The Rules

January 7, 2011 — 5 Comments

One thing I’ve learned is that people are gluttons for punishment. Or, well, they are but unintentionally so. I mean this in the sense that we needlessly repeat mistakes and suffer their consequences and then wonder why we feel bruised and beaten down.

There was an episode of that gameshow where crazy Asian people humiliate themselves for lame prizes and one of the obstacles on the course was 5 rows of 3 walls. One of the walls in each row was a trick and the others were solid. The contestants had to crash through the faux-wall in each row as fast as they could before moving on to the next part of the course. I think of this image on a regular basis, as I watch people repeatedly hurl themselves against walls instead of trying the one next to it see if it is a trick. A favorite: forgetting that to ask for permission is to seek denial.

Scientists describe two kinds of learning environments known as wicked and kind. In a kind environment, we have clear visibility between causes and effects. Through this linkage, we’re able to properly evaluate our methods based on feedback and hopefully improve on an iterative basis. The medical community, for instance, has instituted a variety of procedures to make treatments as kind as possible to doctors. From the Socratic approach to the differential diagnosis to morbidity and mortality conferences, the profession is designed to create educational feedback from peers. In wicked environments, the visibility can be much different. A black box scenario is one type where trial and error is difficult because you have no sense of what or why things happen. You input, it outputs but middle process is not illuminated—it is a black box. A worse environment is where things are so chaotic that you get unreliable feedback. That is, the effect is incorrectly linked to a cause or, like a bad compass, the arrow points you in the wrong direction.

Our lives are a mix of kinder and more wicked environments than we tend to think. We have clear evidence that our approach is just not working and yet we try the same thing over and over. On top of this, there are politics and personal complications which run us into disincentives—logic that doesn’t compute right and leads to bad assumptions. The key to navigating this reality, I’ve found, is to have a sense of a larger purpose.

Robert has a saying that “it’s all material.” What he meant was that everything that happens to him can be used for something, like one of his books or a talk or a business venture. Since he’s a writer, this is a pretty understandable approach. But it’s freeing in other important ways because the larger purpose (going through bad things to get good material) allows you to be dispassionate in the immediate present. You’re simply collecting data. By bifurcating whatever it is you’re doing now from what you intend to later, you get to look at the data from two perspectives and it’s this process that makes it easy to spot anomalies. This develops a loop of action, [skeptical] evaluation, and change that becomes almost sub-conscious and runs on autopilot. The approach combines the trial and error of the kind environment with the presence of mind that transcends the traps of the wicked.

When James McPhee described basketball as a game of “subtle felonies,” he was expressing a similar idea. The best players operate by ignoring and violating the rules in each given situation, as appropriately as the circumstances allow. There is what the system tells you through direct feedback and a filter of your own larger goals which parse the data properly—putting it in distinct categories which you can access and learn from.

There is nothing quite as miserable as the act of throwing yourself against a door that won’t budge. As being stuck inside your own fetish for punishment because you can’t step back and understand that every situation is telling you something, ignoring the fact that you’re the only one who can decipher what it means and how to act on it. But this is what people do, as others slide right through trick walls and open passageways they aware enough to check.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

5 responses to The Rules

  1. Goddamnit. It’s deflating to get pegged that incisively.

  2. Yes, eventually I came to realize that some people have biological brain-style differences that make it harder for them to recognize patterns of cause-and-effect.

    I used to believe that it was psychological wounding from childhood experiences with narcissistic caretakers (and, well, it often is), but now that I see that there are often biological (or even spiritual) reasons for when people don’t identify the larger result of their actions, it’s had the peculiarly positive impact of making me a more patient man.

  3. Ever played the iPhone scrabble game called Words With Friends? I play occasionally with a few people and consistently beat one or two of them. At one point a couple of weeks ago, one dropped out and stopped playing. I spoke to her at a party recently and she said she was somewhat demoralized at always being beaten – since she has a good vocabulary and usually does well in the face to face version of scrabble. So she quit.

    Turns out, however, that she failed to recognize a critical difference between face to face scrabble and WWF. Not only is the iPhone game asynchronous, but it provides a trial and error capability that doesn’t exist in traditional scrabble. You can “try” different word combinations with no penalty. If the word isn’t actually a word, you just get a message saying the word you submitted is incorrect. No loss of turn. So you can effectively experiment with word combinations until you find something that nets you some decent points.

    Though she admitted that she noticed this when she innocently tried words and the game wouldn’t give her credit for them, she didn’t realize that this was something she could exploit to achieve her goal – to stop getting beaten. Moreover, it didn’t dawn on her that her opponents were likely to be leveraging this difference in their games, and that it was likely the reason she was getting beat.

    When I explained this to her, she was indignant. How could her friends be actively cheating against her? In the real game, she said, a player puts up a word and if the opponent doesn’t know the word, it can be challenged. Eventually, the dictionary can be called upon to adjudicate. To put up letters hoping they *might* make a word could never happen in traditional scrabble.

    Ah yes, but this isn’t traditional scrabble. I reminded her of a key difference between the two games. In WWF, the game itself decides whether a word is allowed; there is no opportunity to “challenge” a word. Indeed, the “challenge” aspect of scrabble exists to keep the game fair. It’s a check against cheating. (Imagine Lex Luthor playing Max at Scrabble and Max with no dictionary.) But when the game itself protects against cheating, the game is reduced to getting letters into positions that generate points. And it’s worth pointing out that if the WWF authors had considered the trial and error technique cheating, they could easily have written the game to have you lose your turn if you submitted an incorrect word. Or 2 or 5.

    So where does this leave my friend? She hasn’t invited me to play again. That, I know. But will she play *anyone* again? Will she “adapt” and start using the trial and error technique to level the playing field? Or will she maintain her principled disappointment and write the game off completely? It’s TBD at this point.

    There are the rules we think exist (whether consciously or not) and the rules that really do exist (or not). And then there’s how much of the difference we’re aware of, and most importantly, what we do about it. I liked this post a lot, Ryan. Very timely for me.

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