Seek First to Understand – Hanlon’s Razor
“We judge others by their doings but ourselves by our intentions.”– Edward Wigglesworth
In college, I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s celebrated play, No Exit. It’s the story of three people consigned to hell. But instead of flames or torture, they find themselves locked in a room together for eternity. This play is where Sartre famously wrote, L’enfer, c’est les autres… “Hell, is other people.” As a committed introvert, I thought Sartre summed up things nicely.
Luckily, my professor provided some nuance to my interpretation. “Sartre’s hell,” he explained, “is the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us.” We judge others by their actions without knowing their intentions. Meanwhile, we assess our own actions through the lens of our intentions. We equip ourselves with a shield emblazoned with “I didn’t mean to,” but don’t always offer the same protection to others.
At KW, one of our core beliefs is a commitment to “seek first to understand.” A tool I’ve found useful to live this value is Hanlon’s Razor.* It’s a good rule of thumb for avoiding unnecessary confrontations. It goes like this: “Never prescribe to malice what could also be attributed to stupidity.”
Entrepreneurs move quickly into action and we can be quick to judge, as well. Hanlon’s Razor can help you pause with curiosity, rather than react. If you’re unsure of someone’s motives, ask what happened and get their perspective. Most of the time, people are unaware that they’ve said the wrong thing or acted inappropriately. That’s why I prefer to state it as, “Never prescribe to malice what could be attributed to ignorance.”
When someone cut you off in traffic, most of the time they just didn’t see you. They weren’t playing demolition derby, they were distracted. That email was intended to be cute, not curt. The offer wasn’t a low-ball effort to cheat your seller, they’re just new to real estate and pulled the wrong comps. They were having a bad day, not attempting to ruin yours.
German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe nailed it when he wrote, “Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.”
This PSA is brought to you by the TwentyPercenter.
One question to ponder in your thinking time: How can I be less critical and more curious?
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* Robert J. Hanlon submitted what is now called “Hanlon’s Razor” to author Arthur Koch for his 1980 book Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! Hanlon won ten free copies of a now-forgotten joke book and a little bit of immortality for his wisdom.