Life is a Math Problem

Posted on March 7, 2012

by Chris Williams (Thinking Like a Cheetah)

Life is complicated enough, why should we involve emotions and impulses.  If we approach life like a math problem then we can rest easy and avoid buyer’s remorse and a litany of other feelings we associate with decisions.  For instance, if I eat a Double Chocolate Dunkin Donut and drink a 12 ounce Coke every day for a week, in theory I should gain about 1 pound.  This combo is about 500 calories and a pound of fat is about 3500 calories, with all things being equal the math problem says I should gain 1 pound.  The same should hold true if I reverse this indulgence.  So I can relax in the knowledge that I will have either lost or gained a pound based on my decision.  Life is full of these problems, while speaking with a coworker this morning I mentioned the price per-square-foot for a home.  Let’s say the average cost of a home is about $100 a square foot, this makes a 2000 square foot home cost $200,000.  If I know what size home I want and the price I am willing to pay then it comes down to a simple calculation, price-per-square-foot X size.  I can buy the home without emotion.

For years economists have been pushing a similar theory, opportunity cost.  Opportunity cost simply defined is the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the next best alternative not chosen.  An example would be while I am watching television for 1 hour I am sacrificing something else to do this.  That hour has value and I am using it to watch TV vice cook dinner.  The same could be said of choosing between two things that you enjoy, like steak and shrimp.  How do you think we got surf and turf, so you don’t have to choose.  The major problem with this theory is that it has labeled economists as cold, heartless individuals and they are quantifying our lives.  Regardless of how we categorize economists, we all quantify our lives.  We buy life insurance based on how much we think our spouse will need.  In the State of Pennsylvania an arm is worth 410 weeks of pay and 20 weeks of healing, while your big toe is only worth 40 weeks and 12 weeks of healing, and the pinky toe a mere 16 weeks with 6 weeks of healing.  We quantify everything.

One of the more famous quantifiers in history was Robert McNamara, first president of Ford outside of the Ford family and Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War.  McNamara earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1939 and was commissioned as a Captain in the United States Army Air Forces.  He served in the Office of Statistical Control and was credited with increasing the effectiveness of the B-29 bomber fleet.  Later at Ford, as part of the renowned “Whiz Kids”, he retooled Ford using his statistical model.  Most of the original employees despised McNamara’s methods, but again he was credited with turning Ford around.  Many historians agree that McNamara took this same method to the office of the Secretary of Defense where this led to a statistical strategy for Vietnam, while often overruling the Joint Chiefs on strategic matters.  We know how Vietnam ends. 

So, maybe my coworker was right.  I need to let my wife pick the color of living room even if it is one more dollar per square foot.  And those granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances, I guess they are worth the 2 bucks.  The Joint Chiefs would appreciate my decision.

Posted in: innovation