How to Quit Smoking and Wage Nuclear War

Remember, innovation = connecting.

For a bunch of reasons, Thomas Schelling is in my life right now.

I’ve been reading Arms and Influence, and enjoying it.

It was strange then, when I listened to this episode of Radiolab on habits (You v. You) which featured an aging Thomas Schelling and his struggle to kick a smoking habit.

Zelda Gamson tried for decades to stop smoking. But while one part of her wanted to quit, another part just didn’t want to let go. So, how do you win a tug-of-war with yourself? We decided to ask one of the greatest negotiators of our time for some advice. Adam Davidson from Planet Money introduces us to Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, whose tactical skills saw him through high-stakes conflicts during the Cold War. But while his strategies worked wonders during nuclear stand-offs, it turns out they fell apart when he tried them on himself…in his own battle to quit smoking. Then one day, he had an idea so diabolical we thought no one would try it. Until we met Zelda, and her friend Mary Belenky, who came up with a contract powerful enough to give Zelda a fighting chance. Neuroscientist David Eagleman helps us untangle the tricky business of cutting deals with oursleves. And producer Pat Walters complicates things–in a good way–with the story of two brothers, Dennis and Kai Woo, who forged a deal with each other that wound up determining both of their futures.

You v. You, Radiolab

For the uninitiated, Thomas Schelling was a scholar and theorist of the Cold War who made major contributions to deterrence theory.

But, as I learned, he was also a smoker.

To kick the habit, he turned to one of the most extreme methods – the Ulysses Pact.

This takes its name from The Odyssey and Ulysses’ decision to tie himself to his ship so that he could still hear the Siren’s Song without losing his life. In Schelling’s case, he gathered his children and said: “…I quit and that they should never have respect for their father again if I returned to smoking.”

He was serious. He put his fatherhood on the line.

And he never smoked again.

As an aside, after doing a bit of a deep-dive on Schelling, I learned that his favorite book was Smoky the Cowhorse.

Schelling, a distinguished university professor of economics and public policy, was a pioneer in game theory, yet his widow, Alice Schelling, says the most influential book he ever read was one for children, the 1927 Newbery Medal winner “Smoky the Cowhorse” by Will James.

“He’d say it was the first time he understood empathy for other human beings,” says Alice Schelling. “I connect that with his sense of empathy for the people who are helped by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

A Golden Opportunity

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