The Law of Thirds
I think we all want a tool belt full of solutions ready to solve any problem. Or, better yet, a miracle cure. But, what if I told you that you could reach success with only 1/3 of a solution? I call this concept the “Law of Thirds.”
I love the number three. I think three is a magic number, like pi or Fibonacci’s sequence. (Remember the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon? 3 is the Magic Number.) The Law of Thirds may be my favorite concept. It helps me achieve success in any discipline. Really! I use this idea in every area of my life. It works in a variety of ways. We can use the Law of Thirds to help us find alternate solutions to any problem. And we can use the Law of Thirds to judge whether we are achieving success with the one solution we are using.
In this article, I’ll be using depression as my example because it is a challenge that I have tried to solve in many different ways. As you read this, think of depression as a metaphor for your own challenge.
There is always a third solution
First, let’s talk about why there isn’t just one solution. It gives me comfort to know that if I haven’t found a solution yet, there is always another possibility.
Let me give you an example: If there are two people and both those people find a different solution that works for them, that means you have two solutions. That’s obvious. What is not obvious is that if you have two solutions, you have a gradation between them — a little bit of one and a lot of the other or vice versa — which means there are infinite solutions. For example, the computer you are using now has two options: 1 or 0, on or off, black or white, yet all the combinations make it possible for you to read this story in full color. Or you can think of it this way: if you have two solutions, you can add them together and get a third solution, like how yellow and blue make green.
In fact, there is a third solution to any problem. One solution is YES. (I’m going to do something about this.) One solution is NO. (I’m not going to do something about this.) And another solution is MAYBE, meaning somewhere in between. (Maybe it will just go away.) For example, if two diplomats argue for peace, but neither agrees with the other’s solution, then neither solution is a solution that works; however, there must be a third solution because we all know peace is possible. Often, we think of that as a compromise, but another solution could be to take every other family and move them to the opposite country — mix up the people so much that there aren’t any more differences between them.
As a side note: one of my first attempts at a solution is NO, meaning let’s explore whether my problem is actually a problem. For example, perhaps depression isn’t the problem; perhaps I’m just sad? Or perhaps, I let my anxiety run out of control? My second solution is usually MAYBE. Maybe it’s not my problem to solve. Let’s wait and see what happens. Finally, I try YES and get to work.
Now you can begin to see how there are at least three solutions to a problem. If there are three solutions, you might need to try them all, which means any one of them is only part of the solution, only one-third of the solution.
Why there is NOT one, easy solution
Now we know there are multiple solutions to a problem, but why is it so hard to find one that works? Let’s explore a different use of the Law of Thirds. I’ll need to use a tiny bit of science to explain the concept. (You can skip the next paragraph if you want.)
When conducting an experiment, a scientist or researcher creates a model of reality and then tests that model. If the data gathered from the real world matches the model, the experiment is considered a success. (Actually, a good scientist will consider a failure as a success, too. It is good to know that your model or idea doesn’t work.) If you are like me, you expect that the model and reality should match 1-to-1 or 100%, but this isn’t the case because the real world is full of more variables than are known or can be controlled. So, how close do scientists need to be to considered accurate? A lot depends on what is being measured and the design of the study. In the hard sciences, like landing a robot on Mars, the model of reality needs to be close to 100% accurate. (Even NASA has to make constant minute adjustments to hit their landing target.) But in the soft sciences, the numbers are much lower. In the social sciences, like psychology, if we want to predict a future event or relate one variable to another, it is not generally considered accurate or achievable to have a success rate higher than 30%. (See the footnotes for a more technical explanation.)
In other words, let’s say we wanted to know if drinking lemon juice cured depression. If we organized a study, we should expect about 30% of the people to feel happier. Contrarily, if 100% of the people who drank lemon juice felt happier, we can only confidently say that about 30% of the people actually improved due to the lemon juice. Because there are so many other factors in life, we can’t know if some people in our study improved for another reason. Maybe winter just ended, and the flowers are blooming.
30% seems like a meager success rate. I mean, it’s depressing to think that any given piece of advice or pill or whatever might only have a 1 in 3 chance to make me feel happier. And even if I feel happier, I still can’t be sure if it worked. But there is good news.
