The Heart of Humanity

Hubert Dreyfus

“What distinguishes the risks I’m interested in from mere bravado is that they are taken in the interest of what one is committed to…”

Hubert Dreyfus is the preeminent expert on Heidegger so much so that in fact the various copies of Being and Time in his office are held together with rubber bands. In 1965 he took on the entire computer science department of MIT and in so doing explained the key differences between humans and computers.

The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems, explains the problem:

Dreyfus claimed that symbolic representational artificial intelligence would never succeed because the algorithmic design— so skilled at following rule sets—had no ability to infer or intuit. To use anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s phrase, artificial intelligence was forever in the realm of thin description , completely incapable of understanding the “thick description” of our humanity. Today, such a claim seems commonplace, but at the time, Dreyfus was considered a maverick. He had never programmed a computer in his life, but his training in phenomenology and his deep knowledge of philosophy convinced him that our greatest asset as humans had nothing to do with our ability to follow rules. Humans are human because they have a perspective: they care about things. One might call it our ability to give a damn. And it is this quality that allows us to determine what matters and where we stand. A computer can’t do that.

The ability to distinguish between what is relevant and what is not is the key; this is perspective.

“What is relevant right now is that I am sitting here talking to you in this room,” Dreyfus told us. “What is not relevant is that the room may have ten billion specks of dust on the floor and two screws in the left corner and tiles that weigh a half pound each.”

The ability to have a perspective—to respond to what matters and what is meaningful— is at the heart of humanity and, by extension, at the heart of all successful businesses. A perspective implies that you have prioritized certain things— relevant things—and by consequence let some things go. This risk—letting profitable opportunities go for the sake of others— is the essence of all value propositions. We can’t solve all the problems for all the consumers all the time. Nor can we design products that meet all the needs of all the people everywhere. What we can do is risk responding to what calls us. We can find ourselves committed to a perspective. We can build a successful business that will sustain us.

Dreyfus summed it up by saying, “What distinguishes the risks I’m interested in from mere bravado is that they are taken in the interest of what one is committed to, what they have defined themselves in terms of, and what makes meaningful differences in their lives. This is the kind of risk that is a necessary step in becoming a master at anything.”

The Stoic Reading List

“The impediment to action advances action.What stands in the way becomes the way.”— Marcus Aurelius

“The impediment to action advances action.What stands in the way becomes the way.”
— Marcus Aurelius

You know the section after the last chapter that everyone ignores? Well that’s one of the first things I read. This is how I read a book. This is part of systematic skimming and allows me to get a feel for the author’s vocabulary, a sense of what the book is about, how arguments are structured, and references and sources. It’s also a good place to find new reading material.

I received a pre-release copy of Ryan Holiday’s new book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, in the mail this week. The book comes out in a couple of weeks. In the back I came across something I wish I had found a few years ago when I first started reading philosophy, a stoic reading list.

The Big Three.

Stoicism is perhaps the only “philosophy” where the original, primary texts are actually cleaner and easier to read than anything academics have written afterward. Which is awesome because it means you can dive into the subject and go straight to the source.

1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

I loved this book. I had read it before but it wasn’t the Hays translation, which made a world of difference for me.

There is one translation of Marcus Aurelius to read and that is Gregory Hays’s amazing edition for the Modern Library. Everything else falls sadly short. His version is completely devoid of any “thou’s” “arts” “shalls.” It’s beautiful and haunting. I’ve recommended this book to literally thousands of people at this point. Buy it. Change your life.

2. Letters of a Stoic by Seneca (see also: On the Shortness of Life).
This is one of the 5 books I recommend everyone read before their 30th birthday.

Seneca or Marcus are the best places to start if you’re looking to explore Stoicism. Seneca seems like he would have been a fun guy to know—which is unusual for a Stoic. I suggest starting with On the Shortness of Life (a collection of short essays) and then move to his book of letters (which are really more like essays than true correspondence).

3. Discourses by Epictetus.

Of the big three, Epictetus is the most preachy and least fun to read. But he will also from time to time express something so clearly and profoundly that it will shake you to your core.

But wait … there’s more.

Holiday points us to some other great authors too, who are in line with some stoic thinking.

To which we can add

Other Books that Holiday Recommends:

Some articles and online resources:

I’d also add Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault as a great place to start.

Over to you. Comments are open.
What’s on your stoic reading list? Any good resources not mentioned here?

