This Salad Tastes Too Good

Truth never damages a cause that is just. 

— Mahatma Gandhi

It is a fact of life that the healthier a salad is, the worse it tastes.

You already know how the majority of people cope with this. They dump cheese and dressing on it until it tastes good. Uninterested with a detailed consideration of the ingredients, they have relieved themselves of the painful notion that they are eating something unhealthy because it is called a SALAD instead of a CHEESEBURGER.

If we are willing to hide an unpleasant truth to ourselves, what might people without our best interests in mind do?

As readers of my Kim Kardashian post might have suspected, we are not here to talk about salads. We are here to talk about a way for you to determine how someone could be trying to take advantage of you and think more independently. (The main concept in the KK post, focusing on mechanisms, is related to the topic here).

Think of the salad as any system and the ingredients as anything in that system.

For our purposes, we care about:
1. The ingredients, their activity, and quality
2. When and why we might want to know the ingredients or hide them

In any salad (system), it is important to pay attention to the ingredients (components). This framework can be useful in solving a particular problem or when someone is trying to persuade you to do something. We will look at a common problem to get us going. If someone says, “I don’t have enough time in the day,” then the day is his salad. The ways in which he spends his time are the ingredients. Watching TV might be his “dressing,” one of the essential factors causing his problem of not enough time. If he chooses to continue watching TV, that is fine, as long as we can at least get him to stop complaining about lack of time.

Once he knows how each hour of his day is spent, and is still complaining, then that implies there is a problem. If he decides that is still the best way to spend his time, then he values that more than whatever else he would have done with the additional time, so there is no problem. Many people resist closure and responsibility for their decisions. For the rest, closure means they can move on to more valuable uses of their time.

What we are really talking about is transparency. You get all of the ingredients on the table and you must decide which ones you want. Do you want the dressing or not? It is better to acknowledge difficult trade-offs than pretend they do not exist. This is usually disagreeable. After Apple’s latest iOS update, I almost spit my salad out when they showed me my dressing: average Screen Time per day.

Making decisions is stressful (because what if we make the wrong one — we don’t want to feel guilty), so sometimes we end up complaining or feeling like a victim (“I want both!” or “There should be more hours in the day!”).

In multi-disciplinary fashion, we can get better at #1 (the ingredients) by thinking like a bookkeeper. They are the ones who track where all of the money in a company goes. Sticking with the salad metaphor, a bookkeeper would watch the chef prepare the salad and note the activities. Anyone who has checked a bank account after a wild vacation knows how enlightening playing bookkeeper can be. Finance might be one of the most useful applications of the salad heuristic, as we are the chef, we control the ingredients, and probably all have some areas where we could use a little less “dressing.”

If we have transparency with our ingredients, each one can be analyzed. Our salad becomes straightforward and effectively a continuum of trade-offs, with health at one end and taste at the other. I emphasize bookkeeping because if you pay careful attention to the inputs, you have a better chance of understanding the outputs.

We can see this is hard enough when we are in control. When someone else is the chef, however, a conflict of interest will inevitably emerge. External pressures create an incentive for people to obscure the ingredients. Someone will try to tell you the salad is healthy even though you can barely see the iceberg lettuce under the Kraft Velveeta Cheesy Jalapeño Ranch®.

Suppose the chef is a politician and there are two policies (salads): free healthcare and lower taxes. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that neither can be good for everyone because if we look through to the ingredients, we know that there are costs and trade-offs. For the first policy, ask a nurse what a Code Brown is, and let me know how long you would do that for free. On the second, lower taxes means there is less money available to pay for public things, like roads — readers who know me might know my intimate experience with potholes and replacement tires (7 to-date). I can assure you tax reductions are not free money. It sounds so simple (and it is deliberately oversimplified), but I think many people would prefer to believe something impossible if they felt it benefited them immediately than to acknowledge each decision is a trade-off and that those trade-offs have real consequences.

Politicians lie because they need to make a lot of voters happy and if the truth was always pleasant, we wouldn’t call it hard and ugly. Businesses have to deal with the same thing except their voters are the shareholders. Both politicians and businesses are under constant pressure, largely because of expectations from the stakeholders. When pressure increases enough, something must give — the salad must change. Either the price will change (potentially impacting revenue) or the ingredients will change (affecting profitability). As a voter and customer, this changes the deal you signed up for, which creates tension. But, the salad maker is like everyone else — she desperately wants to avoid conflict. However, conflict and accountability are inseparable, which is, for better or worse, up to us to enforce. Of course, this is hopeless if we ignore the recipe.

Take Chipotle (I promise I will get more creative with my examples). They started with fresh, responsibly sourced ingredients (whatever that means) and good portions for a reasonable price. I liked it so much I was effectively an unpaid salesperson for them (unbeknownst to Costco, I have the same position there).

Time passed.

Now, I rarely go to Chipotle because it makes my stomach feel like someone threw a grenade in it. The last time I went, the thimble-sized scoop of chicken they gave me was so small Stuart Little would have left hungry. This is on top of price hikes. This changes the deal! Whether it was all of the above or that endearing E. coli situation, others seemed to feel similarly because Chipotle’s revenue has yet to recover since 2015.

This is frustrating because it feels wrong. We always have to be on the lookout, which is exhausting, which means we need energy. And where do we get energy? Cheeseburgers, I mean salads.

Whether it is politics, business, or anything else, it can be hard to figure out what is in the salad.

The next time you hear someone complaining or something that sounds too good to be true, try listing off the ingredients in your head.


See also:
How Kim Kardashian Got Famous: A Way to Think About Almost Everything
Designing Your Life