CHAPTER FOUR: Razors
A “razor” is a philosophical principle that helps eliminate unlikely explanations for the Chaos that periodically and inevitably arises in the lives of humans. They are called razors because they are used to shave off the improbable.
There are several razors, but the most common one comes from William of Ockham, a medieval Franciscan friar and philosophical theologian who postulated that the entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity, meaning that the best solution to a problem is the one that requires the fewest assumptions. Americans generally understand that to mean that the simplest explanation for something is usually the correct one. That’s not exactly Ockham’s Razor, but probably close enough for it to be helpful.
I first learned of the underlying idea behind Occam’s Razor as a young infantry officer through the principle of KISS—keep it simple, stupid—and it’s epigrammatic cousin Murphy’s Law, which was that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Taken together, KISS and Murphy are good reminders to a young leader that he should never contribute to Chaos with an overly complex plan to overcome it. The more moving parts a plan has, the more likely it is to go awry. By keeping it simple and eliminating the non-essentials, you are more likely to succeed because it is the multiplying of the entities beyond necessity that most often leads to failure.
Applying Occam’s Razor to medicine, Theodore Woodward coined the term “zebra” for an exotic diagnosis of a routine ailment, counseling his young interns that when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras. Apparently, young doctors are more likely to chase a zebra than older ones. That’s probably because what is new and unique appeals more to the young mind than what is tried and true. The older you get, the more you realize that very little changes under the sun, and when it does change it only changes at the margin—so you stop chasing zebras.
I’ve found this to be true of lawyers as well as doctors. It takes a young lawyer a few years to accept that the great majority of legal disputes are merely the product of Chaos resulting from human frailty, general incompetence and quotidian licentiousness. In service of their self-interest, people and corporations tend to cut corners, breach their contractual or societal obligations and then try to justify the resulting harm to others. They don’t do it out of evil intent (mostly), but rather from transitory ineptitude. The resulting Chaos is what it Is because uncontrollable circumstance is part of the flow. It’s the “Is” of being a human being.
This view is the substance of another philosophical principal called Hanlon’s Razor, which is that one should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
Until he accepts the mundane wisdom of Hanlon’s Razor, a young lawyer will be prone to multiply the entities beyond necessity by searching for the smoking guns of deep cupidity and corruption, the kind of motives and explanations that drive a John Gresham novel. But they will (almost) never be there.
Instead of lies, there will be mistakes. Instead of wicked design, there will be bad decision making resulting from laziness, ignorance and exigent circumstances. A young lawyer will waste a lot of litigation energy chasing zebras until he learns that hoofbeats (almost) always mean horses and accepts the Is.
That being so, I’m never surprised when one of my young lawyers starts multiplying the entities beyond necessity.
“Hey,” I’ll ask him the guy, “how come you haven’t taken the deposition of the adverse party yet? Don’t we have trial in four months on this case?”
“Yeah,” the young lawyer will say. “I’m going to, but first I want to depose this former employee of theirs who lives in California.”
“Why?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“Because they fired him out of the blue right before they filed this lawsuit. Why would they do that unless he knew where the bodies were buried?”
“Maybe because he’s a screwup or they didn’t need him anymore. Maybe because he had bad breath.” I suggest. “Anyway, what ‘bodies’ are you talking about?”
“Well, there’s got to be something. Otherwise, why the heck would they do that?”
“OK,” I say. “So you are delaying taking a deposition that you know we must take to prepare for trial in order to take a deposition of a guy that might get us some good dirt, the precise nature of which you are not currently aware?”
“No,” I say.
“Why not?” He asks.
“Because our job is to be Bob Ross, not Picasso.” I say.
“What does that mean?” He will ask, perplexed—but only if it’s the first time I’ve told him this.
“It means our job is to paint a simple picture as quickly and efficiently as possible, not a lady with both of her eyes on the same side of her face and her nose on top of her head. When you hear hoofbeats, you need to think of horses not zebras.”
If he gets that the guy will usually say something like, “but aren’t there times when you have to use your imagination, you know, think outside the box a little?”
“Yeah sure. There are times you have to ride the zebra, but this isn’t one of those times. For now, get back inside the box and paint a nice simple landscape because we have trial in six months.”
Sometimes I have to do a little more explaining because a lot of these young guys only have the vaguest idea of who Bob Ross was.
Bob was a high school drop-out and twenty-year military veteran who learned to paint in the Air Force. He had no interest in the abstract, focusing instead on the best way to paint a tree. For eleven years in the 1980s and 90s he had a thirty-minute television show on PBS during which he would paint an entire portrait directly from his imagination, breaking down the process into simple steps that you could follow at home if so inclined. In terms of painting, he was Picasso’s polar opposite.
I watched enough Bob Ross to conclude that he was a man who (perhaps unconsciously) adhered to Occam’s Razor—he didn’t multiply the entities beyond the necessary. Bob kept it simple and conformed to Woodard’s zebra extrapolation by painting trees that looked like trees and clouds that looked like clouds instead of reaching for the exotic of the abstract. When Bob heard hoofbeats, he thought of horses and that is what he painted instead of trying to paint a lady with both of her eyes on the same side of her face like Picasso might have done.
To keep them from chasing zebras I encourage my young lawyers to respond to Chaos by applying Occam’s Razor and painting a Bob Ross of the most likely rather than a Picasso of the improbable—unless (of course), that is exactly what you need to do in the moment.
Because sometimes hoofbeats do mean a Zebra of the improbable is coming.
When that happens, the Zebra Jockey accepts the Is, adapts, and rides the heck out of it in order to make it what it could be.