Got a truck full of dope, plug on the coke
Renzel done came up, prosecutors want to know
Is everything dope? Is everything dope?
How does everything go?
— Rick Ross, D.O.P.E. (2015)
Mechanism (mek–uh-niz-uh m)
1. an assembly of moving parts performing a complete functional motion, often being part of a large machine; linkage
2. the agency or means by which an effect is produced or a purpose accomplished
Today, we’re going to use something boring to introduce something interesting. I’ve been reading a lot of loan documents lately (I know shoot me, right) and thank God I work with smart attorneys (corporate, not criminal, at the time of this writing) because loan agreements and the other legal documents involved when businesses want money are often hundreds of pages long, and unlike the Terms & Conditions in our Verizon contract, you actually have to read them. As important as they are, time often does not allow me to read every word. Like other bankers & businessmen, I find myself needing the information translated from Legalese into English. This is one of the reasons we happily pay lawyers.
Here’s the interesting thing: Although we generally think of legal contracts as jargon-filled and effectively unreadable to a layperson, they are still written in English. When we say, “We just signed our life away,” somewhere buried in the document spells out, in a language we can understand, exactly where we signed our life away and on what terms.
In any situation, we tend to care about what is relevant to us, right? Well, in my case I may care about what actions the bank I work for can take and when. Therefore, I need to know the exact words in the document that allow me to do that. In your phone contract, amidst all those small-print words, there are a few key ones that address the things you ultimately care about: how long it lasts, how much you pay per month, and what happens if you don’t. So if you don’t pay your phone bill, there are two important things at play: 1) The contract that gives Verizon the right to do things, like cut off your service; and 2) The physical signal no longer being sent to your phone.
Let’s call those important things mechanisms, which would fall under the bold definition at the top. If I’m you, I’m thinking “Okay, I stopped checking my newsfeed to read about mechanisms?” BUT stay with me because I think we’re onto something more general as an approach in trying to understanding almost anything. By asking in your own words or way, “What is the mechanism?” you can cut through the fluff to the substance in most situations. The substance is usually built on basics and most situations are ultimately about the basics. If someone knows, they will be able to tell you (now they may have an interest in you not knowing, which is often, in which case they won’t tell you) and if they don’t know, they will be unable to answer the question or the answer won’t make sense. There are similar phrases with a similar goal of getting to the fundamentals quickly: “What’s the point?”, “What’s the bottom-line?”, “How does it work?” Let’s look at an illustration to see the subtle differences between those and what we’re talking about.
Suppose you’re at the mall. You walk into one store and before you know it you practically need a restraining order to keep the salespeople out of your personal space while in another you could get a leg amputated and no one would be there to notice, much less answer a question on some Size 2 leggings. What explains the difference? One gets a commission and one doesn’t. You would normally call that an incentive, and it is. However, I would say that what we are more generally trying to figure out is the explanation & cause of the salesperson’s behavior (“Why they all up on me here but not there?”). In this case it happens to be an incentive (her commission or lack thereof), but it just as easily could have been one being excited after a recent promotion and the other had just gotten E. coli from lunch at Chipotle, and it is because of these different possibilities the term mechanism is more encompassing. We probably think in these terms intuitively quite a bit, like with Rick Ross in the opening quote knowing the value of dope logistics, but the more explicitly we think this way in complex or new situations the better positioned we are to figure out the truth, especially when we need to know it sooner than later. It’s this intersection of why & how that I’ve found so interesting lately.
And like most things I find interesting, someone else much smarter than me has already thought about it more than I have. I found this out when I started reading The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, which I picked up for two reasons: 1) my best friend is a biochemistry & genetics major getting his PhD, so I figured I better learn a little bit about genetics if I want to talk to him and 2) I liked Mukherjee’s approachable writing style in his Pulitzer-Prize winning book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies.
So what are the odds that before finishing the prologue I saw a variation of that engineering term that had been on my mind?
DNA is identified as the source of genetic information. The “action” of a gene is described in mechanistic terms: genes encode chemical messages to build proteins that ultimately enable form and function.
