Thursday, December 30, 2010

Beating Mr. Murphy

Warning – ill-logical post ahead.
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If there is one law in the universe that is understood and endured by all, it is the Murphy’s Law. It states that "Anything that can go wrong; will go wrong". Another interpretation of the Law is that “If you expect something to happen, it never will. If you don’t, it definitely will”. For example, if you carry an umbrella with you, it will not rain. If you don’t, it definitely will rain. The internet connection at your home will work perfectly all year, but get screwed up on the day you are working from home. If you are late in reaching office on a single day in the entire year, you will find our boss looking for you at your desk when you arrive. This will not happen on any other day when you are on time.


Every human being is often frustrated by Murphy’s Law. I am no exception. In fact, I have fallen prey to Murphy’s Law so often that I now expect it to strike anytime.  I try to anticipate various eventualities and build contingencies where ever possible. Here are a couple of examples. 
If I have 2 pieces of paper in my pocket, one that has a phone number I am looking for, and another that does not, the mathematical probability of me picking the correct slip of paper from the pocket is 50%. But it is funny how I would almost always pick up the wrong piece of paper from my pocket first. In order to overcome this, I at times pick one piece of paper, drop it, and get the other piece out of my picket. This example applies to many scenarios in real life. 
Another example. I am sure that the day I am low on charge in my cell, I would get an important call while on the road. So, I try to keep a charger handy at all times. But you can never outsmart Mr. Murphy completely. There can always be a day when the charge would be low AND there would be no electricity for me to re-charge AND I would get an urgent call at the same time.


On giving some more thought, I have figured that there are other ways of beating Mr. Murphy. One can use two occurrences of the law to cancel each other out. Here is an example. One of the most general examples of Murphy’s Law is that “If you plan for something, it will not happen. If you don’t, it will”. If you intend to go on a holiday on a specific time of the year and have made bookings and reservations well in advance in order to avoid a last minute rush, Murphy’s Law would indicate that something urgent would come up at the last moment and you would have to cancel the holiday plans. This is one occurrence of Murphy’s Law. This can be countered by applying another occurrence of Murphy’s Law on top of it. If you don’t make any advance arrangements, you will be able to go to the holiday and have to rush like hell at the last minute. Putting both the occurrences together, a way of beating Mr. Murphy emerges. If you really want to go for a holiday, do not make any arrangements in advance. If you do, Mr. Murphy will ensure that you cannot go. If you don’t, Mr. Murphy will ensure that you do go. You will have to endure the pain of making all arrangements at the 11th hour, but at least your bigger objective of going on a holiday would be satisfied.


While on the topic of Murphy’s Laws, another anecdote comes to my mind. A couple of years back, I was involved with projects related to the entertainment industry and was working with various Hollywood studios. In the beginning of the year, I travelled to Los Angeles for a short business trip. On a weekend, I decided to visit one of the famous theme parks. I came to know that my paying a few extra bucks, I could buy an annual pass to the theme park instead of a single day pass. It made sense to me since it was difficult to see all major attractions in a single day. And as I was working for projects in the entertainment industry, I expected to come back to Los Angeles soon for some other project. Hence I guessed that I would always have the opportunity to use the pass again.


By now you would have already guessed what happened next. Mr. Murphy struck. My next project ended up being in the publishing industry and I landed up on the east coast of US. Hence Mr. Murphy had all but ensured that the annual pass was wasted. But this time I was determined to not let Mr. Murphy get the better of me. I went back to the west coast before the year ended, visited the theme park again, and made sure that I utilized my annual pass and saw all the attractions that I missed the first time.

1 comment:

Nikhil Kulkarni said...

I think there are 2 ways to beat Mr. Murphy is to follow project planning methods ... for ex if you have made travel plans etc, make sure to finish all "planned" work 1-2 days in advance so that even if something new comes up or you take more time to do the assigned task, you still make it.

However, in this case you do risk that you may end up finishing everything in time and waiting doing nothing for 2 days.

I have been travelling like mad since the past 1 year and I follow this principle a lot.

Similarly, if you have a meeting at 10:30, make sure that you plan to reach by 10:00.

However, this requires a lot of mind training and ability to fight human psychology of lazing around. I am still trying to discipline myself to this. I have managed to train myself on longer term planning but I still falter on the shorter term.

Btw there's a classic book called the black swan by Naseem Taleb on the whole concept of managing uncertainty - you should read it