The Doctrine of Three

We often remark quixotically that life is chaotic, random and uncertain. We talk of how one should appreciate every moment because one can never know when your last day will be. We observe how you shouldn’t expect to have a plan and follow it to the letter in life because, well, life happens. At some visceral level it bothered me that life was completely uncertain. I felt that it wasn’t.

In fact, I am taken by how many patterns I see around me. There are patterns to weather and to sleep, patterns to emotions and to eating. All of these are seemingly random and unpredictable and yet, they all follow patterns of sorts. We are immersed among complex layers of interconnected patterns on a daily basis. Many of these patterns come in the form of continuums of activity, which is to say that weather for example is a continuum. It is not a single expression of a pattern but rather a spectrum where snow, rain, wind and sun are all part of the pattern of weather. Continuums are what give us the impression that the world is chaotic and uncertain. If that were true than scholarship, big data and more would be essentially useless endeavours. How can you study or model something that has absolutely no pattern and no order?

Within any continuum of activity one can categorize what is occurring into three ‘distinct’ categories. Imagining for a moment a linear construct, on the one hand you will have the rightmost extreme (the right 20%) and on the other hand you will have the left most extreme (left 20%). What remains is the middle or ‘mixed’ observations (the middle 60%).

I would like to advance a model for categorizing continuous activities that I call ‘the doctrine of three.’ It takes inspiration from Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean which argues that moral action is the middle ground between two extremes. The doctrine of three advances the position that you can divide any continuum of activity into three distinct phases: a rightmost extreme, a leftmost extreme and a middle ‘mixed’ section. The use of right and left is purely to aid to explanation and is not inherent to the doctrine. The proper way to do this division is into extreme A, extreme B and middle section C.

Polar Opposites and Examples

Within any continuum of activity, you always have polar opposites. Polar opposites are essential to this doctrine. Let’s run through some examples. For the continuum of economic systems, you have capitalism and communism. For the continuum of velocity, you have acceleration and deceleration. For the continuum of political ideologies, you have totalitarianism and anarchy. These are polar opposites; they are fundamentally incompatible. No society is truly capitalist and communist at the same time.

How does one apply the doctrine of three to real phenomena? We already do this categorization in many different ways. We define economy’s as capitalist, communist or ‘mixed economies.’ For velocity you have one of three states – accelerating, decelerating or constant velocity (constant speed). For political systems you have totalitarianism and anarchy, and most political systems are some combination of the two and therefore fall into the ‘mixed’ category. Perhaps the simplest categorization of three that we use is “beginning, middle and end.”

Why is This Helpful?

In formalizing this doctrine, I have found it immensely useful when seeking to organize or alter existing patterns of behavior. It helps me take stock of what I’m witnessing, place it in context with alternatives and then make systematic adjustments accordingly. Let me give you an example. In a recent project for Scout – Northeastern’s Student-led Design Studio – I was tasked with picking and onboarding the team onto a customer relationship management tool (CRM).

There were many ways of applying the doctrine of three here. I settled on looking at a categorization of the use of systems. On one extreme you have all information and maintenance for a system (such as a CRM) passing through one person, who is solely responsible for that. On the other extreme, you have a completely decentralized system where a number of people add, alter and update information. Finally, you have a middle section which combines elements of the two.

The doctrine of three helped me put this in context. It also provided the staging ground for my choices on the matter. Instinctually I thought that either extreme would be unwieldly or unsustainable. Having all information pass through one person (who would likely be me) would be a massive investment of resources with a high trade-off and would not be an efficient use of that person’s time. However, having things completely decentralized would be likely to degenerate over time. In the absence of responsibility and the upholding of standards things gradually degenerate. A contact’s email is not added, or their position isn’t and so on. Eventually, the CRM often simply stops being used.

So, I settled on the middle section. This combined the best aspects of decentralization – having the entire management team on the CRM and cc’ing it with Scout emails – and that of centralization – I continued to monitor the CRM, add and update files and make sure it matched past and present data.

Applying the Doctrine of Three

The Doctrine of Three is not a solution and answer to the innumerable set of problems one faces. Instead, it’s a way of cutting complex phenomena down and categorizing what you observe systematically. It’s a tool on the path to a solution. Once you define a few sets of three, you can then contextualize a great deal of the phenomena you observe accordingly. You can continue to categorize in more detail beyond the initial three categories and indeed we often do – you can have five, ten and so on. The key to effectively applying this doctrine is to astutely observe (or make objective guesses) on an entire continuum of activity to inform your categorization.


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