When you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras.
It’s a proverb used to illustrate that the most obvious answer is often right. Too many times, we waste time simply justifying the other possibilities when the answer is really the obvious one.
We make judgments pretty quickly. In one of my favorite books, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell uses science to prove that we make decisions within a couple of seconds, often without too much evidence. That’s because we have intuition to help us. Sometimes, we just know without knowing how we know. Trying to convince ourselves of why we know is what is holding us back. Sometimes, we need to just trust our intuition that the hoof beats don’t belong to zebras or unicorns or tigers wearing horseshoes. Sometimes, hooves just means horses are close by. Trust the obvious answer.
Where are the hooves beating in your life today? What obvious answer are you ignoring while you waste time contemplating the question?
Sometimes obvious doesn’t work though. If you take standardized tests, there’s always some “obvious”-looking answers thrown into the multiple choices, designed to trip you up. That’s when you need to rely on the analytical part of your brain.
Take this 3-question quiz I found on BigThink.com Scientists came up with a trio of questions that they use to predict whether a person believes in God or not.
1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? ____cents
2. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? _____minutes
3. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? _____days
The obvious answers are:
- 10 cents
- 100 minutes
- 24 days
Do a little more thinking and you realize your obvious answer is wrong. Here’s why:
- 10 cents is not a full dollar less than $1.00 so it doesn’t satisfy the equation.
- If 5 machines can produce 5 widgets in 5 minutes, clearly it takes 5 minutes for the widget itself to be made so it doesn’t matter how many machines, it will always take 5 minutes per widget. So with 100 machines making 100 widgets, you will have them ready in 5 minutes, not an hour and 40 minutes as first thought.
- If the lily pad is fully covered on day 48 and it was doubling every day, on day 47, the pond was half covered which is what the question was asking. So half the pond, not half the number of days.
Not to brag but I got all the questions right the first time. I’ve taken a lot of tests in my day and I know when an answer that looks obvious isn’t.
The point of the study on BigThink wasn’t really that smart people aren’t religious. Instead, it was that “analytic thinking may undermine intuitive support for religious belief.”
That being said, obvious doesn’t have to exclude reason. Things might not be glaringly out in the open obvious. If you can see the tiger wearing the horse-shoes, don’t ignore it and tell yourself there must be horse coming. If there is evidence to suggest things might be different, you’re doing yourself a disservice to pretend otherwise.
Sometimes obvious takes a little work. Other times it’s blatant. Whatever you do, don’t ignore the obvious. Sometimes it’s just horses coming towards you.