Insider Intelligence: Occam’s Razor

Aug. 10, 2020
How to apply the keep it simple principle to your professional life
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Security Business magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention @SecBusinessMag on Twitter and Security Business magazine on LinkedIn.

Recently, I took part in an incident that reminded me of an old parable. While the lesson is applicable to life in general, I find it especially helpful when thinking of workplace challenges:

One day a bus driver went to the garage, started his bus, and drove off along his route. After a few stops, a big hulk of a guy – six feet tall, built like a wrestler – got on, looked at the driver and said, “Big John doesn't have to pay! The driver was five foot three, thin, and meek, and he didn’t argue.

The next day, Big John got on, announced that he did not have to pay, and sat down. And the next day, and the one after that …The driver started losing sleep over the way Big John was taking advantage of him, and finally, the driver signed up for a body building course, karate lessons and judo, among other things. By the end of the summer, he had become quite strong and felt very good about himself.

Fast-forward to next Monday, when Big John got on the bus and said, “Big John doesn't pay!” The driver stood up, looked back at Big John and yelled, “And why not?”

With a surprised look on his face, Big John replied, “Big John has a bus pass.”

It is easy to go overboard with preparation and to perceive a conclusion which may never actually happen. In the case of the timid bus driver, he prepared for what he felt was an inevitable confrontation and was going to be ready for that challenge. Of course, it could have all been avoided with a single question, but when is anything ever that easy?

Keep it Simple

William of Ockham (c. 1287 - 1347) came up with a problem-solving principle that "”entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” It is often paraphrased by statements like “the simplest solution is most likely the right one.” This philosophical razor, commonly known as Occam’s Razor, advocates that when presented with competing hypotheses about the same prediction, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions. 

This truism is also presented by many great minds –

Aristotle: “Nature operates in the shortest way possible.”

Isaac Newton: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”

Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Theodore Woodward: “When you hear hoofbeats think of horses, not zebras.”

Unnamed Little Girl: “Just let some of the air out of the tires.”

Applying it Professionally

Have you ever found yourself in the bus driver’s situation at work? I certainly have. It can be embarrassing to realize that a conversation where you could have asked more questions might have given you more clarity. It can certainly save great amounts of work and also help create better relationships with colleagues.

It is important to keep in mind that not everything is as complicated as you initially think. Before starting any new challenge, remember to pump the brakes a bit and ask yourself “What’s the easiest way to achieve that goal?” Likewise, if a problem seems fairly complex, bounce some ideas off a coworker –perhaps they will see the problem in a different light and point out something you are missing.

In the end, sometimes all you need to do is ask a simple question.

Stuart Clapp is Supervisor of Inside Sales for PSA Security Network. Request more info about PSA at