Hanlon’s Razor: Why Complaining Stops Us in Our Tracks

08.03.2019 |

Episode #10 of the course Mental models: How to make better decisions by John Robin


Welcome to the final day!

There’s one last mental model to cover. It’s a powerful one, so I’ve saved it for last.

It’s known as Hanlon’s Razor, and understanding it will help us see how complaining is the source of our problems and how to step outside of this destructive cycle.


What Is Hanlon’s Razor and Why Is It True?

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

This quote is attributed to philosopher Robert J. Hanlon, from his 1980 book about Murphy’s Law and why things go wrong in life. In the style of Occam’s Razor, it has been named Hanlon’s Razor in popular culture. However, it goes back to the works of Heinlein in the 1940s and the German poet Goethe in the early 1774 book, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Hanlon’s Razor is a mental model that reveals how we often blame anything but ourselves, when we are, in fact, to blame.

You might be familiar with the saying, “A poor craftsman blames his tools.” This is the embodiment of Hanlon’s Razor.

The main principle at work here relates to what’s at work behind Occam’s Razor: the second law of thermodynamics.

When we are tangled up in the complexities of life, it’s far easier to blame everything but yourself, because if you blame yourself, it means having to spend time changing what you’re doing. That takes more energy than simply blaming everything else. We have numerous cognitive biases we have developed to accommodate this energy-saving instinct, some which make us prone to point the finger at another person or institution (especially if we dislike them).

Hanlon’s Razor surrounds us every day, simply because problems surround us all the time and we only have so much energy to keep solving problems, especially when it means having to make big changes to ourselves.


Applying Hanlon’s Razor

Is your computer “acting up on you”? It’s easier to shout at it and hit the enter key ten times when the screen “freezes” than to stop and think about the fact that this machine is doing exactly what you are telling it to do. The fact that it’s not processing or loading properly came about from poor management and poor usage that’s built up over time.

Is the government corrupt and out to ruin us all? It’s easier to focus your energy on that debate, especially in Facebook or Twitter arguments or gossip in the staffroom, than to instead focus on more important issues in your life, like self-improvement and investment in making your own difference in the world.

Notice in the above examples that in both cases, there is an opportunity:

• You have the opportunity to recognize that you can improve how you use your computer.

• You have the opportunity to see gossiping and bickering about politics as a waste of your valuable time and energy.

These opportunities involve improving yourself. Venting takes time and energy, and that time and energy is going out the window and your life is going by all the faster as a result.

If you can spot yourself in the stream of Hanlon’s Razor, you can grab hold of vital chunks of your time and energy (and life) that are slipping by. Life might even seem to slow down because you have so much more time now that’s in your control.

Here’s a good motto to kick you free of Hanlon’s Razor:

Stop complaining!

This is all-encompassing. If you treat this like a mantra, you can start picking apart your day and trying to see, at any given time, if you are complaining.

If so, Hanlon’s Razor has you. This is your ZERO, and this is where you can invest time and energy to multiply your life decisions to a whole new level. It might be hard work, but if you can see the huge potential for personal change and growth and apply Inversion and Bayesian Updating as you tackle your behavior, you will grow into 10 times, perhaps even 100 times, the person you were before.



Hanlon’s Razor reveals the net of life problems we’re all trapped in and how our instinct is to blame it, rather than see our own agency as a way out. By adopting the mantra, “Stop complaining,” we can learn to catch ourselves in it and gradually, by applying Bayesian Updating and Inversion, work our way out.


Try to catch yourself complaining. The moment you do, notice that. In your head, speak the mantra, “Stop complaining.” Stop there and begin again. See a new opportunity to do something else. Make this a problem you work on as part of your other homework exercises from the previous days. In fact, work on this problem every single day!

And that’s the end of our course!

I hope you feel equipped with an arsenal of mental models to carry into your daily life and level up your decision making. You can come back to these lessons and the homework exercises week after week. There’s no end to the amount of innovation in front of you.

Here’s to growth and continual improvement in how you think and make decisions!



Other courses by John Robin

How to Market Your Book Online

How to Begin (And Maintain) Your Career as a Writer

Great Math Problems for the 21st-Century Mind

Foundations of Mathematics

The World’s Most Compelling Logic Puzzles

Brain-Twisting Paradoxes

Most Brilliant Social Psychology Experiments

Productivity Hacks: Lessons From Top Leaders and Billionaires


Recommended book

Your Daily Journal: 100-Day Starter by John Robin (by none other than your instructor, but recommended as a good way for you to innovate daily using all these mental models)


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