Why Second Order Thinking Matters

By Justin Culver

Co-Founder, CSO BeneFIT Medical Apparel

BeneFIT Home

As I attempt to structure my thoughts around Second Order Thinking, I cannot help but hear a quote from one of my favorite movies, “In life, we are kings or pawns.”-Napoleon Bonaparte, The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

If you’ve seen this movie (I highly recommended it if you haven’t), you’ll know that one of the themes throughout the story hovers around the quality of one’s thinking (followed by strategically directed action and Bayesian Inference over time, of course). Through higher level thinking (Second Order Thinking) one can change and create the desired outcome for one’s life. Let’s explore further with a series of questions.

So, what is the quality of your thinking? Have you ever even thought about it this? Are you a King or a Pawn? Are you even playing chess? Or are you perhaps playing checkers? Or worse, are you playing tic tac toe, or nothing at all? Or are you maybe just drifting through life letting any breeze or emotion blow you any which way without a plan?  If you read these series of questions and they seemed foreign like Klingon or Elvish, fear not. They did to me at first as well. So, let’s gain some context for these levels of mental frameworks by discussing two terms.

  1. First Order Thinking
  2. Second Order Thinking

“First-level (First Order) thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it (a bad sign for anything involving an attempt at superiority). All the first-level (First Order) thinker needs is an opinion about the future, as in ‘The outlook for the company is favorable, meaning the stock will go up.’ Second-level (Second Order) thinking is deep, complex and convoluted.”-Howard Marks, The Most Important Thing

First Order Thinking:

This level of thinking is base level. It’s basic human thinking. First Order  is often instinctual and/or built upon heuristics. It’s often emotional or reaction based. If acted upon, it often elicits near instant bio feedback and gratification. Compared to Second Order, it’s friction-less.

Examples:

  • Watching a reality show about diet and fitness as opposed to working out and thinking, I’ve had a hard day, I’ve earned it.
  • Having just a “few drinks” with your friends thinking, I’ve had a hard day, I’ve earned it.
  • Crushing that milkshake on the way home after a long shift or a hard workout thinking, I’ve had a hard day, I’ve earned it.
  • Telling your boss to f@ck off after a long shift. Especially when they don’t know what the heck they’re talking about while thinking, I’ve had a hard day, he earned it.

First Order Thinking Pros:

  • Nearly instant gratification if acted upon.
  • Quick and resource efficient (time, energy).
  • Often works if it’s a heuristic. They’re often mental shortcuts.
  • Not always a negative. Sometimes by not overthinking, these quick reactions can save your life or that of a loved one. Like not even thinking twice about shooting the bad guy when they attack you or yours. In this instance, there’s no time to think deeply and debate the pros and cons. React.
Second Order Thinking (Next Level Thinking)

Second Order Thinking is seeing upstream and downstream, zooming in and zooming out. It’s visualizing all the dominoes that will eventually fall before the first one is even knocked over. It’s macro and micro. It’s seeing the forest and the trees. When considering diet and fitness, Second Order Thinking is about looking good and being healthy sustainably, without the drugs and aggressive supplements used so often.

This type of thinking goes beyond simply treating symptoms, it’s more holistic. Second Order Thinking is about treating the root cause. Or even multiple root causes. It’s asking why, why, why, why, why all the way back till the answer is no longer relevant. It’s trying to attempt a logical change. And then it’s looking into the future and asking “then what happens next”, “and then what”, “and then what”, “and then what”, “and then what”? In thinking this far down the rabbit hole, your Second Order Thinking is more like Third, Fourth and Fifth Order Thinking. As you’re trying to predict or create the second, third, fourth and fifth affects of the situation.

Like Bayesian Inference (aka Bayesian Updating), Second Order Thinking takes some real Jedi mind training to master. When using Second Order Thinking, one should always have a contingency plan for all the most probable outcomes.  So, let’s switch gears now and re-examine some of the First Order Thinking examples from above. Except this time, let’s use Second Order Thinking. Or another fun way to label it is the Judge Judy, Voice of Reason or Bouncer in your head.

Consequences Examples:
  • First Order Thinking: Watching a reality show about diet and fitness as opposed to working out thinking, I’ve had a hard day, I’ve earned it.
    • Second Order Thinking: Although I’ve had a hard day. I’ll also have another hard day tomorrow and the next. And the next. If I skip my workout today, odds are I’ll skip it again the next day and the next. And the next. So, maybe I’ll hit some weight then stream my show on the treadmill instead.
  • First Order Thinking: Having just a “few drinks” with your friends thinking, I’ve had a hard day, I’ve earned it.
    • Second Order Thinking: Asking yourself, So, you’ve had a hard day? Just think how hard it will be tomorrow when you wake up with a hangover. Because who are you fooling? You know you’re ‘Frank the Tank’ and can’t just ‘have a few’. That’s not you. Know thy self. Plus, you know if you don get smashed, you won’t have that hard conversation with your co-worker or boss you keep putting off. And on top of all that, you know you’ll skip your workout again. Don’t do that.
  • First Order Thinking: Crushing that milkshake on the way home after a long shift or a hard workout thinking, I’ve had a hard day, I’ve earned it.
    • Second Order Thinking: Asking yourself. So, you think you’ve earned that milkshake? Do you know that thing has almost 1500 calories in it? You may have burned 500 calories lifting weights if you’re lucky. Then the treadmill said you burned another 500 calories. That puts you at a surplus of around 500 calories for this milkshake you claim to have “earned”. All things being equal with your calories in versus calories out, your “earned” milkshakes may pack on an extra five pounds of fat in a little over a month. You better adjust your diet or exercise accordingly if that milkshake is a must.
  • First Order Thinking: Telling your boss to f@ck off after a long shift. Especially when they don’t know what the heck they’re talking about while thinking, I’ve had a hard day, he earned it.
    • Second Order Thinking: Asking yourself, So, you want to be a boss by telling your boss to f@ck off? What are you, some kind of gangster? Think before you act. You still have bills to pay. Suck it up for today, put your resume out there and start searching for jobs. Do you not think your next employer will check your references? Don’t burn that bridge. A whole bright future awaits.
Second Order Thinking Pros:
  • Best chances of seeing into the future, or of creating it. Without attempting to create the future, your personal or professional life will be at the mercy of the fates and chance. You’ll likely wake up one day when you’re eighty years old and think, just how the hell did I get here? I was supposed to accomplish so much more. This creation process involves Second Order Thinking. Followed by strategically directed action and Bayesian Inference consistently over time. Nearly every successful person in history has followed this blueprint.
Second Order Thinking Cons:
  • Very difficult in terms of time and energy. Often requires one to think is systems and probabilities. It takes discipline of concentration. Most people are too lazy to think this way. People are often unpredictable as well, adding to the difficulty of foreseeing the future.
Conclusion:

So, to be the King or Queen of your life, go get you some Second Order Thinking. In this tool/mental framework/mental model, one can attempt to predict or create one’s own future. As opposed to being a victim of fate and circumstance. With Second Order Thinking you can crush your diet, fitness, strength, conditioning, business, personal, professional, entrepreneurial or health goals for life.

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