No Brown M&M's! David Lee Roth and the Power of Checklists


Article 126: No brown M&M’s! (Photo: Mr. T in DC)

Happy New Year, all! I’ll be putting up a “Lessons learned in 2011″ post soon. In the meantime, here is a taste of things to come.


I can come across as anal retentive, even severely Monk-ish. One reason for the madness: with rare exceptions, I’ve come to believe that how we do anything is how we do everything.

I’m not alone.

The following is a short excerpt from The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, also reprinted by Tehelka magazine in India. In it, we learn the logic of David Lee Roth’s famous obsession with brown M&M’s:

Listening to the radio, I heard the story behind rocker David Lee Roth’s notorious insistence that Van Halen’s contracts with concert promoters contain a clause specifying that a bowl of M&M’s has to be provided backstage, but with every single brown candy removed, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation to the band. And at least once, Van Halen followed through, peremptorily cancelling a show in Colorado when Roth found some brown M&M’s in his dressing room. This turned out to be, however, not another example of the insane demands of power-mad celebrities but an ingenious ruse.

As Roth explained in his memoir, Crazy from the Heat, “Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, thirdlevel markets.

We’d pull up with nine 18-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move thegear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function.” So just as a little test, buried somewhere in the middle of the rider, would be article 126, the no-brown-M&M’s clause. “When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl,” he wrote, “well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error… Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.” These weren’t trifles, the radio story pointed out. The mistakes could be lifethreatening. In Colorado, the band found the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements and the staging would have fallen through the arena

Do you have any similar tests that you’ve found helpful in business, hiring, life, or love?

Posted on: January 1, 2012.

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217 comments on “No Brown M&M's! David Lee Roth and the Power of Checklists

  1. “Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, thirdlevel markets.”

    This is the part of the story that I had missed when I’d heard it before – and what makes the M&M test all the more important.


  2. I’ve been obsessively using lists over the past year for almost everything. From note taking to staging blog posts or the writing of an entire book.

    I actually heard this story a while back it’s one of the few reasons I find list making for others so important. Even for simple things, so much needs to be done properly and with the appropriate nuance, you can’t expect everyone to get things done the way you envision in your mind.

    I totally agree with Dave’s logic here and I’m curious about how lists became so important to you. As a fanatical Evernote user, I’d love to swap Evernote taking tips.


  3. Like I always used to say back in my military days, “If it ain’t inspected, it’s neglected.” When lives are on the line you just can’t take the chance. Good on these guys for holding people accountable on the little things…if they screw up the little things, they’ll screw up the big things! Great meeting and talking with you at the Evernote Trunk Conference, Tim. Hope you enjoyed the Barookie Bars!


  4. It has been said before, but i will bring it back in the spirit of your question. Whenever someone asks me for a professional favor (reference, networking, etc.) I always ask for them to first send me a brief summary of their recent professional accomplishments. It is amazing how FEW people follow through with this tiny request.

    tl/dr: When someone asks a favor give them a small task to complete first. Very few will follow through.


    • Jason – I do a similar thing when people ask for requests. I am a graphic designer and have friends ask for small design favors which I am happy to fulfill if they are indeed “small.” Usually somebody will call me and talk through their vision and expect me to take detailed notes of their every idea. What I will do is say something like this: “This project sounds exciting. Will you shoot me a quick email with everything you just explained to me and maybe some links of designs that inspire you? I don’t want to have missed anything in our conversation.”

      Less than half do it. It is amazing how many people will ask you for a favor but not invest 5 minutes of their own time. I hate writing down other people’s ideas anyways.


      • Hey Tim,
        I guess Clay refers to the “offer” from Zappos that tells new employees to quit for a bonus. You can read more about it here and there.

        Here’s an excerpt:
        Apparently, when Zappos hires new employees, it puts them through an intensive four-week training program, immersing them in the company’s culture, strategy, and processes. Then, about one week in, Zappos makes what it calls “The Offer,” telling newbies, “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you have worked, plus a $2,000 bonus.” A BusinessWeek reporter interviewed Hsieh recently. He says only 2% to 3% of people take the offer. The other 97% say no deal—they choose the job over the instant cash.


      • Clay, are you referring to how Zappos pays people to quit?

        Quick quote from the article above:

        “After a week or so in this immersive experience, though, it’s time for what Zappos calls “The Offer.” The fast-growing company, which works hard to recruit people to join, says to its newest employees: “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $1,000 bonus.” Zappos actually bribes its new employees to quit!”

        It’s a similar litmus test.


      • From what I understand, this offer dollar amount has been “upped” more recently. It was mentioned in a mixergy interview with a former Zappos marketer recently.


