Serious Jazz

Walking with my dog this morning, I saw a bumper sticker: “I love Serious Jazz!” I can’t quite infer the driver’s feelings on Casual Jazz or Irreverent Jazz, let alone Flippant Jazz. Perhaps they tolerate those lesser forms, perhaps they resent their bebased corruption of the serious form. They had no such sticker declaring their emotional affect with regards to the less stringent spirits. But their feelings couldn’t be more clear about Serious Jazz. They love it.

I’ve never been much of a jazz man myself. Perhaps I’ve never been serious enough to connect. I like some, but I’m basic. I have “Kind of Blue”. I’ll listen to a generic jazz station occasionally and skip the songs that go too far out there. I know the names Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, but if one of their songs came on, I wouldn’t be able to tell you who was playing. In fact, if a jazz song came on and you said name the artist, I’d probably just shout out one of the few names I know and hope I got it right. To be honest, I don’t know what would be distinguishing features of serious and un-serious jazz. 

I imagine my bumper sticker neighbor wouldn’t approve of my unserious lack of devotion. I am not a real Jazz fan, certainly not a serious one. I don’t have the pure adherence to the truest form. Within my heart, I don’t adhere to the principles. I don’t hold the foundations. I am casual, not devout. My soul is not pure. I’m sure my neighbor would not cast me into the flame for my sins, but I would receive judgement.  

In thinking what it means to Love Serious Jazz, I remember the Oxford Group. I am only familiar with the Oxford Group due to their influence on the foundations of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Oxford Group was an evangelical Christian group who sought to purify the souls of humanity through four principles, known as the “Four Absolutes”; absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love (the precursors to AA’s twelve steps). Along with these absolutes were standard practices that led one to clearing out the moral failings that had previously been blocking one’s spirit from a closer relationship with the divine. 

Bill Wilson, one of AA’s co-founders, was exposed to the teachings of the Oxford Group and found recovery from his severe chronic alcoholism. In Wilson’s effort to help fellow sufferers of the addictive affliction, he brought many to Oxford Group meetings. While there are definite overlaps between what would become the AA program with the practices of the Oxford Group, these early efforts were unsuccessful. Many alcoholics were unable to connect with the evangelical group. Likewise, the drying out drunks were not the typical targets of conversion for the Christian practitioners. 

Wilson was eventually successful when he connected with the failing physician Bob Smith, AA’s second co-founder, Dr. Bob. Along with other early recovering individuals, the founders set forth the program of recovery in AA’s “Big Book”. While maintaining a heavy influence, AA departed from the tenets of the Oxford Group in a few important ways. First, most notable on its face, AA proposed a twelve step plan of recovery and opposed to the four absolutes of the Oxford Group. Second, these steps were put forth as a “suggested program”. Anyone who has a desire to stop drinking is free to attend or join AA; the adoption of any belief is not required. Lastly, at the urging of then addiction specialist Dr. William Silkworth, alcoholism was presented as a possible “allergy” or disease, not a moral failing. 

You can travel around the world and find AA meetings in many different languages. The Oxford Group doesn’t exist anymore, though it does have some spiritual successors active under different names.

I’m sure that Serious Jazz is a paragon of musical mastery, tremendous technique fused with impeccable improvisation. Likewise, aspirations of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love seem laudable to me. However, the enduring prevalence of AA over the Oxford Group highlights an important component for success: recognition of human shortcomings as natural, not moral. Compassion for the compromised over exaltation of the exceptional has saved more lives and spirits than a more rigorous form. We should love more music and care less about it fitting our serious standards.

If I thought these principles were only applicable to music snobs, I wouldn’t write about it. If I thought it was only of interest in anonymous groups, I’d keep my words private. What I see daily, though, are constant assessments and presentations of a person’s seriousness or absolute commitment to purity. Every aspect of personality, personhood, and social convention has its ideal of the perfect form. Has one fit the new standards and forms? Have they sufficiently condemned the previous ones? If not, we must cast them out. This does not seem to me to be a recipe for salvation, but one of exclusion and castigation. Success will come through compassion not expulsion. Human failings are natural, to be improved, not perfected. No one can fit that form, meet that standard. You absolutely can’t be serious.

