“Cheese or Chocolate”


So, this happened …

“What’s your favourite food in the world?” she asked me. I stared at her, then looked away at nothing in particular, thinking “Good grief!” in my head. My pause told her that I was thinking, but I wasn’t really trying to decide what my favourite food was.

Instead I was wondering why I had ignored my friends’ advice to not go to a speed-dating event. I was warned that conversations can sometimes be really dull, but hadn’t expected anyone would go as low as asking me what my favourite food was “in the whole world”.

“I don’t have a favourite.”

“You must have a favourite!”

“I mean, I have foods that I really like. But I wouldn’t say that any one of them is better than all the others.”

“But that’s impossible!”  (Damn, I thought. This conversation is going nowhere.)

“Not really. For example, I really love cheese. And I really love chocolate too. But I’ve never sat there, struggling to decide between a slice of cheese or a block of chocolate. They are completely different!”

She was listening to me, but I couldn’t work out from her strained expression if she was really trying to internalise what I was saying, or whether she was waiting for me to pause so she could jump in and disagree. But I continued.

“So there are times when I am craving a crumbly piece of Stilton more than anything, and there are times when nothing but a block of Swiss chocolate will hit the spot. But neither is better than the other, there are just times when one would be preferable. Does that make sense?”

“I see,” she said slowly, but my optimism was cut short.  “But out of cheese and chocolate, which is your favourite?”

I couldn’t take any more, and was in the process of mentally walking away from her, when the bell rang. I thanked her for her time, and rushed to the next table for another excruciating speed-date.

“Wine and Whiskey,” I said to myself. “Right now I need both wine and whiskey.”

Simple Definition

Cheese or Chocolate: We sometimes face a decision when the two choices are very different. Both are good, but each in its own way. The choice is actually not about which is ‘better’, but about what is more appropriate for the given circumstances.

Discussing what it means

Let’s face it, people can be rubbish at making decisions. Putting aside the fact that we often just do dumb things, we also know from the science of Behavioural Economics, and books about selling and seduction, that it’s surprisingly easy to manipulate our thinking and make us do things which aren’t – if we had a moment of clarity – what we would normally want to do.

And that’s why it’s really important, when facing decisions, to be able to distill that moment into its essence: what kind of decision are we facing?

In #[Chicken or Fish] we saw that sometimes the likely outcomes are so close, it basically doesn’t matter what choice you make. Just pick one and move on. But “Cheese or Chocolate” is a completely different scenario – in this case the decision we’re making isn’t between two similar choices. It’s about a decision which in some circumstances would be one option, and in other circumstances would be another. Neither is better overall, each is better at different times.

When we don’t realise the nature of the choice we’re facing, we can get caught up in complex rationalisations and end up making the wrong choice. So be sure to spot when it’s a “Cheese or Chocolate” moment.

To help you wrap your head around this, here are a few more examples:

  • If I’m having a burger and trying to decide what toppings to add, I would much rather choose a slice of cheese. This holds true even if it’s a cheap cheese, and there is the alternative choice of a very expensive chocolate for my burger. There’s no point in trying to compare the two, one simply doesn’t go.
  • If there are only two movies on TV right now, ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ and ‘World War Z’, and if you really don’t want to watch a romance movie tonight, then you’re going to end up watching WWZ. Period. You’re not going to sit there researching the ratings of the two movies to decide which you’re going to watch. You don’t want Chocolate, so opt for the Cheese – even if it’s not the best cheese out there. That was easy.
  • Similarly, I’ve seen my friends arguing about which model of digital SLR camera is better, but for the person concerned, the reality is she was very unlikely to carry around a heavy camera case, so choosing the ‘better’ camera was irrelevant if it always stayed at home. She should have been focusing on the context of her life and thus choosing a small point-and-shoot.
  • Years ago I nearly spent a fortune on a personal trainer when I was signing up a gym. I understand that PTs are highly knowledgeable, great motivators, and will guide your exercise journey. But in my case, I already knew what workout I needed and how to do it. I was already self-motivated, and my goals were clear. I didn’t need a personal trainer, even if they are amazing people, I just needed somewhere to train with access to the right equipment. In this context, I was getting confused between deciding whether PTs in general are worth it or not, when all I needed to consider was whether for me right now they were worth it or not.
  • Another example involves languages: To my thinking, Chinese and French are two very different languages. Chocolate and Cheese. If you want to study a language, and are deciding between these two, there is no point in trying to compare which one is the ‘right’ language to learn (however you go about determining what ‘right’ means) because they are so very different. You won’t be able to rely on a checklist-comparison to make this decision, you will have to go deeper. Perhaps you’re considering Chinese because it’s spoken by so many people in so many countries (i.e. you’re being practical), and you might be considering French because you’ve always loved that one (i.e. it’s a passion to learn). So which choice is right for you, right now?

Get good at identifying those moments when you’re facing a decision, but where it’s not actually about trying to find the better of two options, but more about realising what the context is, and therefore which option is most suitable at that time.

Making it personal

What I find so fascinating is that sometimes we’re so good at realising that we’re facing a “Cheese or Chocolate” situation, and sometimes we completely miss it.

So practice flagging such moments as often as they come up.

Right now, all I want you to do is think of (a) one recent example where your choices were very different, and you instinctively knew this, so deciding between the two was easy; and (b) a recent example when your two choices were fundamentally different, but you still got caught-up trying to compare the two in order to make the ‘right’ choice, when in fact a comparison just doesn’t make sense because of the fundamental differences.

If you’re having difficulty thinking of examples, maybe consider these: what degree should you study at university? why did you choose your current partner if – at the time – you had another ‘live’ choice? which book did you choose to read (the last time you read a book, when you had several options)? how did you choose whether to drink coffee or champagne the last time you ate breakfast at a restaurant?

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