The Rules

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.

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.