The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity. Whether our actions themselves, even if they do not take place until later, are nothing more than the last reverberations of a vast movement that occurs within us during idle days.

In any case, it is very important to be idle with confidence, with devotion, possibly even with joy. The days when even our hands do not stir are so exceptionally quiet that it is hardly possible to raise them without hearing a whole lot.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Idleness is a lost art. That’s the message behind Andrew Smart’s book: Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing. “Being idle,” he writes, “is one of the most important activities in life.”

But all over the world something else is happening. We’re asked to do more, work harder, and strive to make every moment efficient. The message behind this book is just the opposite. You should do less, not more.

Neuroscientific evidence argues that your brain needs to rest, right now. While our minds are exquisitely evolved for intense action, in order to function normally our brains also need to be idle— a lot of the time, it turns out.

Chronic busyness is not only bad for your brain but can have serious health consequences. “In the short term,” Smart writes, “busyness destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social— and it can damage your cardiovascular health.”

Our brain, much like an airplane, has an autopilot, which we enter when resting and “relinquishing manual control.”

The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do. But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane, and let your autopilot guide you. Just as pilots become dangerously fatigued while flying airplanes manually, all of us need to take a break and let our autopilots fly our planes more of the time.

Yet we hate idleness don’t we? Isn’t that just a waste?

Our contradictory fear of being idle, together with our preference for sloth , may be a vestige from our evolutionary history. For most of our evolution, conserving energy was our number one priority because simply getting enough to eat was a monumental physical challenge. Today, survival does not require much (if any ) physical exertion, so we have invented all kinds of futile busyness. Given the slightest or even a specious reason to do something, people will become busy. People with too much time on their hands tend to become unhappy or bored.

Yet, Smart agues, boredom is the key to self-knowledge.

What comes into your consciousness when you are idle can often be reports from the depths of your unconscious self— and this information may not always be pleasant. Nonetheless, your brain is likely bringing it to your attention for a good reason . Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness.

A brief history of idleness.

At least since Homer we’ve been ambivalent on the subject. In the Odyssey, the Lotus-eaters lolled around all day “munching lotus” and were both hospitable and seemingly quite content. But they were a threat to Odysseus and his crew. When he arrived at the land of the Lotus-eaters, the workaholic captain sent a couple of his men to investigate the locals. The Lotus-eaters “did them no hurt” but instead offered Odysseus’s men some of their brew, which was so overpowering that the Greeks gave up all thought of returning home. Odysseus, the personification of the heroic CEO, forced the affected men back to the ship and then tied them to the ship’s benches. He recognized that if the rest of the crew got a taste of the drug, they would never leave the island, and ordered the ship to cast off. In Samuel Butler’s translation, “they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

Despite the Western cliché of China as a country where work, productivity, and industry are enshrined as the greatest of ideals, during Confucian times idleness wasn’t a sub-culture but an integral part of the culture. A Confucian gentleman grew long fingernails to prove that he did not have to work with his hands. Confucianism actually disdained hard work and instead idealized leisure and effortlessness. According to Lawrence E. Harrison, a senior research fellow at Tufts, “for the Chinese, Sisyphus is not a tragedy but a hilarious joke.” Harrison writes that the highest philosophical principle of Taoism is wu-wei, or non-effort, which means that a truly enlightened person either spiritually or intellectually goes about life with the minimum expenditure of energy. In military matters, the ancient Chinese held that a good general forces the enemy to exhaust himself and waits for the right opportunity to attack, using the circumstances to his advantage while doing as little as possible. This is in contrast to the Western idea of trying to achieve some predefined objective with overwhelming effort and force. It is thus paradoxical that in spite of China’s long history of embracing idleness, it’s currently thought of as the world’s factory. This might be because, as a Chinese physicist told me recently, China has only “overcome” Confucianism in the last half century or so.

With the coming of the Enlightenment in the West, as work became mechanized, bureaucratized, and de-humanized, philosophers fought back. At that point, as the capitalist world system started an unprecedented period of expansion, Western culture popularized the concept of the “the noble savage,” one of whose particular attributes was lounging around and eating the fruit that supposedly fell into his lap. The incomparable Samuel Johnson published a series of essays on the benefits of being idle in the periodical The Idler from 1758 to 1760. He wrote that, “Idleness … may be enjoyed without injury to others; and is therefore not watched like Fraud, which endangers property, or like Pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another’s inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore no body is busy to censure or detect it.”

