Category: Mental Model

Mental Model: Hanlon’s Razor

If you ever feel that the world is against you, you are not alone.

We all have a tendency to assume that when anything goes wrong, the fault lies within some great conspiracy against us. A co-worker fails to give you a report in time? They must be trying to derail your career and beat you to a promotion. Your child drops and breaks an expensive plate? They must be trying to annoy you and waste your time. WiFi in a coffee shop not working? The staff must be lying about having it to lure you in and sample their crappy espresso.

But the simple fact is that these explanations which we tend to jump to are rarely true. Maybe your co-worker thought today was Tuesday, not Wednesday. Maybe your child had sticky hands from playing with play-doh. Maybe the WiFi router was just broken. This is where Hanlon’s razor comes in.

The Basics

Hanlon’s Razor is a useful mental model which can be best summarized as such:

‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.’

Like Occam’s razor, this heuristic is a useful tool for rapid decision-making and intelligent cognition.

Applying Hanlon’s razor in our day-to-day lives, allows us to better develop relationships, become less judgmental, and improves rationality. Hanlon’s razor allows us to give people the benefit of the doubt and have more empathy. In this way, the value of Hanlon’s razor is pronounced in relationships and business matters.

It’s a simple fact that most of us spend a large part of our day communicating with others and making choices based on that. We all lead complex lives wherein (as Murphy’s law states) things are constantly going wrong. When this occurs, a common response is to blame the nearest person and assume they have malicious intent. People are quick to accuse corporations, politicians, their bosses, employees, coffee shop workers and even family of trying to derail them. When someone messes up around us, we forget how many times we too have done the same. We forget how many times we have elbowed someone in the street, knocked over a drink at a relative’s house or forgotten to meet a friend at the right time. Instead, the perpetrator becomes a source of intense irritation.

To assume intent in such a situation is likely to worsen the problem. None of us can ever know what someone else wanted to happen. The smartest people make a lot of mistakes. Inability or neglect is far more likely to be the cause than malice. When a situation causes us to become angry or frustrated, it can be valuable to consider if those emotions are justified. Often, the best way to react to other people causing us problems is by seeking to educate them, not to disdain them. In this way, we can avoid repeats of the same situation.


The phrase ‘Hanlon’s razor’ was coined by Robert J. Hanlon, but it has been voiced by many people throughout history, as far back as 1774.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously declared:

‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.’

Goethe wrote similarly in The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774:

Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.

The German general Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord used Hanlon’s razor to assess his men, saying:

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent – their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy – they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

The Place of Hanlon’s Razor in a Latticework of Knowledge

Hanlon’s razor works best when combined and contrasted with other mental models in our latticework of knowledge. Here are some examples of the useful interactions:

  • The availability heuristic. This mental model states we misjudge the frequency of recent events. In particular, this occurs if they are vivid and memorable. Many people have a tendency to keep an internal scorecard of other people’s mistakes. For example, imagine that a taxi driver takes a wrong turn and makes a journey more expensive. A month later, the same thing occurs with a different driver. We are likely to recall the previous event and react by seeing all taxi drivers as malicious. Instead of accepting both as simple mistakes, the availability of the memory makes us imagine malicious intent. By combining these two mental models, we can understand why certain situations provoke such strong emotions. When a memory is vivid and easy to recall, we may ignore Hanlon’s razor.
  • Confirmation bias. We all have a tendency to look for information which confirms preexisting beliefs. When cognitive dissonance arises, we aim to realign our worldviews. Overcoming confirmation bias is a huge step towards making better choices motivated by logic, not emotions. Hanlon’s razor assists with this. If we expect malicious intent, we are likely to attribute it wherever possible. For example, if someone sees a certain politician as corrupt, they will look for information which confirms that. They become unable to identify when mistakes are the result of incompetence or accident.
  • Bias from disliking/hating. Hanlon’s razor can provide insights when we deal with people, institutions, or entities which we dislike. The more we dislike someone or something, the more likely we are to attribute their actions to malice. When someone we dislike makes a mistake, reacting with empathy and understanding tends to be the last response. Acting in an emotional way is natural, yet immature. It can only worsen the situation. The smartest solution is, no matter how much we dislike someone, to assume neglect or incompetence.
  • We also like to attribute our own flaws and failures to someone else, which is a cheap psychological protective mechanism called projection. This allows us to maintain a positive self-image and view friction as someone else’s fault rather than our own. It’s best to run a reality check before blaming others.

The Uses of Hanlon’s Razor

The Media

Modern media treats outrage as a profitable commodity. This often takes the form of articles which attribute malice to that which could be explained by incompetence or ignorance. We see examples of this play out in the media multiple times a day. People rush to take offense at anything which contradicts their worldview or which they imagine to do so. Media outlets are becoming increasingly skilled at generating assumptions of malicious intent. When looking at newspapers, websites, and social media, it can be beneficial to apply Hanlon’s razor to what we see.

