Ben Franklin’s decision technique

BFranklinBenjamin Franklin had a life-long interest in finding ways to make himself more effective. It worked. He become a statesman, an inventor, a publisher, a writer… and got his face featured on the hundred-dollar bill. One of his techniques was a simple way to make a difficult decision, specifically whether to do something or not.

Start with two columns, one labeled Pro and the other Con. List all the arguments for taking the action under the Pro column and all arguments against it under Con. So far, pretty standard stuff. Here is the twist, in his own words, as reported by Walter Isaacson in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. “Where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out; if I find a reason pro equal to some two reasons con, I strike out the three” until it becomes clear “where the balance lies.”

Let’s try this on an example decision. Say I’ve just been offered a promising job at another company, but it will require me to do some traveling. Should I take it? I list my pros and cons.

Pros:
Higher salary
More prestigious
Excitement of change
Promotion opportunities
On-site fitness center

Cons:
Requirement to be away from home longer
Business travel hassles
Loyalty to current company
Fear of change
More formal environment
Having to leave friends at current company

There are more cons than pros, possibly indicating it’s a bad choice, but let’s try Franklin’s approach. The more formal environment is of minor concern and the fitness center is of minor interest (I probably won’t use it), so I strike them both. The prestige is nice, just enough to counter my fear of change, so I strike both of those. Here’s what we’re left with:

Pros:
Higher salary
Excitement of change
Promotion opportunities

Cons:
Requirement to be away from home longer
Business travel hassles
Loyalty to current company
Having to leave friends at current company

The higher salary is a big deal, worth the extra travel I’ll need to do, with its hassles and time away from home. So I strike all three of those items. Now I’m left with:

Pros:
Excitement of change
Promotion opportunities

Cons:
Loyalty to current company
Having to leave friends at current company

At this point, I figure the promotion opportunities alone are enough to entice me away from my current company. I can still keep in touch with my friends, and I’ll make new friends at the new job. I decide to accept the offer. You could apply this technique just as well to any choice between two options.

Have you used this technique? Do you know any similar ones? How did they work out for you?

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