But the capitalists could not be stopped. The 19th century saw the advent of the global industrial economy. As human beings came to function like cogs in the complex machine called the factory, Frederick Taylor, godfather of the efficient American work ethic, introduced “scientific management” to capitalist overseers in The Principles of Scientific Management. His goal was to integrate the life of the worker with the life of business, by the means of what was then considered scientific understanding of humans. Taylor sought to increase production efficiency by minutely measuring the time and motion of tasks. Anticipating modern productivity fads like Six Sigma, Taylor looked to replace each tradesman’s knowledge and experience with a standardized and “scientific” technique for doing work. While Taylorism was and still is hugely popular among the business class, humanists of all stripes were unenthusiastic. In 1920, perhaps in reaction to increasing Taylorization, the concept of the robot— a fully mechanized, soulless worker, physically as well as spiritually dehumanized— was introduced by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The very word “robot” means “worker” in Czech. The same year, American humorist Christopher Morley published his now-classic essay On Laziness. “The man who is really, thoroughly, and philosophically slothful,” he wrote, “is the only thoroughly happy man. It is the happy man who benefits the world. The conclusion is inescapable.”

With the advent of the 1980s and Ronald Reagan, the mantra that productivity was essential to self-esteem took hold. It was good for America, it was good for business. Laziness, on the other hand, was anti-American …

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing goes on to explore the benefits and history of idleness in more detail.

Antifragile: A Definition

"Complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors."

“Complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors.”

I was talking with someone the other day about Antifragility, and I realized that, while a lot of people use the word, not many people have read: Antifragile, where Nassim Taleb defines it.

Just as being clear on what constitutes a black swan allowed us to better discuss the subject, so too will defining antifragility.

The classic example of something antifragile is Hydra, the greek mythological creature that has numerous heads. When one is cut off, two grow back in its place.

From Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure , risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet. And antifragility determines the boundary between what is living and organic (or complex), say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a physical object like the stapler on your desk.

The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means— crucially—a love of errors, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them— and do them well. Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.

It is easy to see things around us that like a measure of stressors and volatility: economic systems , your body, your nutrition (diabetes and many similar modern ailments seem to be associated with a lack of randomness in feeding and the absence of the stressor of occasional starvation), your psyche. There are even financial contracts that are antifragile: they are explicitly designed to benefit from market volatility.

Antifragility makes us understand fragility better. Just as we cannot improve health without reducing disease, or increase wealth without first decreasing losses, antifragility and fragility are degrees on a spectrum.

Nonprediction
By grasping the mechanisms of antifragility we can build a systematic and broad guide to nonpredictive decision making under uncertainty in business, politics, medicine, and life in general— anywhere the unknown preponderates, any situation in which there is randomness, unpredictability, opacity, or incomplete understanding of things.

It is far easier to figure out if something is fragile than to predict the occurrence of an event that may harm it. Fragility can be measured; risk is not measurable (outside of casinos or the minds of people who call themselves “risk experts”). This provides a solution to what I’ve called the Black Swan problem— the impossibility of calculating the risks of consequential rare events and predicting their occurrence. Sensitivity to harm from volatility is tractable, more so than forecasting the event that would cause the harm. So we propose to stand our current approaches to prediction, prognostication, and risk management on their heads.

In every domain or area of application, we propose rules for moving from the fragile toward the antifragile, through reduction of fragility or harnessing antifragility. And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry : anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

Deprivation of Antifragility
Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up. We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything … by suppressing randomness and volatility. … stressors. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions (dubbed “Soviet-Harvard delusions” in the book) which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems. This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most (see iatrogenics)

Antifragile is the antidote to Black Swans. The modern world may increase technical knowledge but it will also make things more fragile.

… Black Swans hijack our brains, making us feel we “sort of” or “almost” predicted them, because they are retrospectively explainable. We don’t realize the role of these Swans in life because of this illusion of predictability. Life is more, a lot more, labyrinthine than shown in our memory— our minds are in the business of turning history into something smooth and linear, which makes us underestimate randomness. But when we see it, we fear it and overreact. Because of this fear and thirst for order, some human systems, by disrupting the invisible or not so visible logic of things, tend to be exposed to harm from Black Swans and almost never get any benefit. You get pseudo-order when you seek order; you only get a measure of order and control when you embrace randomness.

