I ran across the transcript of a delightful speech given in 2012 by an economist from the Bank of England – and I have to admit, joining the words “delightful speech”, “economist” and “Bank of England” into a single sentence seems improbable. But life is funny, and here we are.
The subject of the speech, given at a conference in Jackson Hole WY following the 2008 financial crisis, warns regulators against the hubris of designing new, overly-complex systems to regulate the financial industry. Specifically he emphasizes something that is important in all our lives: the virtues of keeping it simple. To do this, he uses the fun metaphor of a dog catching a frisbee:
“Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity.
Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans.
So what is the secret of the dog’s success? The answer, as in many other areas of complex decision-making, is simple. Or rather, it is to keep it simple. For studies have shown that the frisbee-catching dog follows the simplest of rules of thumb: run at a speed so that the angle of gaze to the frisbee remains roughly constant. Humans follow an identical rule of thumb.”
Achieving focus is one of those many things in life that are easy to talk about and difficult to do. This is the essence of Greg McKeown’s excellent book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, which I recommend on my book list. One of the reasons why focus is so important is that we over-estimate our powers of cognition. In the technology industry, where I have worked for many years, the cognitive ability of the employee base is well above average. There aren’t too many dummies in the business.
While building a company filled with smart people has proven to be a great way to achieve productivity gains, there is a downside: smart people think of themselves as being smart and under-estimate the complexity of the unknowns. This problem of over-weaning reliance on self is not a new phenomenon, as we can see in an adage that is adapted from the book of Proverbs: “pride goeth before the fall”.
A few months ago I wrote about The Hedgehog and the Fox – the subject of an essay by Isaiah Berlin in 1953. The humble hedgehog appears in the Bank of England speech as a co-star to the keep-it-simple frisbee-catching dog:
“In Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” (Berlin (1953)), the fox knew many things, the hedgehog one big thing. Philosophers continue to debate their relative merits. But sports fans, doctors and detectives have made their choice. They think the hedgehog has the upper paw. Selective unclogging of the cognitive inbox can make for better decisions.”
The word decision derives from the Latin cis or cid, meaning “to cut” or “to kill”. The dog is adept at catching the frisbee because it has made the decision to adhere to one rule instead of many.
Keep it simple. Catch the frisbee.