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Chesterson's Fence

Aug 01, 2022

by Aubrey Patterson

 

It’s best to use a lens of humility and assume those who came before us knew things we don’t or had experiences we haven't yet encountered.

Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up. (John F. Kennedy)

Before changing anything, we should accept that their reasons for making certain choices might be more complex than they seem at first glance.

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

Most of us easily implement first-order thinking, which is simply understanding the immediate consequences of our actions.

First-order thinking requires little effort.

Second-order thinking is far more time-consuming. Unfortunately, many choose not to devote the time or mental calories necessary to truly think things through and instead choose quick fixes that make matters worse.

Chesterson's Fence

If we choose to follow the principle of Chesterton’s fence, as illustrated by G.K Chesterson in 1929, we won't make changes until we understand why something existed in the first place.

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.” (G. K. Chesterton)

We all face a lot of fences that require second-order thinking. 

Whether the fence is a piece of technology, a system, or a broom that rests behind a door, it's always best to assume there is a reason for each. These reasons may be outdated, illogical, or less than impactful, but first understanding the thinking behind the them is key. 

A core component of making good decisions is understanding the rationale behind previous decisions and imagining the wake that will follow us.

 

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