Complex systems are full of interdependencies— hard to detect— and nonlinear responses. “Nonlinear” means that when you double the dose of, say, a medication, or when you double the number of employees in a factory, you don’t get twice the initial effect, but rather a lot more or a lot less. Two weekends in Philadelphia are not twice as pleasant as a single one— I’ve tried. When the response is plotted on a graph, it does not show as a straight line (“linear”), rather as a curve. In such environments, simple causal associations are misplaced; it is hard to see how things work by looking at single parts.

Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events. So the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable.

An annoying aspect of the Black Swan problem— in fact the central, and largely missed , point —is that the odds of rare events are simply not computable.

Robustness is not enough.

Consider that Mother Nature is not just “safe.” It is aggressive in destroying and replacing, in selecting and reshuffling . When it comes to random events, “robust” is certainly not good enough. In the long run everything with the most minute vulnerability breaks, given the ruthlessness of time— yet our planet has been around for perhaps four billion years and, convincingly, robustness can’t just be it: you need perfect robustness for a crack not to end up crashing the system. Given the unattainability of perfect robustness, we need a mechanism by which the system regenerates itself continuously by using, rather than suffering from, random events, unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility.

Fragile and antifragile are relative — there is no absolute. You may be more antifragile than your neighbor but that doesn’t make you antifragile.

The Triad is FRAGILE — ROBUST — ANTIFRAGILE.

Here’s an example
Antifragile

All of this can lead to some pretty significant conclusions. Often it’s impossible to be antifragile, but falling short of that you should be robust, not fragile. How do you become robust? Make sure you’re not fragile. Eliminate things that make you fragile. In an interview, Taleb offers some ideas:

You have to avoid debt because debt makes the system more fragile. You have to increase redundancies in some spaces. You have to avoid optimization. That is quite critical for someone who is doing finance to understand because it goes counter to everything you learn in portfolio theory. … I have always been very skeptical of any form of optimization. In the black swan world, optimization isn’t possible. The best you can achieve is a reduction in fragility and greater robustness.

If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to read Antifragile.

Image credit: velinov.

Socrates and the Search For Wisdom

Socrates

The arrogance of limited knowledge results in foolishness.

This is an excerpt from Plato’s Apology, from Plato: Complete Works (an excellent edition that is part of the Great Books program).

To set the context, while this is known as the apology it comes from the word apologia, which means not an apology as we know it but “a defense speech in a legal proceeding.” Socrates does not apologize. At the age of seventy he had been indicted for breaking the law against ‘impiety.’ That is, he was alleged to have offended the Olympian gods (Zeus, Apollo, etc.). The crux of it was on how Socrates had carried out his philosophical work in Athens. In the apologia, Socrates defends his devotion to philosophy as well as the manner in which he pursued it. He argues that he was not offending them but rather following their lead “in making himself as good a person as he can and encouraging others to do the same.” The gods, after all, want that people shall be good. But what is good? That depends on “the quality of our understanding of what to care about and how to behave in our lives.” The pursuit of this understanding was philosophy to Socrates.

… Consider that I tell you this because I would inform you about the origin of the slander. When I heard of this reply I asked myself: “Whatever does the god mean? What is his riddle? I am very conscious that I am not wise at all; what then does he mean by saying that I am the wisest? For surely he does not lie; it is not legitimate for him to do so.” For a long time I was at a loss as to his meaning; then I very reluctantly turned to some such investigation as this: I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” Then, when I examined this man—there is no need for me to tell you his name, he was one of our public men—my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” After this I approached another man, one of those thought to be wiser than he, and I thought the same thing, and so I came to be disliked both by him and by many others.

After that I proceeded systematically. I realized, to my sorrow and alarm, that I was getting unpopular, but I thought that I must attach the greatest importance to the god’s oracle, so I must go to all those who had any reputation for knowledge to examine its meaning. And by the dog, gentlemen of the jury—for I must tell you the truth—I experienced something like this: in my investigation in the service of the god I found that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable.

