Hitler’s Death & One Starving Arse

by Tim Francis on April 17, 2012

If a donkey stands between two piles of hay, it will die of starvation because it can’t decide which to eat from.

At least that’s how the metaphor goes.  It’s called Buridan’s Ass and was created by 14th-century philosopher Jean Buridan.

Actually, Buridan’s original story was worse.   The donkey was standing at an equal distance from both a pile of hay and a bucket of water.  Logically, neither is closer than the other, so the donkey can’t decide which to go for first.  So the donkey stands there in indecision and dies of both hunger and thirst, even though there ample supplies of both food and drink.


Did Indecision Kill Adolf Hitler?

Some historians believe that Hitler lost the war because he lacked decisiveness at a key juncture.  There were two fronts to fight, and he wasn’t sure which to attack.  So instead he split his troops to fight the two different fronts at the same time.  A little here and a little there.

He lost both and lost everything.

The damning aspect of these historians’ assessment: had Hitler chosen one front and acted decisively (either would have sufficed), he would have swiftly defeated the Allies on Front #1, then easily progressed to Front #2 and won that one with ease too.  (I don’t have any literature to back this up, but – regardless of accuracy – this paints a powerful picture on the crippling cost of Indecision.)

A Tool to Defeat Indecision

How to beat indecision?

A friend once told me about a fascinating tool the Navy SEALS use called “The 70% Solution”.

Yes, the Navy SEALS: the elite U.S. Marine fighting force tasked with some of the worlds’ most deadly and daring missions.  They carry out assassinations and behind-enemy-lines rescue missions of hostages and dignitaries.  In fact, they are the ones credited with killing Osama Bin Laden.

When SEALS have to make a decision, they use “The 70% Solution,” which basically says:

If you have:

  • 70% Confidence
  • 70% Information

…PROCEED.  Not 100% information, nor 100% confidence.  Just 70% of each.

As heroic as we business owners are, you will likely concede that the SEALS have a little bit more on the line than we do.  They’ve literally got human lives and national security at stake on every mission, so we can probably use their strategies with confidence, knowing that we exist in the much safer and insulated world of business.

The Atrocious Cost of Inaction

When faced with an uncomfortable decision, we often default to what is more comfortable.  At least in the short term.

Usually that means putting off our decision to the ever-elusive “tomorrow.”  Tomorrows become yesterdays, and years pass by in the blink of an eye.

On the surface this seems okay because we are “managing risk” – we are playing it safe.

But are we really?  Usually “playing it safe” is synonymous with “playing not to lose.”  I will point out emphatically that this is an entirely different approach to life than “playing to win”.

Let me repeat this: “Playing Not to Lose” is dramatically different than “Playing to Win”.  Often this is the difference between Mutual Funds and Real Estate, Government Workers and Entrepreneurs.  Security vs. Freedom.

Dangerously we look at the cost of taking action and get worried that we may fail and be crippled by the consequences.  So we sit on the sidelines, playing it safe, “Playing Not To Lose.”  Life moves forward without us, and we remain indecisive, usually because we’re too afraid.

In this scenario is a substantial failure to recognize the other, less-discussed cost: the cost of INACTION.  Tim Ferriss discusses this powerfully in his wonderful book The 4-Hour Workweek:

If you don’t pursue those things that excite you, where will you be in one year, five years, and ten years?  … If you telescope out 10 years and know with 100% certainty that it is a path of disappointment and regret, and if we define risk as “the likelihood of an irreversible negative outcome,” inaction is the greatest risk of all.


Onwards and Upwards,

Tim :)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

Previous post:

Next post: