Tag: Thinking

How Julia Child Used First Principles Thinking

There’s a big difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to cook. If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia Child, “The French Chef”, did throughout her career.

Following a recipe might get you the results you want, but it doesn’t teach you anything about how cooking works at the foundational level. Or what to do when something goes wrong. Or how to come up with your own recipes when you open the fridge on a Wednesday night and realize you forgot to go grocery shopping. Or how to adapt recipes for your own dietary needs.

Adhering to recipes will only get you so far, and it certainly won’t result in you coming up with anything new or creative.

People who know how to cook understand the basic principles that make food taste, look, and smell good. They have confidence in troubleshooting and solving problems as they go—or adjusting to unexpected outcomes. They can glance at an almost barren kitchen and devise something delicious. They know how to adapt to a guest with a gluten allergy or a child who doesn’t like green food. Sure, they might consult a recipe when it makes sense to do so. But they’re not dependent on it, and they can change it up based on their particular circumstances.

There’s a reason many cooking competition shows feature a segment where contestants need to design their own recipe from a limited assortment of ingredients. Effective improvisation shows the judges that someone can actually cook, not just follow recipes.

We can draw a strong parallel from cooking to thinking. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, you can’t just follow what someone else came up with. You need to understand first principles if you want to be able to solve complex problems or think in a unique, creative fashion. First principles are the building blocks of knowledge, the foundational understanding acquired from breaking something down into its most essential concepts.

One person who exemplifies first principles thinking is Julia Child, an American educator who charmed audiences with her classes, books, and TV shows. First principles thinking enabled Julia to both master her own struggles with cooking and then teach the world to do the same. In Something from the Oven, Laura Shapiro tells the charming story of how she did it. Here’s what we can learn about better thinking from the “French Chef.”

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Gustave Flaubert wrote that “talent is a long patience, ” something which was all too true for Julia. She wasn’t born with an innate skill for or even love of cooking. Her starting point was falling in love with her future husband, Paul Child, in Ceylon in 1944 when both were working for the Office of Strategic Services. Paul adored food, and his delight in it inspired Julia. When they each returned to their separate homes after the war, she decided she would learn to cook. Things got off to a bad start, as Shapiro explains:

“At first she tried to teach herself at home, but it was frustrating to bushwhack her way through one dish after another. She never knew whether she would find success or failure when she opened the oven door, and worst of all, she didn’t know why this recipe worked and that one didn’t.”

Seeking expert guidance, Julia started taking cooking classes three times a week at a Beverly Hills cooking school. Even that didn’t help much, however, and after she married Paul a year later, her experiments in their Washington, DC kitchen continued to go awry. Only when the couple moved to Paris did an epiphany strike. Julia’s encounters with French cooking instilled in her an understanding of the need for first principles thinking. Trying to follow recipes without comprehending their logic wasn’t going to produce delicious results. She needed to learn how food actually worked.

In 1949, at the age of 37, she enrolled in classes at the famous Cordon Bleu school of cooking. It changed her forever:

“Learning to cook at the Cordon Bleu meant breaking down every dish into its smallest individual steps and doing each laborious and exhausting procedure by hand. In time Child could bone a duck while leaving the skin intact, extract the guts of a chicken through a hole she made in the neck, make a ham mousse by pounding the ham to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, and turn out a swath of elaborate dishes from choucroute garnie to vol-au-vent financière. None of this came effortlessly but she could do it. She had the brains, the considerable physical strength it demanded, and her vast determination. Most important, she could understand for the first time the principles governing how and why a recipe worked as it did.”

Julia had found her calling. After six months of Cordon Bleu classes, she continued studying independently for a year. She immersed herself in French cooking, filled her home with equipment, and befriended two women who shared her passion, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. In the early 1950s, they opened a tiny school together, with a couple of students working out of Julia’s kitchen. She was “adamant that the recipes used in class be absolutely reliable, and she tested every one of them for what she called ‘scientific workability.’” By this, Julia meant that the recipes needed to make sense per her understanding of the science of cooking. If they didn’t agree with the first principles she knew, they were out.

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When Paul transferred to Marseille, Julia was sad to leave her school. But she and her friends continued their collaboration, working at a distance on a French cookery book aimed at Americans. For what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia focused on teaching first principles in a logical order, not copying down mere recipes.

She’d grown frustrated at opening recipe books to see instructions she knew couldn’t work because they contradicted the science of cooking—for example, recipes calling for temperatures she knew would burn a particular ingredient, or omitting key ingredients like baking soda, without which a particular effect would be impossible. It was clear no one had bothered to test anything before they wrote it down, and she was determined not to make the same mistake.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961. Shapiro writes, “The reviews were excellent, there was a gratifying burst of publicity all across the country, and the professional food world acknowledged a new star in Julia Child. What nobody knew for sure was whether everyday homemakers in the nation that invented the TV dinner would buy the book.” Though the book was far from a flop, it was the TV show it inspired that catapulted Julia and her approach to cooking to stardom.

The French Chef first aired in 1963 and was an enormous success from the start. Viewers adored how Julia explained why she did what she did and how it worked. They also loved her spontaneous capacity to adapt to unanticipated outcomes. It was usually only possible to shoot one take so Julia needed to keep going no matter what happened.