Betting on Yourself

My guest this week is Alexis Harris, aka PFuzz. Alexis is a classically trained violinist and violin instructor with an intense passion for electronic music. She enjoys merging her background in classical music with her love for psychedelic bass music, glitch, sound design, and melodies interspersed with unexpected ear candy. We discuss her development within the realm of classical music and her journey outside of the discipline to electronic music. Moving from a sense of failure and self-doubt to personal triumph and persistence through adversity. The episode can be found on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, Stitcher or wherever you get podcasts.

Direct link here:

Alexis’ music can be found here:




From Dissent to Love

My guest this week is Mordecai Lyon, Editor in Chief of the Boycott Times. As Editor in Chief of The Boycott Times, Mordecai is committed to publishing exciting and provocative content from a wide variety of perspectives centered around justice. His work has been published by the Harvard Business School, the Boston Review, the Undefeated, and ABC News. Mordecai graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2014. Read his past interviews with Cornel West, Lorgia García Peña, and Tef Poe with Walter Johnson.

Podcast available through Apple, Spotify, Amazon or direct link:



Links to works discussed:

Flow chart guide to reading Haruki Murakami

Love the Process

My guest this week is Paul Turano. Paul is an artist, award winning filmmaker, essayist and Associate Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College. Paul is an artist who uses film and video as poetic tools for exploring the human condition, incorporating subjects as close as his back porch and as far away as the planet Mars. We talk about his development as an artist, the changing technological landscape, the current higher education environment, and his love of the creative process.

Episode available via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, Libsyn, or the direct link below.

More information and his work can be found on his website:

Selected works:

A Message From The Magpie

Not Clear Cut

Wander, Wonder, Wilderness

Why Couldn’t We Dance?

What’s your top Music from 2020?

In my former life as Head Coach of a CrossFit gym, I used to ask a daily Question of the Day (I’ve written about the practice before). In the beginning of December, as everyone was flooding their Instagram stories with their Spotify Top Tens, my curiosity was prompted about what music people in the gym listened to in their free time. Now, I must say, asking “what’s your favorite music?” is a poor man’s Question of the Day, this I admit. They can’t all be crafts of creativity. But, since we played music 100% of the time we were in the gym and it was a current trend on social media, I asked “What music have you listened to the most in the past year?” 

I got a lot of standard answers. Artist names you know, genres that dominate certain age groups. I got a few answers I’d never heard of, which you expect as well, there’s always a hip iconoclast in the group. One answer that I’d never heard of, though, stuck out to me: “Jerusalema” by Master KG. This was the answer of one of our members who was originally from Albania. He told me, “No one in the US has heard it, but it’s the biggest song in the rest of the world.” 


I had to check it out. I searched the song on Spotify, there were a ton of versions, many remixes. I listened to what I thought was the standard version. A standard beat to start, a building melody, climaxes and drops back in. Good song, catchy. I then found out that there was an attendant dance to go along with the song. I’ve always been interested in these group dances, going back to the “Tootsie Roll” when I was in middle school, to the snap dance when I was in college, to “Teach Me How to Dougie”, and many more in my post college years; I at least want to grasp the basics, most of them are pretty similar. I searched on YouTube for the “Jerusalema dance”…there were thousands of videos.

All over the world. All ages. Kids, grandparents. Nuns, priests, teachers, flight attendants, athletes, maybe even a few trained dancers. The videos haven’t stopped being posted.  Police in Ireland recently answered the #jeruslalemachallenge from police in Switzerland. The song, originally recorded and released in South Africa in 2019, was a hit in Africa and then spread across Europe and the world, reaching #1 in the charts in many countries. I must say though, few of the videos were submitted from the US, a couple from dance studios. My Albanian friend was right: everyone else in the world was dancing to this song, but we in the US were not joining in. Why?

Not That Kind Of Party

There is one easy answer for why we didn’t jump on the dance craze in the US: the song wasn’t in English. While the rest of the world may be very multilingual or linguistically open, we’re much more rigid here in the states. While that may be true to an extent, that argument falls apart when you look at the success of songs like “Macarena” or “Gangam Style”, international hits with attendant dances and little english in the lyrics. I was a kid when the “Macarena” hit and don’t think I’ve seen a dance craze quite like that.

Of course, 2020 wasn’t a good time for a dance party. COVID-19, ever heard of it? Well, that argument falls by the wayside when you acknowledge that this is a global pandemic. There are plenty of Jerusalema Challenge videos from Italy, where the song was not only #1, but they had some of the most serious outbreaks and harshest lockdowns. For much of the world, “Jerusalema” acted as a unifying source of shared hope and joy.

