Don’t Tear Down Chesterton’s Fence

by | Apr 11, 2022


I’ve been on quite a few charitable boards over my career. Early on, when I joined a board I was an eager beaver. Right away, I typically had all sorts of suggestions about what the organization should start doing and stop doing. But with rare exception, my ideas weren’t improvements and the other board members or staff would gently explain why. I look back with embarrassment — I should have given the organization more credit for knowing what it was doing. I should have listened and learned first.

Of course, the fresh view of an outsider can be just the thing an organization needs. But instead of charging ahead and wanting to make changes, I’ve learned that it’s best to slow down and first understand why things are the way they are. A mental model to consider whenever you think something should change is that of Chesterton’s Fence which is a metaphor that says: “don’t ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up.”

This concept is from G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book, “The Thing.” In the book, Chesterton said:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”


  1. This is also a great principle to keep in mind with the political polarization in our country today:
    Also try to understand how/why the other person thinks the way he/she does.

  2. A great model to have operating in the background when making suggestions


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