Second-Order Thinking

Why Care?

If you've never heard of the second order thinking principle, chances are you can live a much happier life because your decision making process can be improved dramatically by understanding this critical mental model. 

2nd order thinking principle

Who Uses It? 

Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and many other iconic achievers understand this principle and use it personally, teach their leadership teams, and pass it on to their kids. 

How It Works

When it comes to making decisions, most people only think about the immediate (first order) consequence as illustrated below. For example: 

  • eat chocolate -> feel nice
  • procrastinate -> avoid hard work
  • watch Netflix -> calm down & relax

What they fail to see is a huge cloud of future consequences.

Why is that? Because they are not in the habit of thinking through long-term implications of their actions. To illustrate let's blow this scary cloud away and see what's behind.

Can you see the columns called "1st order", "2nd order", "3rd order", and so on? They are levels of thinking. Why do you need to care about them? Because the quality of your life directly depends on understanding this concept. The further you go to the right the more serious long-term consequences become.

Let's look at a specific example.

Imagine you make a decision to eat a burger. What most people see at this point is the 1-st order consequence: killing hunger with a "juicy" and "delicious" burger. And that's it. No one looks any further. But let's remove the cloud once again and reverse-engineer what happens in the long run.

Immediately after hunger is suppressed the following three things happen as 2nd-order consequences:

  • a few grams of extra weight is added to your belly
  • a brain chemical responsible for keeping you awake (orexin) is inhibited making you feel sleepy
  • an important task/activity/assignment is postponed due to a lack of energy

Not so bad, yeah? Not so fast!

Let's see what happens next after 3 months of consuming one burger a day (or any other junk food for that matter):

  • they belly is now 4-5 kilos heavier
  • the old cloths don't fit anymore
  • additional expenses are incurred to go one size up
  • the personal/work/business project is derailed 
  • the relationships are deteriorated due to a lack of time with the loved ones

Hmm, the above 3rd-order consequences don't make me feel excited about where I am at right now... But wait, there is more! 🙂

If that's not enough, let's fast forward to 2-3 years ahead and explore the 4-th order consequences accumulating directly from the previous layer over time:

  • the extra 30 kilos make the body look terrible
  • which affects personal relationships badly
  • not to mention huge health implications
  • and a bunch of medications affecting the liver and other important organs of the body
  • the biological age goes up by 20 years (meaning there is 20 years less to live)
  • the cloths have been changed a few times by now leaving a huge whole in the budget 
  • the personal/work/business project is abandoned by now
  • more Netflix, more junk food, more social networks
  • more bad choice, less good ones

I don't think we need to go any further, do we? 🙂

So, what's a real price of eating one burger a day? Or any other junk food for that matter?

P.S. This brilliant mental model can and should be used in the opposite direction as well. But I will leave it up to you as a homework...

What's Next?

Here is how you can use this principle to improve the quality of your own life and the lives of your loved ones:

Build a High Performing Team

Passionate leader or want to be one?  Explore the "Second Order Thinking" module in our innovative training for building high performing teams.

Find a Job, Be Promoted, or Get a Pay Rise

Want to get ahead in your career and be respected? Explore the "Second Order Thinking" module in our innovative training for individual employees.

Raise Champion Kids

Want to raise resilient and successful kids? Tired of screaming or raising your voice at them to get things done? Just want them to have a great life and a secure future?  Explore the "Second Order Thinking" module in our innovative personal development training for kids.

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