Can a razor sharpen your thinking?
No, silly, not those razors, the ones that turn stubble into rubble. Nor the ones that eschew shoes for wheels so kids can scoot around town. Nor the ones—well, the one, anyway—that twice fought and twice lost to Mike Tyson for the heavyweight championship in the ’90s.
You see, our razors d’etre aren’t of the twin-blade or the handlebarred or the Donovan-Ruddock variety. Rather, they’re philosophical rules of thumb that slice and dice through the thicket of extraneous and distracting detail, exposing the core logic of a situation.
That’s any situation, whether you’re contemplating life’s vicissitudes—barefoot, pant legs rolled up, squinting a thousand yards out to sea—or simply trying to figure out whom to hire or fire or whether or not to proceed with some new business initiative.
These razors cut a million ways.
When thoughts turn to legacy, some folks aspire to have a street named after them. Others prefer the wing of a hospital or the school in a college of a university. And still others dream bigger, much bigger, training their sights on a freeway tunnel or an international airport or aircraft carrier.
But the ultimate honor, for a few of us, at least, can be found here in the razor aisle—to join the ranks of such intellectual luminaries as William of Ockham and Robert Hanlon and one dude you’ve actually heard of, Sir Isaac Newton. Imagine the thrill to have someone, someday in the future write a column, perhaps a column in a trade magazine, perhaps a column in a trade magazine for the gaming industry, and bend your words of wisdom into something its readers can immediately reduce to practice in their professional lives.
The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.
In the movie Sling Blade, Billy Bob Thornton plays Karl, a kind-hearted but thrice-homicidal (mm-hmm) man-child that befriends a 12-year-old boy and his mother in a small town where everyone talks kind of funny. When he isn’t (mm-hmm) toting bags of “warsh” from the laundromat or eating French-fried “potaters” or slathering mustard on his biscuits (mm-hmm), Karl scratches out a living repairing small engines down at Bill Cox’s fix-it shop.
One day, Bill and Scooter and some of the other guys are huddled around a lawnmower, trying to figure out why the dang thing won’t fire up. Amid the sweat-dabbing and cord-pulling and head-scratching, Karl walks up real quiet-like, unscrews the fuel cap, and peers inside.
“It ain’t got no gas in it,” he says.
“You see there, Scooter?” Bill says. “He thinks of the simplest things first.”
So did William of Ockham.
Back in the 14th century, this Franciscan friar argued that when two or more theories square off, always default to the one with the fewest assumptions. Recent history bears this out: That Oswald shot Kennedy. That 9-11 and the moon landing weren’t hoaxes. That pro wrestling and crop circles are. That O.J. did it. That Liberace was, well, you know.
That the lawnmower was out of gas.
Next time at work when something goes sideways, remember this razor. Gather up the possible explanations, the SNAFU suspects, if you will, and rank them from the simplest to the most complex. Don’t fall for the far-out scenarios. Tug instead on the thread with the smallest knots.
Never attribute to malice what can be explained by misunderstanding or stupidity.
In 1995, long after the war was over, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had lunch in Hanoi with the foreign minister of Vietnam. The purpose? To see, given the benefit of hindsight, what could have been done—and not done—to have averted this wasteful chapter of world history.
“We almost came to blows,” McNamara said.
And no, it wasn’t because the pho was cold.
In the documentary The Fog of War, McNamara posits that the original sin of the Vietnam War was that neither side understood the other.
“They believed that we had simply replaced the French as a colonial power,” he said. “And that we were trying to subject South and North Vietnam to our colonial interests. Which was absurd.”
Not to Vietnam’s foreign minister.
“You’re totally wrong,” he said to McNamara, his fist clenched. “We were fighting for our independence. You were fighting to enslave us.”
Dr. Hanlon… Paging Dr. Hanlon.
Next time at work when your feelings are hurt by some clunky comment made in a meeting, remember this razor. Put yourself inside the skin of the other person. Don’t naturally assume the worst, that the motive is malice; rather, seek out your assumed assailant and flush out the real reason.
Of course, if that doesn’t help, you can always knee-cap ‘em, Gillooly-style.
Something that cannot be settled by experiment or observation is not worthy of debate.
Strict adherence to Newton’s Razor—aka Alder’s Razor, aka Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword (Google it)—would have three effects on modern discourse: 1) Facts would always trump opinion; 2) Levels of debate would be raised exponentially; and, 3) Facebook’s comment section would shut down immediately and permanently.
Next time at work when you’re in the midst of some great debate, remember this razor. Take out your flaming laser sword and strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger anyone that argues solely on speculation. Demand proof. And, if none is provided, dismiss with prejudice.
Let data be your guide. When deciding whether to buy something, sell something, start something or stop something, Moneyball that bad boy. Passion can be seductive, but passion void of substance can be toxic. And it can lure you into action—or inaction—you will live to regret.