What can happen when we fail to use the Functional Mindset?

Imagine a very powerful and wealthy man has a medical emergency, dangerous yet not lethal. As you may expect, such man is treated by the most respected and capable medical professional in his country, which happen to be one of the most technologically and scientific leaders in the world.

Yet, the man dies. Not because of his initial health issue, but because he is made ill by the treatment provided by his physicians. And not because they made a mistake, but because they willingly decided to ignore established medical facts relevant to the condition of this man. What would you think of that?

This is not a hypothetical scenario. Let’s this stunning example of the harmful consequences that we have to face when we fail to use a Functional Mindset.

In 1881, US president  James Garfield was shot twice at extremely close range by an assassin called Charles Guiteau. The president was immediately rushed back to the White House where 16 leading physician gathered to aid in the treatment of the patient.


These physician were not incompetent by any means: you would hardly imagine poor professional being employed as physicians at the White House to treat the wounded U.S. president, wouldn’t you? They were probably the best of the best you could find at that given moment, by any reasonable measure, and you would suppose Garfield would have received the best possible treatment.

Indeed the president survived his wounds. Not because of the treatment received. His injuries, while serious, were not fatal and had no complications.  However, at that time, medical professional didn’t yet give much though about germs and their harmful effects. Surgery was routinely performed without surgical gloves, masks, head covers, antibiotics nor anesthesia. These leading physicians didn’t even wash their hands before sticking their uncovered fingers or unsterilized instruments in the open wounds. As a consequence, president Garfield developed an infection, causing several complications which would ultimately lead to his death. Two months and two weeks later he died. Not because of the shooting, but because of the treatment he received.

Now… We all know in history people didn’t have neither the technology nor the scientific knowledge we do know. Consequently, medical care (and nearly any other aspect of our lives) was far below any standard we would deem to be even remotely acceptable today.

We all understand science has brought incredible benefits to our everyday life and it can’t be compared to what people did in the past. However, what happened here however is much more interesting than that. You can think this is a story about the development of science. But we are talking about it not to point out that, rather we want to shred light about the application of the Functional Mindset.

Between habit and science: what would our children think of us?


The reason this is much more important and deserves a deeper thought is that we tend to react to these stories with something on the line of “Oh, that’s true, hurray science!” And period, that’s pretty much all the thought we give to it.

Why? Because we assume we are talking about ghosts from the past, and we feel reassured that today things are different. But are they?

They certainly are from a scientific and a technological perspective. But what about functionality? In other words, how much they are in line with the Functional Mindset?

As we’ve seen in What is the Functional Mindset?, this is basically a very simple process (yet very uncommon and unnatural): whenever we have a goal, and we make the decision on how to pursue it, we should stop and take the time to figure out how our strategy is in line with currently available knowledge about that topic. I am now using “strategy” in loose terms: often we don’t have an actual strategy and we act pretty mindlessly, in the “whatever comes into my mind” sort of way, just to find out outcomes in our lives are not what we would expect, and that our dreams stayed dreams. However, in a loose sense, you could consider that as a strategy as well: a poor one, sure, but we still are conscious individuals who had the opportunity to make an action plan. If we choose that our action plan is “go without an action plan”, that’s still a conscious decision (however mindless, dangerous and ineffective it may be).

Now, back to president Garfield. As you read the story, you probably assumed he died because of the lack of knowledge, at his time, of scientific principles we now take for granted. That’s however, incorrect. There was not a lack of a scientific knowledge, but a lack of functionality.

How so? Well, let’s have a quick look at the development of the so called Germ Theory, the now established medical theory that germs cause disease. There were actually several pre-scientific postulations of this idea, and it was proposed first by Girolamo Fracastoro already in 1546, and later expanded by Marcus von Plenciz in 1762. Not much work has been done upon it, however, because the theory was reject in favour of the (unscientific) theory of miasma (“bad air”) as the cause of disase. At that time, the scientific method was poorly understood and has yet to be regularly applied to any other field of knowledge besides physics. The nearly unanimous acceptance of the miasma theory over the germ theory was, thus understandable. At that time they were both equally unsubstantiated by evidence, since collecting actual scientific evidence and choosing the dominant theory according to them was something no one really ever done (again, besides physics). This changed, however, in the 19th century, with the work of several individuals, such as:

  • Agostino Bassi, who conducted a series of experiments between 1808 and 1813)
  • John Snow (who, after studying an epidemic of cholera, published convincing scientific evidence between 1849 and 1855 about how the disease spread)
  • Louis Pasteur who between 1860 and 1864 conducted experiments showing the effect of infectious germs, and figure out how to make food and drinks safe by killing microbes in it (thorugh the process we call today call pasteurisation)
  • Joseph Lister, who in the 1870s, developed practical applications to medical settings of the germ theory, developing aseptic surgical techniques
  • Most notably, Ignaz Semmelweis, an obstetrician who, in 1847, noticed drammatically different incidence of mortality between children delivered by midwives and that (much higher!) of those delivered with the help of doctors and medical students. Investigating further, he realised that the death rate was so high because of germs carried by the doctors, who often came directly from autopsies without washing their hands. He made doctors wash their hadns with chlorinated lime water before examining pregnant women, achieving at his hospital an astonishing reduction of rates of childbirth, from 18% to 2.2%,

Now, this may all be interesting from an historical perspective, but that’s not what I am after. Please have one more quick look at the dates, and think about our story about president Garfield. Do you notice anything odd? Let me spare you the trouble of looking back at the date of his death: 1881.

This is, to me, the interesting take away of this event. Not that a person, however powerful and important, died because there was a lack of scientific knowledge at his time. That’s obvious and we all realise that. What is interesting that the leading physicians of one the most scientifically and technologically advanced country in the world killed their president by failing to apply medical knowledge wich was, by all means, already available. Very convincing scientific evidence was available at least 20 to 30 years before that event. Yet, they still opted for an action plan ignoring this knowledge and based on the outdated miasma theory which had no scientific evidence in support of it.

This is the perfect example of what the Functional Mindset is: whenever we make an action plan, are we asking ourselves “is this plan in line with the current scientific knowledge about this topic”? These physician clearly did not follow this simple principle.

I find it scary and deeply troublesome to think one of the most “important” and powerful men in the world could be killed by the “best” professionals in their field because they made decisions which were in clear contrast with the currently available scientific knowledge.


I think this begs the question: how much does this apply to our life? If this is a problem which can affect the effortful decision of such respected professionals in a such delicate circumstance, how much can it affect the decisions we all make (often mindlessly) day by day, hoping them to give us a happy life? And how much does this happen today? Are we different from the past? Do we live , and do we pursue our goals in accordance to the currently available knowledge about what the best methods and strategies are?

Unfortunately, there are two sides to this coin. There is no doubt our knowledge (particularly the knowledge about how to make our everyday life better, which is what we are concerned with) has dramatically increased, and that both our potential and our life quality has increased with it. However, it is also undeniable that we are adapting so slowly, that ultimately this progress also means we are less functional then every, and we are wasting most of our immense potential.

Which can have huge costs, both to individuals, and to society as a whole.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *