If I learned anything at Microsoft, and I learned a lot, it was this: For every good policy argument, there was typically a counter-argument that was at least worth acknowledging. In other words, for every great idea someone puts forth, there is at least one critique that would shatter their confidence.
Think here of the perpetual hawk-versus-dove positioning in our country today. Think of how many people you know who would end the Kim-Jong-Un-North-Korean “crisis” (I hate that word, by the way) by obliterating fatso from the face of the earth. Or, the number of people you know who would rather let diplomacy take its course. Diplomacy being relative to the talents of the diplomats involved (I wouldn’t let John Kerry mow my lawn), we need to feel free enough to ask him, or the current Secretary of State, Mr. Tillerson, “what if you’re wrong?”
There is an old joke, and it goes something like this:
“Many years ago, Israel was struggling financially. It had just won its existential war against its neighbors but had incurred staggering amounts of debt doing so. Its economy was a shambles; so, its congress, the Knesset, convened a special session to resolve the problem.
As was typically the case, the debates were loud and raucous. Shouting and unable to get anywhere, the chair called for order and asked for the very best idea. One man stood and told a story. He argued that Japan was in the very same condition in 1941, after having waged what it thought was an existential conflict in the western Pacific. Its economy was thoroughly shattered, he said, quite similar to Israel’s at the moment. And what did Japan do? Well, they decided to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. History proceeds to tell us that the USA obliterated Japan, but then it went back in and helped to rebuild Japan. And look at Japan today! It has a vibrant economy!! Ergo, he said, I propose we attack the USA, they will obliterate us, then rebuild us, and we too will have an economy as robust as Japan’s is today!
The Knesset went wild. This was precisely the right answer! Everyone saw the historical parallels and shortly thereafter a vote was scheduled. The room was electric with the thought of solving their problem by having the USA do to Israel what it had done to Japan! The room went quiet as the vote was organized.
But then, way in the back of the room, from amongst a group of senior Rabbis who had not yet spoken, arose a man whose word was traditionally held to be golden. All faces turned toward him as he said, “I can see the wisdom of your argument, sirs, but I wonder one thing, one thing which we must consider before we vote on this prodigious idea.” The room was quiet. The Chair said, “Dear Rabbi, what is that one thing?”
The Rabbi asked … “Suppose we win?”
Indeed, suppose we won. Or, suppose we did not achieve peace in our time. To wit, there was Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” remark which came days (seemingly, days) before Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg on Poland in 1939. Aside from the 20-20 hindsight that we would have been better off obliterating Hitler in, oh I don’t know, maybe 1932 or somewhere in that time frame, the fact is that Chamberlain held what he thought was the better argument. And maybe there was someone in his cabinet who said, “Wait just a minute, Mr. Prime Minister, what if you’re wrong?” Maybe not. I don’t know. But I somehow doubt it.
If you really want to be unpopular at work, if you really want to have fun at meetings, start asking, “what would cause your peers, your bosses, hell even Bill Gates, to change their minds.” Never forget that having an opinion is hard work. You really need to concentrate and rag on the problem.
For every good policy argument, there is typically a counterargument that is at least worth acknowledging. For instance, if you are a devout dove who believes that threatening military action never brings peace, be open to the possibility that you might be wrong about Iran, or North Korea, or Syria. And the same advice applies if you are a devout hawk who believes that soft “appeasement” policies never pay off. Each side should list, in advance, the signs that would nudge them toward the other. This is the art of critical thinking, or the dialectic, of taking a thesis, meeting it with an anti-thesis, and then arriving at a syn-thesis.
There are no paint-by-number rules here. Synthesis is an art that requires reconciling irreducibly subjective judgments. If you do it well, engaging in this process of synthesizing should transform you from a cookie-cutter dove or hawk into an odd hybrid creature, a dove-hawk, with a nuanced view of when tougher or softer policies are likelier to work.
I conclude with this one thought, which to my mind, sums it all up …
Al Gore has been telling us that the world is heating up, and unless we do something, we will all be obliterated by the heat. The “global warming crisis,” which as I write this has it snowing in Laramie in May. But I digress.
The world has beat a path to his door, asking “oh, wise one, what shall we do to solve the problem, to cool the earth?”
And his answer is that we need to stop using fossil fuels, stop having children, and start using solar and wind energy to power our lives, and thus begin to cool the earth.
But, like the Rabbi way in the back of the room, I have one question for Big Al that, to date, no one has asked:
What’s the right temperature, Big Al?