I must give you an account of my journeyings as if they were labours I had undertaken to prove the oracle irrefutable. After the politicians, I went to the poets, the writers of tragedies and dithyrambs and the others, intending in their case to catch myself being more ignorant then they. So I took up those poems with which they seemed to have taken most trouble and asked them what they meant, in order that I might at the same time learn something from them. I am ashamed to tell you the truth, gentlemen, but I must. Almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better than their authors could. I soon realized that poets do not compose their poems with knowledge, but by some inborn talent and by inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many fine things without any understanding of what they say. The poets seemed to me to have had a similar experience. At the same time I saw that, because of their poetry, they thought themselves very wise men in other respects, which they were not. So there again I withdrew, thinking that I had the same advantage over them as I had over the politicians.

Finally I went to the craftsmen, for I was conscious of knowing practically nothing, and I knew that I would find that they had knowledge of many fine things. In this I was not mistaken; they knew things I did not know, and to that extent they were wiser than I. But, gentlemen of the jury, the good craftsmen seemed to me to have the same fault as the poets: each of them, because of his success at his craft, thought himself very wise in other most important pursuits, and this error of theirs overshadowed the wisdom they had, so that I asked myself, on behalf of the oracle, whether I should prefer to be as I am, with neither their wisdom nor their ignorance, or to have both. The answer I gave myself and the oracle was that it was to my advantage to be as I am.

As a result of this investigation, gentlemen of the jury, I acquired much unpopularity, of a kind that is hard to deal with and is a heavy burden; many slanders came from these people and a reputation for wisdom, for in each case the bystanders thought that I myself possessed the wisdom that I proved that my interlocutor did not have. What is probable, gentlemen, is that in fact the god is wise and that his oracular response meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing, and that when he says this man, Socrates, he is using my name as an example, as if he said: “This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless.” So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me—and I go around seeking out anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not think he is, I come to the assistance of the god and show him that he is not wise. Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to the god.

Still curious? Plato: Complete Works is a great place to start. The translation is excellent and the editor, John Cooper, does a decent job of providing the necessary context.

A Few General Principles Associated With Wise Behavior

Paul Baltes, once described wisdom as “a topic at the interface between several disciplines: philosophy, sociology, theology, psychology, political science, and literature, to name a few.” Farnam Street aims to be at the crossroad of these disciplines.

What does it mean to be wise? What is Wisdom?

One of the more interesting aspects to wisdom is self-awareness. “Thinking about wisdom,” writes Stephen Hall in his book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, “almost inevitably inspires you to think about yourself and your relationship with the larger world.” The book is an investigation into fuzzy questions such as how can it help us shed light on the process by which we deal with big decisions and dilemmas.

He writes:

Wisdom requires an experience-based knowledge of the world (including, especially, the world of human nature). It requires mental focus, reflecting the ability to analyze and discern the most important aspects of acquired knowledge, knowing what to use and what to discard, almost on a case by case basis (put another way, it requires knowing when to follow rules, but also when the usual rules no longer apply). It requires mediating, refereeing, between the frequently conflicting inputs of emotion and reason, of narrow self-interest and broader social interest, of instant rewards or future gains. Moreover, it expresses itself through an insistently social vocabulary of interactive behavior: a fundamental sense of justice (which is sometimes described as an innate form of morality, of knowing right from wrong), a commitment to welfare of social (and, for that matter, genetic) units that extend beyond the self, and the ability to defer immediate self-gratification in order to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

On his “wisdom tour,” after an encounter with a politician, Socrates concluded that he “thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”

So one of the most essential aspects to wisdom is knowing the limits of one’s own knowledge. Charlie Munger offered this simple prescription: “If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.”

Sensemaking as a Complement to Default Thinking

Most of the time we devise strategies in the default mode of problem solving, prioritizing maximum growth and profit through rational and logical analysis. But we already know that rational and logical analysis doesn’t always result in the best decisions.

In The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen write:

The ideal is to turn strategy work into a rigorous discipline with the use of deductive logic, a well-structured hypothesis, and a thorough collection of evidence and data. Such problem solving has dominated most research and teaching in business schools over the last decades and has formed the guiding principles of many global management consultancies. Slowly but steadily, this mind-set has gained dominance in business culture over the last thirty years. Today it is the unspoken default tool for solving all problems.

This mindset is almost scientific in the quest for precision.

… learn from past examples to create a hypothesis you can test with numbers. As it uses inductive reasoning for its foundation, it is enormously successful at analyzing information extrapolated from a known set of data from the past. Default thinking helps us create efficiencies, optimize resources, balance product portfolios, increase productivity, invest in markets with the shortest and biggest payback , cut operational complexity, and generally get more bang for the buck. In short, it works extraordinarily well when the business challenge demands an increase in the productivity of a system.

