them on moving forward — a motivational speech that was not appreciated by many of the soldiers watching their retreat option go up in flames. But General Xiang Yu would be vindicated, both on the battlefield and in the annals of social science research.

In The Advantages of Closing a Few Doors (New York Times February 26, 2008), John Tierney discusses the work of MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely.  As Tierney describes, Ariely proves scientifically that brainpower is not a sufficient driver for discipline:

Most people can’t make such a painful choice, not even the students at a bastion of rationality like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Dr. Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics. In a series of experiments, hundreds of students could not bear to let their options vanish, even though it was obviously a dumb strategy (and they weren’t even asked to burn anything).

The experiments involved a game that eliminated the excuses we usually have for refusing to let go. In the real world, we can always tell ourselves that it’s good to keep options open.

…Your child is exhausted from after-school soccer, ballet and Chinese lessons, but you won’t let her drop the piano lessons. They could come in handy! And who knows? Maybe they will.

In the M.I.T. experiments, the students should have known better…

But they didn’t act like they did.  Read the article and learn about the psychology.  Then remind yourself that discipline is hard, and prepare yourself for the effort.

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