  5. You know after reading this and thinking about it. I do have a check list in my mind in the area of love. For example meeting a girl and asking her questions about her beliefs. And then a couple of weeks later sort testing those beliefs by creating a situations to see if she does follow through with her personal beliefs to see if she is genuine as she says or f she just is a bag of air. Recently, it has worked and I’m beginning to find myself in the pursuit of a girl because her character is solid. And, it’s going to be amazing to see where everything will go between us. I hope this makes sense and it relevant to the post. Am I alone with setting up a check list in the area of love and testing if someone is true to their beliefs?


    • I don’t think I would use a checklist for ‘love’, I mean, where people are concerned I think intuition is a powerful thing. Sometimes you can write someone off after a few minutes, sometimes it takes a few meetings. Unfortunately, time and circumstances can change a person, making the checklist idea a good short term strategy but probably not a good predictor of long-term success in a romantic relationship. Does that make sense?


      • People lie, and they do it well, and sometimes not intentionally. They might have high ideals, but not really have the integrity to live them. Hormones, etc., can affect our perceptions. Having a logical way to screen potential mates is good way to avoid wasting time with people aren’t truly compatible.

        I myself had a checklist of 30 or so items. Some were traits I was looking for, some were traits I wouldn’t tolerate. Once I had a clear idea of what I wanted I found it. Happily married for 23 years.


      • I used one before, and I have one now. Its not a hard fast one (I broke it before and would again), what it does for me is helpfully weed out girls that are definitely good people that I should be friends with but would not be good for a relationship with me. This isn’t the brown m&ms this is more like what basic things am I looking for? does this person cover them? Do we want similar things?


    • Have you read Steven Covey’s Seven habits book? He really shows the importance of keeping your word, thanks for reminding me.


  6. I love this test, but the real trick is in applying it to your own situation. How do we get the same immediacy as Van Halen’s brown M&Ms?

    I have written about this in a public service context. Some ideas for what might be the “brown M&Ms” for the public service are:
    *No thought of the citizen / the public in service delivery, policy development and implementation
    *Little or no focus on the future just dealing with immediate problems
    *Absence of alternative view points being presented in discussions
    *Lack of a bias for action, just lots of planning
    *No mistakes
    *People who use the sentence – ‘we can’t raise expectations’
    *Units with an over-representation of 50+ year old men
    *Strong hierarchies
    *People uncomfortable with even a little brainstorming, who divert conversations to frameworks, processes and resources
    *Units that never describe the ‘outcomes’ from their work.


      • Ok I can understand the need for structured thought, but isn’t the communication ability directly relevant to the language skills within a specific language
        So I always check to see that they have programming language skills, rather than English or any other “language skill” because I recruit a lot of non native speakers of English :)

        Oh and btw, this reminds me of the academic arguments about 99% language and .5% research and .5% latex/bibtex
        Thanks again for showing me the way out Tim :)
        From Bangkok


    • I’m doing a startup in software. Would be great if true. Have to do a sep. test for them though while watching over them to speak. I would not trust the material i was sent.

      Also Creatives find it harder to habituate. I am sure I test can be done this. Bet Edison would have done that one had he heard of it!


  7. That is a beautiful test – bury the simple in order to unveil the complex. I would have personally written him off as a maniacal rocker when instead he was just making sure the show would keep going on.

    I don’t have any personal brown M&M tactics, but I do believe we all utilize the simple in order to make the complex more at home. It is these small pieces that bring it all together or shatter it just as fast.


  8. When interviewing potential virtual assistants, Ryan Lee suggests to request them to use a random phrase in reply to his email. Something like “tea at noon” would need to be added somewhere in the response email from the VA to be considered for the job.


    • I like this idea and am going to use it.

      I need a VA to screen VAs!

      I’ve been having mixed results hiring folks on freelancer and odesk. Right off the bat I nix any generic responses, if the applicant doesn’t respond to specifics of my listing they aren’t even considered.

      I used to always include a random paragraph in the middle of all of my college papers to see if the professors were actually reading them. Only once did a professor notice.


      • Valerie, instead of hiring overseas VA’s try finding stay at home moms or other folks that aren’t able to work onsite somewhere. You may get better quality of work for the same price. It has worked very well for me in the past. Plus you are hiring local/national vs global…. that is economic stimulation and a small core level… right?


      • Building on Ray’s comment, another ‘immediate’ good tip is to insist that all responses to jobs start with “Hi there Valerie”. If they can’t follow that simple instruction then…


  9. When I write technical specs for developers and for business owners to sign off on, it’s inevitable that they will skim it, not understand it, and yet sign off on it anyway. This is why I schedule a meeting to go over it, even if they approve it beforehand. For some reason if it’s spec’ed out they think their job is done. There are always questions, even if I write it so that hopefully they only need to read it once. tl;dr seems to be common in executive circles. :-/


  10. Here’s a good one: Henry Ford reportedly took prospective employees out to lunch…

    … and if they reached for the salt before tasting their food, he declined to hire them.


    Ford wanted people to “test” their assumptions… instead of blindly falling into habit.

    Figured you’d like that one, Tim.

    OK, now for mine: I routinely, habitually, even maniacally ask waiters to order for me.

    I figure “Hey, they work here… who’d know better than them?”

    And I’ve found that there are two kinds of people: those who stand there, dumbfounded, and can’t name a single thing… and those who simply give one knowing look, smile and head to the kitchen.

    It’s the second kind that ALWAYS come back delicious.

    And after doing this dozens, even hundreds of times, I’ve learned to take the stragglers with a grain of salt (if you’ll pardon the pun) and order for myself.

    Ford would be proud.


    • This only works in a restaurant setting, but people try this on me in the big-box retail store cafeteria I work in. We’ve had the same few items for nearly a dozen years – none of it is good to me anymore so a truthful answer would be, “I wouldn’t eat any of this, it is too unhealthy.” lol


    • I’ve always been curious about this ford’s test
      What if the prospective employee had prior knowledge about the food/ chef or maybe simply he liked more salt than other people ?


  11. I remember an episode of the Mythbusters where Jamie mentioned a test he runs new team members trough:

    He would mark an X on a board and ask them to drill a hole trough it, and see how many questions the newbie made before complying. He expected at least the following:

    -What size? (and other technical questions pertaining the hole itself)
    -How precise does it have to be?
    -How does this piece fit in, in whatever it is we’re doing?


  12. James C. Penny would take a new employee out to lunch/dinner for an interview. If they salt/peppered their food without tasting it first he wouldn’t hire them.

    His thought process was that anyone that assumed something needed extra just for the sake of it, wasn’t an employee he wanted working for him.

    I always thought that was a neat story.


      • Agreed! Edison did do this. I added it in a comment below. Just found yours! not sure about the other guy, could always google it.


      • I’ve always *hated* the “salt interview” story, not only because I think the test is a horrible technique in its own right, but also because it glorifies the narcissism, arrogance, and outright laziness of so many decision makers.

        Think about it. Jumbo interviews Teacup. How Teacup chooses to season the Snausages In a Blanket placed before her at lunch has no direct bearing on how she would perform the job (unless she’s seeking a chef’s position). So the test is all about inference, a heavy burden for the toss of a salt shaker to carry.

        Maybe Teacup is like me. She likes a high level of salt, has never in her life thought she destroyed her food by pre-salting it, and is willing to live with the possible future tragedy of eating something that is beyond her preferred optimum level of saltiness. (And in any case, a job interview lunch is more stressful than one with friends, so she might not be paying much attention to the food and salt anyway.)

        Jumbo is so into himself that he thinks anyone who doesn’t share his trivial personal behaviors is simply wrong and unhireable. So he would expect Teacup to taste every bland restaurant meal in her life before making any adjustments. Cumulatively, that would not only waste a lot of her time, but at least one bite per meal. Carrying that approach into the workplace makes for inefficiency.

        (Even if the salt test had any theoretical validity, Jumbo is willing to waste hours of company time, plus a meal, then reject a candidate based on one tangential observation alone. You’d think he’d probe a little, maybe say something like, “My grass and assorted cellulose is a little gritty. How are the Snausages?”)

        What *really* bugs me about the test is the underlying assumption that good employees give everything in their lives maximum attention and diligence. No one can do that and be effective.


    • You just got fired because you put pepper flakes on your pizza. Tell that to your children. :)

      This story is a prime case of misdirection. It sounds good but isn’t.
      First, the story mentions Edison. Because he is famous or was successful in his time that somehow all stories mentioning him has a good point? Of course not. The story assumes that Edison cannot be wrong. Of course he can be. I assume that Tim Ferriss can be incredibly wrong, which is the whole point of critical thinking.
      Second, many times you can tell if a soup needs something extra by smell alone. Ask chefs.
      Third, the way someone eats food does not always reflect on the way that person does his work. Just because you make sounds when you go to the bathroom, does not mean you cannot be silent when it calls for it. (i.e business meeting or funeral)
      Fourth, Edison could afford to use these bad “tests”. So what if he passed on 300 perfect employees? With all the people coming in hopes to work for him, he could hire the 301th perfect employee. No problem.

