Five people on a plane with only four parachutes

21 Sep

A writer, a chef, an actor, a musician and an entertainment agent are on a plane about to crash over a tropical island. There are only four parachutes. They decide to each plead their case as to why they deserve to survive, and then vote who they would rather give the four parachutes to. The person with the least votes would be the one chosen to die.

The writer goes first.

“If we all wash up on the island, I will document our lives there. Just in case we perish, the world may one day find out what happened to us. Being a writer, I am also an avid reader. I’ve read more than four-thousand books across many disciplines. I will tell you endless stories and refresh our knowledge to keep our heritage alive. From the early Greek philosophers to the classics and the holy books. Without me you will forget what makes us human and will descend into savagery.”

The others nodded in seeming approval of the need to have a writer on the team. Except the agent who interjected.

“How do you plan to document our lives without anything to write on?”

“I have my laptop.”

“And when your battery runs out?”

“I have a solar-powered charger.”

Next up, it’s the chef’s turn.

“I’m not just a chef. I am also a trained nutritionist. I’ll be able to keep you alive and healthy by making sure you get the right amount of nutrients and to stay sufficiently hydrated. More importantly, I will know which poisonous plants we must avoid eating. Also, after a while eating the same thing could get tedious. As a professional chef, I’ll make you the most amazing meals with whatever raw ingredients are available on the island. You will appreciate the variety of prepared foods only I can make.”

Once again, everyone but the agent seemed sold by the chef’s pitch. And once again, the agent had something discouraging to say.

“A chef is only as good as their kitchen. Without utensils, kitchen appliances, a fridge, fire, even knives, your promise to make exciting food to prevent boredom from setting in seems hollow.”

“O, ye of little  imagination. With a sharp stone I can make knives out of wood. Bowls out of coconut shells.  We won’t need a fridge because everything will be eaten fresh. As for fire, well, none of us would be here if our ancestors hadn’t figured out how to start one.”

The actor was up next.

“As an actor, I am attune to the human condition. And I studied psychology. I will be your emotional anchor on that island and will keep us all sane.  I will be the shoulder to cry on, and your source of entertainment. I also happen to be a stand-up comedian, and I don’t need to tell you the importance of humor for our state of mind.”

Everybody automatically turned to the agent waiting for an objection.

“You’re just an actor. Whatever you have will run stale after a while. Even stand-up comedy only really works when you have access to unique and fresh material.  You’ll be sharing the same experiences with us, so it will be almost impossible to make any of it funny.”

“I may just be an actor, but don’t forget we have a well-read writer with us. I’ill never run out of material. As for humor,  have you heard some of the stuff that comes out of prisons and the armed forces? A mutual predicament and closely shared experience generates the most honest, scathing humor.”

It was the musician’s turn now to make a case to not be axed.

“Let’s see. We have knowledge and information courtesy of a writer. Health and nutrition by way of a chef. And we have humor, entertainment and emotional well being from an actor. Do I need to point out what would be missing if you ditch me? Music is the balm that soothes the soul. If any of you think I am dispensable because you dabble in piano or sing in the shower, remember the words of George Bernard Shaw: Hell is full of musical amateurs.”

Without fail, the agent jumped in.

“You need instruments to make music. Do you have any?”

“My voice. And I too will create instruments from whatever I find on that island. Reeds for strings. Hollowed wood for wind instruments.”

Finally, every one looked at the agent with burning eyes and seething anger.

“Unfortunately, I can’t write, cook, act, counsel, or sing to save my life. I’ve always had someone else do these things for me. What I can do and do well, is mediate between you. It’s gonna be a jungle down there. Each one of you clearly has something useful to offer. But what’s stopping the actor from leaching off the group? How can we make sure the writer is pulling his weight? Or that the chef is playing fair? Any pursuit, organization or society needs a mediator to make things work in sync. To make sure everything is equitable. Without me, the four of you will murder one another. If not within weeks, months. I guarantee it.”

“You just want to continue living off other people’s talent and skills. Why would any of us want a blood-sucking agent with us?” the writer asked.

“There is something else beyond the island only I can give you.”

“What?” the actor snapped.

“Look at the four of you: A writer, a chef, an actor and a musician. I’ve never heard of any of you. My guess is none of you has broken out in the mainstream or achieved any measurable success.”

The agent pointed at the writer. “Let me guess, self-published, right? Createspace, Smashwords, Twitter, and Goodreads—you tried it all.” The writer observed the agent with unblinking, contemptuous eyes.

“And you, Chef. Are you still slaving in other people’s restaurants? Dying for a Food Network gig. Or an investor who believes in you enough to give you your own joint? It’s never going to happen, and you know that. Secretly.”T

The chef’s body language betrayed deep loathing for the agent.

