The Terrain

Your mind plays tricks on you. They brought me in because I’m the best. They want me to implement my way. This is foolish. This is ego-driven self-destruction.

Most of your impulses are bullshit. Most of your ideas suck. What you think is so important now will embarrass you not long from now.

Now that you’re out of school and on your own, you need to carve a space where these failures don’t define you. Where they don’t provide ammunition for others to dismiss you. In fact, the most important thing a company looks for when they hire a young person is not his skill but his ability to maintain and utilize those skills within the existing order. Doing this depends on your ability to understand and appreciate the terrain – the realities of the environment you’re hoping to succeed in.

Terrain takes a variety of forms. In social politics, Alinsky knew that tradition was the terrain. On the internet, it’s the way that information is communicated and spread. In organizations, personalities are the terrain.

Understanding and internalizing these intricacies requires a certain type of patience and humility. The wherewithal to come in and say nothing. You have to subjugate what you want with how things are.

Michael Polanyi, the scientist and philosopher, knew that belief in tradition was the key with which scientists often unlock the greatest discoveries. Each advancement takes for granted those that preceded it – implicitly they value the current system by nature of expanding and altering it. Those without the ability to take certain assumptions as a matter of faith are unable to proceed in any direction. They’re paralyzed by their own skepticism, like a revolutionary movie producer so distracted by the inefficiencies in union rules that he takes on the Teamsters at the expense of actually making a movie.

Thurgood Marshall had a mentor who refused to give him a job after law school. He told him he needed to get his “head kicked in” before he was worth anything to him. So Marshall left and was thrown around by racist judges and double standards and garbage cases. Through it he learned the secrets of the white legal system, secrets he later used to dismantle its many problems.

Consider a scientist who rejects Polanyi’s notion or a more conceited Thurgood Marshall. Both are stopped short of contribution because of their inability to develop a foundation with which they advance their goals. They are like a young person too fragile to stomach and tolerate conditions they don’t approve of.

The next time you find yourself in a new environment, dedicate weeks or even a few months to understanding the terrain. Give yourself time to be underestimated. Familiarize yourself with the system so you know what to do when you fuck up, so nothing is irreparable or permanent. Quieting your ego is not the same as changing your principles, in fact, it’s the best way towards implementing them.

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.