Therein lies the rub, the US was anything but unified in 2020. There was the largest civil unrest since 1968 in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. We then had a contentious election where each side depicted the other as a mortal foe of the republic: a global socialist on one side against a fascist tyrant on the other. The stakes were too high. No time for dancing.

“Fair enough.” I thought. Not our year to have fun with a global dance craze. We had too much terrible stuff to worry about.

Masaka Kids Africana

As a wonderful by product of my search through the Jerusalema Dance Challenge videos, I came across Masaka Kids Africana, a group of kids from Uganda who post dance videos and songs of their own on social media and YouTube. I started following them on Instagram and one of their posts always brings a smile to my face when it comes up in my feed. I was so treated yesterday, when one of their recent posts came up. I watched the shoeless children dance next to corroding brick buildings, wearing mismatched clothing with the biggest smiles that faces can hold. They are holding joy and light in this world.

Masaka Kids Africana is an organization that cares for orphaned children in Uganda. According to their website, these children have been orphaned due to “due to the AIDS epidemic, extreme poverty, and decades of civil conflict.” So then, we have to ask, was our last year worse than the conditions of orphans in Uganda? The country has had actual dictators, coups, and decades of violence in the streets. Have we been so spoiled, gotten so entitled, lost so much perspective, so completely ungrateful that we can’t smile in the face of adversity. Are we so averse to unity and hope? 

Dance Together

So, we’re left with the question again, why couldn’t the US join in on the dance? Dancing is the physical embodiment of joy and harmony. We have been the embodiment of fear and resentment. You can’t dance while afraid. You can’t dance when ruminating in resentment. You can’t dance with a closed heart. You must give your body over to the movements of the music in a joyful manner. That shouldn’t be an impossible task, despite hardships. We would do well to head the words of Nigerian recording artist Burna Boy when speaking about the dance, “My hope is that it unites us through our divisions and misunderstandings and dance together.”

Can You Stay Serenely In Yourself?

Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.

Not seeking, not expecting,

she is present, and can welcome all things.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15

Stay home. Alone with ourselves and our households. Dinner outings, concerts, sporting events, and leisure travel taken away. Discomfort and disquiet resulted. Without fine tasting food prepared by others, music and sports played by bodies other than our own, or the sites of other homes and homelands, where were we to look? At ourselves. Within. Our own lives, decisions, and the world we built or accepted as a place to live. 

If you don’t realize the source,

you stumble in confusion and sorrow.

When you realize where you come from,

you naturally become tolerant,

disinterested, amused,

kindhearted as a grandmother,

dignified as a king.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16

We were unbearably discontent. When made to stay within the walls of our home, we climbed them, scratching at the paint. When made to sit within our own skin, we crawled inside of it, uncomfortable with the fit. Too big, too small. Growing, shrinking. Desperately seeking the respite of externality, we screamed for the injustice and justice of the day.

Thus the Master travels all day

without leaving home.

However splendid the views,

she stays serenely in herself.

Why should the lord of the country

flit about like a fool?

If you let yourself be blown to and fro,

you lose touch with your root.

If you let restlessness move you,

you lose touch with who you are.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 26

It was not the outside world. It was not the system. It was not the screens. None of those things were the sources of our perturbation. It was being forced to look within and not liking the view. Of sitting with ourselves and not liking the company. Deep in the well, we scraped at the walls to reach out. Will we keep reaching?

If a country is governed wisely,

its inhabitants will be content.

They enjoy the labor of their hands

and don’t waste time inventing

labor-saving machines.

Since they dearly love their homes,

they aren’t interested in travel.

There may be a few wagons and boats,

but these don’t go anywhere.

There may be an arsenal of weapons,

but nobody ever uses them.

People enjoy their food,

take pleasure in being with their families,

spend weekends working in their gardens,

delight in the doings of the neighborhood.

And even though the next country is so close

that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,

they are content to die of old age

without ever having gone to see it.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 80

Looking out my dark window, the wind blows and the snow falls. The plows clear the road and the walks are salted to enable travel outside. Must we go outside? It has been cold.

