Lessons from Pirates of the Caribbean

Johnny Depp as the pirate Jack SparrowThere is a great line from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie – one of my favorite movie lines. A sneaky pirate (Johnny Depp) is having a mad sword fight when he pulls a sneaky move and is accused of cheating. His reply is:

“The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do”

A surprisingly good line for a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean. I like it because it reveals a truth about life that people don’t often think about. We live in a society of rules, laws and cultural norms. What Depp’s character is saying is that these rules mean nothing. There is nothing that makes it impossible to break the “rules”.

Unfortunately criminals teach us every day that our rules will be broken if the incentives are right. All of life is about people balancing incentives.

Incentive = Benefit – Cost
Or more accurately:
Incentive = Perceived benefit – (Risk of getting caught x Cost of getting caught)

The values in these equations change according to person and situation but if the incentive is right, the rules will be broken. For the pirate in the movie, the benefit was clear and the cost non-existent – easy choice…

People cheat all the time – it’s a fact of life even, if we like to ignore it.