Her show appealed to every kind of person because it could make anyone a better cook—or at least help them understand the process better. Not only was Julia “a striking image of unaffected good nature,” the way she taught really worked. Viewers and readers who followed her guidance discovered a way of cooking that made them feel in control.

Julia “believed anybody could cook with distinction from scratch and that’s what she was out to prove.” Many of the people who watched The French Chef were women who needed a new way to think about cooking. As gender roles were being redefined and more women entered the workforce, it no longer seemed like something they were obligated by birth to do. At the same time, treating it as an undesirable chore was no more pleasant than treating it as a duty. Julia taught them another way. Cooking could be an intellectual, creative, enjoyable activity. Once you understood how it actually worked, you could learn from mistakes instead of repeating them again and again.

Shapiro explains that “Child was certainly not the first TV chef. The genre was almost as old as TV itself. But she was the first to make it her own and have an enduring societal impact.”

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If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia managed to do, and it’s part of why she stood out from the other TV chefs of her time—and still stands out today. By mastering first principles, you can find better ways of doing things, instead of having to stick to conventions. If Julia thought a modern piece of equipment worked better than a traditional one or that part of a technique was a pointless custom, she didn’t hesitate to make changes as she saw fit. Once you know the why of something, it is easy to modify the how to achieve your desired result.

The lessons of first principles in cooking are the same for the first principles in any domain. Looking for first principles is just a way of thinking. It’s a commitment to understanding the foundation that something is built on and giving yourself the freedom to adapt, develop, and create. Once you know the first principles, you can keep learning more advanced concepts as well as innovating for yourself.

Mental Models For a Pandemic

Mental models help us understand the world better, something which is especially valuable during times of confusion, like a pandemic. Here’s how to apply mental models to gain a more accurate picture of reality and keep a cool head.

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It feels overwhelming when the world changes rapidly, abruptly, and extensively. The changes come so fast it can be hard to keep up—and the future, which a few months ago seemed reliable, now has so many unknown dimensions. In the face of such uncertainty, mental models are valuable tools for helping you think through significant disruptions such as a pandemic.

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. They are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason. Using them increases your clarity of understanding, providing direction for the choices you need to make and the options you want to keep open.

Models for ourselves

During a pandemic, a useful model is “the map is not the territory.” In rapidly changing situations like a global health crisis, any reporting is an incomplete snapshot in time. Our maps are going to be inaccurate for many reasons: limited testing availability, poor reporting, ineffective information sharing, lack of expertise in analyzing the available information. The list goes on.

If past reporting hasn’t been completely accurate, then why would you assume current reporting is? You have to be careful when interpreting the information you receive, using it as a marker to scope out a range of what is happening in the territory.

In our current pandemic, we can easily spot our map issues. There aren’t enough tests available in most countries. Because COVID-19 isn’t fatal for the majority of people who contract it, there are likely many people who get it but don’t meet the testing criteria. Therefore, we don’t know how many people have it.

When we look at country-level reporting, we can also see not all countries are reporting to the same standard. Sometimes this isn’t a matter of “better” or “worse”; there are just different ways of collating the numbers. Some countries don’t have the infrastructure for widespread data collection and sharing. Different countries also have different standards for what counts as a death caused by COVID-19.

In other nations, incentives affect reporting. Some countries downplay their infection rate so as to not create panic. Some governments avoid reporting because it undermines their political interests. Others are more worried about the information on the economic map than the health one.

Although it is important to be realistic about our maps, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek to improve their quality. Paying attention to information from experts and ignoring unverified soundbites is one step to increasing the accuracy of our maps. The more accurate we can get them, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to unlock new possibilities that help us deal with the crisis and plan for the future.

There are two models that we can use to improve the effectiveness of the maps we do have: “compounding” and “probabilistic thinking.”

Compounding is exponential growth, something a lot of us tend to have a poor intuitive grasp on. We see the immediate linear relationships in the situation, like how one test diagnoses one person, while not understanding the compounding effects of that relationship. Increased testing can lead to an exponential decrease in virus transmission because each infected person usually passes the virus onto more than just one other person.

One of the clearest stories to illustrate exponential growth is the story of the man who asked to be paid in rice. In this story, a servant is to be rewarded for his service. When asked how he wanted to be paid, he asks to be paid in rice, using a chessboard to determine the final amount. Starting with one grain, the amount of rice is to be doubled for each square. One grain on the first square looks pathetic. But halfway through the chessboard, the servant is making a good yearly living. And after doubling the rice sixty-four times, the servant is owed more rice than the whole world can produce.

Improving our ability to think exponentially helps us understand how more testing can lead to both an exponential decrease in testing prices and an exponential increase in the production of those tests. It also makes clear just how far-reaching the impact of our actions can be if we don’t take precautions with the assumption that we could be infected.

Probabilistic thinking is also invaluable in helping us make decisions based on the incomplete information we have. In the absence of enough testing, for example, we need to use probabilistic thinking to make decisions on what actions to pursue. We ask ourselves questions like: Do I have COVID-19? If there’s a 1% chance I have it, is it worth visiting my grandparents?

Being able to evaluate reasonable probability has huge impacts on how we approach physical distancing. Combining the models of probabilistic thinking and map is not the territory suggests our actions need to be guided by infection numbers much higher than the ones we have. We are likely to make significantly different social decisions if we estimate the probability of infection as being three people out of ten instead of one person out of one thousand.

