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A Simple Way to Evaluate Principles and Practices

Core to our work at the Growth Equation is looking for patterns across different areas of research, literature, history, and practice. We are interested in uncovering principles that are universal, or at least close to it: that is, they can be applied to diverse contexts. We are not interested in the latest small single study, the n=1 biohacker, or bright and shiny objects and anecdotes. Readers often ask us how we evaluate different ideas, principles, and practices. How do we become confident that something is true with a capital T?

Our process is most easily illustrated by a three-legged stool:

The first leg of the stool is modern science. What does the latest research say? How many studies have been performed. How many participants have been in the studies? Even better, are there meta-analyses (studies of studies)? Are the research methods sound? Do the findings across different studies point strongly in one general direction?

The second leg of the stool is history, dating all the way back to ancient wisdom. Is the idea, principle, or practice prevalent across history? Is it a part of ancient wisdom traditions that have survived for millennia? When has the idea, principle, or practice held up? And when has it not? What was different about those contexts?

The third leg of the stool is daily practice. What is happening in the real world? Lots of things sound great in the ivory tower and lab, and lots of things are bulletproof in theory. But that doesn’t mean they work when the rubber meets the road. How have early adopters faired? Is the idea, principle, or practice upheld by people (or organizations) who are the best at what they do right now?

A stool with three solid legs is one that you can be confident will hold up. A stool with two legs is shaky. You may be able to sit on it, but you need to be cautious. A stool with only one leg is useless. It doesn’t mean it can’t become useful, but you’ll need to add more support underneath it. For us to be confident in an idea, principle, or practice, it needs all three legs, and they all have to be sturdy.

Perhaps more than ever, you need to be on the lookout for one- and two-legged stools. They are increasingly the stuff of performance and so-called “wellness” marketing and in headlines in the popular press.

Don’t get us wrong, we are not anti-innovation. Most new ideas start out with only one leg. Our point is simply this: before whole-heartedly embracing an idea, practice, or principle you should ask yourself: How sturdy is my stool? We do it almost every day, and we do it for every principle and practice that makes it into one of our books. And on the occasions we’ve been burned, it’s almost always because we put too much stock in a shoddy stool.

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