Playing Hard is a Skill

Starless vs Star-studded

On February 9th, 2019, my wife and I headed out for my regular birthday gift, excellent tickets to a Celtics game. Living in Boston and being a rabid Celtics fan, I’ve been to plenty of games, but when my wife figured out that I would always be happy with tickets to the fancy seating areas of Celtics games for my birthday present, the early February games became tradition. For the game celebrating my thirty fifth birthday, we watched the Boston Celtics take on the Los Angeles Clippers. 

The architecture of these two rosters was completely different. The 2018-2019 Celtics featured all-stars of past and present in Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving; along with budding young all-star aspirants Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum. Star power. The Clippers roster had not one single all-star on the team. They had a couple young prospects in Shae Gilgoes-Alexander and Landry Shamut, veteran scorers in Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari, and tough-minded energy players in Patrick Beverly and Montrez Harrell. Hustle players. While the Clippers had been playing well in their scrappy way, I entered the Boston Garden expecting to see my young talented team take care of this team without a star.

Early on, I got what I came to see. The Celtics jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter and held on through the first half. We simply had too many weapons. Kyrie dazzled with ball handling, Tatum continued his ascendence, and Gordon Hayward looked to be returning to form after a season lost to injury. Then, the second half. Kyrie went out with an injury.  The Clippers stifled the Celtics offense. Everyone on the Clippers got involved on offense–Harrel rolling to the rim, Galinari and Shamut hitting shots, Lou Williams putting defenders on skates. The Celtics’ lead dwindled.

During an out-of-bounds play, from my special birthday seats, I saw Patrick Beverly in the ear of Jason Tatum. I had no idea what he was saying, but it wasn’t anything nice. When play commenced, Beverly stopped talking, but gave up no space to Tatum. He was all over him. The second-year star with Duke university pedigree was not getting an inch from the dogged defense of the six year journeymen. Beverly made it his mission to frustrate Tatum. It worked. 

The starless Clippers continued their turn around of the star-studded Celtics with a rout in the fourth quarter. I left my birthday game having had an up close view of a hard playing team completely dominating my talented hometeam. 

Playing Hard is a Skill

In 2017, I listened to Patrick Beveraly as a guest on Adrian Wojarnowski’s podcast. Beverly recounted his upbringing in the hard streets of Chicago and why he still went back to the city every summer. Beverly outlined his career path, playing overseas in Ukraine, Greece, and Russia before making his way to the NBA. Beverly also talked about his dedicated, junkyard-dog mentality that had led him to be then named to his second NBA all-defensive team. 

Listening to Patrick Beveraly recount his hard upbringing, arduous path to the sport’s highest league, and hard mentality toward the game, Woj asked why he thought other players didn’t bring the same mentality. Beverly answered in a way that surprised me: “Playing hard is a skill.”

Effort as Skill

We often think of skills as things that the talented refine. An athlete may have a natural ability that lends them certain advantages. Still, they have to refine their skills. The best shooters shoot thousands of practice shots. The best ball handlers will spend hours dribbling the ball. The best defenders study their opponents movements. When they take to the court, they have this honed skill to give them an advantage over the competition. We admire the skill and the craft.

Effort, we don’t usually think of in this manner. Effort, we think of as being driven from within. Motivation inspired from a divine source. Either innate or channeled from some ethereal source. This is not the case. Effort is molded through thousands of repetitions, just like a jump shot. These repetitions require being beaten back, but coming forward again. In order to build the stamina to not just put forth a herculean strain for one instance, the skill of playing hard must be practiced on play after play, game after game, year after year. This is a learned skill. At first you can play hard only in bits. It will be unpleasant and difficult to put forth that energy for long, but the effort will build as you hone your skill.

Patrick Beverly’s skill is playing hard. That night against the Celtics, the Clippers team used this skill to step into passing lanes, box out for rebounds, and dive on the floor for loose balls. It resulted in a large victory. 

Life Skills

Many of us have skills. Some of us are good at our jobs, some of us are good cooks, some of us are musicians. We learned the skills from our bosses, parents, and teachers. Few of us Play Hard. We get distracted. We get tired. We lose motivation. That’s just us, we think. We don’t have that innate ability to push on through adversity. We’re not struck by the inspiration to go all out or all in. This is mistaken thinking. This assumes that we can’t learn to play hard. That we can’t learn to Play Hard through repetitive effort. Playing Hard is a skill, one earned through repetition, just like any other. The repetitions, though, cannot be accumulated with a coach, teammate, or even in the gym by ourselves. Only life can teach you the lessons of how to Play Hard. We must put forth the effort on every play. We will lack the stamina at first, but our focus can improve. In our daily lives, this means pursuing growth and exploration everyday, not just a day or two a week; being present for our relationships in every conversation, not just one call; pursuing new ideas everyday, not just waiting for inspiration. We will fail. More often at first, less frequently as we get more practice. For those of us who don’t have the pedigrees, star power, or natural talent, we must learn to Play Hard. That is a winning life skill.