Bayesian updating can also help clarify the physical distancing actions you should take. There’s a small probability of being part of a horrendous chain of events that might not just have poor direct consequences but also follow you for the rest of your life. Evaluating how responsible you are being in terms of limiting transmission, would you bet a loved one’s life on it?

Which leads us to Hanlon’s Razor. It’s hard not to get angry at reports of beach parties during spring break or at the guy four doors down who has his friends over to hang out every night. For your own sanity, try using Hanlon’s Razor to evaluate their behavior. They are not being malicious and trying to kill people. They are just exceptionally and tragically ignorant.

Finally, on a day-to-day basis, trying to make small decisions with incomplete information, you can use inversion. You can look at the problem backwards. When the best way forward is far from clear, you ask yourself what you could do to make things worse, and then avoid doing those things.

Models for society

Applying mental models aids in the understanding the dynamics of the large-scale social response.

Currently we are seeing the counterintuitive measures with first-order negatives (closing businesses) but second- and third-order positives (reduced transmission, less stress on the healthcare system). Second-order thinking is an invaluable tool at all times, including during a pandemic. It’s so important that we encourage the thinking, analysis, and decision-making that factors in the effects of the effects of the decisions we make.

In order to improve the maps that our leaders have to make decisions, we need to sort through the feedback loops providing the content. If we can improve not only the feedback but also the pace of iterations, we have a better chance of making good decisions.

For example, if we improve the rate of testing and the speed of the results, it would be a major game-changer. Imagine if knowing whether you had the virus or not was a $0.01 test that gave you a result in less than a minute. In that case, we could make different decisions about social openness, even in the absence of a vaccine (however, this may have invasive privacy implications, as tracking this would be quite difficult otherwise).

As we watch the pandemic and its consequences unfold, it becomes clear that leadership and authority are not the same thing. Our hierarchical instincts emerge strongly in times of crisis. Leadership vacuums, then, are devastating, and disasters expose the cracks in our hierarchies. However, we also see that people can display strong leadership without needing any authority. A pandemic provides opportunities for such leadership to emerge at community and local levels, providing alternate pathways for meeting the needs of many.

One critical model we can use to look at society during a pandemic is Ecosystems. When we think about ecosystems, we might imagine a variety of organisms interacting in a forest or the ocean. But our cities are also ecosystems, as is the earth as a whole. Understanding system dynamics can give us a lot of insight into what is happening in our societies, both at the micro and macro level.

One property of ecosystems that is useful to contemplate in situations like a pandemic is resilience—the speed at which an ecosystem recovers after a disturbance. There are many factors that contribute to resilience, such as diversity and adaptability. Looking at our global situation, one factor threatening to undermine our collective resilience is that our economy has rewarded razor-thin efficiency in the recent past. The problem with thin margins is they offer no buffer in the face of disruption. Therefore, ecosystems with thin margins are not at all resilient. Small disturbances can bring them down completely. And a pandemic is not a small disturbance.

Some argue that what we are facing now is a Black Swan: an unpredictable event beyond normal expectations with severe consequences. Most businesses are not ready to face one. You could argue that an economic recession is not a black swan, but the particular shape of this pandemic is testing the resiliency of our social and economic ecosystems regardless. The closing of shops and business, causing huge disruption, has exposed fragile supply chains. We just don’t see these types of events often enough, even if we know they’re theoretically possible. So we don’t prepare for them. We don’t or can’t create big enough personal and social margins of safety. Individuals and businesses don’t have enough money in the bank. We don’t have enough medical facilities and supplies. Instead, we have optimized for a narrow range of possibilities, compromising the resilience of systems we rely on.

Finally, as we look at the role national borders are playing during this pandemic, we can use the Thermodynamics model to gain insight into how to manage flows of people during and after restrictions. Insulation requires a lot of work, as we are seeing with our borders and the subsequent effect on our economies. It’s unsustainable for long periods of time. Just like how two objects of different temperatures that come into contact with each other eventually reach thermal equilibrium, people will mix with each other. All borders have openings of some sort. It’s important to extend planning to incorporate the realistic tendencies of reintegration.

Some final thoughts about the future

As we look for opportunities about how to move forward both as individuals and societies, Cooperation provides a useful lens. Possibly more critical to evolution than competition, cooperation is a powerful force. It’s rampant throughout the biological world; even bacteria cooperate. As a species, we have been cooperating with each other for a long time. All of us have given up some independence for access to resources provided by others.

Pandemics are intensified because of connection. But we can use that same connectivity to mitigate some negative effects by leveraging our community networks to create cooperative interactions that fill gaps in the government response. We can also use the cooperation lens to create more resilient connections in the future.

Finally, we need to ask ourselves how we can improve our antifragility. How can we get to a place where we grow stronger through change and challenge? It’s not about getting “back to normal.” The normal that was our world in 2019 has proven to be fragile. We shouldn’t want to get back to a time when we were unprepared and vulnerable.

Existential threats are a reality of life on earth. One of the best lessons we can learn is to open our eyes and integrate planning for massive change into how we approach our lives. This will not be the last pandemic, no matter how careful we are. The goal now should not be about assigning blame or succumbing to hindsight bias to try to implement rules designed to prevent a similar situation in the future. We will be better off if we make changes aimed at increasing our resilience and embracing the benefits of challenge.

