Sometimes people keep doing things they’ve always been doing, no matter how harmful they are, because they never stopped to wonder why they started doing them in the first place. I call this kind of thinking Small Oven Syndrome. Finding and resisting it can improve your productivity, your career, and your life.
The Origin of Small Oven Syndrome
In university, I was part of a club with an extremely strict alcohol policy during new member initiation. Existing members were prohibited from drinking with new members. Violations culminated in intense disciplinary hearings which often erupted into shouting matches resulting in expulsions and ended friendships. This policy, much stricter than other clubs’ policies or the university standards, had an unclear origin. Fighting for my right to party, I was elected the risk management officer for the club. I investigated university regulations and our club history, contacting past presidents going back six years for insights.
I discovered that a previous incident led to a one-semester probation and this rigid policy's implementation, which shockingly stayed in place post-probation. The alumnus who was president when it was instituted was shocked it was still the active policy I decided to address this issue in the next general meeting by delivering this speech I found on the internet:
“When I was a kid, my mom always used to make a pot roast for special occasions. When she would do it, she'd slice the end off before she put it in the oven. One day I asked her why, and she said, "my mother always did it this way."
At Thanksgiving, we went to my grandmother's house and she cooked a pot roast, sure enough, she sliced the end off of the pot roast. When I asked why she would do it that way, she said, "my mother always did it this way."
At Christmas, my great-grandmother visited us. She insisted on helping with the meal. When she went to prepare the pot roast, she put the whole thing in the oven unsliced. I said, "my mom and grandma always slice the end off of the pot roast before they put it in the oven. When I asked them why, they said it's because you always did it that way. But just now, you didn't slice the end off. Why not?"
"Do they now?" She laughed until she cried and wiped a tear away. "That's very sweet, but it has nothing to do with cooking the roast. I sliced the end off because in the house your grandmother grew up in, the roast was too big and the oven was too small."
It was a little corny, and I did deliver it like a campaign speech, but I had been discouraged enough to try anything. Before that meeting, in one-on-one conversations with the club leadership, they didn’t seem to care how harmful the policy was or how ridiculous it was that we just kept using it. Their attitude was seemingly, “well that’s the way we’ve always done it, there must be a good reason,” even after I showed how relatively strict our policy was.
Describing their way of thinking was where I first came up with the term Small Oven Syndrome: this way of thinking where people are just doing what they’ve always done simply because they haven’t asked why they’re doing it. There is a lot to be said for the wisdom of tradition. However, on balance, I think that people want to make sure they’re being deliberate in the choices they make and the things they do every day. After learning about Small Oven Syndrome, most people would probably say they want to avoid it.
Resisting Small Oven Syndrome
I used to love waking up at 5:30 AM. It was a habit I cultivated when my daughter was first born, and I was tired all the time and routinely needed those hours in the morning to write when I was fresh and awake. However, as my daughter became a toddler and went to daycare, leaving me with ample time to write, waking up that early became counter-productive, making me much more tired. When I questioned why I was doing it to myself, I realized I had Small Oven Syndrome, and my original rationale no longer made sense.
The best way to resist Small Oven Syndrome is not necessarily to start from a blank slate and try to rethink everything in your life. Rather, carry on as normal, and use friction in your life as a signal to look for Small Oven Syndrome. If you get repeatedly bored, unhappy, or frustrated, look at the choices you are making that are leading you to feel this way. Figure out where they started and your rationale for making them, and you will usually find that one of the rationales doesn’t make sense anymore.
Beyond being more productive, deliberately resisting Small Oven Syndrome will make your life better. I’m fond of talking about the three elements of a good life: meaning, happiness, and psychological richness. Resisting Small Oven Syndrome will improve your life in all three dimensions. By routinely questioning your motives, you will get closer to a “why” for what you’re doing with your life, which will make it more meaningful. You will also be happier because you will stop doing the stuff that makes you bored, unhappy, and frustrated. Finally, your life will be more psychologically rich, as routinely questioning yourself like this will give you a richer intellectual life, and naturally increase your curiosity about yourself and the world.
Naming and calling out Small Oven Syndrome also has big implications for government policy. The canonical example of where this might be helpful is in our schools. From an American perspective, I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard a friend tell a joke like: "I don’t know how to do my taxes or plan for retirement, but I know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.” I’m not saying we should discard anything wholesale. But as our economy and society evolve, we should confront Small Oven Syndrome head on, and examine the rationale behind why we began doing things the way we do now, and whether that is still serving us.
Confronting Small Oven Syndrome is also a helpful way to navigate your individual professional horizons. In his book, The Pathless Path (read my review here), author Paul Millerd advocates that the entire career-industrial complex is an epidemic of Small Oven Syndrome. The book describes how people get the best credentials they can to land the most prestigious jobs they can because they have inherited amorphous notions of security, freedom, and identity. Only later, they find that they are not secure, not free, and don’t know who they are.
In a telling anecdote that foreshadows the rest of the book, Millerd explains how early in his previous career, he had a prestigious job for an important client, but discovered he was a glorified box-checker. Able to see the Small Oven Syndrome but lacking the vocabulary, he was frustrated that “No one wanted to grapple with this fundamental question: ‘Why the hell are so many grown adults spending their time on obviously pointless tasks?’”
After the club meeting where I gave the big speech, the members voted to abolish the unnecessarily strict drinking policy. Because even though it is scary and you may feel foolish, they realized it’s better to confront Small Oven Syndrome head-on. Sometimes it’s better to cook the whole roast, have a drink with the new recruit, let yourself sleep in, and stop doing bullshit jobs.
Small Oven Syndrome is insidious and pervasive. Resisting it is not about reckless iconoclasm or needless innovation. Rather it is about investigating the source of our problems and taking responsibility for the vestigial rationale behind some of our own choices.
An interesting inversion on Chesterton’s Fence. I personally am a fan of not messing with things until you know why they are the way they are. However, too many people don’t actually ask the question and just keep doing things the way they have always been done.
I saw this in the Air Force all the time. Mediocre leaders did things this way. Terrible leaders changed things just for the sake of changing them and getting their name on something. The best leaders asked “why do we do it this way?” for every process, and only changed things if it made sense.
It reads really great! I am glad I could help!