The Most Powerful Decision Making Razors
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Today at a Glance
- A “razor” is a rule of thumb that simplifies decision making.
- Humans are wired to take shortcuts in our decision-making. These shortcuts can lead us astray—but when used appropriately, the shortcuts can be extremely valuable.
- Today's piece shares a long list of powerful decision-making razors to help you make better decisions, faster than ever before.
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A “razor” is a rule of thumb that simplifies decision making.
The origin of the term comes from philosophy, where any principle that allowed one to quickly remove unlikely explanations or avoid unnecessary steps became referred to as a philosophical razor. A razor literally allowed its user to "shave off" explanations or actions.
Humans are wired to take shortcuts in our decision-making—to be more efficient and effective in the wild. These shortcuts can lead us astray—as we see with the study of cognitive biases, many of which stem from subconscious, automatic errors made in the interest of speed.
But when used appropriately—i.e. with an understanding of their limitations and blindspots—shortcuts can be extremely valuable.
In today's piece, I'd like to share a long list of useful decision-making razors. My hope is that you come away with a few that you can immediately implement in your life in order to make better decisions, faster than ever before.
Without further ado, here are the most powerful razors I’ve found...
The Feynman Razor
Complexity and jargon are used to mask a lack of deep understanding.
If you can’t explain it to a 5-year-old, you don’t really understand it.
If someone uses a lot of complexity and jargon to explain something, they probably don’t understand it.
The Luck Razor
When choosing between two paths, choose the path that has a larger luck surface area.
Much of what we call "luck" is actually the macro result of 1,000s of micro actions. Your daily habits put you in a position where “luck” is more likely to strike.
It’s hard to get lucky watching TV at home—it’s easy to get lucky when you’re engaging and learning, physically or digitally.
Spend more time on things that increase your luck surface area.
The Arena Razor
When faced with two paths, choose the path that puts you in the arena.
It's easy to throw rocks from the sidelines. It's scary and lonely in the arena—but it's where growth happens.
Once you're in the arena, never take advice from people on the sidelines.
Sahil Note: This point on advice is a very important one. Most advice sucks. You have to build "advice filters" that help you take the signal and skip the noise. One such filter is to never take advice from someone who isn't in the arena. Their map is entirely formed from the outside looking in and is unlikely to provide value for someone in the game.
The Optimist Razor
When choosing who to spend time with, prioritize spending more time with optimists.
Pessimists see closed doors. Optimists see open doors—and probably kick down the closed doors along the way.
Remember: Pessimists sound smart, optimists get rich.
Taleb’s “Look the Part” Test
Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously proposed this rule of thumb in his best selling book, Skin in the Game.
He talks about choosing between two surgeons of equal qualification and experience. One looks highly-refined and one looks like a butcher. Quoting from the book: "Simply the one who doesn’t look the part, conditional of having made a (sort of) successful career in his profession, had to have much to overcome in terms of perception."
Generalizing the rule, if forced to choose between two options of seemingly equal merit, choose the one that doesn’t look the part.
The one who doesn’t look the part has had to overcome much more to achieve its status than the one who fit in perfectly.
The Gratitude Razor
When in doubt, choose to show MORE gratitude to the people who have mentored or supported you.
Say thank you more. Tell someone you appreciate them. Not just on special occasions—every single day.
Lean into gratitude daily and your life will improve.
The Invested vs. Spent Test
Time is either *invested* or *spent*.
Invested time—actions that compound:
- Physical activity
- Relationship building
Spent time—actions that don’t.
When choosing what to do, prioritize investing time, not spending it.
The Rooms Razor
If you have a choice between entering two rooms, choose the room where you're more likely to be the dumbest one in the room.
Once you're in the room, talk less and listen more.
Bad for your ego—great for your growth.
The New Project Razor
When deciding whether to take on a new project, follow a simple two-step approach:
- Is this a "hell yes!" opportunity? If not, say no. If yes, proceed to Step 2.
- Imagine that this is going to take 2x as long and be 1/2 as profitable as you expect. Do you still want to do it? If no, say no. If yes, take on the project.
Using this approach will force you to say no much more often—you'll only say yes to projects you are extremely excited about, which are ultimately those that drive asymmetric rewards in your life.
The Uphill Decision Razor
When faced with two options, choose the one that’s more difficult in the short-term.
There are two paths:
- Easy now—hard later.
- Hard now—easy later.
Naval Ravikant calls this making "uphill decisions”—overriding your pain avoidance instinct and choosing the path that looks more arduous.
It's worth it—short-term pain typically creates compounding long-term gain.
When you're weighing alternative explanations for something, the one with the fewest necessary assumptions should be chosen.
Put simply, the simplest explanation is often the best one.
Simple Assumptions > Complex Assumptions. If you have to believe a complex, intertwined series of assumptions in order to reach one specific conclusion, always ask whether there is a simple alternative assumption that fits.
