CAN THE ‘TWO THINGS’ GAME MAKE YOU THINK MORE PROFOUNDLY?
Glen Whitman, a US economics academic, created something called the 'Two Things' game. Simply, it poses the question: "what are the two things you need to know about any subject?" It was provoked by a stranger in a bar asking him: "what are the two things you need to know about economics?" The stranger maintained; "for every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is a derivation of those two things, or is simply not important." Whitman answered: "One: incentives matter. Two: there's no such thing as a free lunch." In hindsight, he reflected it might not be flawless, but it was a pretty good rundown of what economics is.
Since then, he's played the 'Two Things' game whenever he meets someone from a new profession. He captured it for a while on his website which also features dozens of people who've contributed their own 'Two Thing' definitions.
The wonderful Oliver Burkeman drew my attention to the game in his Observer column with the thought that: "about a third of the self-help books that cross my desk could be distilled to two things: first, if you can tolerate a little discomfort, you can achieve almost any goal; and second, it's amazing the lengths we'll go to avoid discomfort."
At the heart of the game is the idea that most things that are worth pursuing to the highest level are born out of paradox - of holding opposites and moving past the contradictions found in every field of human endeavor. I developed my own 'Two Things' in the phrase; "innovation is the equal marriage of pragmatism and creativity" to underline that the process of generating new value doesn't come from either unrestrained imagination or logical innovation production lines - it's a fusion of both.
Here are a few of my favourites from Whitman's site:
The Two Things about Medicine:
- Do no harm.
- To do any good, you must risk doing harm.
The Two Things about Being an Executive Assistant:
- The boss is always right.
- The boss is always wrong.
The Two Things about Parenting:
- There's no such thing as too much affection.
- It's not so much what you say, as it is what you do.
The Two Things about Human Relations:
- We serve the company's, not the employees', interests.
- Compliance, compliance, compliance.
The Two Things about Innovation:
- Innovation is inversely proportional to organisational strength.
- Organisational strength increases with time.
As the author of the Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests in his playful little book, The Bed of Procrustes, much of what purports to be knowledge is in fact just an attempt to "squeeze life into reductive categories and pre-packed narratives". As he says: "I went to a happiness conference; researchers looked very unhappy."
Try playing the 'Two Things' game and see if you can span the incongruities in your world more skilfully.
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