Still curious? Learn more by reading The Great Mental Models.

What You Truly Value

Our devotion to our values gets tested in the face of a true crisis. But it’s also an opportunity to reconnect, recommit, and sometimes, bake some bread.

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The recent outbreak of the coronavirus is impacting people all over the world — not just in terms of physical health, but financially, emotionally, and even socially. As we struggle to adapt to our new circumstances, it can be tempting to bury our head and wait for it all to blow over so we can just get back to normal. Or we can see this as an incredible opportunity to figure out who we are.

What many of us are discovering right now is that the things we valued a few months ago don’t actually matter: our cars, the titles on our business cards, our privileged neighborhoods. Rather, what is coming to the forefront is a shift to figuring out what we find intrinsically rewarding

When everything is easy, it can seem like you have life figured out. When things change and you’re called to put it into practice, it’s a different level. It’s one thing to say you are stoic when your coffee spills and another entirely when you’re watching your community collapse. When life changes and gets hard, you realize you’ve never had to put into practice what you thought you knew about coping with disaster.

But when a crisis hits, everything is put to the real test.

The challenge then becomes wrapping our struggles into our values, because what we value only has meaning if it’s important when life is hard. To know if they have worth, your values need to help you move forward when you can barely crawl and the obstacles in your way seem insurmountable.

In the face of a crisis, what is important to us becomes evident when we give ourselves the space to reflect on what is going to get us through the hard times. And so we find renewed commitment to get back to core priorities. What seemed important before falls apart to reveal what really matters: family, love, community, health.

“I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.” 

— Julia Child

One unexpected activity that many people are turning to now that they have time and are more introspective is baking. In fact, this week Google searches for bread recipes hit a noticeable high.


Baking is a very physical experience: kneading dough, tasting batter, smelling the results of the ingredients coming together. It’s an activity that requires patience. Bread has to rise. Pies have to cook. Cakes have to cool before they can be covered with icing. And, as prescriptive as baking seems on its surface, it’s something that facilitates creativity as we improvise our ingredients based on what we have in the cupboard. We discover new flavors, and we comfort ourselves and others with the results. Baked goods are often something we share, and in doing so we are providing for those we care about.

Why might baking be useful in times of stress? In Overcoming Anxiety, Dennis Tirch explains “research has demonstrated that when people engage more fully in behaviors that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery, they can begin to overcome negative emotions.”

At home with their loved ones people can reconsider what they value one muffin at a time. Creating with the people we love instead of consuming on our own allows us to focus on what we value as the world changes around us. With more time, slow, seemingly unproductive pursuits have new appeal because they help us reorient to the qualities in life that matter most.

Giving yourself the space to tune in to your values doesn’t have to come through baking. What’s important is that you find an activity that lets you move past fear and panic, to reconnect with what gives your life meaning. When you engage with an activity that gives you pleasure and releases negative emotions, it allows you to rediscover what is important to you.

Change is stressful. But neither stress nor change have to be scary. If you think about it, you undergo moments of change every day because nothing in life is ever static. Our lives are a constant adaptation to a world that is always in motion.

All change brings opportunity. Some change gives us the opportunity to pause and ask what we can do better. How can we better connect to what has proven to be important? Connection is not an abstract intellectual exercise, but an experience that orients us to the values that provide us direction. If you look for opportunities in line with your values, you will be able to see a path through the fear and uncertainty guided by the light that is hope.

Chesterton’s Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Thinking

A core component of making great decisions is understanding the rationale behind previous decisions. If we don’t understand how we got “here,” we run the risk of making things much worse.

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When we seek to intervene in any system created by someone, it’s not enough to view their decisions and choices simply as the consequences of first-order thinking because we can inadvertently create serious problems. Before changing anything, we should wonder whether they were using second-order thinking. Their reasons for making certain choices might be more complex than they seem at first. It’s best to assume they knew things we don’t or had experience we can’t fathom, so we don’t go for quick fixes and end up making things worse.

Second-order thinking is the practice of not just considering the consequences of our decisions but also the consequences of those consequences. Everyone can manage first-order thinking, which is just considering the immediate anticipated result of an action. It’s simple and quick, usually requiring little effort. By comparison, second-order thinking is more complex and time-consuming. The fact that it is difficult and unusual is what makes the ability to do it such a powerful advantage.

Second-order thinking will get you extraordinary results, and so will learning to recognize when other people are using second-order thinking. To understand exactly why this is the case, let’s consider Chesterton’s Fence, described by G. K. Chesterton himself as follows:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

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Chesterton’s Fence is a heuristic inspired by a quote from the writer and polymath G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing. It’s best known as being one of John F. Kennedy’s favored sayings, as well as a principle Wikipedia encourages its editors to follow. In the book, Chesterton describes the classic case of the reformer who notices something, such as a fence, and fails to see the reason for its existence. However, before they decide to remove it, they must figure out why it exists in the first place. If they do not do this, they are likely to do more harm than good with its removal. In its most concise version, Chesterton’s Fence states the following:

Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.

Chesterton went on to explain why this principle holds true, writing that fences don’t grow out of the ground, nor do people build them in their sleep or during a fit of madness. He explained that fences are built by people who carefully planned them out and “had some reason for thinking [the fence] would be a good thing for somebody.” Until we establish that reason, we have no business taking an ax to it. The reason might not be a good or relevant one; we just need to be aware of what the reason is. Otherwise, we may end up with unintended consequences: second- and third-order effects we don’t want, spreading like ripples on a pond and causing damage for years.