Simple is beautiful.
Sahil Note: Most elaborate conspiracy theories collapse under the scrutiny of Occam's Razor. That doesn't necessarily mean they are all incorrect (it's just a rule of thumb!), but it does mean you should be wary of believing them.
If you encounter someone with opinions or perspectives very different from your own, listen twice as much as you speak.
Our natural tendency when we hear a view we disagree with is to respond and refute it.
Instead, always default to Listen Mode. You'll learn way more that way.
Sahil Note: The quality of our general discourse would improve dramatically if more people followed this rule. My operating assumption is that an improved discourse would cause societal progress to accelerate.
The Lion Razor
If you have the choice, always choose to sprint and then rest.
Most people are not wired to work 9-5—long periods of steady, monotonous work. It's a remnant of the Industrial Age.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. When you establish fixed hours to do your work, you find unproductive ways to fill it—you work longer, but get less done.
If your goal is to do inspired, creative work, you have to work like a lion: Sprint when inspired. Rest. Repeat.
The Smart Friends Razor
If your smartest friends are all interested in something, it’s worth paying attention to.
If that something seems crazy, it's worth paying a lot of attention to.
The passions and weekend projects of the smartest people in your circles are a looking glass into the future.
Sahil Note: I have a general rule that I invest a small amount of money in something after three smart friends talk about it (independently). This gives me some skin in the game to dive in and learn more. Sometimes I double down, sometimes not. The small bet is often enough, because these bets tend to be "early" and thus have asymmetric reward profiles.
The Young & Old Test
Make decisions that your 80-year old self and 10-year-old self would be proud of.
Your 80-year-old self cares about the long-term compounding of the decisions of today.
Your 10-year-old self reminds you to stay foolish and have some fun along the way.
When you make decisions with both of them in mind, you have a recipe for a productive, joy-filled life.
The Duck Test
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.
You can determine a lot about a person by observing their habitual actions and characteristics.
When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time.
Sahil Note: The Duck Test collides head-on into Fundamental Attribution Error, a damning cognitive bias that says that we tend to hold others accountable while cutting ourselves a break. We're very quick to attribute someone else's actions to their character (not to their situation or context), which can be a bad thing in personal or professional contexts. Remember that the key word in the Duck Test is "habitual"—do not pass judgement on the basis of one action or characteristic, wait for it to appear consistently.
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
In assessing someone's actions, we shouldn't assume negative intent if there's a viable alternative explanation—different beliefs, lack of intelligence, incompetence, or ignorance.
Applies to politics, relationships, and general Twitter discourse...
Hitchens’ Razor & Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword
Anything asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
If something cannot be settled by reasonable experiment or observation, it's not worth debating.
These will save you from wasting a lot of time on pointless arguments (especially on Twitter)!
The Opinion Razor
"I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do." - Charlie Munger
Opinions are earned—not owed.
If you can't state the opposition's argument clearly, you haven't earned an opinion.
Sahil Note: There's a natural human tendency to feel the need to have an opinion on absolutely everything. When asked about a topic you don't understand deeply, take pride in having no opinion. If it's important, do the work to earn one.
The Writing Knife Block
If you're struggling to understand something, try writing it out.
When you write, you expose the gaps that exist in your logic and thinking. Study to fill the gaps.
Writing is the ultimate tool to sharpen thinking—use it as a "knife block" for life.
Sahil Note: One closely-related razor is the Drawing Knife Block, which says that if you're struggling to understand something, try drawing it out. Walt Disney was famous for visualizing problems in simple sketches. If you're a visual thinker and learner, this may work better than writing for you.
The Braggers Razor
Truly successful people rarely feel the need to brag about their success.
If someone regularly brags about their income, wealth, or success, it's fair to assume the reality is likely a small fraction of what they claim.
If they consistently name drop important people with no relevant context, it's fair to assume that fraction is even smaller than you originally thought.
Sahil Note: The mirror image of this one is that if someone regularly underplays their wealth or success, it's fair to assume the reality is likely a multiple of what they claim.
The Reading Razor
When deciding what to read, just read whatever grabs you. When it stops grabbing you, put it down.
Avoid the trap of only reading “impressive" sounding books that bore you to death.
Never establish reading vanity metrics as goals.
The Stress-Reward Test
Too many people take on stress that has no upside.
If something is going to be stressful, consider whether the reward is sufficiently outsized to justify the stress.
If it isn't, don't take it on.
Those are 24 razors to help you cut through the noise and make faster, better decisions.
I'd love to hear from you:
- What are your favorites from the list?
- How have you used these razors in your life?
- What are some razors you would add to the list?
Tweet the link to this article and tag me (@SahilBloom) and I'll be sure to reply. If you're not on Twitter, reply to this email and I'll do my best to get back to everyone.
If you enjoyed the piece, please share it with your friends and family!
And until next time...stay curious, friends!