11/29/2010 05:08 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Getting What You Want

Let's face it, a large component of being happy is getting what you want. Getting what you want is partially a game; it involves using your assets, adopting a reasonable strategy and, like Texas Hold 'Em, knowing the other players. Put yourself in the shoes of the young man in the following scenario, and see how well you can read the other players in the game.

Despite the fact that you're only the third-string running back on your high-school football team, you've still managed to score an unbelievable coup by bagging a date with Lydia Macintosh -- yes, the Lydia Macintosh! -- for Friday night, just three short days from now. Now, however, you are faced with that classic logistical problem: transportation.

This is critical; the Lydia Macintoshes of the world don't go on second dates with guys who take the bus. It's a standard problem for a teenage boy in a typical American family: you have to talk your parents into letting you have the family car. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a major hassle, but they're pretty steamed about that C-minus on your last algebra exam, and Friday is fast approaching. After some reflection, you have narrowed your possible actions to the following three choices. Should you:

A) Ask your father, because he basically makes the decision as to who gets the car, and when?
B) Ask your mother, the romantic of the family?
C) Ask both of them simultaneously, say, at dinner, when everyone's feeling pretty good?

Maybe there's another possibility, but these are the three obvious ones. Which plan would you choose?

A) Ask your father, because he basically makes the decision as to who gets the car, and when:

One point: If you can get his approval, you're home free. But can you? See if you can think of a situation where Dad will approve, but Mom will not. Pretty tough, isn't it? This tells you that, in all possible cases, the payoffs for asking Dad are less than the payoffs for asking Mom.

B) Ask your mother, the romantic of the family:

Five points: In a typical family, mothers are more likely than fathers to stick up for the son. Especially in matters of the heart, Mom is almost certain to say "yes" every time Dad says "yes," and Mom will say "yes" in situations where Dad won't. As a result, asking Dad is inadmissible when compared with asking Mom. Adopting an inadmissible option is like accepting exactly the same job for lower pay -- it's an absolute no-no.

Additionally, that C-minus puts you in a vulnerable position, and so you've got to focus on your opponent's weakness rather than your strength. Dad may control the keys to the car, Mom generally controls the keys to Dad, and if Mom says "yes," Dad will have a hard time over-ruling her.

C) Ask both of them simultaneously, say, at dinner, when everyone's feeling pretty good:

Three points: Once again, the payoffs for asking Mom dominate the payoffs for asking both of them. Getting a "yes" from both of them just has to be tougher than simply getting a "yes" from Mom, no matter how good the meal is. You're liable to see each glance at the other, and hear a remark such as "we'll think about it." Even so, you've at least brought Mom into the picture before Dad has a chance to say "no."

There's an important principle here, in addition to knowing how people behave. One of the worst things you can do when making a decision is to consider an option that can never work out better than another alternative. Remember that line, "See if you can think of a situation where Dad will approve, but Mom will not"? When you look at it this way, you'll realize that you have to take the option of asking Dad off the table; you'll never get better results by asking him.

Eliminating alternatives that have inferior payoffs on a case-by-case basis when compared with another action is a common-sense decision principle you can apply to your life. A simple example would be when you're signing up for a health plan. If the features that are important to you are cost and doctor accessibility, and Plan A is cheaper than Plan B and gives you access to more and equally competent doctors, you'll obviously choose Plan B.

The principle of eliminating obviously inferior alternatives seems to be so simple that it doesn't need to be stated. The difficulty is that it's not always immediately clear that one alternative is inferior when compared to another one. In order to determine this, it is necessary to look down the road a little and try to list the different situations that may occur. In the above example, if you take the straightforward approach by thinking that Dad has the keys to the car and he's the one that should be asked, you may not end up getting what you want. More often than not, getting what you want involves playing your cards right -- and knowing the other players.