A dear old professor of mine wrote suggesting that I give more guidance or advice in these Mind Readers columns. To me, guidance comes in three varieties. The first tells people what they should always do. The second tells people to find the happy medium between two or more things they should do. The third guides people about how to think about what to do. Given the complexity of human behavior, I’m committed to finding and delivering good third-order guidance.

One way to frame these three kinds of guidance is a sequence I call “Hard left, hard right, hard center, hard choices,” where hard left and hard right are both examples of the first kind of guidance. Here’s an example of how it works:

Say you start out guided by a belief in unconditional love. Call that “hard left.” Then one day you find yourself in a situation in which love is definitely not the answer. For example, you fall in love with a sociopath who robs you blind because you’re so loving. So you swing to the opposite extreme guided by a new belief in unconditional toughness. Call that “hard right.” But then one day you realize all your friends are edging away from you. You realize that toughness isn’t the whole answer either.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Hard left and hard right are both examples of first-order guidance. They’re both unconditional—wholly independent of circumstances.

So now you decide that tough love is the answer, the middle path, the perfect balance between toughness and love. Call that “hard center.” Like Goldilocks you seek that sweet spot in the middle—neither too warm nor too cold but just right.

Hard center is the equivalent of second-order advice, guidance that acknowledges the need to balance different ways of being but doesn’t specify which circumstantial conditions tip the balance one way or the other.

Well, circumstances keep jostling you this way and that. You find that sometimes you strike the right balance, but other times you’re still either too tough or too loving. The middle doesn’t stay put, nor should it.

After all, imagine the German Jews, taking a “hard center” approach with Hitler. They say, “Look, we understand that you want to kill six million of us, whereas we want you to kill none of us. So why don’t we meet in the middle? Just kill three million of us, OK?”

No, tough love isn’t the answer. It’s the question, and one you’ll have to answer over and over because it depends on each particular circumstance. Sometimes more tough, sometimes more loving—not some simple average in between.

At this point you embrace “hard choices,” a living line that keeps shifting. This is the pursuit of third-order guidance.

And what kind of guidance would be useful to people whose experience forces them to adopt the hard choices or third-order approach to guidance? Since their ongoing balancing act is performed under ever-changing circumstances, the advice would have to be about how to detect the important changes in circumstances. So not one rule of thumb, not two rules of thumb, but a gaggle of them, all of which are more descriptive than prescriptive—rules of thumb about kinds of things that tend to happen, rather than what you should always do in situation A or B.

Indeed, written third-order guidance would be a lot like these Mind Readers Dictionary entries—tools for tracking motives in thought and conversation. Tools in fact, not rules, an infinitely expandable tool kit for evaluating circumstances and trying to guess which approach will work best in the current situation.

I don’t mean to toot my own horn. Really, third-order advice like mine is a royal pain in the butt. I’d prefer to find first-order guidance that always applies. It would be so much simpler. Indeed, every time I can get by with following first-order guidance, I do. For example, I operate by a simple first-order rule never to walk around my neighborhood naked. I don’t need a complex set of conditions. The rule always applies, or at least always applies to the situations I’m likely to encounter. Exceptions are possible. They just aren’t likely. Therefore, I can afford to live by that simple, efficient rule of thumb.

But if any arena ever made first-order guidance inapplicable, it’s the realm of human interaction. We’re just too complicated. And yet the market for first-order guidance about human interaction is huge, and the market for third-order guidance is teensy. Most self-help, religious doctrine, therapy, and business guidance is first order. Some is second order. Very little is third order. People who espouse first-order guidance get elected president, if not emperor for life. People who practice the pursuit of third-order guidance do not.

Since most human interaction is too complex for first-order guidance and yet it’s the biggest thing going, a lot of us pretend we’re acting on first-order guidance when we’re not (see Litmus Paper Tigers). And these days, a lot practice second-order guidance—those wide-open words of wisdom: you never can tell, things change, shit happens, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, it all depends.

It’s no mystery why people tend to stick with second-order guidance. Getting beyond it to think about what things depend upon is an overwhelming task. People who try to live by second-order guidance are mostly just going case by case and letting intuition decide what to do, rather than operating on guidance as such.

Here’s another way to illustrate the trade-off between the three different orders of guidance. You know the saying “Give them a fish and they’re fed for a day, but teach them to fish and they’re fed forever?” It rings true but raises a question: Why, if it’s so true, do people keep handing out fish instead of teaching fishing? Because it’s faster and more efficient. Teaching people to fish is more complex. It takes longer.

Giving a fish is like giving first-order guidance. Simple, efficient, but not sustainable. Third-order guidance takes longer but applies more effectively to the variety of experiences we encounter. To make the old saying really true, you’d have to say, Give them a fish and they’re fed today. Teach them to fish and, starting tomorrow, they’ll never be hungry so long as the fishing’s good. Teach them to learn and by the day after tomorrow, they’ll be able to find other food when the fish stop biting—and soon, they’ll be able to teach others, too.