“As for you, Actor, how many desperate crowd-funding campaigns have you put up on Indiegogo? Begging for people to donate pennies so you can go and produce your doomed-to-fail pilot. And how many gimmicky clips have you uploaded to YouTube hoping they’d go viral, but you’re still unable to break out of your circle of friends and family who patronize you by telling you how awesome you . Deep inside you’re craving for some real recognition. And if you don’t start making money soon, you’ll have to go back looking for a real job.”

The actor displayed the same hatred for the agent the writer and chef had just exuded.

“Finally, you, Musician. How long do you think your fake snobbery against the success of commercial music will last before you realize no matter how talented you are, there are millions just like you competing for a chance to have their music heard? Even if you give your music away for free, no one is really listening.”

“What’s your point?” the chef asked. “You’ve just pissed us all off. Given the decision we’re about to take, that doesn’t seem smart.”

“My point is simple. Even if you think I’ll be useless on the island, you need to know  I am one of the most powerful agents in the business. I take worthless, unknowns like you and turn them into household names. If we survive on the island and somehow get rescued, I promise to make  star out of each one of you here who decides to save me. A best-selling author with books optioned for film adaptations. A celebrity television chef with millions in product endorsement deals and a chain of successful restaurants. A critically acclaimed actor who also reels in millions featuring in blockbusters. And last but not least, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter: The one every talent show wants as their next new judge.”

The five passengers took a minute to think about their decision, and then voted on a piece of paper.


So you want to know how this story really ends?

Most of you voted, or tweeted to tell me you would kill off the entertainment agent, no questions asked. Perhaps doing this is what initially would seem like how the rest of them wold vote. Or is it really? In my version of the story, every single one of them votes to save the entertainment agent, and to kill off the chef. Except the chef who chooses to kill the actor, but also chose to save the agent.

Surprised? Especially since there’s no doubt the chef would have been the most important member of the team to have? Well here’s why I think this was the correct outcome.

Choosing to save the chef would have been the most prudent choice. Even logical. However, most of us are unable to project with our minds into unknown situations and then apply logic as our main operating standard. So what the other four people did was judge the chef’s utility based on how they live their lives in the real world.  The chef was deemed immediately dispensable because every one figured they can feed themselves. It’s the most basic human instinct.

And there is a more profound reason why most of them preferred to save the writer, the actor and the musician, but not the chef. The chef promised nothing more than sustenance. But the other three sold a more burning need. The need to stay sane and not be lonely. The need to remain socialized, civilized, and human. We are all terrified of being left on our own. We can feed ourselves, but we can’t keep ourselves company for too long before we descend into madness.

Why then would any of them choose to save the agent, who was obnoxious throughout the process, and was clearly going to be a real liability on the team? That’s the real important question that’s keeping you reading thus far. Right?

The first part of the answer is the one you probably least expected. The team chose to save the agent not because they believed the lies the agent spawned about their value to the team. But because they were fundamentally seduced by what the agent could offer at a future date, if they were ever rescued. The promise of career success and elevation to fame and prosperity. You find that hard to believe? Take a look at your life. What keeps you moving forward? It’s not anything happening in your present. It’s your future that drives you. Your well being and the well being of the ones you love. The ability to dream, and have faith our futures could be brighter is what keeps us going. Maybe even what keeps us alive. The agent threw that in as a final part of the plea, knowing all to well it would be what sealed the deal.

Do you find my explanation a little far fetched? Too philosophical, maybe even implausible? Perhaps you could be right. I will concede to that. But there is one final twist to my story that makes my proposal indisputable.

I intentionally avoided disclosing the gender of each of the potential survivors. But I will tell you now in my story, the writer, actor, musician, and chef were all men. And the entertainment agent was the only woman, and hence the smartest one on that plane. The one able to get the four men to do what she wanted. But that’s not all she had going for her. Food, entertainment, well-being, knowledge, sanity, humanity, and civility are all important.

But love, sex and procreation are far more powerful needs.

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3 Responses to “Five people on a plane with only four parachutes”

  1. wordforrest September 21, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    I’ll put the two skinniest on one parachute. If the structural tolerance on the parachute is good, and it was designed by a good engineer (who is not on the plane and cannot speak his argument), then both will live. If not, both will die.

    So their survival will really be up to the engineer.

  2. Jennifer Howard September 25, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    Awww, wordforrest is such a humanitarian. A gambler, but a humanitarian, nonetheless. Attempting to save them all–such a sweetie! 😀 I, on the other hand, had it in my mind to kill the agent even before I read the pleas. #DeathToTheMan (Unless you wish to represent ME–then welcome, and I will gladly wordforrest it and share my parachute!) 😉

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