Second Order Thinking

Very often it so happens that you encounter a problem and arrive at a solution which appears to be the most logical one - an outcome of the First Order Thinking. 

Every action has a consequence. And every consequence has another consequence. The premise of Second Order Thinking is that every solution, if not evaluated thoroughly, will have a bigger consequence which has worse side effects than the original one, thus possessing the potential to mess up the ecosystem (imagine being asked to rework and made additions to a code which already works perfectly fine. What you will end up doing may not only give you the desired outcome but may also make more undesired changes to the output). Simply put, the prevention of this kind of a "screw up" is what calls for Second Order Thinking. 

Let me give you two examples which lacked Second Order Thinking:

  1. When the first nationwide lockdown was announced in India, the first thing that happened was all modes of transportation was stopped. Interstate borders were sealed and people were stuck wherever they were. Offices were subsequently shut and people had to work from home. But all this was good for people who had work. What about those whose livelihoods were cut off? Ex - migrant workers. With no source of income and no transport facility, thousands of labourers left Mumbai and other metropolitan cities to go back to their homes in the village. How did they end up doing this? By walking. Walking 1000s of miles. With family in tow. Now this is certainly someplace Second Order thinking could've (or maybe should've) taken prominence.
  2. Climate Change has become a big issue in the last 2 years, and has been made a bigger one with today's youth stepping in to spread awareness. Every company/ manufacturing unit/ factory that ever let out it's waste materials into the environment obviously knew that it would affect the ecosystem in one way or another. This led to damage to the planet which went unaccounted for for years. Another place where Second Order thinking could've (or maybe should've) taken prominence.

One interesting fact about Second Order Thinking is that there's no fixed timeline of seeing effects of the solution consequence. The consequences are visible after, weeks, months or even years.For the first example, the consequence was pretty fast - within a span of 3 weeks it hit the news. But for the second, it took ages - decades to have any noticeable impact.

So how do you go about Second Order Thinking ?

You have a solution to a problem. List down it's consequences one by one. Next, ask yourself the question - And then what ? What will be the effect of this solution's outcome on other things? What will be the repercussions ? How will it affect you? How will you deal with that ? What's plan B ? So on and so forth until you arrive at a satisfactory answer.

Moral of the post:  The most obvious solution is often the one where everyone is in agreement with. For this very reason, it may not be the best as no one had spent time thinking. That's always the easiest way out isn't it? Calls for very less thinking on your part. The first solution can be considered as the best possible course of action only after you've broken down each of the solution's consequences and scrutinized the outcomes thoroughly and have concluded that there is absolutely no problem with it (or something which you are in a capacity to deal with).

Article content inspired from:

  2. Second Order Thinking - A Practical Guide
  3. Second Order Thinking - Thinking Practice To Make Better Decisions
  4. Second Order Thinking - What Smart People Use to Outperform


  1. Just for the sake of debate, second order thinking must be looked also in terms of time and cost involved in doing the thinking.

    For instance, if bleeding patient reaches an Emergency Room one the first thing is the doctors would try and do is stop the bleeding and this may even be by stitching the open wound.

    Some split second, second order decisions might be made, but sometimes the time taken to obtain data for the second order decision may be so long that the loss of blood defeats the purpose.

    So second order decisions have a time and cost factor to them. How much time do I need to collect data if I don't have it already. And what is the cost of waiting so long.


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