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by David N Johnson

May 17, 2022

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Have you ever heard anybody tell you NOT to second guess yourself? Well, that’s bad advice, you should always give your first choice a second look. Not only is it prudent to do so, but it could also end up saving you a lot of heartache down the road.

Failing to consider second- and third-order consequences is the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions, and it is especially deadly when the first inferior option confirms your own biases. Never seize on the first available option, no matter how good it seems, before you’ve asked questions and explored.

Ray Dalio

When faced with challenges, problems, or even decisions big and small it’s easy to make snap judgments because on the outset the answer seems right. However, I encourage you to dig deeper and look past the simplest answer. Often times they are full of biases and often lead to unintended consequences.

This is referred to as first-level thinking and can get you in a lot of trouble if you neglect second-order thinking and the unintended consequences of going with the easy answer.

The dangers of hubris are many but none more so than blinding the hubristic individual from the unintended consequences of arrogant decision making.

There are many examples of first-level thinking and the unintended consequences that they cause. One such example is Smokey The Bear and how a seemingly good thing, the prevention of forest fires, lead to bigger and more catastrophic fires.

As it turned out, fires are a good thing as they helps to clear out underbrush and renew life on the forest floor. However, through the unintended consequences of first-level thinking, fires now wipe out entire forest and eat up 10s of thousands of acres because there are more trees per acre and more fire loving underbrush for it to consume.

Before, a fire would clear the underbrush every so often but wouldn’t kill as many trees. Now, due to more available fuel the fire burns hotter and faster and consumes more. If you want to learn more about the Smokey The Bear Effect check out the article here.

To engage in second-order thinking is both useful and easy to do. First, you have to learn to slow yourself down enough to think through the consequences of your decision BEFORE committing to them. Then, you have to ask yourself, what are the consequences of my decision?

Are biases causing you to make too quick of a decision? How do you KNOW that your first answer is the right answer? Go ahead, second guess yourself.

First-level thinking is very simplistic and hubristic. It lacks foresight.

Second-order thinking is deeper and more complex. It causes you to look at the bigger picture and consider future consequences of decisions made in the present.

Of course, second-order thinking doesn’t always mean that you have to change your first-level decisions. It just allows you to make better decisions based on more data. It gives you more to look at. More to consider.

Second-order thinking is about being more deliberate and thinking in terms of interactions and time. Ignore second-order thinking at your own peril.

To the extent that you consider the consequences that second, third and nth-order thinking brings with them, the better your decision become.

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David N Johnson

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David N Johnson

  • That was a very helpful read, applicable to not just business, but to personal relationships, finances, spiritual pursuits, and every other area of life.

    • David N Johnson says:

      I agree. If we just focused on the potential consequences of our snap judgments we wouldn’t get into half the trouble we get into! 😀

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