Precept: Question Your Assumptions--Especially Those You Don't Realize You're Making

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Although easier said than done, perhaps nothing will take your existence to a new level quite so effectively as jettisoning a unwarranted assumption you didn't even realize you were making. This is also widely known as "thinking outside the box"; Hofstadter calls it "jumping outside the system."

My preferred term is paradigm busting. Herewith some examples (all proposed for purposes of reflection rather than uncritical adulation):

1. Ray Jardine. The first time I did an overnight backpacking trip was as part of the Boy Scouts' Woodbadge training. The distance we hiked could not have been more than a mile, and I'm in pretty good shape; nonetheless the only thing I could think of was how heavy that pack was. The standard paradigm is that one's packweight should not exceed 25% of one's body weight. This is just nuts. I weigh about 200 pounds; that translates into a 50-pound pack. Nobody has fun while carrying 50 pounds around.

Jardine is a bona-fide rocket scientist who applied the same principles of minimizing weight to the problem of backpacking. His book Beyond Backpacking totally changed my backpacking life. Subsequently I did a trek at Goshen and two 50-mile treks at Philmont and practically breezed along with a pack that weighed about 25 pounds.

Jardine qualifies as a genuine paradigm buster because his approach not only makes drastically easier, but does so by contradicting all kinds of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says one simply must wear heavy hiking boots and heavy woolen socks to avoid blisters; I hiked in basketball shoes and thin nylon socks. Conventional wisdom says one's pack simply must have a hip belt to carry most of the weight; my pack (home-made, modeled on Jardine's) has no hip belt and no frame, being essentially a big sack with shoulder straps. Conventional wisdom says that one needs a tent with a bathtub floor to stay dry when it rains; at Goshen it rained heavily every day and my son and I stayed dry by sleeping under tarps with no floor and no walls.

Jardine and his wife do long-distance hikes with packs having base weight (not including food and water) under ten pounds each. A person hiking alone has to carry more gear, but my own pack's base weight is about fifteen pounds, which is light enough that I can forget it's on my back.

2. Walt Disney. The problem with paradigm busters is that when seen in present or future time they can be difficult to distinguish from run-of-the-mill crackpots, while in past time the busted paradigm tends to be forgotten, so that the paradigm buster's radical insight becomes merely common sense. Walt Disney today tends to be thought of as the patron saint of safe, bland family entertainment, but in the right context his ideas are properly seen as dangerously radical.

Consider Snow White, which smashed both the business and artistic preconceptions of what animation was capable of. (Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia were probably as dark and edgy as anything moviegoers were used to seeing in the late 1930's.) And then there is Disneyland, which has spawned hundreds of imitations around the world, but was originally a bizarre, alien concept--so much so that Disney, unable to raise sufficient capital from normal investors, was forced to venture into the strange new medium of television, in the process pioneering the use of this medium for cross-marketing.

With a science and engineering background, I find Disneyland to be particularly fascinating not only for the artistic innovations (who, before Disney, thought to make waiting time part of the experience?) but also from the standpoint of the creative solutions devised for the prosaic problems of moving people, garbage, food, etc. around. In fact, Disney was hailed as a leading urban planner.

Disney had acquired his vast Florida tract with the goal of developing a new planned technologically advanced city. This was the original concept for EPCOT (not the amusement park which is there now). You can find Disney's presentation of this concept here. Sadly, his death from lung cancer deprived us the chance to see whether he could pull this one off as well. It goes to show you--you wouldn't expect a talent for drawing anthropomorphized mice to provide much leverage for changing the world.

3. Tim Ferriss. Although his ultimate impact on the world remains to be seen, I particularly enjoy reading his blog. With topics ranging from business negotiations to swimming to foreign-language learning, it makes excellent reading for the student of arete. It is clear that Ferriss shares a fascination with paradigm busting: many of his blog postings could easily carry the paradigm-busters motto as a subtitle: This changes everything.

The title of his best seller The Four-Hour Workweek is in the true paradigm-busting tradition. Not the thirty-hour workweek, nor the twenty-hour but four hours. Ferriss aims to totally change our concept of the possible. I consider the title something of a misnomer, though: I suspect for many nowadays the big issue is not forty hours a week spent at work but a hundred other complications and responsibilities that sap our time and energy--and further, that this is just the tip of the iceberg, a problem of increasing social complexity that is going to get worse until it threatens to overwhelm is. There are a sensible hundred books out there that will teach you to micromanage your time, slicing and dicing to cover more and more responsibilities. Ferriss's book is in the "just might be crazy enough to work" category, proposing radical ideas such as outsourcing your personal life to India. It's worth thinking about, at least.

One frontier that Ferriss has yet to tackle: marriage and children. I'll be interested to see how he outsources that.

4. Robert Zubrin. In 1989, under direction from the first President Bush, NASA made a study of the the problem of sending humans to Mars, producing a proposal known as the "90-day Report." They concluded that a manned Mars mission could be done for a cost of $500 billion--this at a time when the total annual NASA budget was $11 billion.

Robert Zubrin was at that time an aerospace engineer employed at Martin Marietta. He came up with an alternate plan which he calls Mars Direct, which would send humans to Mars at a cost of roughly one-tenth the cost of the NASA proposal ($5 billion per year, over a span of ten years), while at the same time drastically increasing the time available for exploration on the Martian surface, and (in my layman's opinion) accomplishing this inevitably hazardous venture with the greatest practical safety margin. For example, in the Mars Direct plan, the astronauts on any given expedition have a triple redundancy in the Earth-return vehicle (that is, three entirely separate vehicles to choose from).

Zubrin's approach differed in many ways from the 90-day Report, but the most startling was his discardal of the assumption that the astronauts would need to bring the fuel for their return trip along with them from Earth. Rather, Mars Direct uses 19th-century technology to extract the necessary fuel from the Martian atmosphere. A crackpot idea--except that it has now become the conventional wisdom for NASA's new Mars program.

I highly recommend Zubrin's book on Mars Direct, not only for those interested in Mars, but also for those wanting to spend some time in an oasis of bold but clear thinking. The Mars Direct video (unfortunately out of print) is also fascinating--even though most of it consists of nothing more than Zubrin's talking head.

5. Adam Smith. According to Wikipedia, often cited as the father of modern economics. His concept of the "invisible hand" that directs artisans, laborers, builders, merchants, and every one else to provide goods and services at the appropriate levels even with (especially with) no central authority to direct them was a radical new insight. (I heard a story--maybe bogus--that economic planners in the old Soviet Union were convinced that the U.S. economy must be operating under the guidance of some secret group of planners.)

The Wealth of Nations is more lucidly written and more interesting than many a modern book on economics. I read it years ago but I still recall Smith's introduction by way of the specialization of labor in the manufacture of sewing pins. Consider how cheap a pin is in comparison to how long it would take you to make just one if you had to.

(Another worthy candidate for this list is Charles Darwin, who likewise showed how a self-organizing principle obviates the need for a guiding intelligence. It is interesting how many of the same people who find it inconceivable that complicated living organisms could develop "by chance"--i.e., without a guiding intelligence--have no problem believing that complicated markets organize themselves just fine.)

(A final note: It has not escaped my notice that all five examples on my list are male. Not that female examples are impossible to find--Ayn Rand comes to mind, along with some in my personal circle of acquaintance. But male examples seem easier to come by--for me, at least. Does this reflect an inherent difference between men and women?)

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