This I Believe

Mike - Coronado, California
Entered on July 10, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: humility

Hanlon’s Razor

I will always remember when I learned about Hanlon’s razor:

I stood outside the hospital CEO’s office. I had been called there because of a very public feud I was engaged in with a senior medical administrator. I was the brand new head of pediatrics, my opponent was an established power broker, the director of nursing services, the DNS, a member of the CEO’s inner circle and we were in the thick of a “space war,” a turf battle over a room adjacent to the pediatric ward. Most of the volleys were accusations and arguments on email between our respective forces, his people versus mine as proxies. The trick was that the emails were on a very public string that went to everyone at the hospital and all replies were replies to all. The war of words went on for a couple of hundred entries but eventually the email string was shutdown and I expected to be fired. My only solace was that I knew I was right. I would go down with the respect of my department, fighting the good fight.

I was called into the CEO’s office and took a seat, as directed. He came from around his desk and took a seat across from me and invited me to tell my side of the story and so I did. As I was getting to the part about how manipulative and deceitful the other side was, the CO handed me a piece of scrap paper. On it he had written, “Hanlon’s Razor.” “Do you know Hanlon’s razor,” he asked. I was familiar with Occam’s razor — between two theories, the simpler one tends to be the better choice — but I’d never heard of Hanlon. “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. When you have two explanations for a predicament and one invokes evil while the other depends on honest mistakes, always bet on the later. The other side made some mistakes but they feel insulted and little embarrassed. If you would apologize to them, you may have the room.” This offer was a whole lot better than what I expected when I entered his office so I readily agreed. I was humbled but enlightened and found apologizing easy.

Soon the room was being painted and carpeted, transforming it into a play room for sick children to rival the best children’s hospital.

I’m a richer man for the wisdom imparted that day and since then, I’ve seen Hanlon’s razor played out a zillion times. I believe in the pervasive truth written on that piece of scrap paper I still have. Hanlon is everywhere, at all levels, from silly children to world leaders, from feckless individuals to powerful groups. You’ll never get better odds than Hanlon offers: when in doubt, always put your money on incompetence and stupidity.

More often than not, your opponent isn’t evil, he’s ignorant and he’s not motivated by avarice as much as he is blinded by arrogance.