The Muselet #1: Zef’s razor

I have a core belief. One that even when I mention it to people makes myself think: “Oh, that’s so cute Zef, I hope nobody will ever burst that cutesy little bubble of yours!”


Here goes.

People have good intentions.

I know, right? So cute!

Now I know, people do terrible things to each other and always have. I don’t want to downplay that fact. However, all of this horribleness seems to have resulted in many people assuming the worst in people by default, also in corporate environments. And assuming the worst in people is immensely harmful, and frankly, a terrible party killer.

Therefore, I’m actively trying to push back on the assuming-the-worst assumption, by starting at the complete other end: unless explicitly, unambiguously proven otherwise, I will assume people have good intentions.

And so far I’ve yet to encounter exceptions. I may be lucky, and at some level I’m expecting to be proven wrong any day now, but it’s been years since I started to operate under this assumption, and so far it has never happened.

“Seriously, Zef, have you never seen anybody do something that was obviously malicious or political?”

Of course, I’ve seen people do things that could be interpreted as malicious or political. However, whenever that happens, I see it as my duty to figure out what “the real story” is. What is this person’s context? Why did that person say that thing? What did this person mean? I do this detective work using advanced techniques including empathy and talking to them

“Yowowow, you what now!?”

It’s kinda crazy, I agree.

But, guess what? Every single time the conclusion is the same: it wasn’t meant the way it sounded. As it turns out: this person — a pretty decent human being as well.

Every. Single. Time. 

You may have heard of Hanlon’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

It’s a funny aphorism (that’s a fancy word for such things, I’ll use this term too — makes me look smart). However, I find it mildly cynical. Honestly, just like me believing people have good intentions, I also don’t believe they’re stupid. Yeah, I clearly think a lot of people. Again, you may thinksomebody’s stupid based on what they say, but if you take the time to dive into their context, intentions, almost every single time you’ll find — actually, this person: not so stupid after all.

Therefore, I feel it is my duty to coin my own variant of Hanlon’s razor, which — self-centered that I am — I shall name Zef’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by miscommunication.”

Slightly less pointy, perhaps, but much more in line with my values and core beliefs.

One of those core beliefs is that, even though we’re super reliant on it as a species, people suck at communication. Ever noticed that? It's shocking we haven't gone extinct as a result, frankly speaking. 

I should admit that I sometimes envy people that don’t think the way I do. If you think much more black and white, your life is much simpler. You’re either in or out; stupid or not; good or bad; with us or with the terrorists. It’s an attractive way to see the world. People get elected president with such mindsets. It gets you places.

But no. I can’t.

As I alluded to in my previous email: if somebody seems to be saying something stupid, or something that seems malicious — it’s on me to dig in and understand what’s really going on. Perhaps to see if I will finally disprove my theory about people’s good intentions.

So far, no dice. 

I should add that while this all may sound very idealistic and nice, it has caused me trouble in the past.

In cases of conflict between people around me, I effectively never pick sides, even if people expect me to, or feel I should. In such cases I immediately jump into “detective mode” trying to debug the situation: Who said what to whom, what did they mean, where did that come from? Ah! So that’s your side of the story. What about the other side? Ah! That makes sense as well. I get it now, nobody’s fully right or wrong, but all meant well. Check.

Academically, this is a nice exercise. And it helps me reconfirm my people have good intentions hypothesis, but for the people in question that are hungry for my support — it’s not always very comforting. 

Sorry, I still prefer it to the alternative of allowing me to think “yeah, that person is just evil and this is just one of their classic moves.” Nope, ain’t gonna happen.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by miscommunication.

Zef’s razor.

PS: Zef’s razor is not the first aphorism I named after myself. About 8 years ago I coined “Zef’s Law” based on my experience at that time operating a reasonably large web application (Cloud9 IDE). In a sense it was Murphy’s Law (“anything that can go wrong will go wrong”) scaled up and slightly more strongly worded.

Zef’s law:

“Everything that can possibly go wrong, will immediately blow up in your face.” 

That was 8 years ago, it was time for something new.

PPS: Next week I'll probably attempt to say something reasonable about The Last Dance. If you planned to watch this documentary about The Bulls in the ‘90s anyway, or have 10 hours to burn, this would be a good time. I watched it. It's worth it. Interesting leadership and management lessons there. I'll tell you why next week. Probably