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“The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.”[1] As Thomas Jefferson said “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.”

Since human survival depends on the exercise of reason (refer to Ethics), it follows that rationality is the primary virtue.

So what is entailed by the virtue of rationality?


Sustained Active Thinking

Rationality means that you must commit yourself to a policy of sustained thinking about whatever is relevant to your interests and purpose. It means that you must keep your mind active. “An active mind does not wait for someone or something to feed it knowledge (or what passes for knowledge) but actively seeks to know, to learn, to figure out; it constantly asks questions and questions assumptions, and it looks for patterns among the facts it observes and identifies the implications of those facts. Based on what it knows, it makes new connections, projects the future, and imagines possibilities.”[2]

Such a mind is that of James Casey of UPS. “I have never come in contact with a man with such an incisive mind. His questions were not superficial but to the point. He began knowing nothing about it [the issue in question], but proceeded directly toward the underlying causes. With his ability for questioning, which enables him to get to the root of a problem and gives him an overall view of the problem, I can easily see why he has been successful in business.”[3]

“The process of concept formation does not consist merely of grasping a few simple abstractions… It is not a passive state of registering random impressions. It is an actively sustained process of identifying one’s impressions in conceptual terms, of integrating every event and every observation into a conceptual context, of grasping relationships, differences, similarities in one’s perceptual material and of abstracting them into new concepts, of drawing inferences, of making deductions, of reaching conclusions, of asking new questions, and discovering new answers and expanding one’s knowledge into an ever-growing sum. The faculty that directs this process…is: reason. The process is thinking.”[4]

Thomas Edison had one of the most active minds ever. He was always generating ideas; in fact his laboratory sometimes had as many as 60 experiments underway. He took out 1,093 patents.[5]

In the 1990s Andrew Grove, the CEO of Intel, set his company on a course of continually improving computer chips so quickly that the competition could not keep up. This sustained commitment of the company’s engineering brain power meant that Intel’s annual revenues grew from less than $4 billion in 1990 to $29 billion in 1999[6].

Another crucial part of active thinking for business success is attempting to predict the future. Andy Grove said “I have a rule in my business: to see what can happen in the next 10 years.”[7]

Warren Buffet recognised the value of rationality. He said that the key to his success was not IQ alone. “The big thing is rationality. I always look at IQ and talent as representing the horsepower of the motor, but the output – the efficiency with which that motor works – depends on rationality.”[8]

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Focussing on Reality and Refusing to Evade

A crucial aspect of rationality is conscientiously focussing on reality, and refusing to delude oneself. Many enormous business losses have been caused by unwillingness on the part of executive management to face facts and change direction. A striking example of this was the CEO of Macy’s, Edward Finkelstein, who seemed intent on ignoring problems, frightening subordinates, and feathering his own nest, while hoping for an improvement in the economy. The ensuing bankruptcy of Macy’s proved once again that hopes cannot be used to deny facts[9].

On the other hand General Electric has gone from strength to strength, creating over $200 billion since the start of the 80s, under Jack Welch’s management. One of Welch’s 6 core principles is: “Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish… facing reality is crucial to life, not just in business. You have to see the world in the purest, clearest way possible, or you can’t make decisions on a rational basis.”[10]

The founder of FedEx, Fred Smith, was given a ‘C’ by his college professor and told that to do better his idea must be feasible. Obviously it was Fred Smith who had the better understanding of reality[11].


Understanding Emotion and Intuition

The virtue of Rationality means that we act on the basis of evidence, rather than emotions. Our emotions are the product of our thinking (or lack of it) and so should not be ignored. They are powerful indicators of how we have evaluated whatever is causing the emotion. But it is important always to check that the thinking behind them is correct, before acting on them. “Prime movers are neither blind emotionalists nor emotionless rationalists. They are passionate lovers of their work and of success, who use reason to guide their choices and actions. Reason comes first, emotion second.”[12]

What about intuition? “Intuition refers to ideas or hunches or feelings fed to the conscious mind by the subconscious, based on past experience and thinking. The subconscious plays a critical role in every person’s thinking. In fact 99.999 percent of our knowledge is stored in the subconscious and is pulled out by association when needed, based on our conscious purposes.”[13] However if we relied only on intuition we would be limiting ourselves to previously stored knowledge: of course it is essential to check that what we have learned in the past still applies to the present.


Other Aspects of Rationality

These virtues are implied by rationality: independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.

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[1] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics” The Virtue of Selfishness (New American Library 1964) p. 25.

[2] Edwin Locke, The Prime Movers, Traits of the Great Wealth Creators (Amacom 2000) pp. 41-42

[3] J. E. Casey, “Our Partnership Legacy” in United Parcel Service of America (UPS, 1985), p. 120 quoted in Edwin Locke, op cit. p. 49

[4] Ayn Rand, op cit. p. 20

[5] Edwin Locke, op cit. pp. 46, 48

[6] Donna Greiner and Theodore Kinni, Ayn Rand and Business (Texere Publishing 2001) p.64.

[7] D. Kirkpatrick, “Intel’s Amazing Profit Machine”, Fortune, February 17, 1997, p. 72 quoted in Edwin Locke, op cit. p. 47

[8] ‘The Bill & Warren Show,’ Fortune, July 20, 1998 quoted in Edwin Locke, op cit. p.150

[9] L. Zinn in review of The Rain on Macy’s Parade by J. Trachtenberg, Business Week, December 9, 1996 pp. 18, 20, referenced in Edwin Locke, op cit. p. 44

[10] N. Tichy and S. Sherman, Control Your Own Destiny or Someone Else Will (Doubleday, 1993) pp. 12-13 quoted in Edwin Locke, op cit. p. 44.

[11] Thadeus Wawro quoted in Donna Greiner and Theodore Kinni, op cit. p.51

[12] Edwin Locke, op cit. p. 149

[13] Edwin Locke, op cit. p. 45


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