Calculating the Answers

Getting a graphing calculator was exciting. At a certain point, math classes required that you have one. When I first got one, all the extra buttons held such possibilities. Thrilling possibilities. I didn’t know how to work it, but I knew that once I achieved mastery with the functions of this sophisticated quantifier, I would not be limited by the speed of my own base writing, but be unlocked through the speed of the machine’s power. My performance would reach new heights. All I had to do wass learn the machine’s tricks and then I would not have to laboriously suffer through math class as I had in the past. The calculator’s automatic quantification would set me free.

It didn’t really work that way. The excitement wore off. It turned out I only used the real basic functions of the calculator. You could program functions that were helpful for calculus and what not, but that took a good amount of work. It wasn’t a straightforward process.  You were better off just learning the equations you needed to know. Maybe write them on a sheet of scrap paper. The magical quantifying contraption was not the panacea to the problem of numbers. There was no way around math work being work.

I don’t know if students need to still purchase graphing calculators. You must be able to get an app for that on your phone now. 

Being an average functioning adult, of course, I never use a calculator. I do see a lot of options, however, in magic quantifying machines. Machines that will do the counting for you, to let you know if what you just did really counted. 

Obviously I’m not talking about calculators for school work. I’m talking about wearable technology that will monitor your heart rate, track your steps, and give you evaluative metrics for your physical health and performance. They’re selling by the millions. Apple and Amazon are competing to get you to wear theirs. Some people will get both, putting their hopes into getting their lives on track once the machine tells them what their numbers are and what they should be.

As a professional in the fitness industry, I’ve seen the obsession with counting rise. You could count your calories. But that’s not enough. You need to count your intake of each macronutrient. You could count your workouts. But that’s not enough. You need to count how strenuous each workout is. Your heart rate monitor will tell you. You could count how many hours you sleep. But that’s not enough. Your machine will count the quality of your sleep. We count how much time we spend on our machines, where we rank in the class, how far we biked, how well we rested.

It’s not just physical fitness. We count how much screen time we had; how many books we read; how many mediation sessions we engaged with; how many days you’ve been sober. There’s an app for that. You can count on it. What’s the ideal number for all this? One more or one less could always be an improvement. You can get 1% better each day. Or .5%. Or maybe some other number. But you’ll never know if you’re not measuring. Not without attaching a number. Keep striving. Keep reaching.

Resilience. Courage. Serenity. What numbers do we need to hit? Can we plug in the functions to our counting machines and get the answers? That didn’t work for me in the past. In the end, there was no way around the work, which was the real lesson itself. I couldn’t just punch buttons to find the answer.

Roll The Dice

Question of the Day

I start each class with a question. The Question of the Day. This could be construed as an ice-breaker exercise similar to those held in stuffy corporate settings. To some extent, the purpose is similar. To a greater extent, our setting and purpose is much different. I run a gym. People come to our gym to stay fit and healthy, but also blow off steam from the rest of their day. By being pushed through challenging workouts, our members can both find release from their day-to-day demands and find a bond with everyone in class who shares in the experience of persevering through the physical challenge. I ask the Question of the Day to shake people out of their early morning fog or early evening cloud. To answer the question, you must be present. There is also an ensuing discussion over the commonalities or differences among the various answers.

The Question of the Day can come from anywhere. I describe the Question of the Day to a new gym member with “It can be fitness related, but usually not.” Some of my longtime members will scoff. It’s rarely fitness related. I often spend the last few minutes before a class starts bouncing questions through my head. I’ve resolved to always come up with the questions on my own. 