      Anecdotes of famous people can be credibly misleading. Some are manufactured, some are blown out of proportion.
      It’s always better to listen to them with a grain of salt. :P (I know. But I couldn’t help it)


  13. Sorry the story is not very useful.
    There is a hint of arrogance and mischief in the story, which mix the image of a rock star might seem intriguing, smart or inspirational. Unfortunately the story is a sub-standard, if not down right poor and embarrassingly egotistic example of handling matters. Playing games instead of dealing with the actual problem. What if there was no brown M&Ms but the equipment was still setup poorly? It really doesn’t solve anything. Instead of the M&M’s why not put in the rider about the condition of equipment? Are the roadie picking out M&Ms setting up the equipment as well?
    Good story to sell books but not worth firing neurons over.

    From the male perspective, women playing mind games or making up weird tests to “gauge the relationship” is one of the top complaints men have in dating. This story reminds me of that. Nothing useful. Just a lot of sighs and migraines.

    Come on Tim. You can do better than this.


      • It is a nice quote. Simple and damning. A real crowd pleaser.
        However, I have to disagree with it. It is a minefield for making false assumptions.


    • Of course it’s not a perfect test. The closest thing to a perfect test would be having a trusted person walk the entire line every time or doing it yourself. In some cases, that’s what it takes – sometimes the stakes are high enough that you detail a VIP to provide the final check. What the candy provides is a simple thing to check disguised as something important. It’s relatively easy to fake – no doubt word spread of the band’s eccentricity and venues became careful to unwittingly focus on the telltale – but there are defenses against that (specify a different color in each contract; make it a different backstage item; rotate its location in the contract). The purpose of the M&M test is not to be a perfect indicator. It provides a reasonably reliable indicator that the venue has at least read the contract without requiring any more effort than it takes to screen candy for color. It’s simply another application of the Pareto principle.


    • It’s a simple test with two purposes: 1.) to see if the venue actually reads the rider and 2.) to establish consequences if they do not.

      Regardless of where you are, if your name is on the show, you are the one ultimately responsible for it, good or bad.

      It makes perfect sense.


    • It’s a really effective test, actually. You’re checking for their ability to manage the details. When you’ve got a set up worth hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, details are important. It’s one fast, easy thing to check.

      It doesn’t mean they don’t have to check over everything else, too. It just means if that’s wrong, a lot of other things probably are, too.

      If I go to a restaurant, tell them I’m vegan, and they bring out a salad with eggs on it, I leave. It shows a lack of care. Or if someone with latex allergy goes to the doctor and the dude comes in wearing white latex gloves. I wouldn’t want that dr prescribing me meds.

      Also, it wouldn’t be roadies–who travel with the band. It’d be local staff that’d pick through the candy–this is stuff that’s done before any of the band stuff shows up.


      • To Peter.
        One has to wonder why brown M&M’s HAD to be a way out. You would think that setup and equipment requirements would already be in the contract/rider. If it wasn’t, one could say the contract was written very poorly and needed to be improved. If it did, then there wouldn’t be a need for a “Brown M&M” test. Promoters would already be in violation of the contract/rider and all you have to do is walk out. The M&M clause wasn’t a fix for the problem. it was a very poor indicator to a non-related problem. it was a very sad example of a very wrong way of problem solving.

        “test” are popular. In gossip magazines, there are tests to see if you are good mother, good person, good lover, does-your-dog-love-you and so many more. It is often hailed as a sorting or qualifying mechanism. People like short cuts, secrets, hidden knowledge, drama of and sense of superiority. Many times, there is a cute story of someone famous using a magic “test” which make it sound legit. Of course, very few consider the fact that maybe those famous people were incorrect. “tests” usually eliminates a large number of your choices, which gives a false impression that it is efficient. “tests” simplifies, so there is no need for critical thinking. Most of the time, “testing” is a illusion for self gratification or to please a crowd which doesn’t want to think for themselves.

        in any case, I stand by my statement that this post was a disappointment and potentially misleading to the readers. I do think Tim can do much better than this. Thanks


    • @ David to Peter:
      Especially since it’s fairly well known DLR was under the influence of a particular substance that generates extreme ego outbursts and paranoia.

      M&M’s have nothing to do with the tour – it’s just a diva whim under the guise of “importance.”

      How about a clause that all doors ARE measured before shipping equipment?

      Even costuming – ie, cotton socks no thicker than… (so feet breath in boots during performance) – or dietary requirements – room temp and chilled water bottles at ready – make more sense, render the test legitimate, and gain the respect and support of staff because they can UNDERSTAND the reason for demanding said detail.

      If the goal isn’t just to catch someone off-guard to excuse ranting, but to actually get everyone self-motivated to follow details, then you have to use a test with real – not imposed – purpose.


  14. “…how we do anything is how we do everything.”

    Truth-bomb that just blew my mind. Exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks Mr. Ferriss. Keep it up.