But this method often falls short. And one area where it falls short is people’s behaviour. “When it comes to cultural shifts, the use of a hypothesis based on past examples will give us a false sense of confidence, sending us astray into unknown waters with the wrong map,” the authors write.

Certain problems benefit from a linear and rational approach, while other, less straightforward challenges—navigating in a fog—benefit from the problem solving utilized in the human sciences like philosophy, history, the arts, and anthropology. We call this problem-solving method sensemaking.

Sensemaking is really about finding how things are experienced through culture.

The hard sciences involving mathematics and universal laws tell us the way things are and tend to take the main spotlight when we discuss our understanding of the world. This tendency is so common, we often disregard the wide range of sciences that are used to shed light on other phenomena, or the way things are experienced in culture. If default thinking shows us what exists in the foreground (e.g., “we are losing our market share in competitive athletic apparel”), the human sciences investigate the invisible background— the layered nuance behind what we perceive (e.g., “well -being, not competition , is the main motivating factor for many people participating in sports”).

How we experience the world may be as important as, or more important than the hard, objective facts about the world. This is especially true for the specific set of problems where past data or scenarios no longer seem relevant.

Default thinking and sensemaking are complementary tools.

How default thinking and sensemaking complement one another

How default thinking and sensemaking complement one another.

But we tend to see leadership more in the default thinking way, which makes perfect sense. Who doesn’t want to be hypothesis driven, quantitative, and linear in their approach to solving problems? Most of these things are visible, which has an added benefit too. But if this is the only tool in our toolbox we’re going to fall short.

The difference between decision makers and sensemakers.

The difference between decision makers and sensemakers.

It was perfectly rational, yet wrong, for the steel companies in The Innovator’s Dilemma to cede low-margin market share to the mini-mills. This is the decision we’d all make if we look at it through the lens of finance and default thinking. In my interview with Forbes last year, I elaborated on this concept as well with the example of a textile company. It’s only when you approach problems through different lenses that you can solve them.

The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems goes on to explain how humanities help solved some of our toughest business problems.

Falsification

"The human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in." — Charlie Munger

“The human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in.” — Charlie Munger

Sir Karl Popper wrote that the nature of scientific thought is that we could never be sure of anything. The only way to test the validity of any theory was to prove it wrong, a process he labelled falsification. And it turns out we’re quite bad at falsification. When it comes to testing a theory we don’t instinctively try to find evidence we’re wrong. It’s much easier and more mentally satisfying to find information that proves our intuition. This is known as the confirmation bias.

In Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, he tells the story of an English psychologist Peter Cathcart Wason, who came up with an “ingenious experiment to demonstrate our natural tendency to confirm rather than disprove our own ideas.”

Subjects were told that they would be given a series of three numbers that followed a certain rule known only to the experimenter. Their assignment was to figure out what the rule was, which they could do by offering the experimenter other strings of three numbers and asking him whether or not these new strings met the rule.

The string of numbers the subjects were given was quite simple:

2-4-6

Try it: What’s your first instinct about the rule governing these numbers? And what’s another string you might test with the experimenter in order to find out if your guess is right? If you’re like most people, your first instinct is that the rule is “ascending even numbers” or “numbers increasing by two.” And so you guess something like:

8-10-12

And the experimenter says, “Yes! That string of numbers also meets the rule.” And your confidence rises. To confirm your brilliance, you test one more possibility, just as due diligence, something like:

20-22-24

“Yes!” says the experimenter. Another surge of dopamine. And you proudly make your guess: “The rule is: even numbers, ascending in twos.” “No!” says the experimenter. It turns out that the rule is “any ascending numbers.” So 8-10-12 does fit the rule, it’s true, but so does 1-2-3. Or 4-23-512. The only way to win the game is to guess strings of numbers that would prove your beloved hypothesis wrong—and that is something each of us is constitutionally driven to avoid.

In Wason’s study, only 1 in five people were able to guess the correct rule.

And the reason we’re all so bad at games like this is the tendency toward confirmation bias: It feels much better to find evidence that confirms what you believe to be true than to find evidence that falsifies what you believe to be true. Why go out in search of disappointment?

There is also a video explaining Wason’s work.