I didn’t count, but Mukherjee goes on to use the word throughout the book, a lot. His point is that this idea of focusing on the action or mechanics was shared by many of the world’s best scientists & led to the discovery of how heredity works!
No one will ever mistake me for an expert on genetics, but an important takeaway from the book was the reinforcement of this mindset that has already drastically helped me filter what I hear & see. When someone is telling you why something is the way it is, look for the mechanisms that allow it to be that way. A complicated issue like opioid drug addiction in the United States can be better understood by looking to the possible mechanisms. Here are a few:
- Why does this exist? Drugs make people feel good (shocker right?).
- Why is this a problem? They have negative side effects that may eventually outweigh the positives.
- What explains the number of people this affects? The availability of addictive substances.
- Why are they available? Doctors frequently writing prescriptions to many patients for a variety of different conditions.
- Why would that happen? A combination of thinking that is the appropriate solution to the patient’s underlying issue and making money by doing it.
- What allows the businesses & doctors to do that? Their credentials, experience, governing bodies, and so on.
The reason this is worthy of our consideration is because of the time and energy spent addressing symptoms instead of root causes. Sticking with the same example, you’ll see news stories involving drugs that seem to ignore the part about people taking them because they make them feel good or the people providing the drugs making money from it.
The gut reaction that this is all too obvious to talk about is due to something called the illusion of explanatory depth (“IOED”) which is a confident, but mistaken feeling of knowing. If you ask 50 people if they know how a washing machine works, they’d probably say yes. But if you asked them to give detailed step-by-step instructions on how it works, most would look at you like Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder. If we are aware of this IOED, we will instinctively start looking for ways to fill in those gaps.
If you do this for a while, as weird as it sounds at first, a couple of things will start to happen.
1: You will become dissatisfied with things that have vague mechanisms and will push for greater clarity (e.g. “Oh, so you two were just hanging out?”)
2: You will start realizing that many of these hinge on the definition of a single word or phrase. Recall Bill Clinton and his famous “Depends on what your definition of is is.”
Arguably, doing anything other than focusing on the mechanisms is superfluous.
Using that same idea, we can look at our own work. Most of us would like to be organized for various reasons, and we could likely see benefits from it over time, but they are indirect (I use this as an example because I highly value organization, so I’m challenging myself). However, can you imagine me sitting in my office thinking “My desk is clean, so the deals should start rolling in.”? When seen from that perspective, unless you are part of a cleaning crew, it’s clear that being organized isn’t the mechanism. When we acknowledge what generates the final service or product we provide, we will avoid potentially misleading ourselves about our productivity. Emphasizing this point with my coworkers, I’ll say: “Why don’t we report on our earnings call how many hours we spent in our offices?” We all remember from college that there is a big difference between going somewhere to study and actually studying.
Some other simplified examples:
- Fewer drunk driving accidents
- The mechanism: Uber & Lyft
- Why no one says anything contradicting the boss, when it’s evident he’s wrong
- The mechanism: The threat of the boss firing the person who said it
- How Apple can charge $1,000 for a phone (at its current volume)
- The mechanism: Breaking up one big payment into more manageable monthly payments
- The mechanism: Forceful protection of personal property
- The mechanism: brakes (can’t have traffic if you never use your brakes! Although this is impractical, it’s a useful framework for thinking about how people should drive, which would be at a speed that requires everyone to use their brakes as little as possible. Obviously, something like traffic is a complex situation and it is influenced by several factors like number of drivers, wrecks, construction, traffic lights, etc. but this is actually one of the purest examples of a mechanism because all of those other factors ultimately lead to you hitting your brakes. If your goal was to reduce traffic, you would be mindful of this every time you considered adding a new intersection with a traffic light.)
On one hand, this is common sense. On the other, there are structural reasons why people don’t want you to know the mechanisms of many things (e.g. Coke recipe), making it even more important that you are able to figure them out for yourself. Now that we’ve seen how this looks in everything from rap songs & genetics to loan documents & drugs, please remember your humble blogger when thou art upon the podium receiving thy Nobel Prize.
I’ll let you determine the mechanism for Kim’s fame.
The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe