You Need Philosophies
If you don’t have a philosophy, you are likely to be either blindly dogmatic or chronically rootless when making decisions.* Are you regularly making business decisions? Weighing tradeoffs of diverging product directions? Selecting a sales strategy? Whatever decisions you are making, without some sort of working philosophy with which to adjudicate the options, you may as well be selecting randomly.
What are philosophies?
A philosophy is not part of the scientific method, but I’m going to borrow terms from that method to get a basic analogy across. Although in common parlance “hypothesis” and “theory” are often treated as synonyms, in science they exist at opposite ends of a spectrum of confidence in assertion. A hypothesis is something that is meant to be ephemeral. Its sole purpose is to be questioned—immediately, stridently, and frequently.
The goal is to either dismiss the premise of the hypothesis, or to find some support for it and begin the long road to possibly becoming a theory. Only once a supposition has been through an extended period of intense scrutiny by the brightest minds in a field is it allowed to become a theory. While anything can be questioned at anytime in science, theories are a special class of suppositions that have earned a reputation of being practically beyond question.
So we have two ends of a spectrum: at one end, hypotheses, which must be questioned; at the other end, theories, which only the brave or the ignorant dare question.
A philosophy exists at the midpoint between those two poles. It is definitely more permanent than a hypothesis. You won’t be questioning it very frequently—especially anything foundational. On the other hand, it is still eminently questionable (in contrast to a theory). Seriously questioning your philosophy shouldn’t be a very common occurrence. But it also shouldn’t be rare.
What acting without a philosophy is like
Hopefully you’ve had enough experience, read enough about others’ experiences, and had enough conversations (and you’ve given considerable thought to all of them) that you have several operational philosophies that can at least provide loose, generalized guidance on what might be good steps forward in various professional situations.
However, if you don’t have one or more philosophies to orient yourself, you are likely to find yourself in one of the following camps. Note: it’s not uncommon for a philosophically unmoored person to slide from one camp to the other repeatedly.
The Dogma Machine
This could take many forms. Maybe something worked at another company, so you copy/paste that formula here. Or maybe the source was a book you read. Maybe someone else you work with whom you respect made a suggestion, and you follow their advice. But because you don’t have your own philosophy to use as an interpreter for your specific context, the only option you have is to be a literalist-fundamentalist following whatever source material you’re using.
The Impulsive Decider
You either don’t have, or are choosing to ignore, sources of dogma. But without a philosophy to guide you, what do you do? How do you make the right choices? Most likely, you will go with whatever decision comes attached with the best rationalization soonest. Pretty much any decision can be accompanied by a rationalization with enough effort or desire, so this opens you up to manipulation—by your environment, by random chance, by co-workers, by yourself. Decisions will often run counter to each other, especially if they are separated by a significant gap in time.
What it’s like to have a philosophy
If you have developed a philosophy, it gives you a starting point. This starting point is a place that you are comfortable with. That is important, because if you start someplace familiar, you’ll be able to make quicker and more confident iterative decisions, and you’re also more likely to notice divergences from the expected (both positive and negative). Having a philosophy provides conceptual stability, without needing to operate in the same product, company, or environment as before. Even if you end up making a radical departure from your philosophical bedrock, it will be a deliberate turn.
What’s more… when you have a philosophy, every action you take is an opportunity to systematically learn and grow. If you followed your existing philosophy to a tee, then if everything went well, you have evidence that the philosophy is still appropriate for the type of situation you applied it to. If things didn’t go well, then you will want to dive into whether the philosophy or your application of it were incorrect.
Likewise, if you diverged from your philosophy, what happened? If things went poorly, then that lends circumstantial support to the original philosophy. If things went well, then it may be time to make some additions or adjustments to your philosophy.
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What a philosophy is not
A philosophy is not a checklist, a protocol, a recipe, or any other sort of highly operationalized system. It is not a simple “If this, then that” equation.
There are no rules, but in practice, philosophies tend to be collections of informed contextual biases in general directions, given certain types of information available and categories of decisions and results that are wanted.
They are often represented by trite—but useful—phrases that pack a lot of wisdom into brief statements (e.g., “A stitch in time saves nine”). Many times they have never even been articulated by those who hold them. But if you can articulate them, then that gives the philosophy (and by extension, you) much more power in action.