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.

Second-order thinking is the practice of not just considering the consequences of our decisions, but also the consequences of those consequences.

Everyone can do first-order thinking, which is just the immediate anticipated result of an action. It's quick and requires little effort. Second-order thinking is more complex and time-consuming, but it can get you extraordinary results.

Here's an example in Chesterton's Fence, as described by the man himself.

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.”

In it's most concise version, Chesterton's Fence states:

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

Some examples of 2nd order thinking

  • hierarchy-free companies: removing structure altogether at companies doesn't address why hierarchies must exist in the first place; people will form hierarchies, which is far more complex to navigate, where the most charismatic will take control, rather than the most qualified
  • company culture: chief financial officer cutting cost by doing away the free snacks and sodas. this can prompt talent to jump ship, costing far more in employee turnover in an attempt to save a relatively small amount of money
  • habits: removing a bad habit, without eliminating the need or replacing it with a better one, can lead to a more harmful habit to take its place

So what's the takeaway?

It's not that you can't make improvements.

It's a reminder that we don't always know better than the people who made decisions before us, and we can't see all the nuances to a situation until we're intimate with it.

Unless you know why someone made a decision, you can't safely change it or conclude they were wrong.

The first step is to understand it. Observe it fully. Notice how it interconnects with other aspects, especially the ones not linked to you closely.

Learn how it works, then propose a change.