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🥙 This is Shawarma 🥙
🌎 Obliquity and the Distinction Bias 🧭
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.” -David Foster Wallace, This is Water
I love shawarma.
Today, I only eat shawarma in Israel.It’s more authentic (well, sort of).
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Fortunately, my options for kosher shawarma in Israel are abundant. Truthfully, I’m happy to buy shawarma from almost any store when I'm hungry, provided the line is short. I may love shawarma, but I’m not picky.
But let’s pretend that Rabbi Yonatan Moshe Warren, with whom I had my first shawarma 23 years ago, brought me two different shawarmas with identical toppings and prices and said, “You can only eat one. I’ll take the other one.”
All of a sudden, I become a shawarma connoisseur.
I start looking at whether or not the meat looks overcooked, the pickles are insufficiently abundant, etc. Five minutes ago, I would have happily eaten either shawarma without complaint; the minute two are placed before me, and I’m forced to choose, I focus on trivial details.
So before you get too hungry, let’s dive into this week’s big idea.
“I don’t like that synagogue. No one ever smiles at me.”
“I pulled my kid from that school. The students are too spoiled.”
“We can’t make our t-shirt INSERT COLOR. Nobody likes that color.”
Do any of these statements sound familiar?
I’ve heard ‘em all and many more.
A person cannot lead a Jewish organization without encountering criticisms from without and within that, on their face, seem superficial, at best, ignorant, at worst.
Any person who “lost” a family or donor because they claimed no one said hello to them is nodding glumly...
I used to take these criticisms personally and scratched my head at how people could make such important decisions about their Jewish lives based on nothing that resembles factual evidence.
But, of course, I was wrong. Sort of.
(Don’t worry, as long as Moneyball Judaism exists, I can identify more ways when I was wrong.)
I want every consumer of Jewish life to make objective choices, but the reality is that consumers of Jewish life are no different than consumers, in general, and consumers tend to over-notice the differences between two perfectly good options when forced to choose between them. This is the distinction bias.
Christopher Hsee and Jiao Zhang argue that “the evaluation mode in which choices and predictions are made is often different from the evaluation mode in which experience takes place.”Sometimes, people make choices in “joint evaluation mode” (JE), choosing between multiple options placed before them simultaneously. However, Hsee and Zhang note that most people make choices in “single evaluation” mode (SE), looking for a satisfactory way to fulfill their particular need, in the moment. In practical terms, when someone wants a cup of coffee, they are most likely to look for the closest place to get a good cup of coffee instead of comparing a dozen different hot cups of coffee and then deciding which one to buy.
Returning to my hunt for shawarma, I usually buy shawarma SE mode; I’m hungry, and if the food is affordable, I buy one, don’t ask too many questions, and chow down. However, the minute Yoni puts two different options in front of me, I am operating in JE mode, thereby looking for any difference between the two, whether that difference is salient or not.
Hsee and Zhang find that “people in JE overpredict the experiential difference between alternatives in SE.”Once options are placed side-by-side, the differences become YUGE, even though they would not be if one made the choice on their own.
Returning to the complaints outlined earlier, the distinction bias is a good reminder about the danger of taking things too personally. On the one hand, the complaints I mentioned above are fairly shallow, but the distinction bias demonstrates how these shallow distinctions are how our minds are wired.
But turning to more consequential decisions, the distinction bias gives me pause because it reminds me how many contentious decisions made by Jewish organizations result in interpersonal turmoil even when the choices people make are driven by the distinction bias:
How many people know board members who resigned over a search process for a rabbi or CEO?
How many fights broke out between staff members over cutting one budget item over another?
How many staff members got fired because a family chose one camp or school over another?
Any process where human beings are asked to make a choice between similar options can give rise to distinction bias, making differences seem much bigger than they actually are. Stakeholders from within and without the need to take things less personally. Our minds are funny things.
That said, just because people overestimate the relevance of distinctions does not mean that distinctions do not exist. One still needs a way to think about making choices through a lens that does not rely too much on our mischievous minds. For this reason, I hope that you’ll consider reading Obliquity.
Obliquity is a brief yet delightful book by economist John Kay based on a simple yet powerful principle: “Goals are often best achieved without intending them.”From the word “oblique,” meaning “indirect or vague,” Kay wants to convince us that “Happiness is where you find it, not where you look for it.”
To explain this principle, let’s return to my search for delicious shawarma. Let’s say I’m having difficulty picking between the options Yoni brings me, and he says, “Well, what’s your goal?”
(Stay with me.)
I tell Yoni, “I want one of these shawarma to transform my organization.” Presumably, Yoni would look at me funny and give my shawarma to the more rational Rabbi Nathan (Nate) Fein or Micah Glass-Siegel.
However, pretend that I am an executive recruiter helping a board of directors choose between two candidates to be CEO. If I ask them, “What’s your goal?,” we would be perfectly comfortable nodding approvingly when someone says, “Our goal is for this CEO to transform our organization.”
But CEOs do not transform organizations; actions and strategies, over time, transform organizations. If one focuses too much on the end goal, one loses the ability to see the path to get there in the first place. And yet organizations view the destination without mapping the journey all the time.
Instead, Kay wants us to focus on the process, not the outcome, honing in on the daily work we must do every day that may, over time, lead us where we want to go, similar to how Annie Duke wants us to reject “resulting” when we play poker or make critical decisions. Kay writes:
“The distinction between intent and outcome is central to obliquity. Wealth, family relationships, employment all contribute to happiness but these activities are not best conducted with happiness as their goal. The pursuit of happiness is a strange phrase in the US Constitution because happiness is not best achieved when pursued. A satisfying life depends above all on building good personal relationships with other people – but we entirely miss the point if we seek to develop these relationships with our personal happiness as a primary goal.”
The distinction bias and obliquity are other examples where the leadership buzzwords we throw out in organizations are, upon closer examination, far less valuable than we think. We might want to use words like “transform” and “reenvision” to sound impressive, but ultimately, mastery of the pursuit will result in who succeeds versus who does not.
Our First TED Talk!
I’m as surprised as you are that it took me this long…
Favorite Razors:I imagine many of you are familiar with Occam's razor, the idea that the simplest answer is often the best one. Props to Doron Kenter for sending me a Twitter thread with a whole list of razors for you to enjoy. Personally, Hanlon’s Razor is my favorite.
Twitter’s Rebrand Failure: Elon Musk decided to rebrand Twitter as “X,” and it’s not going well (to put it mildly). Here’s a great analysis in The Conversation about why.
False Beliefs Held by Smart People: No person is always “smart” or “dumb,” and historic geniuses are no exceptions. Here’s a quick list of some strange beliefs held by history’s most brilliant thinkers.
This is Your Brain on Scarcity: More on the power of scarcity! NPR’s had a great article and podcast on how stress and scarcity impact our brains.
Everything You Can’t Have: I’m hardly the first person interested in the idea that assuming we will be happy because of a thing we want is a fool’s errand. But this article still sparked my thinking.
I get my shawarma in a lafa with hummus, harif (hot peppers), and lots of pickles.
Christopher K. Hsee and Jiao Zhang, “Distinction Bias: Misprediction and Mischoice Due to Joint Evaluation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 86, Issue 5 (2004), 680-695.
Props to former boss Kathy Elias who first encouraged me to read this book. Everything is awesome when you’re part of a team.
Kay attributes this quote to Sir James Black, a Nobel laureate.
See. John Kay, Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 4.
College roommates. I don’t think Nate or Micah know more about shawarma than me, but Nate definitely knows more about Phish than me, and Micah knows way more about the Jewish calendar than me. So that’s something.
We have a number of executive recruiters on this email list. Just to be clear, good recruiters know that this is NOT a reasonable goal. But I have no doubt they hear this request all the time.
Now you understand the picture. Get it, razors?