Upside of Irrationality

There are 354 days until Ironman Lake Tahoe. Seems like forever, but it won’t be. Last time I signed up for an Ironman a year in advance, it simply evaporated into a cloud of chaos, MBA classes, little sleep, and exponential hikes in grocery bills and muscle soreness.

354 days is about 50 weeks, which means that at my current training rate I will have a whopping 300 days to train for this race (assuming everything goes smoothly). For argument sake, we’ll say I have 290 solid days of training to get it in gear. Unfortunately, I’m also training for a marathon, two other Ironman 70.3’s, and will throw some small races in between. It’s bound to happen that sleep will take precedence on some days, and on others I will just sit at home getting fat. Ah, the joys of Type A personalities…

I just wrapped up the phenomenal read “The Upside of Irrationality” by Dan Ariely. The gist is that doing the unexpected, even following an illogical path can often times have unexpected and phenomenal results. We expect that logic and common sense typically lead down the “correct” path, and they often do, but there are a few highlights that clearly point out the exact opposite is true. Here’s a high level snapshot of what to expect from this solid read:

  • Preference of immediate gratification in the short-term – How many people do you know who need things now, now, now? It absolutely drives me crazy, and is only expedited and encouraged by the way people these days communicate. Texting and email only please! No face to face or phone calls encouraged. Ugh! The simple idea of working hard, saving, creating goals, and simply waiting has become so skewed that it truly is a skill now to possess and market.
  • People don’t exercise good, rational judgment – Let’s be real, you think you make good choices but really, you don’t. There’s a reason cars have seatbelts, just like there’s a reason people can’t help but text and drive. Your brain says it’s dangerous and yet there you are, tap, tap, tapping like the world is coming to an end.
  • People tend NOT to do the right thing on their own – Yes, it’s human nature, but for some reason we feel that we need to be rewarded, persuaded, or encouraged to take actions that are above and beyond what the “average” person would do. Why is it that doing the right thing is looked upon as doing something extraordinary when really it should simply be expected

“Why the hell do you need bonuses to do the right thing?” – Congressman Barney Frank to some very high level bankers

  • Work must be a meaningful experience – I don’t care who you are, what you do, or what you say, people NEED to have a meaningful experience in work. Tell me you aren’t totally degraded, humiliated, and upset when you bust your butt doing XYZ project only to have it thrown out by your boss, even if they appreciated the effort? It’s devastating! Especially as a 22 year old fresh out of college… anyways, while the book shared many professional examples, Ariely also shares a science experience where animals prefer to “earn” their treats far more than having a bowl of free food handed to them. Coincidence? I think not… for more info, look up Glen Jensen and his magical, lever-pressing rats.
  • Effort placed into doing something affects how we value it – A vacation example in the book shows that the “typical” person enjoys lounging on the beach doing nothing but sipping tropical concoctions because that is what they value. Granted, it’s not exciting but it’s relaxing to some. I, on the other hand, found this striking very close to home because when I go on vacation I cram everything humanly possible into every second. I’m known for vacationing solo, and am usually running around a foreign country going to museums, chatting with locals, trying new food, sleeping very little, and burning my candle until it’s time to fly back across the ocean. That’s the perception of value for you. I’d rather be doing something that bored on some beach. As a side note, mountains are still > beaches.
  • Adaptation – We are overly dramatic creatures when it comes to adaptation. Physically, it is truly incredible what the human body can be trained and tuned to do (read: Ironman). However, we tend to think that we will be happier if we get new toys (car, boat, camera, bikes) even though not much will change. Often, we just don’t credit time enough with its adaptive capacity. Just play the patient game while waiting for the adjustment! The good slowly wears off just like the bad. That being said, it’s better to spread out the “good experiences” in little increments so that you are always dwelling on them. Then again, it’s best to get through all of the bad stuff as quickly as possible. Just pile it on PLEASE!
  • “Wherever you go, there you are.” – And here I am :-) I LOVE THIS QUOTE.
  • Inject serendipity and unpredictability into our lives – I know a lot of boring people. Tons. Frankly, they’re NOT FUN TO BE AROUND! The people who are fun, courageous, and exciting are the ones who are unpredictable and who go on adventures simply seeking something new and accidentally fantastic. It’s great to be creatures of habit and play by the book, but the other side of the coin is sorely needed too. Be unexpected!
  • Mr. Spock is the ultimate realist, both rational and wise – Mr. Spock may be the end all; however, that doesn’t mean there that Mr. Spock isn’t missing something. You’ve seen Star Trek… he often makes great decisions, but then again, he often misses the point too! There’s a fine balance between rational and logical thinking, and acting with your gut. Fortunately, that’s within your locus of control to decide how best to act. Without giving anything away, there’s a moment in ST: Into Darkness where Spock finally comes into his own and is able to act with his gut and not his logistical synapses.
  • Sleep on it and cool off prior to action – It’s entirely, 100% accurate. Don’t make snap judgments when you’re emotional! The effects of a two second decision can linger for years. Take time to cool down and think things through before doing something stupid.
  • Doubt your intuitions and question yourself – This is a tough one. We like to think that we are well-equipped, properly logical, and capable of making the best decisions at any one moment. Oops… If I learned anything in grad school, it’s to not make assumptions, doubt what I think I know, and to always ask why (at least five times!!!!). It will serve you well.


By far, this has been one of the more refreshing books that I’ve read in a long time. It came highly recommended from a professor during my MBA stint, and has earned a place high up on my “MBA Shelf of Knowledge.” Not only is it worth a read, but it affirms many things in my mind that I already knew, and also provides great food for thought and some stretching of the gray matter.

I’m no expert, but I do know that those who don’t take the world for granted, are unafraid to step out onto limbs, and do completely irrational yet carefully calculated things (140.6 mile races) tend to excel in their professional and personal lives.

The world is laid out before you  … how are you going to live life irrationally?

Picture credit 1.



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