Elsewhere, in his essay collection Heretics, Chesterton makes a similar point, detailed here:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their un-mediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

As simple as Chesterton’s Fence is as a principle, it teaches us an important lesson. Many of the problems we face in life occur when we intervene with systems without an awareness of what the consequences could be. We can easily forget that this applies to subtraction as much as to addition. If a fence exists, there is likely a reason for it. It may be an illogical or inconsequential reason, but it is a reason nonetheless.


“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.”

— Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

Chesterton also alluded to the all-too-common belief that previous generations were bumbling fools, stumbling around, constructing fences wherever they fancied. Should we fail to respect their judgement and not try to understand it, we run the risk of creating new, unexpected problems. By and large, people do not do things for no reason. We’re all lazy at heart. We don’t like to waste time and resources on useless fences. Not understanding something does not mean it must be pointless.

Take the case of supposedly hierarchy-free companies. Someone came along and figured that having management and an overall hierarchy is an imperfect system. It places additional stress on those at the bottom and can even be damaging to their health. It leaves room for abuse of power and manipulative company politics. It makes it unlikely that good ideas from those at the bottom will get listened to.

However, despite the numerous problems inherent in hierarchical companies, doing away with this structure altogether belies a lack of awareness of the reasons why it is so ubiquitous. Someone needs to make decisions and be held responsible for their consequences. During times of stress or disorganization, people naturally tend to look to leaders for direction. Without a formal hierarchy, people often form an invisible one, which is far more complex to navigate and can lead to the most charismatic or domineering individual taking control, rather than the most qualified.

It is certainly admirable that hierarchy-free companies are taking the enormous risk inherent in breaking the mold and trying something new. However, their approach ignores Chesterton’s Fence and doesn’t address why hierarchies exist within companies in the first place. Removing them does not necessarily lead to a fairer, more productive system.

Yes, doing things the way they’ve always been done means getting what we’ve always got. There’s certainly nothing positive about being resistant to any change. Things become out of date and redundant with time. Sometimes an outside perspective is ideal for shaking things up and finding new ways. Even so, we can’t let ourselves be too overconfident about the redundancy of things we see as pointless.

Or, to paraphrase Rory Sutherland, the peacock’s tail is not about efficiency. In fact, its whole value lies in its inefficiency. It signals a bird is healthy enough to waste energy growing it and has the strength to carry it around. Peahens use the tails of peacocks as guidance for choosing which mates are likely to have the best genes to pass on to their offspring. If an outside observer were to somehow swoop in and give peacocks regular, functional tails, it would be more energy efficient and practical, but it would deprive them of the ability to advertise their genetic potential.

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All of us, at one point or another, make some attempt to change a habit to improve our lives. If you’re engaging in a bad habit, it’s admirable to try to eliminate it—except part of why many attempts to do so fail is that bad habits do not appear out of nowhere. No one wakes up one day and decides they want to start smoking or drinking every night or watching television until the early hours of the morning. Bad habits generally evolve to serve an unfulfilled need: connection, comfort, distraction, take your pick.

Attempting to remove the habit and leave everything else untouched does not eliminate the need and can simply lead to a replacement habit that might be just as harmful or even worse. Because of this, more successful approaches often involve replacing a bad habit with a good, benign, or less harmful one—or dealing with the underlying need. In other words, that fence went up for a reason, and it can’t come down without something either taking its place or removing the need for it to be there in the first place.

To give a further example, in a classic post from 2009 on his website, serial entrepreneur Steve Blank gives an example of a decision he has repeatedly seen in startups. They grow to the point where it makes sense to hire a Chief Financial Officer. Eager to make an immediate difference, the new CFO starts looking for ways to cut costs so they can point to how they’re saving the company money. They take a look at the free snacks and sodas offered to employees and calculate how much they cost per year—perhaps a few thousand dollars. It seems like a waste of money, so they decide to do away with free sodas or start charging a few cents for them. After all, they’re paying people enough. They can buy their own sodas.

Blank writes that, in his experience, the outcome is always the same. The original employees who helped the company grow initially notice the change and realize things are not how they were before. Of course they can afford to buy their own sodas. But suddenly having to is just an unmissable sign that the company’s culture is changing, which can be enough to prompt the most talented people to jump ship. Attempting to save a relatively small amount of money ends up costing far more in employee turnover. The new CFO didn’t consider why that fence was up in the first place.

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Chesterton’s Fence is not an admonishment of anyone who tries to make improvements; it is a call to be aware of second-order thinking before intervening. It reminds us that we don’t always know better than those who made decisions before us, and we can’t see all the nuances to a situation until we’re intimate with it. Unless we know why someone made a decision, we can’t safely change it or conclude that they were wrong.

The first step before modifying an aspect of a system is to understand it. Observe it in full. Note how it interconnects with other aspects, including ones that might not be linked to you personally. Learn how it works, and then propose your change.

Using Models to Stay Calm in Charged Situations

When polarizing topics are discussed in meetings, passions can run high and cloud our judgment. Learn how mental models can help you see clearly from this real-life scenario.

