Method trumps everything

The fundamental choice is to focus or not, to think or not, as discussed in prior posts.  However, that is not man’s only choice.  To succeed in life requires innumerable choices, among them being values, goals (in career and leisure), friends, jobs, a city to live, a neighborhood within it and housing within that (to name just a few).  Men make those choices every day, and those choices are only possible once the fundamental choice to think is made.

The number and complexity of choices to make would be impossible to cope with unless we had criteria and methods to organize them.  Method is critical here.  Consider a daily situation familiar to everyone:  you have a list of things that need to be accomplished.  What should you do now?  The simplest method, outlined in most books on time management (e.g. Alan Lakein’s How to get control of your time and your life) is to ask yourself: “What’s the best use of my time, right now?” and then to prioritize the list of things that need to be accomplished accordingly, based on your values (Lakein recommends an A, B, C grading to prioritize).  Other recommendations, from Lakein and others, are to break each task into a manageable set of sub-tasks, such that each sub-task is achievable in, say, an hour, or 15 minutes, or some short-enough time period so that one can see progress being made and not have the tasks seem overwhelming.

That one technique, as simple as it is, has helped people in all fields from all walks of life improve their ability to work, accomplish worthwhile goals, and enjoy life better because they have more time and less stress.

It is not hard to understand from this example how method trumps education, starting position, inheritance, etc.  Here are two real-life examples (modified in some details to protect the privacy of the persons involved): A man in a high-tech company, who may not be as highly educated as his colleagues, but because he uses methods of organization and thinking not practiced by his tech-savvy co-workers, he always has his work done on time, and has extra time to learn the technical details he needs to in order to function effectively in that organization.  Or: A woman in a large international firm, who studied accounting 35 years ago and then raised a family.  Now, back in industry after all these years, some wondered why the manager hired her to be a technical assistant, choosing her over several younger candidates who were familiar with more recently popularized accounting techniques.  What the manager saw, that others did not, was that she was very strong in the fundamental principles of accounting, very well organized, and could think in essential terms about any problem.  These are three methods (operating on fundamental principle, organizing and prioritizing your work, and thinking in essentials) that trump all the skills and training of her competitors.  These methods, adopted by these two individuals, helped them succeed in situations where others, with more starting advantages, would not.

Methods are hierarchical – they grow in abstraction from narrow to broad, as in

  1. Specific techniques, like the time-management technique mentioned above
  2. Tactics (a collection of integrated techniques, e.g. negotiation)
  3. Strategies (broad plan or direction, e.g. what business should my company focus on?)
  4. Scientific method (responsible for many of the general scientific laws discovered by the experimental method, such as laws of motion, fluid flow, electromagnetism)
  5. Epistemology, a branch of philosophy, is the science of knowledge.  It studies such questions as the proper method of forming concepts and definitions, methods of (deductive and inductive) logic and reasoning in general.  Scientific method, in fact, is a subcategory of epistemology (it is a method of inductive reasoning).

One can see that starting with simple, easily graspable techniques, a person in quest of improving his life could choose to expand his horizon to encompass broader and broader types of methods. How far he pursues them depends, of course, on his goals, his motivation, his development of prior enabling methods and his intelligence – but most fundamentally it depends on his choice.

The whole self-help industry is predicated on the necessity of finding proper methods. Any bookstore has shelf after shelf of books directed at teaching methods to help people succeed.  Unfortunately, much of what is written in this vein is either not new, or patently wrong.  Thus a proper method of selection represents one of the most important enabling methods in using such resources effectively and thus improving oneself, rather than getting bogged down in error, contradiction and confusion.  The most important method of selection is reasoned analysis – carefully reading, asking questions, forming proper concepts and definitions, and putting any proposed method to a rigorous test of integration with known facts and ideas.

Although one might “explain” a person’s success by the fact that he uses one of the above techniques, tactics, strategies or epistemological methods, these methods don’t “cause” him to succeed.  He is the cause, first and foremost because to select and employ any of them takes the fundamental act of focus (often sustained across many years), and second because while the methods are the “efficient” or immediate cause, his deliberate choice to use one or another method is the ultimate cause.  To quote Leonard Peikoff in a slightly different context:

“Man’s actions do have causes; he does choose a course of behavior for a reason – but this does not make the course determined or the choice unreal.  It does not, because man himself decides what are to be the governing reasons.  Man chooses the causes that shape his actions.”

There is even a higher-level activity in which an individual not only chooses (proper) methods but is active and passionate about method.  He deliberately seeks out method, identifies gaps in his methodology and is continually on a quest to fill them and grow in methodological ability.  He thinks in principle (which is one of the most important philosophical methods), seeks to develop new methods of his own from his experience, and puts all proposed methods to the test of logic and experience. Hence he grows, over the decades, into the kind of goal-accomplishing powerhouse that any employer (or any customer if he has his own firm, or any friend in the personal realm) would pursue.  Such a principled pursuer of method may be a rare type of person, and he deserves our admiration, but we see that the activities he engages in are open to all men, on any level of ability.  He should be an object of emulation as well as admiration.  He is an end-member of a continuum, and how far any individual rises in the continuum (within one’s own potential) is up to that individual to choose.

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