For example, when Apple’s Siri voice search launched, people noticed that it could not search for abortion clinics. This was immediately taken up as proof of misogyny within the company when in fact, a programming error caused the problem.

A similar issue has occurred a number of times with YouTube content policies. When videos discussing LGBTQ matters were filtered on the restrictive viewing mode, many people took extreme offense at this. The reality is that again, this was an algorithm error and not a case of homophobia on the part of their programmers. Countless videos which do not discuss anything related to LGBTQ issues have also been filtered. This shows it to be a case of confirmation bias, wherein people see the malice they expect to see.

Communication and Relationships

One of the most valuable uses of Hanlon’s razor is in relationships and communication. It is common for people to damage relationships by believing other people are intentionally trying to cause problems for them, or behaving in a way intended to be annoying. In most cases, these situations are the result of inability or accidental mistakes.

Douglas Hubbard expanded upon the idea in Failure of Risk Management: Why it’s Broken and How to Fix it:

I would add a clumsier but more accurate corollary to this: ‘Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.' People behaving with no central coordination and acting in their own best interest can still create results that appear to some to be clear proof of conspiracy or a plague of ignorance.

A further example can be seen when semantic barriers interfere with communication. We have all encountered people struggling to speak our native language, perhaps because they are a tourist or have recently moved to the county. You have probably seen someone gets frustrated at them or even been the one getting annoyed. Or if you have ever traveled to or lived in a country where you are not fluent in the language, you might have been the one people got annoyed at. Realistically, the person asking you for directions or struggling to order their coffee is not mixing up their nouns and speaking in a strong accent on purpose.

Hanlon’s razor tells us they are merely inarticulate and are not trying to waste anyone’s time. The same issues occur when a person uses language which is considered too complex or too basic. This may form a semantic barrier, as other people assume they are trying to confuse them or are being blunt.

A short-cut to regulating what can be strong reactions to inadvertent events is to conscientiously reframe the perpetrator as a toddler knocking over a vase. Their actions are rendered unintentional and clumsy, highlighting their need for help, maturation or supervision, allowing you to rapidly regain composure and not take it personally.

Exceptions and Issues

Like any mental model, Hanlon’s razor has its limitations and its validity has been contested. Some critics consider Hanlon’s razor to be an overly naive idea which can blind people to true malice. While people have malicious intent far less often than we think, it is still something which must be taken into account. Sometimes actions which could be attributed to incompetence are in fact consciously or unconsciously malicious.

An instance of Hanlon’s razor being proven wrong is the mafia. Prior to the 1960s, the existence of the mafia was considered to be a conspiracy theory. Only when a member contacted law enforcement, did police realize that the malice being perpetrated was carefully orchestrated.

To make the best use of Hanlon’s razor, we must be sure to put it in context, taking into account logic, experience, and empirical evidence. Make it a part of your latticework of mental models, but do not be blind to behavior which is intended to be harmful.

Let Go of Self-Justification

It can be startling and unsettling to confront how bad humans are at describing reality with any objective accuracy. Because of the way our brains work, how perceptions are distorted, the ambiguity of language, we seem forever destined to never really know this world we are living in. What are we to do?

One answer is to accept that there is no one objective truth so stop searching for it. Instead, we can put our efforts into understanding ourselves a little better, allowing for navigation between the many truths that exist for people, to achieve success.

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore the role of self-justification in our creation of reality. We make assertions about the world as if they are facts while being completely blind to the subjectivity inherent in knowing anything. Essentially we create a narrative about the world that reflects our beliefs about the kind of person we are and assign to this narrative a ‘truth’ which does not, in fact, exist.

What is self-justification?

It is not the same thing as lying or making excuses. … [It] is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing.

Self-justification is a portrayal of the brain that, despite its stated goals or desires, is not interested in truth, but rather self-preservation. Admitting you were wrong may save relationships and lives, it may prevent distress and war, but it will also force you to admit that the narrative you have constructed about yourself is wrong. And depending on how committed you are to that narrative, you may be unable to even see that you made a mistake, let alone confront it.

Self-justification has costs and benefits. By itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It lets us sleep at night. Without it, we would prolong the awful pangs of embarrassment. We would torture ourselves with regret over the road not taken or over how badly we navigated the road we did take. … Yet mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly. It prolongs and widens rifts between lovers, friends, and nations. It keeps us from letting go of unhealthy habits. It permits the guilty to avoid taking responsibility for their deeds. And it keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can harm the public.

