Is Fallibility a Strength or a Weakness?

Most of us are in the applied rationality business. We take the chaos of the world, examine our customer’s wants / hopes / dreams, apply some logic, and deliver a solution. It’s a beautiful thing.

Rarely do we consider the downside, and yes there is a downside to clinging to our logic – even if it delivers an elegant solution and comes from an ethical place.*

Consider the following quote from marketing master Rory Sutherland,

There are lots of cases where you need to signal something, by making a decision – and it may be the rationality of the decision – actually prevents you from making a better decision… If I pretend everything is logical, it may not be a really good decision but if things go wrong no one can blame me, is an extraordinary form of corporate insurance.

In other words, if we say the world makes sense and then something happens where it very apparently doesn’t, one method for dodging accountability is to hold up the original logic as an insurance policy (“well nobody else saw that coming either, so it’s not my fault!”). This is a form of John Maynard Keynes advice that “it’s better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

So how can we be better than that? By embracing the signaling value of not having the answers, and owning up to the benefits that come with requiring our logic to change over time. The Venture Capital world is particularly good at communicating this. Here’s Mark Andreesen:

Naturally as we go through life we accrue beliefs about how the world works, beliefs about causes and effects and beliefs about patterns that we’ve seen. I try as hard as I can to be as ruthless as possible in shedding the old beliefs and leaving them behind. They are so rarely predictive of something new.

We need to make decisions and deliver solutions, but we also need to disclose fallibility. When done correctly, it’s a strength and not a weakness.

*h/t Mike Dariano at The Waiters Pad. I wouldn’t have seen these quotes if it wasn’t for his post “Chris Douvos.”

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