Shane Parrish wrote an article for Farnam Street titled Chesterton’s Fence: A Lesson in 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 manage first-order thinking, which is just considering the immediate anticipated result of an action. It’s simple and quick, usually requiring little effort. By comparison, second-order thinking is more complex and time-consuming. The fact that it is difficult and unusual is what makes the ability to do it such a powerful advantage. »

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

« The reason might not be a good or relevant one; we just need to be aware of what the reason is. Otherwise, we may end up with unintended consequences: second- and third-order effects we don’t want, spreading like ripples on a pond and causing damage for years. »

« Chesterton’s Fence is a heuristic inspired by a quote from… G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book The Thing

« It is certainly admirable that hierarchy-free companies are taking the enormous risk inherent in breaking the mold and trying something new. However, their approach ignores Chesterton’s Fence and doesn’t address why hierarchies exist within companies in the first place. Removing them does not necessarily lead to a fairer, more productive system. »

« Yes, doing things the way they’ve always been done means getting what we’ve always got. There’s certainly nothing positive about being resistant to any change. Things become out of date and redundant with time. Sometimes an outside perspective is ideal for shaking things up and finding new ways. Even so, we can’t let ourselves be too overconfident about the redundancy of things we see as pointless. »

« Chesterton’s Fence is not an admonishment of anyone who tries to make improvements; it is a call to be aware of second-order thinking before intervening. It reminds us that we don’t always know better than those who made decisions before us, and we can’t see all the nuances to a situation until we’re intimate with it. Unless we know why someone made a decision, we can’t safely change it or conclude that they were wrong.  »

« The first step before modifying an aspect of a system is to understand it. Observe it in full. Note how it interconnects with other aspects, including ones that might not be linked to you personally. Learn how it works, and then propose your change. »


Second-order thinking reminds me of The Most Important Thing by Howard Marks.

Shane Parrish is author of  The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts.

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