In the year 1718, the 60-year-old Josiah Franklin decided to introduce his 12-year-old child to his lucrative candle-making business.
The deal for the young boy was very simple;
He would act as an apprentice for 7 years and become the owner of a lucrative candle-making business for the rest of his life.
But the boy had a different, rather crazy idea.
Instead of accepting the lofty offer of owning a lucrative business, Benjamin Franklin decided to go and be an apprentice in a printing press business.
The printing press business those days was not as lucrative as the candle-making business.
To even make Benjamin’s decision confusing, he had to work a lot harder and spend 2 extra years in a printing press business before he could be a master.
Why in the world would a 12-year-old choose a difficult path which brings less profit and takes longer years to master, instead of a simple path of better profitability?
It was many years after his decision that everyone understood Benjamin Franklin’s reasoning.
You see, Benjamin Franklin had determined from a young age to become a writer.
Because his dream was to become a writer when in 1718 he needed to choose between working an easy and more profitable job in his father’s candle business or doing his apprentice in a more difficult and less lucrative printing press business, Benjamin chose the difficult path because working at the printing press (though more difficult and less profitable) would expose him to publications which would help his future dream of being a writer.
There was no simple word to describe what Benjamin Franklin did in 1718 but there’s a word for it now.
In his 2011 book, The Most Important Thing, Howard Marks called this “Second-order thinking” and it’s one of the reasons why only a few people succeed in life.
Let me explain how it works.
You see, first-order thinking is the simple thinking format.
This is the default thinking format and it’s what 99% of human beings use to make decisions.
An example of this thinking order is if someone gives you the option to choose between $100 and $300.
Another example is if you’re offered two jobs; one is at Facebook with an annual salary of $170,000 and another is with a new AI startup with an annual salary of $50,000
In the two examples above, the best options are obvious, and most human beings simply go for the obvious, the option that is most lucrative NOW.
This is what the Israeli psychologist, Daniel Kahneman called using the system1 in his famous book, Thinking Fast And Slow
While choosing the most lucrative option NOW is what most people do, successful people understand that what is good for them today might destroy them in the future, so they use what Daniel Kahneman called system 2 or the second-order thinking
Second-order thinking is when you decide to choose a difficult route even though everyone expects you to take an easy one, simply because you can see the pitfall of the easy path.
Second-order thinking is when you say NO to what most people say YES to because you can see a million miles ahead of them.
To succeed in life, you must be a second-order thinker which is what the famous 1972 Stanford University study by psychologist Walter Mischel proves to us
How to Use Second-Order-Thinking to Achieve Your Life’s Dream
In the year 1481, Pope Sixtus IV asked Lorenzo de’ Medici to recommend to him the best artists in Florence so they could decorate a new chapel he just built.
Lorenzo compiled and sent to Rome all of the best Florentine artists, but he didn’t include the name of Leonardo Da Vinci, the person you and I called the greatest artist of all time today.
While history doesn’t tell us the reason for Da Vinci’s exclusion from the list, we know one thing for sure and that is; Leonardo Da Vinci was a S.L.O.W artist.
While many artists of his day could craft something in a few days, Da Vinci was like a snail.
It took him a million years to finish anything and many people thought that was a bad thing.
But here is the thing; Da Vinci was a second-order thinker.
He didn’t just want to paint and make quick money, he wanted to give the world some masterpiece so he spent months and months studying whatever object he wanted to paint and several other months to get them to perfection.
Because Da Vinci was a second-order thinker, he painted not as fast as his contemporaries
Now think about this.
How many of Da Vinci’s contemporaries do you know their names today?
Even though they gave the world more artworks in a short time than Da Vinci, because they were first-order thinkers, nobody knows their names today.
Here’s the lesson for you; think long-term.
Think beyond today
Think one decade ahead.
Whenever you’re faced with an important decision, pause and ask yourself; is it good to eat my cake now or to eat a bigger cake later in the future?
Is it better to create an average product and make some money very quickly or to take my time, to create something awesome that will make my customers recommend my business to their friends?
Don’t be a first-order thinker!
First-order thinkers always chose PLEASURE NOW and that’s why they never succeed.
In his 2017 book, Principles, the American billionaire investor Ray Dalio wrote this;
Failing to consider second-and third-order consequences is the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions… Never seize on the first available option, no matter how good it seems, before you’ve asked questions and explored.
Here is the book;
I want to explain what this means by giving you another example.
Check out this book;
It was published by Robert Greene in the year 2018 and talking about how he wrote it, here is what he has to say;
Between the year 2012-2018, for six long years, Robert Greene shot himself down, read through 300 books as research materials, just to write this book;
Six long years and 300 books for research, just to produce a book.
Now let’s think about this from another perspective.
Robert Greene is already famous and has a big audience who would read anything he writes, so he could have decided to write six books in those six years and make a lot of money, FAST, the way many first-order thinking authors do
But he’s smarter than that.
Robert Greene is a second-order thinker.
He doesn’t just want to make quick money.
He wanted to create something so awesome.
He wanted people to still be reading and recommending his books in the next 1,000 years
If you want to achieve real success in life, you have to be a second-order thinker.
You have to stop making decisions based on the benefits you can derive immediately.
You have to look ahead and ask yourself; which decision would benefit me in the next 10 years, even if it brings me pains right now?
Should I accept the offer to work for Facebook for a $170,000 a year salary even though Facebook may not be alive in the next ten years, or I should work for this creative AI startup for less money and master the skills that may be needed much more in the future?
The first-order thinkers make their decision based on what they can get NOW.
The second-order thinkers make their decision based on what they can get tomorrow.
Allow me to round off this article by telling you a personal story.
It was the 30th day of June 2008.
I just finished my last diploma exam in a Nigerian polytechnic where I was studying accounting.
I loved accounting and I was the only student in my class who ever get to distinction.
Needless to say, I would do well if I could finish my Higher National Diploma and get a job in some banks as many of my mates did.
Why finishing school and getting a job would be an easier decision that would make me have some money immediately, I decided to go for a more difficult option.
I decided to build a business, even though I had no money.
Because I chose a rather difficult path, I suffered for eight long years.
I was broke and whenever I met my schoolmates, they appeared to be doing well with their lives because they had some money while I was broke.
But then in 2016, I had my luck.
I built my first successful company and started making more money in a month than most of my mates make in a year.
That’s an example of second-order thinking
Benjamin Franklin rejected the offer of a lucrative candle-making business in 1718 and chose a more difficult and less profitable printing press business because he was a second-order thinker who was willing to sacrifice immediate pleasure for a greater future.
Leonardo Dan Vinci spent several months finishing his paints and was even accused of being too slow. But because he was a second-order-thinker, he focused on creating something the world would appreciate for centuries instead of something that would make him quick money.
Robert Greene spends years and years perfecting his books so he could give the world a masterpiece that can last a thousand years, instead of making quick money NOW.
I took a difficult decision to build a company and suffer for eight years, even though I could have easily got a job.
These are examples of second-order thinking.
Stop making decisions that bring you immediate pleasure at the expense of your future.
Pause, and think about the consequence.
Think a decade from now.
Think a century ahead.
Be a second-order thinker!
Thanks for reading.
My name is Steve Courage
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