The book contains many unsettling examples from politics and law enforcement. Research based stories of officials who refused to admit their mistakes even when confronted with irrefutable evidence they were wrong. The more invested you are in a situation, the more extensive your narrative, the more likely that narrative has become intertwined with your self-worth and self-esteem, and therefore the harder to rewrite it in light of your errors.

Perhaps the most startling examples of the descent into irreversible self-justification is the research conducted on what the authors call ‘the closed loop of clinical judgment’. They discuss the total lack of evidence to support the theory that traumatic events are suppressed by the brain and contrast this with the amount of clinical practitioners who will enter into therapeutic relationships with the pre-supposition that the client’s current troubles are being caused by traumatic events that they don’t remember.

It becomes a no-win situation for the person seeking therapy – either they spontaneously remember past trauma (which, actually, is the one thing they were not likely to forget in the first place) or they say that they have no memory of being traumatized (in which case the therapist assumes the memories are still being repressed). Either outcome reinforces the self-justified narrative that the therapist has created.

As evidence accumulated on the fallibility of memory and the many confabulations of recovered-memory cases the promoters of this notion did not admit error; they simply changed their view of the mechanism by which traumatic memories are allegedly lost. It’s not repression at work anymore, but dissociation; the mind somehow splits off the traumatic memory and banishes it to the suburbs. This shift allowed them to keep testifying, without batting an eye or ruffling a feather, as scientific experts in cases of recovered memories.

This speaks to investment in the narrative. This is not about admitting that yelling at your spouse about forgetting to buy ice cream was a mistaken over-reaction. In the case of these practitioners, this is their career. It is also the many lives they may have destroyed by unintentionally encouraging false memories of trauma. It would not be easy for any of us to admit mistakes when the consequences of those mistakes are so devastating.

How can we remember things that didn’t happen? Because self-justification has an effect on our memories.

Between the conscious lie to fool others and unconscious self-justification to fool ourselves, there’s a fascinating gray area patrolled by an unreliable, self-serving historian – memory. Memories are often pruned and shaped with an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened.

We remember our past in a way that confirms what we believe of ourselves in the present.

When we do misremember, our mistakes aren’t random. The everyday, dissonance-reducing distortions of memory help us make sense of the world and our place in it, protecting our decisions and beliefs. The distortion is even more powerful when it is motivated by the need to keep our self-concept consistent.

The authors present many fascinating examples of totally fabricated ‘memories’. Not ones that are intentional, but situations in which the memories were believed to be genuine and turned out to be false. In all cases the memories had been unconsciously altered or created to support a self-justifying narrative. For example, believing you are an independent free-spirit, you remember your actions as always having been so, or conversely you remember the past as more awful than it was in order to support your narrative of strength and change.

If a memory is a central part of your identity, a self-serving distortion is even more likely.” How many of us have come across our old journals or diaries, and felt like they were reading the life story of someone else? We will frequently look at the entries and say ‘wow, I don’t remember being like this at all’.

Okay, so our memories are unreliable. Hardly a surprise. For the millions of people who frantically search for their car keys every morning, it will not be shocking that your fourth year birthday cake wasn’t the bad-ass Batman you remember, but a cute puppy with giant eyes. So why worry about memory?

The self-justifying mechanisms of memory would be just another charming and often exasperating aspect of human nature were it not for the fact that we live our lives, make decisions about people, form guiding philosophies, and construct entire narratives on the basis of memories that are often dead wrong.

When we use our memories to strengthen our narratives, it causes huge dissonance when those memories are revealed to be false. It often requires a rewriting of the entire narrative. This is incredibly hard for humans, provoking what can be thought of as an existential crisis. If I am who I am because of my experiences, what happens when those experiences cease to exist? Do I, in a sense, cease to exist as well?

Admitting Mistakes

In order to be able to admit mistakes, to correct the spiraling self-justification that can have devastating consequences for ourselves and others, we need to accept that “something we did can be separated from who we are, and who we want to be. Our past selves need not be a blueprint for our future selves. The road to redemption starts with the understanding that who we are includes what we have done but also transcends it, and the vehicle for transcending it is self-compassion.”

This clears the path. It allows us to let go of the past and focus on building the future. More of this would result in an inevitable boon to society.

What is needed is a deep understanding not only of what went wrong then but also of what is going wrong right now, the better to prepare for what could go wrong with current decisions.

The authors argue that is a problem, particularly endemic to North America, that we associate mistakes with failure. We need to shift the thinking, to see mistakes as part of the learning process, necessary steps on the road to making things better.

The amazing thing is, most of us find it refreshing and positive when people admit mistakes. We long to hear our politicians or intellectual leaders or even our relatives say ‘yeah, I messed up. No excuses, I own it, and now I want to fix it’. Hearing this frees us and allows us to do the same.