I have a couple regular questions. At the beginning of a month, I ask: “What are you going to work on this month?” At the end of a month, I ask: “What went well in the last month?” I ask seasonal questions, such as: “When has the season unofficially turned? Not the calendar date of change, but informal signatures such as the first lemonade of summer or pumpkin spice latte of fall.” Some questions reveal quirks of character or interests, such as: “If a song played whenever you entered a room, what would it be?” or “If someone wrote a profile article about you, what publication would you want the article to be in?” Some questions are sheerly for fun: “If you were a professional wrestler, what would your stage name be?” or “What is your go-to karaoke song?” Many questions provide a small window into personal values: “Would you rather always be late or always have to wait for other people?” “Would you rather have people view you as dishonest or incompetent?” I try to not get too controversial or heavy, but some answers lead in that direction.

I recently asked a question that provided a great insight into the way people think about the world. The question included a rational mathematical decision, cognitive bias, and has strong implications for how a person chooses to live their life to the fullest. 

The Question

I sat before the computer screen looking at the roster of members for my 5:30 class. I was again racking my brain for a good Question of the Day. My mind started venturing in the direction of a cash reward for one of two risky endeavors. I was trying to think of two potential challenges that were achievable, but not with 100% certainty. Say, “You can win a $100,000 by performing a perfect parallel parking job or hitting a basketball shot from the free throw line. What do you choose?” That felt unsatisfactory; not everyone plays basketball and we live in a city where not everyone drives. I needed something more uniformly accessible. My mind somehow landed on the rolling of dice. Everyone can roll dice. What I settled on was “You have one roll of a die to win a cash prize. You win the money if you land on the number 3. You can either roll a 6-sided die for the chance to win $100,000 or roll a 64-sided die for the chance to win $1,000,000. What do you choose?”

A little explanation on why I chose those numbers. Both sums of money are large, but neither are enough to retire away on. That said, $1,000,000 is more of a life-changing sum and $100,000 would alter your financial comfort, but not be enough to do something drastic like pay for a house or college education. The 6-sided die was chosen because it’s the standard-issue die and I chose the 64-sided die to make the big win just more than 10 times as risky, since the payout is exactly 10 times as large. I figured if I raised the chances exactly proportional, people would all just play the game for the big money. Since I always play Question of the Day with the class, I knew my answer would be to take the shot with the 64-sided die and go for the big shot. I imagined we’d have some risk takers, but most people would play it safe. After the first round of the question, I would ask some follow ups to see how many people I could get to change their mind by either changing the amounts or changing the odds on the die.

I was a little surprised that in my first class of about 10 people, only 1 person said they would roll for the big prize. My surprise was compounded when I changed the circumstances to a 32-sided die for the $1,000,000. No one budged. I was astounded when I changed the prize of the 6-sided die to $10,000 and kept the 32-sided die at $1,000,000. Only a few people changed their mind. In my morning classes the next day, I didn’t even open with the 64-sided die, I went straight to 32 and no one would take the shot at the $1,000,000. Lowering the payout of the 6-sided die had a similarly small rate of conversion to the risky 32-sided die. 

Number Crunching

There are some relevant mathematical, economic, and psychological elements that provide insight into this question, the response, and my surprise. First off is the Theorem of Expected Value. First arrived at by French mathematicians in the 17th century, Expected Value states that the value of a future gain should be directly proportional to the chance of receiving the gain. In this question, as opposed to some future stock speculation, the chance or probability of the outcome is easily determined because it is fixed by the number of sides of each die, either 1/6, 1/64, or 1/32.

Our Expected Values breakdown is as follows:

1/6  x 100,000 = 16,666.67

1/64 x 1,000,000 = 15, 625

1/32 x 1,000,000 = 31,250 

1/6 x 10,000 = 1,666.67

What we see here is that as I originally construed the question (6-sided for $100,000 and 64-sided for $1,000,000), the expected value is higher with 6-sided die. What I thought, and this was my own reasoning, was that some people would take the risk for the more life-changing amount of $1,000,000. I was wrong. People were risk averse. I was so wrong that even when the EV was clearly higher with the 32-sided die for $1,000,000 (EV=$31,250), people still chose the “safer” route of the 6-sided die for $100,000 (EV=$16,666.67). It wasn’t until I lowered the 6-sided die to $10,000 (EV=$1,666.67) that I got some people to move, though most still chose the 6-sided die. That means that the majority of people I questioned would have chosen to roll the 6-sided dice with an EV for each roll of $1,666.67 instead of $31,250 with the 32-sided die.