First, this number matches the success rate of many disciplines. For example, if you play baseball and have a batting average of .300, meaning you hit one out of ten balls, this is excellent. And a batting average of only .400 is considered unachievable. So, if you can hit approximately 1 out of 3 balls, you are doing as well as the average player in the Hall of Fame. Strangely, if you can hit 1 ball out of 3, you have about the same chance to get on base and even less to make it home. So, your chances to succeed with any given solution are about the same as being a Hall of Fame player. And, your chances are much higher than the average baseball player’s chance to score a point. That sounds pretty good to me.
Second, this confirms that life has no guarantees. It’s the bitter truth. I spent years trying to find a magical solution. (That’s another story.) But the good news is that to succeed in any discipline, we need to implement a variety of strategies: body, mind, spirit, etc. We have to peel back the layers of the onion. If we suffer from chronic depression, getting therapy isn’t enough, nor is taking a pill enough, and probably both therapy and a pill are not enough. We still need proper diet and exercise. And to be kind to ourselves. And, even if we have a good day, that doesn’t guarantee tomorrow something else won’t go wrong.
It bears repeating: this is good news! All these possibilities mean that there are still more possibilities to find your way out of depression or whatever problem you may be facing.
How good does good have to be?
At this point, you might be feeling you have to compromise like a bad diplomat. But you don’t. As I mentioned, you only need part of a solution to succeed.
The TED Ed video below, How to outsmart the infinite prisoner’s dilemma, is a brilliant explanation of how to improve your future. It’s a little complicated. (I actually wrote another article on the prisoner’s dilemma that might help give you some background.) Allow me to explain: The infinite prisoner’s dilemma is the same as the regular prisoner’s dilemma, but the same problem occurs every day. It involves two gingerbread men who have to decide whether it is more beneficial to spare or sacrifice their friend’s arms and legs to a hungry wolf to avoid being eaten themselves. When looking at this problem as if it will occur only once, it is always beneficial to sacrifice your friend. But if you look at this problem as if it repeats every day, it is always beneficial to spare your friend. Today the gingerbread men care about their arms and legs 100%. Tomorrow they care less about their arms and legs. And in the distant future, they care almost nothing about their arms and legs being eaten by a wolf. But at what point in the future do the two gingerbread men switch from being selfish to altruistic? Answer: When they believe they have a 33% chance that tomorrow will be better than today. Yep, if you care about your life tomorrow only as much as 1/3 of what you care about your life today, you will be on an upward trajectory.
What we are talking about is similar to Fibonacci’s Number or the Golden Ratio. Both are approximately equal to 1.618, which, if you are a bad mathematician like me, is close to 5/3. In other words, the Fibonacci Sequence is a series of numbers that is increasing each time by about two-thirds. So, we can visualize this sequence as a spiral, each spiral representing growth or improvement.
The Fibonacci Spiral is about double what we are estimating we need to improve. The illustration of the blue spiral below is showing only a 1% increase every day for 365 days. So you can see that even the tiniest improvement adds up. But perhaps, 1% is too small to really give us the feeling of moving forward. Per our Gingerbread example, we need 33%, but we don’t actually need to improve, we only need to have the belief we will improve.
A real-life example of how to succeed
As an example of somebody who can do this, I recommend watching this inspirational talk by Sam Berns. He was born with a rare genetic disorder called progeria, so he had many reasons to be unhappy, but he wasn’t. He explains his philosophy for a happy life in this great video. I recommend you watch it so that the lessons sink in with an emotional hook! That being said, the piece of advice that resonated with me the most is: “I always try to have something to look forward to. Something to strive for to make my life richer. It doesn’t have to be big. It can be anything…”
Or more simply: Keep moving forward.
To succeed, you only need part of the solution. And that solution doesn’t need to be perfect. And sometimes, that solution is just the faith that your life will be better tomorrow. And it doesn’t even need to get better every day—just one in three days. If you have one out of three good days, you’ll be moving forward.
Challenge: The third time is a charm
Create a life philosophy or mantra and practice this until you feel yourself get better three times. Why three times? It’s the magic of the number three again. If you feel better only once, it may seem like pure chance. If you feel better twice, it seems like a coincidence. But if you feel better three times, it’s a pattern. Like math: it takes two dots to make a line and a third to prove it.
*In statistical modeling, a regression analysis is used to determine whether one variable relates to another variable. The measure of variance, or how well the data fits the predicted model, is the coefficient of determination, called r-squared. In our example of social sciences, our expected r-squared can never be better than 0.3, but some scholars do differ slightly in their estimates, mostly due to what is being measured.