So try it out. Right now. Think about a mistake you’ve made recently. We all have; with our kids, our partners, our colleagues. Pick one. Think about the narrative you told yourself in the aftermath. Now kick that narrative to the curb and leave it there. You don’t need it anymore. Then find a mirror. Admit to yourself you made a mistake.

Last step. Go find the person you hurt and own up to your mistake. I know this sounds scary, but the more we do this the more authentic and rewarding our relationships will be.

Tribal Leadership: The Key To Building Great Teams

Have you ever wondered about internal organization dynamics and why some groups of people (who aren't on the same team) are more successful than others? Why different “tribes” inside the organization seem to be at war with one another lowering performance in increasing politics? Why certain groups of people never seem to do anything? Or why its hard to move into the next level? Read on.


Tribal Leadership

Organizations are a collection of small towns wrapped into a bigger city. Each small town is full of people from slackers to sherifs. While the people in the towns are different, the roles are similar. In their book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, call these small towns tribes.

Tribes consist of groups of people from 20-150. (You can think of the test to identify whether someone is in your tribe as stopping to say “hello” and have a brief chat when you pass them on the street.) When the tribe approaches 150, a number that comes from Robin Dunbar's research that was popularized in The Tipping Point, it naturally splits into two.

Importantly, tribes are not (necessarily) teams. Yet tribes are how work gets done in organizations. They have the ability to render the latest corporate culture efforts from CEOs useless. “In companies,” Logan and his co-authors write, “tribes decide whether the new leader is going to flourish or get taken out. They determine how much work is going to get done, and of what quality.”

As you can imagine some tribes want to change the world while others are content to take a lot of coffee breaks. What compels one tribe of people to constantly evolve and move forward and another to stagnate (succumbing to the Red Queen Effect)? The leaders of the tribe.

More than others, tribal leaders influence the culture of their respective tribes. Ambitious leaders focus on growing, adapting, and upgrading the tribal culture to improve the tribes standing in the organization. If they are successful, the tribe members reward them with “cult like loyalty.” (This explains the phenomenon of promotions in a lot of organizations: When the tribe leader is promoted, a lot of the tribe members follow suit.)

Organizations are the sum of the tribes. Some are moving in the same direction while others veer in another. Some tribes propel while yet others add friction. Some tribes attract talent and others eject it. Performance is set not by the individual tribe leader but by the aggregation of them.

Tribal leadership is a process not an outcome and most people are blind to the dynamics of their tribes. Like all of our mental models, when you learn to see your company as a tribe, you can't unsee it. Things just click.

Logan and his co-authors simplify the dynamics of tribal leadership into 5 stages and they arrange the tools accordingly. Each stage has different “leverage points” to move to the next stage. “Each stage,” they write, “gets more done and has more fun than the one before it.”

Companies are never fully in one stage. They may have various tribes in Stage Two all the way to (hopefully) Stage Five. The more tribes you have operating at higher levels the better the company's performance, at least in theory.

Every tribe has a dominant culture, which we can peg on a one-to-five scale, with the goal being stability at Stage Four, and on occasion leaps to Stage Five.

The leverage points to move from Stage Two to Stage Three is not the same as those you need at Stage Three to move to Stage Four. (A lot of business and self-help books fail to realize this point. Perspective advice is more contextual than people realize.)

Let's look at the Five Stages before looking at the leverage points.

The Five Tribal Stages

Stage One (2%): This is the “life sucks” camp. Logan and his co-authors likely this to street gangs and people that come to work with hostility and despair.

Stage Two (25%): In this stage, life doesn't suck, only your life. In this stage, Logan et al. write, people are “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they've seen in all before and watched it all fail. A person at Stage Two will often try to protect his or her people from the intrusion of management.” This tribe is largely a collection of victims. This is what we see in Government Departments or The Office. Innovation is almost non-existent. Urgency is reserved for the coffee break. Accountability is rare.

Stage Three (49%): Moving along the continuum from “my life sucks” (Stage Two) we arrive at “I'm great (and you're not)”. “Within the Stage Three culture,” Logan and his coauthors write, “knowledge is power, so people hoard it, from client contacts to gossip about the company.” At this Stage people need to win, especially if that means you lose. On an individual basis, these people are generally competent but form a collection of “lone warriors,” who want to help but experience near continuous disappointment when “others don't have their ambition of skill.” These people, however, are willing to do the work. The most common complaints for people at this level is that they are too busy, they have no time, and they have crappy support.