There are a couple of influential factors to note. An individual’s personal financial situation is certainly relevant. An individual who never has had more than $10,000 in the bank will have a different relationship to $100,000 than an individual who already has $200,000 in savings. Similarly, an individual who could pay off immediate debt or get a jump on homeownership utilizing the $100,000 could view the higher chance of success as more important. The chance of success with the 6-sided die is 16.67% and the 32-side is 3.1%. You are certainly more likely to come away with something rather than nothing with the 6-sided die. The closer your personal financial situation is to nothing you may consider it “rational” to get something, though this still wouldn’t be rational in the classical economic sense of maximizing value. I should also note that a couple investment savvy individuals did the exact calculation for EV and made the choice immediately.

A treatment of this Question of the Day and the response cannot leave out Prospect Theory, a theory of behavioral economics and cognitive bias developed by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman went on to win the Nobel Prize for his work on the theory. A complete expounding of the theory is beyond the scope of this essay, but the theory deals with the different cognitive biases individuals have in situations of gain and loss. One conclusion of the theory is that in a situation of potential gains, individuals become risk averse. Essentially, just what we saw with the response to the dice question. Even though the potential gains were greater and a rational mathematical analysis would tell you to roll the 32-sided die for the chance at $1,000,000, my limited group of responders overwhelmingly sought the smaller gains due to the lower risk of getting nothing. It’s also worth noting that Prospect Theory also states that in a situation of loss, individuals become risk seeking. So if I were to flip the question to the prospect of losing $100,000 or $1,000,000, I would theoretically get a bunch of risk seeking responders.

The Game of Life      

Oftentimes, I view a Question of the Day that has such a one-sided response as a bit of failure. Not in this case. This was one of my favorite questions and answers. I have often been asked by members of my gym, “Do you record our answers somewhere? Are you going to do anything with them?” This is the only time I’ve felt compelled to do so, and it’s not because of the implications of how people spend or save or invest their money. I’m actually not a person especially concerned with money. I think most people overestimate its value.

And there’s the rub, I am very interested in values. What do you really value? What is important to you? How do you value Joy or Fulfillment? We have a limited time in this life. Are you living your life in a way that maximizes those values?

I can give some concrete examples from my own life. I didn’t always run a gym. I used to be a university administrator. I made a decent salary, had a stable career with an upward trajectory, and worked in a generally respected field. One problem: I hated my day-to-day life. I went to an office full of cubicles and couldn’t wait to get out of it. I experienced no joy in what I did. I value the joy of life. I had a passion for fitness and helping people. Leaving that steady job to work in a different field seemed so risky. Would I make the same money? What would people think of me? I stayed in education administration for years. I chose the safe route. Eventually, though, I started to think about what I valued in life. Was it living a safe life or an enjoyable one? Did I want to dread the space I walked into each day or have reverence for it? I took a leap. I gave up a bunch in salary to start. I worked really odd hours. I had to hustle from one gym to the next. I made it work. When I was a child, gym class was my favorite time of day, I now teach gym class to adults every day. I hang with ex-athletes and talk sports. I teach people who have never been in the gym how to lift weights and see their self-confidence rise. In the fitness industry we have a mantra of making a class the “best hour of their day”. That means that everyday I play a role in the best part of someone’s day multiple times a day. I help facilitate physical development, social bonds, and the joy of play. When making the decision to leave my role in administration, I chose the higher expected value in a joyful life than the financially safe play. I took the risk to live out what was truly valuable to me.

Similarly, I write every day. I am editing the draft of a book. I have ideas for my next two books. I’m finishing up this essay right here. The most likely outcome is that not many people read this. The books I write may never even get published. The safe play would be for me to devote time to personal training and remote programming. I now make a more stable salary than in those initial days in fitness, but the safe thing to do would be to make more money using the skills I have. Why would I waste time writing? People don’t even read anymore. The answer is because I value living a life fully engaged in intellectual and creative pursuits. I value having my voice present in the discussion of ideas. I will take on the risk of writing that book that no one read because I place value in engaging in creative expression. I will take that shot. If I am able to be successful in that endeavor, that is a more radically life altering than getting the income from a few extra clients. I want to live my life to the fullest expression of my values.

Many times, in response to the dice question, people asked, “Can we get multiple rolls of the dice?” I held firm that you could only get one roll. You only get one shot at this life. If you value something, it’s worth taking the risk. To not do so would be irrational.