The - Sometimes - Harmful Tyranny of Logic (and Einstein too)

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Everyone loves Albert Einstein, so consider this quote: "Common Sense is just a bunch of prejudices acquired before the age of eighteen."

We had a moderate crisis at EllisDon recently. As it unfolded, the sensible path to be followed became clear quickly. First we should do 'a', that will yield result 'b' or 'c', and then we will do 'd' or 'e', etc. There was nothing at all illogical with this considered thinking; just the opposite - it was unarguable. Except that if you looked down the road, you could also see that it was inevitably going to get us where we didn't want to be - a result that might be quite bad for the company. Once our 'very logical' process got started, the outcome would be predetermined.

So what we did instead was the complete opposite of logical (basically, in a situation that called irresistibly for immediate response, we did nothing). It was the only possible way to keep the most desired result at least 'on the table'. I'm not sure we'll succeed, but at least now we have a good shot. So what is more important, the best logic or the best outcome?

(To be clear: This has nothing to do with Ethics. Morality - crucial in all facets of life - is not the same as logic. Let's assume that everyone reading this is a moral person. The end doesn't justify the means. What I'm suggesting is that the 'right' end as not always attainable by the use of conventional wisdom. Sometimes, you have to ignore conventional wisdom to get where you want to be.)

Perhaps we put 'logic' on too high a pedestal. The all powerful presumption in business is that if we have a disciplined analytical approach at all times, we will always get to the right and the 'justified' result. And even if that result isn't what we wanted, no-one will be able to criticize, because we were at all times rational, logical, sensible in our thinking. Logic always wins. Fine. But here's another possibility: That's not just a lot of bunk, it's potentially dangerous.

The reason that logic is only part of the answer in business (and life) is that it's linear. It's step by step. But the world isn't linear and it isn't logical. The world is messy, insecure and human.

People treat logic as the ultimate goal when (I'd humbly suggest) it is our 'purpose' that should be paramount. That requires some serious 'pre-logical' thinking. What do we want to achieve and where do we want to get to? Logic is certainly an effective tool to achieve that purpose. Emotion is also a big player, and usually a more powerful motivator. And ego: More great things have been accomplished out of sheer determination than ever arose out of disciplined analysis, which is every bit of a good thing. (Steve Jobs literally changed the world, but was hardly the most sensible guy around. He certainly didn't restrict himself to logic.) And of course fear: I can tell you that when my siblings and I risked everything to buy EllisDon from my father when the company was in deep trouble, we were not motivated by logic, nor by courage, nobility or even greed. We were scared to death of the alternative. Without that entire absence of logic, EllisDon would not have survived.

Individually and collectively, we need to decide where we want to get to and why. And do every ethical thing at our disposal to achieve that. That's not to say we should dispense with logic. But let's take it off the altar and put it in the tool box where it belongs, with the vise grips and the needle nosed pliers. Very often it's the right tool, but sometimes it will strip all the threads and ruin the very thing you were working on.

And if you think I'm daffy, you'll understand why I was so happy to find that Einstein quote. That was what gave me the courage to write this blog.

Thanks for reading.