Atul Gawande is well on his way to cementing his place as a man who I will read with no prompting at all. His previous book, “Better” was one of my favorites of the past few years, and his recent writings on health care have been fantastic. I recently started his most recent book, “The Checklist Manifesto” and it’s fantastic so far. I’ll probably talk more about it at some point, but right now I want to steal an anecdote from it.
So, back in the day, when Van Halen was touring, David Lee Roth put a line in the contract for every venue that there be a bowl of M&Ms in his dressing room with all the brown ones removed. If he found any brown ones, they could nix the show at no cost to themselves. On one occasion, the clause was actually used to cancel a show. Typical rock & roller nonsense, right?
Not so much. Turns out David Lee Roth is a canny fellow, and there was a deeper purpose to this request. See, this was early in the era of really big tours. Van Halen rolled in with a dozen trucks and busses where the norm had previously been three, and the sheer number of things that had to be done to make sure everything was set up functionally and safely was absolutely daunting. There were so many variables that there was no effective way to check everything, so a lot had to be taken on faith.
The M&Ms were something of a barometer. If Roth came in and there wasn’t a brown M&M in sight, then he could feel confident that everything had been done by the numbers, with the right level of attention to detail. But if there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, that was a signal that perhaps this venue wasn’t as on the ball as they needed to be, and that was the cue to trigger and intense review (and if that review came up short, the M&Ms provided a concrete, inarguable escape clause.
I admit I was absolutely delighted by this story. Some of the joy came from the idea of a cunning David Lee Roth, but it is also a great example of how we deal with complex systems that we’re not necessarily in a position to totally review. Brown M&Ms work like personal red flags, things you look for to tell you where to look next.
We all have these brown M&Ms when we look at an RPG. Whether its an extensive weapon list, reference to Rule Zero, excess boobage or bad design, I think we all have certain things that we check for (consciously or unconsciously) when we pick up a book and flip through it. I know I do, but now I find myself thinking about them more explicitly in an attempt to pin them down. It’s proving surprisingly slippery.
How about you? Any brown M&Ms to share with the world?
(My wife, when I mentioned this, already knew this story. Apparently it was on This American Life – one more reason I need to catch up on that.)