Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sir Occam and Uncle Elliot's Razors

My Uncle Elliot's father was a peddler and when my uncle was a young boy, his father took him to the market where he bought his goods. His father gave him a small amount of money and said "See what you can do with this." My uncle bought a box of razor blades and when he got home he went to every drug store in the neighborhood and tried to sell them. The first pharmacist said, "Well I don't need razor blades but I do need toothbrushes." The second pharmacist needed cotton swabs and so on. When my uncle went back to the odd lot he borrowed money from his father and bought all the goods and went back to the pharmacists and made a profit and more orders. From that small beginning he built an empire of pharmacies.

Sir Occam had a razor of a different kind. It was an instruction to precisely narrow down possible solutions to a problem as if cutting them down with a razor. His instruction went something like this: "The solution with the least assumptions is probably the best." Einstein said it another way: "A solution should be as simple as possible but no simpler." I've always been troubled by Occam's razor because it seemed to narrow. It is a useful tool for pragmatic thinking. It keeps you from looking for zebras when you hear hoofbeats. However, the world is a lot more complicated. A razor may be precise but it cannot cut a drop of water.

My uncle had the wrong solution based on the wrong assumption that local drug stores needed razor blades. He should have failed but instead he succeeded. I often remind people of the saying: "When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail." My uncle had only one solution and in that situation most people would have gotten stuck. I wasn't there but I'm convinced that there is only one way he could have pulled it off: He was open to possibilities. Otherwise the pharmacists would not have given him the time of day. 

This is the key: choose the simple solution but be open to infinite possible other solutions.

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