The concept of anomie, popularized by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim in 1897 (a time very like ours), should be in everybody's mental models today. It refers to a condition of uncertainty where societal norms are either non-existent, or if they exist, have become mismatched to reality. Sticking to defaults (status quo bias, anchor bias) becomes increasingly dangerous, and the number of alternative options (most of them bad) for every decision, trivial or profound, starts to proliferate, rapidly increasing the burden of thinking. There are fewer and fewer no-brainer things you can do. This leaves individuals and groups disoriented and normless. Without a sense of values to guide actions, the proliferation of options becomes a source of stress rather than freedom. Instead of navigating by easy "just say no" answers to temptations, you have to assume that any new option could be the best one, and look for a specific deal-killer to eliminate it. Sound familiar?
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Thar be anomie, Pencil on iPad Pro by Venkat
1/ Sometimes it is useful to sincerely ask why? And sometimes it is useful to sincerely ask why not? The same holds for where, what, when who and how.

2/ These basic questions of life, the 5W+H questions, are how we evaluate every option for action, trivial or profound, in every situation.

3/ Under conditions of low uncertainty, the positive forms of the 5W+H questions are usually more useful. There are default easy answers and few alternatives. You just have to learn to like them.

4/ Under conditions of high uncertainty, the negative forms of the 5W+H questions are often more useful. They help you eliminate premature bad answers and break out of lazy defaults.

5/ It is the transitional zone that is hard to navigate: when there are seductive and easy default answers that are not obviously wrong, and dubious-seeming ones that are nevertheless hard to eliminate.

6/ This is the zone of anomie. A zone where you can thrash between the positive and negative forms of the basic questions about any option, and get nowhere.

7/ Should you go to college? Why? Why not? In 1992, when I was applying to college, the answer was Duh! Today, it's not so easy. It depends on which college.

8/ Drill a little deeper. The thing about high uncertainty is that there are more specific options in the environment that you must interrogate, and higher risk latent in default options.

9/ Under low uncertainty, you have to find a way to like one of the few default options available. Under high uncertainty, you have to eliminate options and avoid premature commitment.

10/ Under low uncertainty, the positive questions capture knowledge, the negative ones tend to be excuses to avoid action.

11/ Under high uncertainty though, the positive questions tend to point to false certainties, the negative ones force you to think and learn.

12/ These questions are subtle though. Why can get you to no, and why not can get you to yes.  

13/ What customer need does this satisfy? is often a way to shoot down a great idea. Why not? Is often a precursor to let's just try it. These questions are open-ended thinking prompts, not triggers for knee-jerk yeses and noes.

14/ As another example. Startup investing is mostly a game of saying "No!" a lot. Eliminating options and patiently waiting for the big ones. But saying no to the one Big One can destroy a firm.

15/ What not to do is a way to learn from others' failures and increase your odds where what to do might tempt you buying into snake-oil formulas.

16/ Be careful though: both the positive and negative forms of the questions are most powerful when used on a concrete option, not on entire abstract classes

17/ Why/Why not Harvard? Why/Why not Cook County Community College? Why/Why not Coursera? are all much better questions than Why College?

18/ Whom to trust/not trust are better questions asked one individual at a time rather than one class at a time.

19/ This weakness of abstract classes is a feature of anomie. Norms tend to be be based on abstractions, like college is good, and easily computed rankings based on a notion of good.

20/ Under normless conditions, you have to get specific. Is a Harvard MBA worth it? What about a no-name state college MBA? Are the rankings meaningful? In which parts of the list?

21/ The heuristic of specificity is a good guide to whether the positive or negative form of a question is more useful under anomie. Just ask: which version makes you work harder and learn more to get to the answer?

22/ Under low uncertainty conditions, eliminating options is easy: There aren't many. But finding a way to accept and like the default can be very hard and teach you a lot.

23/ Under high uncertainty: specifically eliminating any given option may be easy. But you have to do a LOT of eliminations. Kiss a lot of frogs. 

24/ Under low uncertainty, eliminating a lot of options is the same as deciding to do nothing. But under high uncertainty, it is hard work, trial and error, and learning.

25/ If there's only one startup investment to evaluate in a year, anybody can be a VC. If you have to specifically evaluate 200 and say no to 199, but make sure you don't screw up the 1/200 deal, that's work.

26/ In summary, to navigate anomie, make options as concrete as possible, ask both positive and negative forms of the 5W+H questions, and drill down into the versions that take more hard work to answer. 

27/ But since we live in anomic times, that summary easy answer may be the wrong one for you in any particular case. 
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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr
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