Invisible Rules

What are the taken-for-granted assumptions behind your thoughts and decisions?

We may not know everything about everything, but that doesn’t make us wander about confused. Despite our ignorance, our world isn’t dark. We tell ourselves a coherent story about what’s going on based on the little we know, and effortlessly make sense of the world around us.

The truth is we don’t know what we don’t know. Each of us has a unique set of assumptions and rules that we subconsciously follow to go about life. Therefore, when we make any decision, we never start from zero.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, tells the fable of a saint who would lead his followers to meditation. Just as the followers were attaining their zen moment, they would be disrupted by a cat that would walk through the temple meowing and purring, bothering everyone. The saint came up with a solution. He asked the followers to tie the cat to a pole during meditation sessions. This solution quickly developed into a ritual: tie the cat to the pole first, meditate second.

But one day when the cat passed away, a crisis ensued. What were the followers supposed to do? How could they possibly meditate without tying the cat to the pole?

Our thoughts and decisions always have a set of taken-for-granted assumptions behind them. This story illustrates how certain habits and behaviours get unnecessarily codified into rules without us being aware. These are what rocket scientist turned author Ozan Varol calls Invisible Rules.

Unless we uncover them, it’s almost impossible to understand what’s really driving our decisions, and what are the flaws, if any, in our logic and thinking. We are perfectly capable of meditating without the cat, but we don’t realise it.

Even though written rules can also be resistant to change, invisible rules are far more tricky since they are hidden in plain sight. They limit our thinking, and since we don’t know what we are seeking, it’s extremely hard to figure out the loopholes.

For example, the typical career trajectory a middle-class Indian kid follows is: go to school, finish college, and get a government job. The obvious assumptions are: government jobs guarantee stability and the odds would be in your favour if you study well. The problem arises when the kid doesn’t get a job for some reason. They often find themselves in a fix, and without a plan. They never planned for this contingency. Because one of the invisible rules of this career trajectory is: follow the well-treaded path and avoid taking risks at all costs.

Middle class business families, on the other hand, have a completely opposite worldview. Their kids rarely go to college, and nobody in the family has got a soft corner for any kind of job, government or not. Their worldview is defined by a different set of assumptions and rules.

You see, our assumptions are our windows to the world. Unless we scrub them off once in a while, the light cannot come in. Every decision is grounded in some form of rules—conscious or not. To expose the invisible rules governing our life, we should spend time questioning our automatic assumptions. While making any decision, we should explicitly enquire what all have we taken for granted. What if this weren’t true? Why are we doing it this way? Can we get rid of this or replace it with something better?

It would be futile to start questioning each and everything. We need routines to free us from the thousands of exhausting daily decisions. Therefore, this exercise should be limited only to what matters the most. By doing so, we’ll not only be able to identify the flaws in our logic, but also stumble upon epiphanies once in a while.

For example, we used to assume that cabs can only be called on the road. Questioning this assumption gave us Uber. We used to assume that no sane person would rent their apartment to strangers. Questioning this assumption gave us Airbnb. We used to assume that money can only centralised. Questioning this assumption gave us crypto. Similarly, we used to assume that space exploration is only possible via a government backed entity. Elon Musk created SpaceX by questioning this very assumption.

Believe it or not, many of our invisible rules were developed in different environments, responding to problems that no longer exist. Going back to the government jobs example, they made sense in the 70s and 80s when the economy wasn’t doing well. Having a government job guaranteed you won’t suddenly become unemployed. But that isn’t the case now. On top of that, very soon there won’t be any government sponsored pension for us to enjoy, thereby making these jobs far less lucrative than they used to be.

The future is something that looks distinctly different from the present—both on a personal and a global level. But the fruit of the future is rooted in the present. Only if we can identify what in our present understanding of the world is the cat from the meditation fable, we’ll be able to change things for the better, and find out that it is possible to meditate without the cat.

My YouTube Video

Should you create for yourself or for your audience? What’s the difference? How does it effect you or your work quality? Does it really matter? If you are a creator, these very questions may trouble you. In this video, I try to answer them.

Thinking is Hard

Last week I announced RE:Thinking, my live online course on better thinking.

If you wonder, is thinking really so difficult that one would need to take a course, the short answer is: yes! Thinking is difficult, and most of us don’t know how to think properly.

All of us know and engage in Passive Thinking which is our default thinking, but very few of us—less than a minuscule—know how to practice Structured Thinking.

Passive thinking is prone to cognitive biases and mental errors, while Structured Thinking is targeted, and helps us quickly synthesise what we already know to generate creative ideas and make better decisions.

Structured Thinking is indispensable for top performers who want to take risks confidently, stand out from their peers, and position themselves for the best possible future.

If you are a student, a teacher, a researcher, a creator, a decision maker, or a knowledge worker who actively seeks information to become a better thinker, RE:Thinking is for you.

