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I like rules especially the ones that help me find my generic-looking car in a parking lot (always try to park in the same spot) or ease me through a multitude of routine tasks. The problem is that I tend to latch onto rules, sometimes without much thought.

Last week, one of our building contractors told me that one should always get three bids and then take the middle one. On the surface, that seemed logical to me: low would be cheap, high would be overpriced, middle would be just right – the Three Bears’ approach to decision-making. But when I repeated the story to Keith, he asked, “How do you know how to compare each bid? It could be that the low bid is the value that you want, or maybe the high bid is the best value. You don’t know until you’ve collected all the data.” Good thing I’m married to an intelligence analyst. My love affair with rules had convinced me that I would make a smart decision by following the rule.

According to Matt Ridley (WSJ, When Bad Theories Happen to Good Scientists), “Our brains were not built to find the truth but to make pragmatic judgments, check them cheaply and win arguments, whether we are in the right or in the wrong.” Lawyers, doctors, scientists and other intelligent people (I hesitate to include myself except in this regard) habitually look for evidence to support their prejudices, what Edward de Bono calls the Intelligence Trap and Ridley referred to as Confirmation Bias. In wish my to be right, I would have ignored evidence to the contrary. Apparently, con artist Bernie Madoff knew how to use this human tendency to his advantage, as has comedian and infamous hypochondriac Woody Allen. Good thing I don’t travel in their spheres of influence.

How can a rule hunter-gatherer like me reform? First, embrace the uncertainty of creativity (see previous post Curiosity and Chairs) and intentionally ask questions. Use my confidence not to look smart (easy) but to think and develop new skills (not easy). And rather than multitask my way through the day (unfocused), turn off the cruise control and drive the car to a new location (focused).

What rules have you disproven or overturned?

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