“The only man who never makes mistakes is the man who never does anything.” – Theodore Roosevelt –
The ability to reason is an important and useful tool but it is often misused and people tend to rely on it in the wrong situations. My personality type is such that I would never advocate a disregard for reason, but the pendulum has swung too far in favor of pure rational thinking. It’s important to acknowledge that there are certain situations where it’s much better to leverage other tools such as intuition, instincts, trusting your gut, experimenting or simply taking action. Below are a few examples of reason’s limitations.
Reason relies on facts, data and variables that can be defined or measured, but the world is a very complicated place and there are many problems that present themselves with incomplete information. This can unknowingly lead to bias where certain information gets mis-weighted and leads people to focus on the wrong information to make decisions. There are many situations in business that are high risk/low data situations, especially when it comes to startups, early stage companies and fast-moving industries.
It’s also important to recognize that most data is historical in nature and is the result of past decisions and actions, not current or future ones. Financial statements are a great example of this (revenue itself is a lagging indicator) and even forecasts that attempt to be predictive are directional at best. To be sure, historical data can be incredibly useful but there’s a risk to relying too heavily on historical data to make decisions about the future. It can create a context for decision-making that leads people to continue doing what has always been done or making only small adjustments to what has already been done, which may sometimes be a good approach but not always.
Business is People
People are the foundation of business and people are anything but logical. Businesses are comprised of people creating products or services for people and, whether interacting with customers or employees, the intangible matters. There are many factors that can’t be accurately measured that have substantial influence such as brand, culture, personality, and perception.
An over-reliance on reason is a classic example of the person with a hammer that thinks every problem looks like a nail. It’s reckless to try to use a hammer to drill a screw in the same way that it’s reckless to try to use rational thinking where it doesn’t apply. It’s easy to underestimate how well-honed our sensors are as humans and the tremendous power we have in other tools such as intuition, instincts, experience, experimentation and simple action-taking.
Intuition, specifically, doesn’t mean turning your brain off and making blind decisions. There’s an emotional and intellectual depth to intuitive thinking that is rare. Most educated people can sift through data and come to logical conclusions, but not everyone has the ability to see what isn’t plainly visible and combine it with the courage to trust their gut and follow through.
A few examples
Steve Jobs didn’t build one of the greatest companies on the planet because he was able to reason better than his competitors. He built it by trusting his intuition. Richard Branson defied logic when he risked all he had to build Virgin Airlines and compete with established players. He trusted his instincts and lost the support of trusted, more rational, partners. Walt Disney didn’t build Disneyland because it was clear that it was going to work. He defied the naysayers (his own brother being one of them) and relied on his intuition, believing it would bring enough joy and wonder to people that they would flock to visit.
It holds true with smaller decisions, as well. Before Amazon released Amazon Prime, every internal analysis and forecast showed that it didn’t make good business sense. They eventually decided to trust their gut and go ahead and roll it out. It turned out to be a great move for their customers and for the company financially .
To be a change agent who pushes progress forward requires more than just an ability to reason well, but our culture and our companies have over-idealized reason at the detriment of other important tools. It’s critical that we embrace and hone our intuition and other tools as much as we have collectively embraced and honed our ability to reason. This is especially true if we want to help create things that have never existed before and do things that have never been done.
I had forgotten how incredible Kanye’s song, “Last Call,” was until it came up on my Kanye West Pandora station the other day. The song is only about three minutes long but afterwards he talks for another 6-7 minutes about how he made it in music.
It’s a rare and honest behind the scenes glimpse into the path to becoming an “overnight success.” He was never taken seriously as an artist and really had to take his career into his own hands.
He remained confident in the music he was making even though it didn’t fit into what people were used to, and he was persistent in his attempts to break into the industry. The story is a great lesson in Entrepreneurship & Hustling 101. I highly recommend it for anyone building something new and looking for inspiration.
I love music. It has the ability to make people laugh, dance, cry, fall in love, reflect, and much more. A few years ago, I developed a passion for songwriting that taught me a lot about creativity and how I approach business.
When I first began writing, my process was based on much of the rhetoric that we hear about creativity like “think outside of the box,” “rules don’t apply,” “reinvent,” etc. My effort to “think outside of the box” led to horrendous results and songs that didn’t connect with people.
It wasn’t until I delved deeper into the art and science of songwriting that I learned an invaluable lesson: creative people don’t think outside of the box. They embrace the box. They understand that the box itself is one of the most important elements of creativity and they reshape the box to produce the kinds of results that they want to drive.
When sitting down to write a song, one of the most important decisions to make is how to structure the song (ex. verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus). There are many types of structures and each communicates message and emotion in different ways to drive very different results (make people laugh, dance, cry, fall in love).
Creative people embrace constraints because the box acts as a catalyst that forces them to focus. It helps them to deliver the end result that they want to achieve.
Examples of business constraints:
- Bootstrap vs. raise funding
- Attract users vs. attract revenue vs. both
- Which markets to serve and which markets to not serve?
- What if we didn’t put display ads on our site, how would we make money?
A few real world “boxes”:
- What if we make a phone or a tablet with only one button?
- What if you needed a .edu email address to sign up?
- What if you had to communicate with only 140 characters?
There are some constraints that you have no control over and many that you influence. Both lead to greater discipline, increased innovation, a higher level of creativity and great businesses.