Stage Four (22%): This is the progress from I'm great (Stage Three) to we're great (Stage Four). The journey is not measured in equidistant miles between each stage and the gulf between Three and Four is much larger than from Two to Three. In this Stage if you take the tribe away, “the person's sense of self suffers a loss.” Leaders in this Stage feel “pulled by the group.” Stage Four tribes have an outside adversary (whereas those operating in Stages Two and Three often have internal ones.) “The rule for Stage Four,” writes Logan et al., is “the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.” These tribes have little patience for the politics, personal agendas, and Office-style performance that dominate Stage Three. Like a transplant that doesn't take, the group rejects these people.

Stage Five (2%): “Stage Five's T-shirt,” write Logan et al., “would read life is great.” The language here is one of potential and making history. “Teams at Stage Five have produced miraculous innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was at Stage Five. … This stage is pure leadership, vision, and inspiration.” These teams often revert back to Stage Four to regroup before attempting to summit again.


“Tribal leadership,” argues Logan and his co-authors, “focuses on two things: the words people use and the types of relationships they form.” Moving from Stage to Stage means using different leverage points.

Leverage Points And Success Indicators to Upgrade Tribal Culture

For a person at Stage One:

  • Go where the action is.
  • Start hanging around people at Stage Two.
  • “Cut ties with people who share the “life sucks” language.

The success indicators here are:

  • A move away from “life sucks” language to “my life sucks.”
  • Passive apathy replaces despairing hostility.
  • Cuts ties with people at Stage One.

For a person at Stage Two:

  • Start building one-on-one relationships especially with people at Stage Three.
  • “In one-on-one sessions, show her how her work makes an impact.”
  • Assign short duration projects that require little nagging (as that might reinforce the “my life sucks” language that dominates this Stage.)

The success indicators here are:

  • A move away from “my life sucks” to “I'm great.”
  • Name-dropping and bragging.
  • Lone warrior fighting the good fight.

For a person at Stage Three:

  • Encourage them to form three person relationships (we expand on this in our learning community).
  • Encourage them to work on projects bigger than something they could tackle by themselves.
  • The way they've worked to achieve the success they've had up to this point won't get them where they need to go. Focus on bigger goals and inviting people in to help them.
  • Point to role models who use the “we” language and the success they've achieved.

The success indicators here are:

  • They will use “we” instead of “I.”
  • Their network expands from a few dozen to several hundred.
  • Working less but getting more done.

For a Person at Stage Four:

  • “Stabilize by ensuring (relationships) are based on values, advantages, and opportunity.”
  • Encourage opportunistic behaviour to accomplish greatness.
  • Recruiting others to the tribe who share values.
  • “Perform regular oil changes with the team. In this process, she should lead a discussion about (1) what is working well, (2) what is not working well, and (3) what the team can do to make things that are not working well, work.”

Success indicators here are:

  • A switch from “we're great” to “life is great”
  • Networks include a “stunning amount of diversity.”
  • Time allocations are based on values and noble missions.
  • Exemplar of the tribes values.

Tribal Leadership is a fascinating book that goes on to offer more strategies for leading others (and ourselves) through the stages. In our learning community we dive into some of the strategies the book offers for growing your network.

Immigration, Extinction, and Island Equilibrium

Equilibrium is an important concept that permeates many disciplines. In chemistry we think about the point where the rate of forward reaction is equal to the rate of backward reaction. In economics we think of the point where supply equals demand. In physics we can see how gravity is balanced by forward velocity to create things like planetary orbits.

No matter which discipline we are examining, the core idea remains the same: Equilibrium is a state where opposing forces are balanced.

In biology, equilibrium is so important that it can mean the difference between life or death; for a species, it can decide whether they will thrive or become extinct.

In The Song of the DodoDavid Quammen dives into how equilibrium affects a species' ability to survive, and how it impacts our ability to save animals on the brink of extinction.


Historically, the concept of island equilibrium was studied with a focus on the interplay between evolution (as the additive) and extinction (as the subtractive). It was believed that speciation, the process where one species becomes two or more species, caused any increase in the number of inhabitants on an island. In this view, the insularity of islands created a remoteness that could only be overcome by the long processes of evolution. 

However, Robert MacArthur and E.O. Wilson, the co-authors of the influential Theory of Island Biogeography, realized that habitats would show a tendency towards equilibrium much sooner than could be accounted for by speciation. They argued the ongoing processes that most influenced this balance were immigration and extinction.

The type of extinctions we’re referring to in this case are local extinctions, specific to the island in question. A species can go extinct on a particular island and yet be thriving elsewhere; it depends on local conditions.

As for immigration, it's just what you'd expect: The movement of species from one place to another. Island immigration describes the many ingenious ways in which plants, animals, and insects travel to islands. For instance, not only will insects hitch rides on birds and debris (man made or natural, think garbage and sticks/uprooted seaweed), animals will do the same if the debris is massive enough.

