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February 9, 2012

You Can Rationalize Anything

A friend of mine once was pontificating out loud, I forget what the particular subject was, but he was sort of explaining his reasoning...laying out his logic...but then he caught himself short and said "Of course, you can rationalize anything..." and then continued on with his story.

But that little sentence fragment has haunted me for some time. It's a central focus of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In this book, the author ruthlessly deconstructs logic itself. And, although I couldn't really say that I shared many of his qualms or concerns, I did read through is arguments very carefully.

And now, here I stumbled into someone who also was expressing, in his own way, his concerns with the weaknesses of logic. And I've thought about this for at least a year now, and it's bothered me a good deal. But probably not as much as it should have.

If it's true that "you can rationalize anything", then doesn't that mean that logic is fundamentally flawed? That it is, at best, useless? And, in all likelihood, much worse than that? More probably, it's ill-conceived, poorly understood, and inherently, fundamentally flawed. At the same time, it is alluring, deceptive, and ruthless,

If it's true that "you can rationalize anything," then I think we need to find out if logic shouldn't be scrapped altogether. Something Robert M. Pirsig spent a lot of time going in circles, trying to ferret out. It bothered him so much that he spent a good portion of his life bouncing in and out of asylums, committed voluntarily and involuntarily until he wasn't even sure who he was any more.

But I wanted to avoid that part, of course. I like to think that I'm still sane, even though I'm not clear that I'm the best person to judge that. But I did want to dig a little deeper into this enigma...to pick at this scab on the surface of logic itself...this counter-intuitive enigmatic aspect of logic that allows for us to "rationalize anything".

So last night, I sort of held my breath and started searching and I found this article written just over 5 years ago that says "Smart People Can Rationalize Anything".

Now, I think that I was fortunate that this article didn't spend a lot of time attacking logic itself because a) I'm probably not intelligent enough to even follow these sort of arguments and b) I certainly don't want to end up in a padded cell rocking back and forth in my own feces.

But I did find some very keen observations on working with "very smart people". I've always been convinced that being born with an abnormally high level of intelligence is a special kind of curse. All that it means is that you have no idea what the people around you are thinking, because they don't think at all like you, so you're perceived as different, socially awkward, etc. If you're working for someone else, and you're smarter than them, well this is about as bad as it gets. You're not going to get promoted over them, because that's now how the system works. So you're just going to suffer until you quit.

So, very intelligent people suffer greatly I think. It's a difficult burden to bear. Maybe I'm not as smart as I think I am. That's entirely plausible. But I do suffer greatly when I try to communicate with other souls on this earth. That is well documented.

The article begins out like this:

Smart people can rationalize anything

One of the things we were able to do at Electric Communities was to attract one of the highest density collections of scary-smart people I've ever seen gathered in one place before. There are a lot of nice things about working with smart people. For one thing, they're not stupid. Working with stupid people just sucks. Smart people are good if you need to do a lot of really hard things, and we did a lot of really hard things. But it's not all upside. For one thing, smart people tend to systematically overestimate the value of being smart. In fact, it is really valuable, but they still tend to weight it too heavily compared to other virtues you might also value, such as consistency, focus, attentiveness to the emotional needs of your customers, and so on. One of the problems with really smart people is that they can talk themselves into anything. And often they can talk you into it with them. And if you're smart yourself, you can talk them into stuff. The tendency to drift and lack of focus can be really extreme unless you have a few slower people in the group to act as a kind of intellectual ballast.

I see a lot of myself in this. Now, my sister warned me, as my Abnormal Psych teacher warned me, not to project yourself into every illness, every diagnosis that you read. This is a very fundamental human tendency. But in this, I can't help myself. It's like the guy has been following me around my whole life.

"The tendency to drift and lack of focus can be really extreme unless you have a few slower people in the group to act as a kind of intellectual ballast."

This is a brilliant observation. But it gets better. It gets so much better...

You can't sell someone the solution before they've bought the problem

Smart people can invent solutions to problems folks actually do have but don't know it yet. These solutions are usually doomed. This ties in with the whole You Can't Tell People Anything principle. It is nearly impossible to solve a problem for someone if they don't believe they have the problem, even if they really, really do.

I love this part. This is pure genius. So, this is what I do. I go from client to client. And I learn things at one client, that I'll carry on to the next client. So, when I walk in the door, I can immediately identify all sorts of issues that they have, that they aren't even aware of yet. So, really, I'm like this genius (in my mind), and I can fix their problems for them. The problem is that they don't know that they have a problem.

So, I find myself in this odd situation of trying to explain to people that, even though they think their system is working properly, it isn't. Or, at the very least, it's certainly not working in they way that they think that it is working. It's working in a different, sub-optimal way, because they've configured the system incorrectly. Or they've botched up their data.

And the funny thing is that, I initially thought that i would just go from client to client and I'd sit down and run my little tedious scripts which I'd composed, line by line. That I'd tweaked and enhanced and improved for 5, 10, or even 15 years, in some cases.

But what I found was just the opposite. You come in and run some script and you see the problem, but now you have to sell them the problem. Now, you have to convince them that their system is broken. And for what? For what gain? In reality, there is really no gain. There's no real incentive to solve problems that the client is not aware of. In fact, there's a very real incentive not to bring up issues beyond the most superficial level.

In Detroit, I learned that you have to pick our battles. As you go though your daily meetings with the client, you can't been seen as always tilting at the windmills, or eventually, they're going to quit listening to you. If you're going to weigh in on one side of an argument....if you're going to take a position on an issue, it had better be damned clear that it's the right way to go. If there's any doubt at all, you don't take a position. You say "well, I can see the pro's and con's of both sides...which way do y'all want to go?" This is the art of consulting. If you pick a side, you'd better be damned sure it's an unassailable position, because as soon as you choose sides, you will be attacked. I can promise you that.

Now, every time you fire your cannon, you use up a little bit of good-will with your clients. You expend some energy. You lose a little bit of respect. Of friendship. Of chivalry. This is OK, so long as it doesn't happen to often. They don't want a "Yes Man", but they also don't want someone who's going to disagree with them at every single turn. That gets old in a hurry.

So, what I've learned is that, if you come in and you see a problem, I don't try to sell them on the problem. What I do is I document it, I send them an email regarding it, and then I leave it alone. I've done my part. I see there's a problem. I've documented it. I'm moving on.

If they want to come to me to discuss it further, then great. If not, I'm not going to touch it with a 10 foot pole. I've done my part. I pointed out the issue.

Now, if they're clever, they'll ask you about the issues you've documented, and then they'll make a decision on how to proceed. Sometimes they'll ask. Sometimes they won't. It's up to them. But I've done my part. And I'm not going to go home and pull my hair out at night trying to sell them on this problem. And when I first started out in this business, that's exactly what I did. I drove myself crazy trying to make the client understand that, although they didn't realize it, their system really wasn't working as they thought it did. I don't have that problem anymore.

But now, I think that I need to read more of this guy's rantings, because I'm afraid he may have much more to teach me. :)

Posted by Rob Kiser on February 9, 2012 at 12:08 AM


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