The Tyranny of the Obvious

Once again, marketing philosopher Seth Godin gives us something to chew on:

The obvious answer to your problem isn’t obvious yet, but once someone finds it, it will be.

That’s the way obvious answers work. They’re not obvious because they’re easy to find, they’re obvious because, in fact, there’s an answer.

There’s something inside us that needs answers.  When they aren’t forthcoming, we default:

Answers: $1

Correct Answers: $5

Sure, it’s an old joke, but it’s funny because it reflects experience. Then there is the adage, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Whether it’s the tools you have, or the tools you prefer, it dictates your answers, even though they may be utterly Menckian (for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.)

Despite old jokes, or maybe because of them, we suffer from a wealth of answers and a dearth of good ones.  Only after the right answer appears do we recognize it to be obvious.  Along the way, there will be no shortage of “obvious” answers, except they’re all wrong.

A recurring theme here is that many confuse the search for an answer with the search for the right answer.  While simple questions tend to have simple answers, complex problems do not.

Most problems don’t have obvious answers, which is why you should demote them from the list of things worth obsessing over. Gravity, for example, is a problem with no obvious answer. You’re never going to be able to fly like Superman, and the sooner you let that one go, the quicker you’ll be able to work on something productive.

The means of arriving at an answer is to vet the options available and distinguish the answers that won’t work, even though they present themselves and may have some superficial allure.  These are the most problematic answers, the ones that have enough surface appeal to attract our attention, offer a glimmer of hope or confirm our bias, but are wrong.

When these types of answers are presented, we latch onto them and push them, because we need answers.  By doing so, we neglect to seek better answers, the right answer.  It not only diverts our attention from the search for the right answer, but causes us to put all our efforts into implementing the answer.  If we’re successful in getting the wrong answer implemented, we then pat ourselves on the back for a job well done and watch as it fails to solve the problem for the next generation.

In searching for the right answers, assuming one exists, the first step is the elimination of the wrong answers.  Some may be clearly wrong. Some may be merely inadequate. Some may create unintended consequences that cause other harms.  Think Dr. House asking for a differential diagnosis, except without the part where he injects rat poison just to see what happens before his subsequent epiphany just before the patient dies.

Our need for answers too often blinds us from the reality that complex problems often defy “answers,” in the sense that there is a thing to be done to fix the problem.  Godin uses “gravity” as an example, though it’s not exactly a problem since it keeps us from flying off the sphere, which isn’t a great thing either.

When it comes to the legal system (which, of course, is why this post appears here), most “answers” are ultimately subject to the vicissitudes of human beings, and that variable makes “answers” very hard to find.  Much as we all believe that our thoughts are correct, others do not necessarily share them.  We sometimes hide behind rhetorical ploys like “common sense” or “obvious” for lack of an ability to justify our answers.

But the most common reaction when a bad answer is shot down is to demand an alternative. “So what’s your answer?”  It’s an easy retort, favored by children and the intellectually challenged, because everything must have an answer.

If society comes up with a new problem, society needs a new law to eradicate it. If a system doesn’t serve to produce the result we feel is “just,” we need to change the system to assure that every outcome from now on will meet our sense of justice.

Get over it.  It is axiomatic that the law cannot provide a cure for every disease people can come up with.  It is a truism that a system dependent on human beings will be flawed because we are flawed. And there is not always an answer.

Despite all of this, whenever age-old problems that have defied solution in the face of a thousand people trying desperately to find a solution, should it be the rare case that the correct answer is found, it will be obvious.  It’s easy to be obvious afterward.  It’s hard to find the right answer otherwise, and it’s nearly impossible to accept that there may be no right answer at all.

6 comments on “The Tyranny of the Obvious

  1. Wheeze The People™

    There you go again, melting my pretty little snowflake. I thought Captain Obvious always had the right answer, and he could fly, too. Next you’ll be telling me there’s no Santa Claus when, in fact, I saw him at the mall yesterday, with my own eyes . . .

          1. Wheeze The People™

            And in my best Billy Joel voice, I scream to you, “But I just may be a lunatic you’re looking for . . .” while tickling the ivories on my grand piano naked, with only my toes . . . That was easy!! . . .

  2. John Barleycorn

    I have always wondered if all marketers aren’t in some way or another all on a diabolical Transdifferentiation Trip. Seth’s action figure doll does have a rather interesting look in its eyes.

    Bill Hicks once had something to say about marketing in a not so touchy feely sort of way.

    Unfortunately google-ing “Bill Hicks on marketing” does not forevermore send cookies to all “permission marketers” to fuck off implicitly.

    Ah, technology…I will sleep better tonight knowing that I don’t know but the government and industry too are surely certain my cookies and search queries do.

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