A Critique of Pure Reason

May 28, 2007, 3:11 PM UTC
Fortune


beach.jpg

Today, it being a holiday and all, I thought I would take a break from thinking about business… and think about business. Why is it that every thought we have immediately defaults to a business application? We’re obsessed. This weekend, which was supposed to be, in the words of an email I received on Saturday from a senior executive “a nice long break,” there has been a huge chain of correspondence on the positioning of an upcoming deal. I had to finally tell one of my guys, “Hey. Go barbecue something right now.” That was the last I heard from him. But I’m pretty sure there’s activity going on behind my back that I’m just not being copied on because, you know, I’m eccentric.

I need to detach now and then. For this purpose, I often read Scientific American, because it’s hilarious. Every discipline, from physics to math to biology, turns out to be shrouded in the kind of arbitrary nonsense that is completely recognizeable to anybody who has ever been called upon to present a five-year strategic plan.

My favorite article in a long time is in the June issue. I highly recommend it to any person who has secretly held the belief that the best business strategies are non-rational. It’s called The Traveler’s Dilemma, and it’s about game theory. I’m not going to go through it. It’s about two tourists, each of whom comes home from a trip abroad with a damaged souvenir, and how they go about retrieving its value. This happened to me recently after a trip to Mexico, but that’s another story. The point of the exercise is that the player who proceeds logically and rationally will often be the one who loses, that rationality is not, in the end, the best strategy for every game.

“What is interesting,” says the author, “is that this rejection of formal rationality and logic has a kind of meta-rationality attached to it. If both players follow this meta-rational course, both will do well. The idea of behavior generated by rationally rejecting rational behavior is a hard one to formalize.” Sure it is. But sometimes it’s the only way to play a crazy game.