#38: second-order content thinking (and why you need it)

You are reading contentfolks—a fortnightly blend of sticky notes, big content ideas, and small practical examples. Thank you for being here! ~fio

Hey 👋  

There’s a crucial skill for content marketers* that almost never makes it into job descriptions or professional development plans: second-order thinking, or the ability to think through the consequences of an action or decision and also the consequences of those consequences. 

*and humans in general.

Why second-order thinking is important

Both in life and at work, your standard thought process is linear and looks something like this: I do A → I achieve B. This is a first-order consequence.

With second-order thinking, you keep thinking to evaluate second, third, …nth-level consequences, both positive and negative: I do A → I achieve B (first order) → B could have positive consequences C and D or negative consequence E (second order) → C might have positive consequence F or negative consequences G and H (third order)etc.

The latter is a more complex thought process than the former, but it’s also one that gives you a competitive edge: while everyone else is following the same decision-making path and reaching the same conclusions, you are deliberately working through additional scenarios, noticing things others have missed, and using them to your advantage.

3 steps to build your second-order thinking habit

To become an effective second-order thinker, you just have to practice these 3 steps over and over:
1. Ask yourself “and then what?” multiple times, considering both positive and negative outcomes;
2. Think about short- and long-term consequences: tomorrow, next month, next year;
3. Consider who else might be affected by your actions, and how.

By the way, this logic applies to everything you do in content marketing: growing the team, picking the overall strategy, choosing your smaller tactics, hiring external collaborators—the list goes on.

💡 A practical example 💡

Let’s say your CEO/VP/Director/Manager/boss, who doesn’t deeply understand how content marketing works, wants to scale content production.

Your boss, using first-order thinking → let’s hire five freelance writers to 5x production by next month.

You, using second-order thinking: let’s hire five freelance writers → onboarding, managing, and briefing five new resources adds extra work to my schedule → I’ll need to delegate or deprioritise existing tasks → this will cause project delays → let me alert the team to minimise disruption.

Also you, using second-order thinking: let’s hire five freelancer writers → the time I spend briefing and editing people’s work will grow five-fold → production won’t scale as quickly as the higher-ups expect → I might get blamed for not achieving results fast enough → let me manage expectations and negotiate better terms.

Here, second-order thinking is what can make the difference between you crashing & burning or being told you aren’t a good manager of time and resources, versus you being an effective content pro who can anticipate friction, reduce frustration, and stay in control.

Second-order thinking becomes easier the more you practice the 3 steps above. And for the lovers of random anecdotes, here’s one to illustrate what the lack of second-order thinking can lead to: in 1890, a Shakespeare fan forgot to ask himself “and then what?” when he decided to introduce every bird mentioned by the playwright to North America—including sixty tiny, cute, inoffensive European starlings.

murmuration of starlings
A murmuration of starlings looks beautiful—but only in Europe

…except within a couple of decades the original sixty had become millions of starlingswho, drunk with bird power, turned into an invasive species that’s still bullying the local fauna, pooping everywhere, and generally causing all kinds of mischief.

…you’ve been warned 😉