Challenge Your Assumptions and Premises
Note: This can be considered a continuation of our page
The most powerful way you can create radical new ideas is
to question the premises of existing ideas and the assumptions
you are making about everything. Routinely and honestly challenging
what you assume to be true is perhaps the most powerful kind
of thinking. Identifying those premises and assumptions is not
always as easy as you might think though. More on that in a moment.
First, we need to define our words.
A premise is "a statement assumed to be true and from
which a conclusion can be drawn; the basis of further argument;
a condition; a supposition." More formally in logic it is
defined as: "Either of the first two propositions of a syllogism,
from which the conclusion is drawn." For an example, the
premises "All men are mortal," and "Socrates is
a man," lead to the conclusion, "Socrates is mortal."
Note: Many philosophers would agree
with the following thought from Ayn Rand: "Contradictions
do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction,
check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong."
But while this may be true in the strictest sense, especially
with mathematics, it is only part of the story when it comes
to words (Rand tended to over-simplify, to say the least). I
have much more to say about that in my book "The Thousand
Mile Hole," which is currently only available as a Kindle
e-book (see the sidebar for more information).
In at least one dictionary, assumption shares the exact same
definition as the first one for premise above. It is also, "something
taken for granted or accepted as true without proof; a supposition,"
and is defined as "The minor or second proposition in a
categorical syllogism." ("Socrates is a man").
In my own usage here, "premise" will normally refer
to a basis for an argument, idea or belief. An assumption, on
the other hand, will refer to anything we consciously or unconsciously
presuppose. A concept of property rights could be a premise for
copyright law, for example, while the idea that we have to register
a copyright is just one of many possible assumptions we make.
Challenge Your Assumptions!
Challenging assumptions is a great problem solving technique.
In fact, it get's its own chapter in my ebook "Problem
Solving Power." It is also a great way to think of new
ideas in any area of life.
The first, and perhaps the hardest part of the process, is
to identify as many assumptions as you can. To show you what
I mean, I'll start with a scenario. Suppose you've written a
book on how to survive in the wild, and you're having trouble
finding a publisher. You take out a a piece of paper and start
to write down a few of the assumptions you're making.
Sending the manuscript to publishers myself is the best
way to go.
Challenging this assumption, it occurs to you that an agent
could better promote your book to publishers.
I need a publisher.
Self-publishing the book comes to mind. But thinking about
promoting the book yourself, you imagine just a few people buying
a copy from you, which doesn't thrill you. However, you're watching
carefully for assumptions, so you notice that as you imagine
self-publishing, you are assuming...
The books will be bought one at a time by readers.
You ask, "How can I sell a thousand at a time?"
You could sell a short version of the book for a few dollars
each, to backpacking gear vendors. They can then give the book
away as a bonus with any purchase of a backpack or sleeping bag
or tent. You might make 1,000 books the minimum order size.
Challenging the most fundamental things, including your definition
of the problem itself, often produces the most creative solutions.
With this in mind, you realize you've been thinking...
It will be a printed book.
It occurs to you that you might sell it as an audio book,
or sell it as an ebook online. Imagining the latter, you worry
How to sell a lot of books online.
This is another assumption, you realize. Looking at the matter
more closely, you realize that if you only make about $1 or $2
on a $19 printed book, while you can keep $16 or more of each
sale of a $19 ebook (if you generate traffic to your sales site
for free), meaning you can sell 1/16 the number of books and
still make just as much money.
Other possible assumptions:
You need to sell it as a book.
Is this true? What if you sold it as a series of articles
to an outdoor magazine. You think about this and realize that
although you might make less money at first, you would gain name
recognition and experience for the next book.
You need to sell the book.
Now, when you write this down, your first reaction might be
"Of course I need to sell it! That's the whole point!"
I can tell you though, that anytime you have that kind of reaction,
there is the possibility for some really radical ideas.
As a matter of fact, I have been making money for years now
giving away books. Readers subscribe to an email autoresponder
and receive a mailing each week that directs them to the page
where the next part is hosted (similar to the way this course
works). The first time I tried this with a book that wasn't selling
well, I made more money on the advertising clicks and from commissions
on affiliate products that I promoted than I had been making
selling the book. Believe me, the assumption that you have to
sell a book to make money with it has been effectively challenged
and refuted by myself and many others.
Challenge Your Premises!
By the way, I wrote the above relatively quickly, as it came
to me. It is safe to assume that given the same scenario, you
would identify a few different assumptions to challenge,
and perhaps more assumptions if you took more time. If
you try it as a mental exercise, I imagine that you will also
generate some different creative ideas. The same will be true
of the following exercise in identifying and challenging premises.
Issue: What other kinds of governments could we have?
As I consider the various political systems, I see that most
share this premise:
It is right to control individuals for the sake of "society"
or the "public good.
You might want to question that one for some radical thoughts
on political philosophy. I have already challenged it many times
in my own thinking (I believe that governments should exist as
much to protect the individual from society as vice-versa), so
I have to look for other premises if I want some really new ideas.
Government must be based on geography.
This premise just came to mind, and immediately I began imagining
a political system that one can subscribe to for a fee, regardless
of location. This "government" could provide legal
protection in the form of lawyers to defend subscribers from
the actions of governments that are geographically-based. It
could even provide police services (there are already more private
security officers than public police in the U.S.), and courts
to resolve civil and contractual disputes among members (private
arbitration is a step in this direction that has already been
a growing industry). Those who didn't abide by a subscription-government's
rulings could have their membership or "citizenship"
Questions suggest answers. Want more
answers? Ask more questions. Want better answers? Ask better
questions. - Steve Gillman
A Simple Exercise
Think about each of the following four statements or situations,
and write down the premises and assumptions that are either inherent
in them or any that come to mind. Then work on challenging them
to see what ideas result:
- We have to punish criminals to achieve justice.
- You are designing a new kind of bicycle.
- Democracy is promoted as a moral system.
- Free markets are the primary cause of our economic success.
By the way, recent research seriously challenges the latter
assumption. I address this in my book 99 Lies, which is part
to Use New Perspectives