Seeds, meanwhile, make the trip in the feces of birds, which helps to introduce new plant species to the island, while highly motivated swimmers (escapees of natural disasters/predators/famine) and hitchhikers on human ships (think rats) make it over in their own unusual ways.

We can plot this process of immigration and extinction graphically, in a way you're probably familiar with. Quammen explains:


The decrease in immigration rate and the increase in extinction rate are graphed not against elapsed time but against the number of species present on a given island. As an island fills up with species, immigration declines and extinction increases, until they offset each other at an equilibrium level. At that level, the rate of continuing immigration is just canceled by the rate of continuing extinction, and there is no net gain or loss of species. The phenomenon of offsetting increase and decrease – the change of identities on the roster of species – is known as turnover. One species of butterfly arrives, another species of butterfly dies out, and in the aftermath the island has the same number of butterfly species as before. Equilibrium with turnover.

So while the specific species inhabiting the island will change over time, the numbers will tend to roll towards a balanced point where the two curves intersect.

Of course, not all equilibrium graphs will look the like one above. Indeed, MacArthur and Wilson hoped this theory would be used not just to explain equilibriums, but to also help predict potential issues.

When either curve is especially steep – reflecting the fact that immigration decreases especially sharply or extinction increases especially sharply – their crossing point shifts leftward, toward zero. The shift means that, at equilibrium, in this particular set of circumstances, there will be relatively few resident species.

In other words, high extinction and low immigration yield an impoverished ecosystem. To you and me it’s a dot in Cartesian space, but to an island it represents destiny.

There are two key ideas that can help us understand the equilibrium point on a given island.

First, the concept of species-area relationship: We see a larger number of a given species on larger islands and a smaller number of a given species on smaller islands.

Second, the concept of species quantity on remote islands: Immigration is much more difficult the further away an island is from either a mainland or a cluster of other islands, meaning that fewer species will make it there.

In other words, size and remoteness are directly correlated to the fragility of any given species inhabiting an island.


Equilibrium, immigration, evolution, extinction – these are all ideas that bleed into so many more areas than biogeography. What happens to groups when they are isolated? Jared Diamond had some interesting thoughts on that. What happens to products or businesses which don’t keep up with co-evolution? They go extinct due to the Red Queen Effect. What happens to our mind and body when we feel off balance? Our life is impoverished.

Reading a book like The Song of the Dodo helps us to better understand these key concepts which, in turn, helps us more fundamentally understand the world.

Batesian Mimicry: Why Copycats are Successful

One of our first interview guests for The Knowledge Project was the former NFL executive Michael Lombardi. In our interview, we discussed topics ranging from the nature of leadership to decision making in a football context. Mike is one of the wisest thinkers associated with the game.

We heard Mike on an NFL podcast recently, and in a brief clip you can listen to here, Mike makes a fascinating comment on differentiating between a Mimic and the Real Thing:

“There's two kinds of snakes you comes across. There's the Texas Coral Snake, and the Mexican Milk Snake, and they both look exactly alike. The Texas Coral Snake is dangerous, it's venomous, it can kill you in a minute. The Mexican Milk Snake can't do anything to you; it's an impostor.”

Mike got the idea from my friend and CEO of Glenair, Peter Kaufman. Following Mike's lead, we chose to dig in a little further.


Turns out there are a host of Coral Snake Mimics, all designed to look exactly as fierce as the true bad guys. Besides the Mexican Milk Snake, there is the Scarlet King Snake, the Florida Scarlet Snake, and the California Mountain Kingsnake. (At least.)

For an example, here are the Texas Coral Snake on the left and the Mexican Milk Snake on the right. Pretty damn close!


According to Wikipedia, the Texas Coral Snake's venom is a “powerful neurotoxin, causing neuromuscular dysfunction“, and terrifyingly describes its bite as coming from “a pair of hollow, small, fixed fangs in the front of its upper jaw, through which the venom is injected and encouraged via a chewing motion. Due to this method of venom delivery, a coral snake must bite and hold on for a brief time to deliver a significant amount of venom…

The Milk Snake, on the other hand, is described as a pretty ideal pet, “The Mexican Milk Snake adapts well to captive care, and its smaller size and striking colorations can make it an attractive choice for a pet snake. They are normally docile, and not typically apt to bite or expel musk.

So, how is it that these two look alike? It's due to a phenomenon called Batesian Mimicry.

In the 1850's, the naturalist Henry Walter Bates found a certain set of butterflies who were clearly not of the same species but whose wings looked almost the same to the naked eye. After thinking it over, Bates eventually figured out what was going on: While the butterflies which were toxic to potential predators (the “models”) were able to operate freely and relatively unmolested, there had also developed a “mimic” population of butterflies which wasn't toxic at all, yet still went untouched!

In fact, biologists eventually figured out that the more toxic and dangerous the “model” was and the more frequently they appeared in the local population, the easier it was for its “mimics” to get by! Predators simply wouldn't take the risk of mixing up the two. If there aren't as many “models” around or they aren't that dangerous, the mimics have a harder time.

This is a wonderful model, and in the practical world we live in, a similar phenomenon abounds: Copycats or “pretenders to the throne” are often very effective, very convincing “mimics” of the true champions. They dress the part, they talk the talk, and they know what buttons to push. But in the end, they are merely chauffeurs.

We see a very Batesian effect at work: The more impressive the “model,” the more effective its mimics can be in convincing people they too are impressive, and in all the same ways. But for every Warren Buffett (just one by our count), there has been many “future” Warren Buffett's. For every Steve Jobs, there have been many “next” Steve Jobs'.

In fact, sometimes even just appearances can be quite convincing: now-disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was very fond of wearing a very Steve Jobsian black turtleneck outfit.

It seems almost a law of nature that success will be copied, sometimes in a very disgraceful way. (Charlie Munger thinks that the fundamental algorithm of life is “Repeat what works.”)

Because they can be very convincing,  we must be wise enough to watch out for Batesian mimicry — even in ourselves.

This brings up an interesting, at times paradoxical, question: Who can best tell the difference between a Coral Snake and its Mimics? The Coral Snake itself.

The real thing knows a fake. Charlie Munger once commented on this in relation to the field of money management:

“It’s very hard to tell the difference between a good money manager and someone who just has the patter down. If you aren’t a good money manager yourself, rather than trying to pick one, you’re probably better off with a low cost index fund. ‘It takes one to know one’.”


An insight this good is only possible through continued study across the largest and most relevant fields of study. Peter got this idea by studying biology, a field full of incredible insight but, strangely underappreciated by most “non-biologists”. It's not just ideas about predators and prey, but niches, competition, co-evolutionary arms races and a whole host of others which give us massive insight into the human world.

Peter realized that studying across fields like biology and physics is something like buying an index fund: It works because you captures all the important companies traded on the public exchange, not just a select few. That means you capture the massive winners, which tend to greatly outweigh the failures.

Studying across all of the important fields gives you the same advantage, except it's even better: If an index fund buys a new position, it must sell something to do so; consequently, the “big winners” can only impact your portfolio in a limited way. But if you come to understand a new Great Idea, you don't have to give up the ones you already know! This is a great advantage.

And so it's worth taking the time to work on learning all the big ideas you can find, not just the ones you want to learn. In that search, you'll find a host of big winners you didn't even know existed.

If you liked this post, you'll probably also love:

The Need for Biological Thinking to Solve Complex Problems — How should we think about complexity? Should we use a biological or physics system? The answer, of course, is that it depends. It’s important to have both tools available at your disposal.

The Founder Principle: A Wonderful Idea from Biology — In his brilliant The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen gives us not only the stories of many brilliant biological naturalists including Mayr, but we also get a deep dive into the core concepts of evolution and extinction, including the Founder Effect.

Biology Enables. Culture Forbids. — From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.

The Green Lumber Fallacy: The Difference between Talking and Doing

“Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking.”
— Nassim Taleb


Before we get to the meat, let's review an elementary idea in biology that will be relevant to our discussion.

If you're familiar with evolutionary theory, you know that populations of organisms are constantly subjected to “selection pressures” — the rigors of their environment which lead to certain traits being favored and passed down to their offspring and others being thrown into the evolutionary dustbin.

Biologists dub these advantages in reproduction “fitness” — as in, the famously lengthening of giraffe necks gave them greater “fitness” in their environment because it helped them reach high up, untouched leaves.

Fitness is generally a relative concept: Since organisms must compete for scarce resources, their fitnesses are measured in the sense of giving a reproductive advantage over one another.

Just as well, a trait that might provide great fitness in one environment may be useless or even disadvantageous in another. (Imagine draining a pond: Any fitness advantages held by a really incredible fish becomes instantly worthless without water.) Traits also relate to circumstance. An advantage at one time could be a disadvantage at another and vice versa.

This makes fitness an all-important concept in biology: Traits are selected for if they provide fitness to the organism within a given environment.

Got it? OK, let's get back to the practical world.


The Black Swan thinker Nassim Taleb has an interesting take on fitness and selection in the real world:  People who are good “doers” and people who are good “talkers” are often selected for different traits. Be careful not to mix them up.

In his book Antifragile, Taleb uses this idea to invoke a heuristic he'd once used when hiring traders on Wall Street:

The more interesting their conversation, the more cultured they are, the more they will be trapped into thinking that they are effective at what they are doing in real business (something psychologists call the halo effect, the mistake of thinking that skills in, say, skiing translate unfailingly into skills in managing a pottery workshop or a bank department, or that a good chess player would be a good strategist in real life).

