The Molotov Cocktail Principle explains why it’s so tempting to blow up your life

Go big or go home?
Go big or go home?
Image: Reuters/Wilson Chu
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In the second season of the NBC sitcom The Good Place, a character named Jason Mendoza offers a deep, unexpected insight into the human psyche.

Jason and his friends are discussing how to deal with an outside threat when Jason suggests throwing a Molotov cocktail. His pals stare at him, baffled: This won’t make the danger go away! But Jason explains that this has long been his go-to solution in times of duress.

“Any time I had a problem, I threw a Molotov cocktail,” he explains. “And, boom, I had a different problem.”

Watching the episode, I felt a thrill of recognition. My whole life, I’ve had a hard time figuring out the solutions to big problems. But I’ve found it surprisingly easy to distract myself by creating new problems instead. I call it the Molotov Cocktail Principle: Relationship troubles? Why not indulge in a burgeoning shopping addiction and the accompanying credit-card debt! Having doubts about your creative talent? Go ahead and move to a new country where you know no one and don’t speak the language!

This urge is a weirdly common feature of the human psyche—one that’s fueled art through the ages. It’s on display in literary classics like King Lear, in which the titular character says to himself, “I’m getting older and feeling insecure about my legacy, but what if I estranged myself from the only people who truly cared for me and went crazy on a heath somewhere in the rain?”

In contemporary dramas, we see the principle in action on Breaking Bad, wherein Walt receives a cancer diagnosis and promptly starts a meth lab, and on Girls, wherein the twenty-something characters are constantly doing things like getting married to a near-stranger instead of dealing with their own emotions. (Indeed, the Molotov Cocktail Principle is broadly applicable for people of all ages, but it’s particularly suitable for people in their 20s. During this stage of life, your job, your romantic relationships, your friendships, your geographic location, and your housing situation are all more likely to be unstable, and therefore easier to impulsively blow up.)

If you’ve thrown a Molotov cocktail into your life in the past, it isn’t anything to be ashamed of; as Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler has famously shown, people are prone to making irrational decisions. “We don’t think people are dumb,” he told Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner this summer, “we think the world is hard.” And the Molotov Cocktail Principle isn’t always destructive—it can actually be quite helpful, under certain circumstances. There is something to be said for the balm of disruption.

Shortly after breaking up with a boyfriend some years back, for example, I began to wonder if I ought to drop out of graduate school—a question that soon blew up into a full-fledged career crisis. Although my ex was also in the program, the career turmoil was a whole separate issue. The breakup had forced me to reflect more about what I wanted out of life, which turned out to be something entirely different from what I was currently doing. And so I tossed a Molotov cocktail onto my heartbreak (for which there was no easy fix), and lost myself in the smoke of trying to figure out how to quit academia and pursue a different career. Neither problem was fun to deal with—but one, at least, was more concrete, and therefore preferable to focus on.

In “Spiderweb,” a short story by Mariana Enriquez, the narrator, trapped in an unhappy marriage, has the following exchange with her cousin:

“We all make mistakes,” she told me. “The important thing is to fix them.”

“And how does this get fixed?”

“Babe, death is the only problem without a solution.”

The cousin in the short story sounds pretty breezy with that last line, but she’s basically right: Most problems do have solutions. The issue is that we don’t always have complete control over making the solutions happen. If you’re unemployed, for example, you can look for a job, but you can’t force someone to hire you. You can, however, decide to adopt a puppy that chews your shoes, pees on the carpet, and barks relentlessly for a walk at 5am. Boom! Different, cuter problem—one that takes you outside of yourself, and reminds you that your worth as a human being isn’t dependent on getting a biweekly paycheck.

How do you know when to throw a Molotov cocktail? It’s a tricky balance to strike. It’s important to be able to gather up the courage to make a change and get out of a rut, even if the change you’re making looks, to the outside world, rather cavalier and chaotic. But it’s equally important to understand that if you are unhappy in a particular way—say you have persistent self-esteem issues—going on a juice cleanse or moving halfway across the country probably isn’t going to do much to help. As Heather Havrilesky notes in her New York Magazine advice column, Ask Polly, “Often, when you try a whole new life on for size, you’re secretly hoping that the things about you that you dislike will disappear into thin air. These selves never disappear. They just take new shapes.”

In the end, after all, a lot of problems don’t get fixed by dramatic game-changing decisions so much as smaller shakeups. Take the example that Charles Duhigg offers in his book Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. When Pixar Animation co-founder and president Ed Catmull found that his creative team had hit a roadblock in developing the plot of the movie Frozen, Catmull decided to tweak the team’s structure. Knowledge@Wharton explains:

One of [Catmull’s] main tactics is a kind of intentional disruption: mid-project, he will step in and shake up a team by tweaking its dynamics, even if he knows that by doing so he will generate a certain amount of tension. In the case of Frozen, he named the film’s writer, Jennifer Lee, as a second director. A writer is more a lone voice, where a director must listen to and incorporate suggestions from across the production. The new responsibility and point of view were just the jolt she needed.

Catmull could have decided to scrap the whole movie. He could have fired Lee (new problems!) or made some other bold, possibly insane move. Instead, he made a comparatively small but crucial change.

One thing leads to another, is what I’m trying to say. Sometimes it’s the right thing to throw a Molotov cocktail. But often you don’t need such a big new distracting problem in the first place. You’re in a dark room, so you light a match. You peer out as new contours begin to take shape, revealing the corridors and crevices that have been there all along.