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Mental models can sometimes come off as an abstract concept. They are, however, actual tools you can use to navigate through challenging or confusing situations. In this article, we are going to apply our mental models to a common situation: a meeting with conflict.

A recent meeting with the school gave us an opportunity to use our latticework. Anyone with school-age kids has dealt with the bureaucracy of a school system and the other parents who interact with it. Call it what you will, all school environments usually have some formal interface between parents and the school administration that is aimed at progressing issues and ideas of importance to the school community.

The particular meeting was an intense one. At issue was the school’s communication around a potentially harmful leak in the heating system. Some parents felt the school had communicated reasonably about the problem and the potential consequences. Others felt their child’s life had been put in danger due to potential exposure to mold and asbestos. Some parents felt the school could have done a better job of soliciting feedback from students about their experiences during the previous week, and others felt the school administration had done a poor job about communicating potential risks to parents.

The first thing you’ll notice if you’re in a meeting like this is that emotions on all sides run high. After some discussion you might also notice a few more things, like how many people do the following:

Any of these occurrences, when you hear them via statements from people around the table, are a great indication that using a few mental models might improve the dynamics of the situation.

The first mental model that is invaluable in situations like this is Hanlon’s Razor: don’t attribute to maliciousness that which is more easily explained by incompetence. (Hanlon’s Razor is one of the 9 general thinking concepts in The Great Mental Models Volume One.) When people feel victimized, they can get angry and lash out in an attempt to fight back against a perceived threat. When people feel accused of serious wrongdoing, they can get defensive and withhold information to protect themselves. Neither of these reactions is useful in a situation like this. Yes, sometimes people intentionally do bad things. But more often than not, bad things are the result of incompetence. In a school meeting situation, it’s safe to assume everyone at the table has the best interests of the students at heart. School staff and administrators usually go into teaching motivated by a deep love of education. They genuinely want their schools to be amazing places of learning, and they devote time and attention to improving the lives of their students.

It makes no sense to assume a school’s administration would deliberately withhold harmful information. Yes, it could happen. But, in either case, you are going to obtain more valuable information if you assume poor decisions were the result of incompetence versus maliciousness.

When we feel people are malicious toward us, we instinctively become a negatively coiled spring, waiting for the right moment to take them down a notch or two. Removing malice from the equation, you give yourself emotional breathing room to work toward better solutions and apply more models.

The next helpful model is relativity, adapted from the laws of physics. This model is about remembering that everyone’s perspective is different from yours. Understanding how others see the same situation can help you move toward a more meaningful dialogue with the people in the meeting. You can do this by looking around the room and asking yourself what is influencing people’s approaches to the situation.

In our school meeting, we see some people are afraid for their child’s health. Others are influenced by past dealings with the school administration. Authorities are worried about closing the school. Teachers are concerned about how missed time might impact their students’ learning. Administrators are trying to balance the needs of parents with their responsibility to follow the necessary procedures. Some parents are stressed because they don’t have care for their children when the school closes. There is a lot going on, and relativity gives us a lens to try to identify the dynamics impacting communication.

After understanding the different perspectives, it becomes easier to incorporate them into your thinking. You can diffuse conflict by identifying what it is you think you hear. Often, just the feeling of being heard will help people start to listen and engage more objectively.

Now you can dive into some of the details. First up is probabilistic thinking. Before we worry about mold levels or sick children, let’s try to identify the base rates. What is the mold content in the air outside? How many children are typically absent due to sickness at this time of year? Reminding people that severity has to be evaluated against something in a situation like this can really help diffuse stress and concern. If 10% of the student population is absent on any given day, and in the week leading up to these events 12% to 13% of the population was absent, then it turns out we are not actually dealing with a huge statistical anomaly.

Then you can evaluate the anecdotes with the model of the Law of Large Numbers in mind. Small sample sizes can be misleading. The larger your group for evaluation, the more relevant the conclusions. In a situation such as our school council meeting, small sample sizes only serve to ratchet up the emotion by implying they are the causal outcomes of recent events.

In reality, any one-off occurrence can often be explained in multiple ways. One or two children coming home with hives? There are a dozen reasonable explanations for that: allergies, dry skin, reaction to skin cream, symptom of an illness unrelated to the school environment, and so on. However, the more children that develop hives, the more it is statistically possible the cause relates to the only common denominator between all children: the school environment.

Even then, correlation does not equal causation. It might not be a recent leaky steam pipe; is it exam time? Are there other stressors in the culture? Other contaminants in the environment? The larger your sample size, the more likely you will obtain relevant information.

Finally, you can practice systems thinking and contribute to the discussion by identifying the other components in the system you are all dealing with. After all, a school council is just one part of a much larger system involving governments, school boards, legislators, administrators, teachers, students, parents, and the community. When you put your meeting into the bigger context of the entire system, you can identify the feedback loops: Who is responding to what information, and how quickly does their behavior change? When you do this, you can start to suggest some possible steps and solutions to remedy the situation and improve interactions going forward.

How is the information flowing? How fast does it move? How much time does each recipient have to adjust before receiving more information? Chances are, you aren’t going to know all this at the meeting. So you can ask questions. Does the principal have to get approval from the school board before sending out communications involving risk to students? Can teachers communicate directly with parents? What are the conditions for communicating possible risk? Will speculation increase the speed of a self-reinforcing feedback loop causing panic? What do parents need to know to make an informed decision about the welfare of their child? What does the school need to know to make an informed decision about the welfare of their students?

In meetings like the one described here, there is no doubt that communication is important. Using the meeting to discuss and debate ways of improving communication so that outcomes are generally better in the future is a valuable use of time.

A school meeting is one practical example of how having a latticework of mental models can be useful. Using mental models can help you diffuse some of the emotions that create an unproductive dynamic. They can also help you bring forward valuable, relevant information to assist the different parties in improving their decision-making process going forward.

At the very least, you will walk away from the meeting with a much better understanding of how the world works, and you will have gained some strategies you can implement in the future to leverage this knowledge instead of fighting against it.

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World

The less rigid we are in our thinking, the more open minded, creative and innovative we become. Here’s how to develop the power of an elastic mind.

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Society is changing fast. Do we need to change how we think in order to survive?

In his book Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World, Leonard Mlodinow confirms that the speed of technological and cultural development is requiring us to embrace types of thinking besides the rational, logical style of analysis that tends to be emphasized in our society. He also offers good news: we already have the diverse cognitive capabilities necessary to effectively respond to new and novel challenges. He calls this “elastic thinking.”

Mlodinow explains elastic thinking as:

“the capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction; the capability to rise above conventional mind-sets and to reframe the questions we ask; the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open ourselves to new paradigms; the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas; and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant of failure.”

In simpler terms, elastic thinking is about letting your brain make connections without direction.

Let’s explore why elastic thinking is useful and how we can get better at it.

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First of all, let’s throw out the metaphor that our brain is exactly like a computer. Sure, it can perform similar analytic functions. But our brains are capable of insight that is neither analytical nor programmable. Before we can embrace the other types of thinking our brains have innate capacity for, we need to accept that analytic thinking—generally described as the application of systematic, logical analysis—has limitations.

As Mlodinow explains,

“Analytical thought is the form of reflection that has been most prized in modern society. Best suited to analyzing life’s more straightforward issues, it is the kind of thinking we focus on in our schools. We quantify our ability in it through IQ tests and college entrance examinations, and we seek it in our employees. But although analytical thinking is powerful, like scripted processing, it proceeds in a linear fashion…and often fails to meet the challenges of novelty and change.”

Although incredibly useful in a variety of daily situations, analytical thinking may not be best for solving problems whose answers require new ways of doing things.

For those types of problems, elastic thinking is most useful. This is the kind of thinking that enjoys wandering outside the box and generating ideas that fly in and out of left field. “Ours is a far more complex process than occurs in a computer, an insect brain, or even the brains of other mammals,” Mlodinow elaborates. “It allows us to face the world armed with a capability for an astonishing breadth of conceptual analysis.”

Think of it this way: when you come to a river and need to cross it, your analytic thinking comes in handy. It scans the environment to evaluate your options. Where might the water be lowest? Where is it moving the fastest, and thus where is the most dangerous crossing point? What kind of materials are on hand to assist in your crossing? How might others have solved this problem?

This particular river might be new for you, but the concept of crossing one likely isn’t, so you can easily rely on the logical steps of an analytical thinking process.

Elastic thinking is about generating new or novel ideas. When contemplating how best to cross a river, it was this kind of thinking that took us from log bridges to suspension bridges and from rowboats to steamboats. Elastic thinking involves us putting together many disparate ideas to form a new way of doing things.

We don’t need to abandon analytical thinking altogether. We just need to recognize that it has its limitations. If the way we are doing things doesn’t seem to be getting us the results we want, that might be a sign that more elastic thinking is called for.

Why Elasticity?

Mlodinow writes that “humans tend to be attracted to both novelty and change.”

Throughout our history we have willingly lined up and paid to be shocked and amazed. From magic shows and roller coasters to the circus and movies, our entertainment industries never seem to run out of audiences. Our propensity to engage with the new isn’t just confined to entertainment. Think back to the large technological expositions around the turn of the twentieth century that displayed the cutting edge of invention and visions for the future and attracted millions of visitors. Or, going further back, think of the pilgrimages that people made to see new architectural wonders often captured in churches and cathedrals in a time when travel was difficult.

Mlodinow contends these types of actions display a quality “that makes us human…our ability and desire to adapt, to explore, and to generate new ideas.” Part of the reason that novelty attracts us is that we get a hit of feel-good dopamine when we are confronted with something new (and non-threatening). Thus, in terms of our evolutionary history, our tendency to explore and learn was rewarded with a boost of pleasure, which then led to more exploration.

He is careful to explain that exploring doesn’t necessarily mean signing up to go to Mars. We explore when we try something new. “When you socialize with strangers, you are exploring the possibility of new relationships.…When you go on a job interview even though you are employed, you are exploring a new career move.”

The relation of exploration to elasticity is that exploration requires elastic thinking. Exploration, by definition, is venturing into parts unknown where we might be confronted with any manner of new and novel experiences. It’s hard to logically analyze something for which you have no knowledge or experience. It is this attraction to novelty that contributed to our ability to think elastically.

The Value of Emotions in Decision-Making

You can’t make a decision without tapping into your emotions.

Mlodinow suggests that “we tend to praise analytical thought as being objective, untinged by the distortions of human feelings, and therefore tending towards accuracy. But though many praise analytical thought for its detachment from emotion, one could also criticize it as not being inspired by emotion, as elastic thinking is.”

He tells the story of EVR, a man who had brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. After the surgery, EVR couldn’t make decisions. He passed IQ tests and tests about current affairs and ethics. But his life slowly fell apart because he couldn’t make a decision.

“In hindsight, the problem in diagnosing EVR was that all the exams were focused on his capability for analytical thinking. They revealed nothing wrong because his knowledge and logical reasoning skills were intact. His deficit would have been more apparent had they given him a test of elastic thinking—or watched him eat a brownie, or kicked him in the shin, or probed his emotions in some other manner.”

EVR had his orbitofrontal cortex removed—a big part of the brain’s reward system. According to Mlodinow, “Without it, EVR could not experience conscious pleasure. That left him with no motivation to make choices or to formulate and attempt to achieve goals. And that explains why decisions such as where to eat caused him problems: We make such decisions based on our goals, such as enjoying the food or the atmosphere, and he had no goals.”

Our ability to feel emotions is therefore a large and valuable component of our biological decision-making process. As Mlodinow explains, “Evolution endowed us with emotions like pleasure and fear in order that we may evaluate the positive or negative implications of circumstances and events.” Without emotion, we have no motivation to make decisions. What is new would have the same effect as what is old. This state of affairs would not be terribly useful for responding to change. Although we are attracted to novelty, not everything new is good. It is our emotional capabilities that can help us navigate whether the change is positive and determine how we can best deal with it.

Mlodinow contends that “emotions are an integral ingredient in our ability to face the challenges of our environment.” Our inclination to novelty can be exploited, however, and today we have to face and address the multiple drains on our emotions and thus our cognitive abilities. Chronic distractions that manipulate our emotional responses require energy to address, leaving us emotionally spent. This leaves us with less emotional energy to process new experiences and information, leaving us with an unclear picture of what might benefit us and what we should run away from.

Frozen Thoughts

Mlodinow explains that “frozen thinking” occurs when you have a fixed orientation that determines the way you frame or approach a problem.

Frozen thinking most likely occurs when you are an expert in your field. Mlodinow argues that “it is ironic that frozen thinking is a particular risk if you are an expert at something. When you are an expert, your deep knowledge is obviously of great value in facing the usual challenges of your profession, but your immersion in that body of conventional wisdom can impede you from creating or accepting new ideas, and hamper you when confronted with novelty and change.”

When you cling to the idea that the way things are is the way they always are going to be, you close off your brain from noticing new opportunities. In most jobs, this might translate into missed opportunities or an inability to find solutions under changing parameters. But there are some professions where the consequences can be significantly more dire. For instance, as Mlodinow discusses, if you’re a doctor, frozen thinking can lead to major errors in diagnosis.

Frozen thinking is incompatible with elastic thinking. So if you want to make sure you aren’t just regurgitating more of the same while the world evolves around you, augment your elastic thinking.

The ‘How’ of Elastic Thinking

Our brains are amazing. In order to tap into our innate elastic thinking abilities, we really just have to get out of our own way and stop trying to force a particular thinking process.

“The default network governs our interior mental life—the dialogue we have with ourselves, both consciously and subconsciously. Kicking into gear when we turn away from the barrage of sensory input produced by the outside world, it looks toward our inner selves. When that happens, the neural networks of our elastic thought can rummage around the huge database of knowledge and memories and feelings that is stored in the brain, combining concepts that we normally would not recognize. That’s why resting, daydreaming, and other quiet activities such as taking a walk can be powerful ways to generate ideas.”

Mlodinow emphasizes that elastic thinking will happen when we give ourselves quiet space to let the brain do its thing.

“The associative processes of elastic thinking do not thrive when the conscious mind is in a focused state. A relaxed mind explores novel ideas; an occupied mind searches for the most familiar ideas, which are usually the least interesting. Unfortunately, as our default networks are sidelined more and more, we have less unfocused time for our extended internal dialogue to proceed. As a result, we have diminished opportunity to string together those random associations that lead to new ideas and realizations.”

Here are some suggestions for how to develop elastic thinking:

  • Cultivate a “beginner’s mind” by questioning situations as if you have no experience in them.
  • Introduce discord by pursuing relationships and ideas that challenge your beliefs.
  • Recognize the value of diversity.
  • Generate lots of ideas and don’t be bothered that most of them will be bad.
  • Develop a positive mood.
  • Relax when you see yourself becoming overly analytical.

The main lesson is that fruitful elastic thinking doesn’t need be directed. Like children and unstructured play, sometimes we have to give our brains the opportunity to just be. We also have to be willing to stop distracting ourselves all the time. Often it seems that we are afraid of our own thoughts, or we assume that to be quiet is to be bored, so we search for distractions that keep our brain occupied. To encourage elastic thinking in our society, we have to wean ourselves away from the constant stimuli provided by screens.

Mlodinow explains that you can prime your brain for insights by cultivating the kind of mindset that generates them. Don’t force your thinking or apply an analytical approach to the situation. “The challenge of insight is the analogous issue of freeing yourself from narrow, conventional thinking.”

When it comes to developing and exploring the possibilities of elastic thinking, it is perhaps best to remember that, as Mlodinow writes, “the thought processes we use to create what are hailed as great masterpieces of art and science are not fundamentally different from those we use to create our failures.”