Clearly, it is unrigorous to equate skills at doing with skills at talking. My experience of good practitioners is that they can be totally incomprehensible–they do not have to put much energy into turning their insights and internal coherence into elegant style and narratives. Entrepreneurs are selected to be doers, not thinkers, and doers do, they don't talk, and it would be unfair, wrong, and downright insulting to measure them in the talk department.

In other words, the selection pressures on an entrepreneur are very different from those on a corporate manager or bureaucrat: Entrepreneurs and risk takers succeed or fail not so much on their ability to talk, explain, and rationalize as their ability to get things done.

While the two can often go together, Nassim figured out that they frequently don't. We judge people as ignorant when it's really us who are ignorant.

When you think about it, there's no a priori reason great intellectualizing and great doing must go together: Being able to hack together an incredible piece of code gives you great fitness in the world of software development, while doing great theoretical computer science probably gives you better fitness in academia. The two skills don't have to be connected. Great economists don't usually make great investors.

But we often confuse the two realms.  We're tempted to think that a great investor must be fluent in behavioral economics or a great CEO fluent in Mckinsey-esque management narratives, but in the real world, we see this intuition constantly in violation.

The investor Walter Schloss worked from 9-5, barely left his office, and wasn't considered an entirely high IQ man, but he compiled one of the great investment records of all time. A young Mark Zuckerberg could hardly be described as a prototypical manager or businessperson, yet somehow built one of the most profitable companies in the world by finding others that complemented his weaknesses.

There are a thousand examples: Our narratives about the type of knowledge or experience we must have or the type of people we must be in order to become successful are often quite wrong; in fact, they border on naive. We think people who talk well can do well, and vice versa. This is simply not always so.

We won't claim that great doers cannot be great talkers, rationalizers, or intellectuals. Sometimes they are. But if you're seeking to understand the world properly, it's good to understand that the two traits are not always co-located. Success, especially in some “narrow” area like plumbing, programming, trading, or marketing, is often achieved by rather non-intellectual folks. Their evolutionary fitness doesn't come from the ability to talk, but do. This is part of reality.


Taleb calls this idea the Green Lumber Fallacy, after a story in the book What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. Taleb describes it in Antifragile:

In one of the rare noncharlatanic books in finance, descriptively called What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, the protagonist makes a big discovery. He remarks that a fellow named Joe Siegel, one of the most successful traders in a commodity called “green lumber,” actually thought it was lumber painted green (rather than freshly cut lumber, called green because it had not been dried). And he made it his profession to trade the stuff! Meanwhile the narrator was into grand intellectual theories and narratives of what caused the price of commodities to move and went bust.

It is not just that the successful expert on lumber was ignorant of central matters like the designation “green.” He also knew things about lumber that nonexperts think are unimportant. People we call ignorant might not be ignorant.

The fact that predicting the order flow in lumber and the usual narrative had little to do with the details one would assume from the outside are important. People who do things in the field are not subjected to a set exam; they are selected in the most non-narrative manager — nice arguments don't make much difference. Evolution does not rely on narratives, humans do. Evolution does not need a word for the color blue.

So let us call the green lumber fallacy the situation in which one mistakes a source of visible knowledge — the greenness of lumber — for another, less visible from the outside, less tractable, less narratable.

The main takeaway is that the real causative factors of success are often hidden from usWe think that knowing the intricacies of green lumber are more important than keeping a close eye on the order flow. We seduce ourselves into overestimating the impact of our intellectualism and then wonder why “idiots” are getting ahead. (Probably hustle and competence.)

But for “skin in the game” operations, selection and evolution don't care about great talk and ideas unless they translate into results. They care what you do with the thing more than that you know the thing. They care about actually avoiding risk rather than your extensive knowledge of risk management theories. (Of course, in many areas of modernity there is no skin in the game, so talking and rationalizing can be and frequently are selected for.)

As Taleb did with his hiring heuristic, this should teach us to be a little skeptical of taking good talkers at face value, and to be a little skeptical when we see “unexplainable” success in someone we consider “not as smart.” There might be a disconnect we're not seeing because we're seduced by narrative. (A problem someone like Lee Kuan Yew avoided by focusing exclusively on what worked.)

And we don't have to give up our intellectual pursuits in order to appreciate this nugget of wisdom; Taleb is right, but it's also true that combining the rigorous, skeptical knowledge of “what actually works” with an ever-improving theory structure of the world might be the best combination of all — selected for in many more environments than simple git-er-done ability, which can be extremely domain and environment dependent. (The green lumber guy might not have been much good outside the trading room.)

After all, Taleb himself was both a successful trader and the highest level of intellectual. Even he can't resist a little theorizing.