Rules for Radicals: Working within The System

“It seems to me that utilizing the “Spartan” technique would be motivated by _not_ mastering the subject, and _not_ having enthusiasm. Otherwise why use a model so restrictive?

I think you actually mentioned somewhere in your Spartan essay that using your formula would ensure safety from the teacher marking you down for not adhering to the prompt. Is that really worth sacrificing your creative liberty? I guess it would be for some one who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and doesn’t really care.

I got this comment about the paper format and it is something that I encounter pretty often. This attitude is more than just about the paper–it’s just the wrong way to look at life. It is the scourge of people who look to make change and the refuge of people who like talking more than doing.

Of course my format has some limitations. Welcome to the real fucking world. Compromise, give and take–it’s called strategy. You figure out what you want and then your figure out the best means of getting there. Are essays a relatively stupid way of judging comprehension? Sure. But they exist and you’re 17, so deal with it (likewise to whatever you’re doing). So they key is to find the best way to accomplish what you’d like to accomplish or to say what you want to do say in a manner that doesn’t involve needless punishment or prima facie dismissal. That’s not selling out–it’s called being a man.

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it as, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be–it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.

Alinsky, Saul D.

Rules for Radicals

There is a difference between something being restrictive and being simple. The paper format is simple. True mastery becomes simplicity–it becomes intuitive. If you can’t explain your point simply, basically and straight-forwardly then you haven’t mastered it. I was observing a conversation a few weeks ago between someone who was a supposed expert and a lay person. The expert was using all these buzzwords and complicated language and the other person asked him to explain because he was confused. And in response, the expert got even more technical and complex. To me, this was proof that the guy had absolutely no clue what he was talking about, because if you can’t be utterly simple then you don’t have a true understanding. The goal is to find the most basic, most approachable way of delivering your message and then to ram it through until it stops working. Sure, a two intro paragraph-rambling-Bob Dylan quoting paper is more artistic and creative but it just doesn’t do the job. And if it doesn’t do the job then you’re just pleasuring yourself. As Frank Luntz would say “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

This in turn facilitates passion. If you cut the time you have to spend on aesthetics, then you increase the time you can spend on content–on the message. Which should always be your goal. The less effort you need to exert screaming to get people to listen is effort that can be spent doing what Cicero wanted: Mastering the subject. With a paper it’s the same, the format allows you to dedicate yourself to thinking and then the thoughts write themselves. And that’s how it should be when you try to change a system: What is your ROI? If it’s not working, try something else.

Lastly, prompts are almost always stupid. And so are the rules within any system. They have to be. The last thing a teacher wants is 40 kids writing about whatever the fuck they want. The incumbents look to minimize effort on their part. So a prompt is designed to create similar, obvious answers. So are rules, traditions and customs. The format allows you to get the grade but ACTUALLY be creative. That’s the beauty of it. When you redefine and the continually codify through the Spartan square, you get away with being creative. People hate outliers and in this case, you are disguising an outlier as rule-abider. This is always the key to my strategy: How do I get away with being innovative but still look ordinary?

A true radical has to work within the system. If it is a system worth destroying, it is a powerful one. And the way to destroy a powerful enemy is to use it’s own strength against it. I talked last week about challenging the way things are and have been, but you must do it intelligently. If wearing whatever I wanted to work prevented me from being effective, I would stop. And so should you.

There are people out there whether it be in Hollywood or Wall Street or your 8th grade classroom that have already made their bones and their money. They don’t want you to succeed. If you announce your intentions or your flagrantly flaunt a disregard for the “way of doing things” they’ll spend their time sabotaging you instead of competing. People are shocked when revolutionaries or cult figures are killed–what did you expect? Power is power is power. People disappear every fucking day. There is nothing noble about taking some ludicrous stand on something you have no possibility of coming through on.

Plenty of people, especially young people, talk about radical change but don’t have the balls to do. And real balls isn’t living a utopia where words are enough and everyone listens to your objections–it’s getting up everyday pushing the discussion where you want it to go, of trying a 100 things for every 10 successes, of protecting what’s truly important over what is just ego, and realizing how pathetic and cowardly martyrs really are. So take stands on the hills you’re willing to die on and save the rest for the immolators.

That is where the paper format finds it’s roots.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.