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Driving with the Brakes On
Unforced errors and the urge to fix what isn’t broken
Tennis players make two errors:
Forced. The player errors because of their opponent, like not returning a powerful first serve.
Unforced. The player errors because of their mistakes, like serving into the net twice.
What separates professionals from amateurs is the ratio of forced-to-unforced errors. The professional makes few unforced errors—they manage themselves to counter their opponents better—while the amateur trips over his untied shoelaces. The hack also tends to blame their failure on external factors, like poor equipment or nonideal circumstances like the sun in their eyes. Those factors might contribute, but do they have more weight than unforced errors?
People can’t choose the hand they’re dealt—physically, financially, mentally—but they can decide how they play it. Life is hard, so why self-sabotage and make things worse? A timeless idiom: “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”
First, Do No Harm
George Washington was out late riding his horse, got caught in the rain, and developed a sore throat. The next day, his doctor came to heal him. The doctor sliced open George and drained him of blood, a common medical practice in the 18th century. Due to lost blood, George died. The healing (bloodletting) caused more harm than his illness (throat infection).
George’s death was iatrogenic, a Greek word meaning “caused by the healer.”
This medical idea applies to many situations—business, politics, investing. Humans are biased for action, so we often act before considering downstream impacts. It’s common in circumstances where we’re divorced from the consequences of our efforts.
To overcome, remember Hippocrates’s first principle of medical practice: first, do no harm.
Maybe the best course of action is nothing at all.
Jakob’s Law & Decorum
Jakob Nielsen had a simple principle in web design: People expect your site to work like all others. People spend 99% of their time on other websites, so conforming to the model of those sites will make your site more palatable. For instance, social sites have a log-in button in the top left, news sites follow the layout of a physical paper, and so on.
While this “don’t reinvent the wheel” advice sounds like a recipe for creative stagnation, it’s more productive to think of Jakob’s Law as a razor to shave away effort and focus on the core idea of a product or project. If you’re trying to sell sneakers made from almonds, don’t reinvent the online checkout experience. Use existing paradigms to save time and reinvest that time into your unique value proposition.
In etiquette, decorum is a similar concept to Jakob’s Law. Meaning “right” or “proper” in Latin, decorum is a set of appropriate dress and behaviors for a social situation—like no elbows on the table, chewing with your mouth closed, etc. Every group of people will have their version of etiquette. Maybe it’s wearing a tie or not wearing a tie. Perhaps it’s talking directly, or maybe it’s avoiding specific topics. Regardless, decorum is a civil lubricant, so honoring decorum will smooth social interactions.
Don’t drive with the brakes. Slot yourself into grooves that aren’t central to your purpose, values, or mission. It’ll make you and your initiatives more palatable.
Avoid unforced errors.
Do no harm, which could mean doing nothing.
Follow conventions. Use existing paradigms or expected behavior.