It is not often that I roar laughing when reading a book about thinking.

Did you know that during their colonial rule of India, the British government took steps to curb the numbers of venomous cobras in Delhi?

To cut the numbers, they instituted a reward for every dead snake brought to officials.

How did the populous respond?

By breeding snakes to slaughter and present for a bounty.

The number of cobras was worse than ever as the officials had not thought through second-order consequences.


“Stupidity is the same as evil if you judge by the results”

Margaret Attwood


I am certain that all of us can think of analogous situations, where we or others have made decisions that have led to unintended consequences.

As I was reading this section of Shane Parrish’s Great Mental Models v1, I was focused on assessing the validity of a proposition more than on its usefulness to communication.

It turns out, though, that Shane was ahead of me.

He offers two areas where second-order thinking can be used to great effect

  1. Prioritising long-term interests over immediate gains to avoid problematic unintended consequences
  2. Using positive consequences as a selling point when constructing effective arguments

Prioritising long-term interests over immediate gains to avoid problematic unintended consequences.

If you like history, this section is worth reading. It talks about the choices Cleopatra made in 48BC when in exile and at great risk of being murdered by her brother.

To survive, she had to think through some options: Should she work things out with her brother, try to marshal support from another country, or align herself with Caesar?

The rest is history, of course. She took some short-term political pain by aligning with Caesar which was rewarded over the longer term by a close relationship with Rome.


Using positive consequences as a selling point when constructing effective arguments

As I mentioned, my initial thinking when reading this chapter was largely about the value of thinking through the ‘what happens next’ type of question. If I do A, what will then happen?

Will I cut or add to the number of cobras by offering a bounty for dead ones?

Shane offers a different take on it, however, and refers to another great woman of history.

Mary Wollstencraft successfully argued for the education of women because this would in turn make them better wives and mothers, more able to both support themselves and raise smart, conscientious children.

She did not initially focus on a woman’s right to education’, but rather the benefits to others of women being educated.

(Thank you Mary!)


This will be my last post in this series for a while as next week I introduce a series all about communicating with impact. It includes four new videos that I hope you will find useful.

Have a great week!



PS – I receive a small commission if you click the link and decide to purchase a copy of Shane's book from Amazon.

Related posts include:

 Past posts from this series …  

  1. A fabulous thinking tool to help you solve problems and communicate 
  2. Further thinking tools
  3. Thinking Tools #3 – Using inversions to identify gaps in our thinking
  4. Thinking Tools #4 – Getting out of your own way 
  5. Thinking Tools #5 – Avoiding Blind Spots
  6. Thinking Tools #6 – How to have a latticework of theory
  7. Thinking Tools #7 – Avoiding becoming a tragic tale  
  8. Thinking Tools #8 – How corporate templates can frustrate clarity 
  9. Thinking Tools #9 – Avoid the ‘we have always done it that way' trap.



Key words: critical thinking, thinking tools, design your strategy



Davina has helped smart people all over the world clarify and communicate complex ideas for 20+ years.

She began this work when she joined McKinsey & Company as a communication specialist in Hong Kong where she helped others use the Minto Pyramid Principle.

She continued helping others when living in New York, Tokyo and now back in Australia where she was approved by Barbara Minto herself to teach Pyramid.

Her clients include experts across many disciplines across Australia, Asia Pacific, New Zealand, the UK and the US. She currently coaches a number of C-suite executives as well as many mid-level folk and the occasional graduate.

Get her 4 Tips for Communicating Complex Ideas here.