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Weekly 3: Seeing beyond the obvious

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Summary: Dig for the real reason. Visit cemeteries. Pay attention to points of failure. (~5 min read)
 

Idea Journal Weekly 3

September 15 · Issue #104 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Dig for the real reason. Visit cemeteries. Pay attention to points of failure. (~5 min read)
Note: Idea #3 is taken from a previous issue, and we’ve used it here because it fits well with the core theme: seeing beyond the obvious.

#1. Look for more than a rationalization
Author and entrepreneur Shane Snow writes on his blog that he has changed the way he thinks about his own and other people’s actions since learning about the concept of “proximate cause”: the idea that we’re bad identifying the main motivations behind our behavior.
Snow came across the concept in the book Indistractable, written by “behavioral design” expert Nir Eyal. 
In Snow’s interpretation, proximate cause means that a given action can be split into three parts: some observable behavior > a rationalization for the behavior > the real reason for the behavior.
For example, we say we’re watching TV (observation) because we’re tired (rationalization), but the real reason is that we don’t want to think about the hard conversation we need to have at work tomorrow.
Snow writes that the concept of proximate cause helped him address his problem of managing email: “We say we have an email problem (Observation) because we get so many emails (Rationalization), but The Real Reason is we don’t have a thoughtful, deliberate process for dealing with the reality of email overload.“
As Snow points out, it’s hard to identify the real reasons behind our actions because we tend only to search until we find the closest rationalization. And then we stop.
#2. Success isn't the only outcome
In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli writes that because triumph is made more visible than failure, we systematically overestimate our chances of success.
Dobelli illustrates this tendency with a story about an aspiring musician named Rick.
No matter where Rick looks, he sees rock stars. They appear on TV, on his favorite websites, and in concert programs. Their songs are unavoidable – in the gym, on his phone, and playing in the local coffee shop.
From Rick’s view, successful rock stars are everywhere. Inspired by their success and the stories of countless guitar heroes, Rick starts a band. 
Will he make it big?
As Dobelli puts it, the probability “lies a fraction above zero.” 
Like so many others, Rick will likely end up in the graveyard of failed musicians. There are many more musicians in that graveyard than on the stage. It can be difficult to see just how large the graveyard is because the media isn’t interested in covering failures – “with the exception of fallen superstars.”
The same is true for architects, athletes, beauty queens, entrepreneurs, Nobel Prize winners, and others. 
Because it’s not the media’s job to dig around the graveyards of the unsuccessful, in order to guard against “survivorship bias,” you must do the digging yourself.
Dobelli recommends occasionally visiting the graves of once-promising careers, investments, and projects. It is a depressing walk, “but one that should clear your mind.”
#3. Watch out for failures that have leverage
As author and investor Morgan Housel writes in a Collaborative Fund blog post, a good rule of thumb is that everything will eventually break.
And if you have a system in which a lot depends on just one element, what he calls a single point of failure, then “you’re counting the days to catastrophe.”
Housel points out that there are some who do a good job of avoiding single points of failure: “Virtually every critical system on airplanes has backups, and the backups often have backups.”
In business, the biggest and most obvious single points of failure are debt and reputation.
But you also need to be aware of the less obvious ones. For example, when only one person in a company knows the password to some critical program, or is the only point of contact for a key vendor.
The trick to avoiding single points of failure is to find them “preemptively, in a controlled way.”
One way to do this is a practice Housel and his colleagues used at his former company, the Motley Fool: each month, an employee’s name was drawn out of a hat, and the winner had to take 10 days off without any work communication.
Housel admits they did this partly to ensure that people used their vacation days, but also to test for single points of failure.
“You only know how reliant you are on a single employee when that person leaves unexpectedly, with no communication.”
Quote of the Week
“Talent is able to achieve what is beyond other people’s capacity to achieve, yet not what is beyond their capacity of apprehension; therefore it at once finds its appreciators. The achievement of genius, on the other hand, transcends not only others’ capacity of achievement, but also their capacity of apprehension; therefore they do not become immediately aware of it. Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.”
- Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in his book The World as Will and Representation
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