Occam’s Safety Razor

Occam’s Safety Razor

Occam’s Safety Razor: when you don’t know what the answer is, start with something that almost certainly can’t hurt.

Everyone talks about Occam’s Razor, usually getting it wrong in the process. I generally prefer the Karl Popper interpretation that it’s just about ease of testing and not an actual “law” because sometimes things are in fact complicated.

But if you don’t have an explanation or solution or prescription for your problem, start with something that is almost certainly not going to hurt and is likely to do some good. Personal problem in your life? Eat better or exercise. Those surely won’t hurt you and you might get somewhere while you’re figuring out the rest. Business problem? Start by improving free cash flow.

In the Army, we’d call this hitting 50-meter targets (the closest targets on the basic rifle qualification course are the 50m left and the 50m right; they are much easier to hit than the 300m target). People who like football metaphors say things like “blocking and tackling.” Other people say “pay attention to the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.” The point is always the same: there’s likely to be some clear (not necessary simple or easy) fundamental task that will make almost every situation better while you’re trying to solve the big problem.

In college volleyball, we’d do this by starting with a strong effort to establish a clear pattern of hitting hard, fast spikes right in the center of the net. Once that was working, only then would we start to expand our offense and try other shots.

What’s the point? The point is that the principle of Offensive – seize, retain, and exploit the initiative – is your friend even when you don’t know exactly what to do. Find something that’s not going to hurt and start doing that. You’ll find your way eventually.