You’ll learn how to quickly identify and avoid garbage information, how to learn more and consume less, how to reinterpret others’ ideas to fit your needs, how to organise your growing knowledge in various fields into a structured form, how to constantly rediscover and reinterpret already known information, how to identify gaps in your understanding and plug the loopholes, how to generate new ideas based on what you already know, and more.

The information we consume turns into thoughts; our thoughts turn into ideas, and our ideas define us by turning into decisions and actions. Better thinking is an indispensable art. I’ve spent the last couple of years polishing a framework and transformed myself from being a passive consumer of information to an active generator of ideas. RE:Thinking is the culmination of that effort. Even if you are a tiny bit interested in better thinking, take some time to explore the course.

Explore RE:Thinking

45 Years. 6 Lessons. 

Joel Goldberg, a software developer, recently retired after working in the industry for over four decades. He shares some of the lessons he learned over his career. These aren’t limited to software engineering. We all can take away something from this.

  1. Beware of the curse of knowledge: When you know something it is almost impossible to imagine what it is like not to know that thing. It is the root of countless misunderstandings and inefficiencies.

  2. Focus on the Fundamentals: They are teamwork: great teams build great software. Don’t take it for granted; trust: teams move at the speed of trust. Be the kind of dependable person you would want to work with; and communication: communicate honestly and proactively.

  3. Simplify: Fighting complexity is a never-ending cause. Solutions should be as simple as possible. When you can use fewer technologies, do so.

  4. Seek first to understand: If you want to influence and work effectively with others, you first need to understand them. Actively listen to understand their feelings, ideas, and point of view before you begin trying to make your own thoughts known.

  5. Beware of lock-in: There will always be the next hot productivity product that will promise to revolutionise how work gets done. What is not always as obvious are the constraints you may be committing yourself to. Lock-in means significant cost to change. Choose wisely. New is not always better!

  6. Acknowledge when you don’t fit the role: At some point in your career you may find yourself in a role that isn’t a good fit. A bad fit isn’t a character flaw, but it’s a problem you shouldn’t ignore. The key is to have the self-knowledge to recognise what is happening, and get yourself out of an unhealthy spot. Being unhappy is in no-one’s best interests.

— What I’ve Learned in 45 Years in the Software Industry

4 Hour Entrepreneurship

In 4 Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss outlines interesting tips on managing resources to get the highest ROI on your work. What is objectionable, however, is the hack-your-way-to-success mentality it has spawned in entrepreneurial circles.

It’s a mindset that is antithetical to everything entrepreneurship is about. A mindset you see when you hear people talk about having an amazing idea that they want to farm out to a young college student who can code.

It’s a mindset that assumes entrepreneurship is a series of networking events and fundraising meetings, or some silver-bullet business connection one needs to have in lieu of a real distribution strategy. It’s taking a passive approach to an active undertaking.

To be successful over the course of a career requires the accumulation and application of expertise. And expertise is gained from curiosity, and a mindset of taking one’s craft very seriously.

If you step up to the challenge, you’ll realise that a startup demands rapid accumulation of knowledge. In this aspect, a startup is actually a teacher. And it’s only while exploring unknown territories and facing the headwind of challenges that you actively engage in both professional and character growth. But if you outsource this challenge, you don’t learn anything, and never build expertise.

That is why the passive, 4-hour mindset is so self-defeating. Lounging on a beach or travelling the world while choosing not to actively engage in building your arsenal of expertise is equivalent to professional malpractice.

If you are to optimise for anything, optimise for the long term. Use the challenges of your business today to build mastery in your craft. There is no guarantee that all your ventures will succeed, but that mastery will bend luck in your favour eventually.

— The Alternative to the Four Hour Work Week Mindset

Not Working

After Sahil Lavingia gave up his dream to build Gumroad into a billion-dollar company, he acquired a new asset: time. He used it to take classes on writing and painting.

Because he was burned out and didn’t want to think about working any more, he instituted a no-meeting, no-deadline culture. This changed the trajectory from growth at all costs to freedom at all costs.

Thus, instead of having meetings, people at Gumroad “talk” to each other via GitHub, Notion, and (occasionally) Slack, expecting responses within 24 hours. Because there are no standups or “syncs” and some projects can involve expensive feedback loops to collaborate, working this way requires clear and thoughtful communication. Everyone writes a lot. Everyone writes well.

There are no deadlines either. Shipping is incrementally, and launches are done whenever the stuff in development is better than what’s currently in production.

Growing 85% year-over-year, Gumroad has no full-time employees. Most entrepreneurs have two options: work a full-time job and hustle nights/weekends, or leave their job and risk everything to start a company. Gumroad provides a third way: contract 20–35 hours a week, incubate ideas, and work on a side hustle.

The internet has enabled new ways of working, but we’re just starting to see them unfold. There are many ways to make work work. Gumroad’s is just one.

— No Meetings, No Deadlines, No Full-Time Employees

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Until next Sunday,
Abhishek 👋