The XY Fallacy

Ethan Grant (2019)

The path to success is almost never a straight line. Successful businesses are often preceded by failed ventures, books are not written from beginning to end, and many owe their fame and fortune to luck. Those who struggle, fail, and try again are more likely to ultimately succeed, a difficult lesson for those who experience few setbacks or adversity early in life. Author Heather Jones explains,

"I watched the peers who I used to view, often smugly, as 'average,' achieve far greater personal and professional success than I after graduation. They had learned the value of working towards a goal, and the skills to succeed at it. I had not. They weren't afraid to try new things, whereas my fear of failure - something I didn't have a lot of experience with as a child – held me back from making the attempt."

If the opportunity to fail is the secret to success, parents who (whether from narcissim or ignorance) push all the "right" answers in lieu of experimention, discovery, and failure - are harming their children. Within technology communities, including Stack Overflow and Reddit, software developers bemoan the XY Problem in which a user asks the "wrong" question. The following satire is an illustration of the issue:

Not only is this perspective disparaging and self-righteous, the person asking the question has no opportunity to learn through failure. While there are more polite ways to respond, e.g. "Here's the answer, and I'm curious, what's your ultimate goal?", the assumption that a user is too stupid to ask "the right question" fosters a toxic culture.

"That's because great achievement has no road map. The X-ray's pretty good. So is penicillin. Neither were discovered with a practical objective in mind. I mean, when the electron was discovered in 1897, it was useless. And now, we have an entire world run by electronics. Haydn and Mozart never studied the classics. They couldn't. They invented them." - The West Wing, "Dead Irish Writers"

The XY fallacy can lead to rigid thinking, narrow perspectives, and a lack of innovation. When a unique approach to a technical problem is presented to developers, the response can be callous. "But ... that's not how you're supposed to do it!" they announce with certainty.

Adhering to standard practices isn't always ideal. If you wrote your software stack by the book, your adversaries may have an easier time finding and exploiting vulnerabilities. They have the same book.

"Many of the qualities that they breed out - the uncertainty, self discovery, the unknown - these are many of the qualities that make life worth living. Well at least to me. I wouldn't want to live my life knowing that my future was written, that my boundaries had already been set." - Star Trek, "The Masterpiece Society"