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Working 'bracketology' into your life

Book explores ways to use the popular basketball tournament system for almost anything.

Even if you're not a basketball fan, you're likely aware of the annual NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments dubbed "March Madness."  Teams compete one-on-one in a loser-out format, ultimately crowning a true champion. Now, in “The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything," Mark Reiter, a sports journalist, and Richard Sandomir, a literary agent, apply that approach to nearly anything. The authors were invited to talk about their book on TODAY. Here is an excerpt:


By Mark Reiter

What is enlightenment?

Better question: What is Bracketology?

Bracketology is a way of seeing the world so that we can become more enlightened—about what we like, favor, prefer, abhor, or abjure. (Bracketology can even help us determine if we prefer the word abhor to abjure.) It is a system that helps us make clearer and cleaner decisions about what is good, better, best in our world.

Let’s bring it down to a real-world level.

Has this ever happened to you?

Someone asks you, “What’s your favorite movie?” Not a deep question, but a probing one, something that comes up occasionally among reasonably curious folk—or men and women on their second date. Your favorite movie is a classic single-question personality profile that “reveals” you, an easy-to-apply litmus test that gives folks a snapshot of who you are or think you are or want the world to think you are. Whether that film is Die Hard or Four Weddings and a Funeral or Top Hat or Grand Illusion or Reservoir Dogs or Persona or Groundhog Day, your answer signals your worldliness and sophistication, your sense of humor, and, most particularly, your individuality. If you’re like most people you have a default response that is either The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, or The Wizard of Oz.

But have you ever methodically listed all the movies that have charmed you, or that you’ve seen more than a dozen times, or that you have on both VHS and DVD formats—and pitted them against each other in an intellectual knockout tournament to determine, once and for all, your definitive personal champion?

If you haven’t, how can you say you truly know yourself? How can you honestly reveal yourself to the people you love? If you haven’t systematically eliminated all the other worthy contenders for favorite movie, how can you blithely pick, say, My Cousin Vinny and hope to achieve enlightenment?

Bracketology—the practice of parsing people, places, and things into discrete one-on-one matchups to determine which of the two is superior or preferable—works because it is simple. What could be simpler then breaking down a choice into either/or, black or white, this one or that one?

For example, not long ago I was discussing favorite foods with a friend of mine. She happens to be a successful dancer and choreographer, a woman of extraordinary physical discipline, intellectual rigor, and moral certitude. Being an athlete in perpetual training, she has always been careful about what she eats. So I asked her to name her last bite on earth—the one item of food she craves regardless of its impact on her waistline or cardiovascular health. It’s one of those desert island questions that I find intriguing and revealing. Her answer: I was surprised—and I wasn’t. It wouldn’t be my first choice. But even her life of monklike asceticism, it was the perfect food. Simple, elegant, practically colorless, and loaded with protein. No excess. No spare parts (not even the yolk). A few months later, when the subject came up again, she surprised me by changing her mind. Her last bite on earth, she insisted, would be a bowl of popcorn. This change of heart was very uncharacteristic. I’ve always known her to be a woman who knows her mind. And yet here she was, on a matter involving the most basic issue of taste, flip-flopping.

It wouldn’t have happened if she knew bracketology.


By Richard Sandomir

For decades, Bracketology has been a crude activity that relied on a committee meeting in secret one weekend each March to create a bracket of 64 men’s basketball teams that induced fans to guess, and wager on, which colleges would advance in the annual NCAA tournament known as March Madness.

            This form of Bracketology enraptures the sports world each year despite its passivity and utter reliance on outside forces. But even in such an unrefined form, it made us wonder: what if Bracketology were employed in a truly dynamic way to promote personal choice?

Instead of confronting a scribbled list of Do’s and Don’ts or She Loves Me/She Loves Me Not’s, why not draw up a bracket of one-on-one options that gives structure to the many choices clouding your decision?

Then, why not pit these options against each other in a series of match-ups that boils down all your either/or choices into one “winner”?

That’s the hidden virtue of Bracketology. It provides an elegant solution to one of the deep-rooted paradoxes of everyday life.  The more choices we have, the less happy we are with our decision. If our only menu choice is between a hot dog and a burger for lunch, we don’t whine that we really wanted a ham sandwich. But once the menu offers too many choices, our decision-making process slows and the likelihood of being satisfied with our choice decreases.

After compiling these many brackets – and watching our brave contributors bracketize -- we have some advice for future bracketologists.

Don’t seed. In March Madness, the committee selecting the field weighs various factors to determine who will face whom in the first round. So the first seed faces the no. 16 seed, the no. 2 seed faces the no. 15, and so on. Forget that folly. It’s time consuming and nearly impossible when you’re bracketizing anything that can’t be quantified. Basketball teams have won-loss records, but what you bracketize will not.

Not seeding promotes bracketological freedom and can create meaningful or strange or simply ironic matchups that reveal less-than-apparent parallels. In Henry Petroski’s Simple Things, is it serendipity that pits two stalwarts of oral hygiene, toothpick and dental floss, against each other in round 3? In James Boice’s Sports Innovations, the fourth round  matchup of Free Agency against Integration reminds us that not every advance in sports happens during play. And what about Richard Hoffer’s Sucker Bets. What are the odds that Powerball would resemble the AOL Time Warner merger in wagering futility?

Play God, just a little. As you bracketize your life’s decisions, you will sometimes discover that some choices truly are stronger than others, so you now know which two should meet in the final, or which quartet should be in the Final Four. Place them there, then work backwards, making sure that they cannot meet and knock each other out in an early round. It’s a bit of an intellectual end-run, but no one is going to arrest you for bracket-fixing.

Regionalize if possible. If your 16 or 32 teams can be divided into distinct groups of two, four or eight, then consider regionalizing. It will give greater clarity to your decision-making. The Bald Guys bracket was divided into the fringe-haired and shaved-head regions, which ensured that Michael Jordan and Winston Churchill would move along parallel tracks. Talk Show Hosts were split into Late Night, Morning, Daytime and Hard News regions, which yielded a weighty, intellectually gratifying Final Four that might not have been as certain in a random selection: Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric and Ted Koppel.

Bracketology can accelerate and illuminate serious or frivolous decisions that require analyzing a slew of options.

Deciding on a vacation spot? Bracketize.

Looking to buy a hi-def TV and can’t decide between DLP or plasma, Panasonic or Samsung, 42 inches or 56,? Bracketize.

Seeking the perfect anniversary gift? Bracketize.

Trying to determine the best Dickens character? Bracketize.

Need to name your unborn child? Bracketize. Sure, it’s one of the more fraught, emotionally charged decisions parents make. And yet, Bracketology can ease the agonizing. Go forth and let your brackets multiply.

Excerpted from “The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything" by Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir. Copyright © 2007 Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.