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My son called last week from his new home in Wisconsin to hammer out Christmas travel logistics. He said he and some coworkers had been discussing their holiday plans. “I said my family tries to recreate Christmas 1993 every year, and we like it that way.”
Indeed we do. In fact, we recreate Christmases even earlier than his toddler memories. I realized a long time ago that the things we remember most vividly from childhood are the things that we “always” did — the traditions that are reinforced and become expected — rather than one-off events, no matter how spectacular.
This is an Opinion
Traditions and rituals are universal to human societies, and for good reason. Michael I. Norton, Harvard Business School professor who has been studying the power of ritual for a number of years, says rituals keep families connected even when members have little else in common.
“If you report having a ritual, you are more likely to keep getting together with your family for the holidays, and it’s more likely to go well when you do get together,” Norton said in an interview with “The Happiness Lab” podcast. (I cannot recommend this podcast too often or too highly.)
When political and cultural polarization can make relatives seem like members of competing tribes, Norton said, “It seems as though rituals provide kind of a framework for the fact that we’re a family — because we’ve always been eating Nana’s rolls for the past 50 years, so I guess it’s something that we all do together.”
In addition to providing a reason to be together, rituals “tell everyone exactly what they should do at all times,” which “allows the day to happen where everyone kind of sorts themselves in a way that’s optimal. And then suddenly it’s all over and nobody killed anybody.”
So there are times when doing things the way we’ve always done them can be very, very good — necessary, even, to reaching a desirable goal like family unity. But tradition is one thing; being stuck in a rut is another. There are things that need to be shaken up because they are not contributing to desirable outcomes, and this is true in our personal lives and in our businesses. It is also true in government.
I was reminded of the “sunk cost fallacy” — being unwilling to walk away from a bad investment — when reading the Washington Post’s recent report on “Lessons Learned,” the massive and previously confidential report produced by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. More than 600 interviews with people who had firsthand experience with America’s longest war demonstrated that “the American people have constantly been lied to,” in the words of John Sopko, the head of SIGAR.
I’m not quite cynical enough to believe that lying to the American people is or ever was the goal of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. But we’ve sunk a lot of blood and treasure in that adventure — 2,300 American lives and nearly a trillion dollars — and it becomes very hard to admit that something so costly was not worthwhile.
So, according to Army Col. Bob Crowley, who served as a counterinsurgency adviser to the U.S. military in 2013 and 2014, “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible. Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
Crowley did not coin that description, but I had not heard it before and it blew me away.
Few examples of the sunk cost fallacy are as tragic as a never-ending war, but the phenomenon is as universal as the desire to rationalize mistakes. The turn of a new year and, by one disputed measure, a new decade is a fine time to reinforce valuable traditions and to write off sunk costs so that we can better invest in the future.
This is the last regular issue of Arkansas Business until Jan. 13. That doesn’t mean your mailbox will be empty. Next week subscribers will receive the 2020 Book of Lists, the indispensable resource for business in Arkansas. Take my advice: Write your name in fat marker on the front of it as soon as it arrives.
On Jan. 6, you’ll receive a compilation of all the Executive Q&A features that appeared in 2019. I sincerely appreciate the business firepower that contributes so much value to our product week after week, almost as much as I appreciate the loyal readers who have pushed our paid subscriber base to a record high this year.
See you in 2020.