Image source: Michael Dorausch
Sometimes, it’s counterintuitive and counterproductive to follow rules. The challenge is to determine when and why. This piece was inspired by Kevin Roose’s piece on Strategic Rule-breaking, and I wanted to expand on the concept behind it.
The worst thing is being neat when, socially, you’re supposed to be sloppy, or clean when you’re supposed to be filthy. There’s an analogy here with the excessively washed and polished automobile, almost infallibly a sign of prole ownership. Class people can afford to drive dirty cars.
Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System
There’s a funny side effect to breaking rules – that people may respect you more. Why?
The Rule of Nonconformity (and Eccentricity)
Imagine three groups of people: those with low, medium, and high amounts of a desirable trait, like wealth. Someone without much income would have to make big sacrifices to buy a BMW. If you’ve got a bit more money—you’re a medium—it’s easier for you to signal wealth, and you might buy status symbols so that no one mistakes you for a poor person. A really wealthy person, on the other hand—a high—can distinguish himself from the mediums by choosing not to send costly signals of wealth. If he has enough secondary signals of status—a prime address, a high-profile list of friends—he’ll feel secure in not being mistaken for poor. (Understatement can also work when signalling talent, popularity, or intellect. Thus, Harvard graduates say only that they went to school “in Boston.”)
Matthew Hutson, New Yorker magazine
People with an abundance of desirable traits have the luxury of not following rules. Through media or reality, we inherently understand this. For example, the Bunny Ears Lawyer is a character that gets away with wearing ridiculous clothes because her expertise is so valuable. Similarly, the Genius Ditz is a character that can get by not knowing anything except for this narrow field of knowledge – in which she is unsurpassed.
Studies show that we inherently attribute high value or status to individuals who don’t conform.
In Zuckerberg’s case, he has a company that every financier wants a piece of. He has user data that every company would love to get their hands on. He gets away with wearing a hoodie. Following in the footsteps of Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft is trying to position its new CEO by dressing him down in t-shirts and hoodies.
This is likely one of the factors that made this student’s cover letter for an internship at an investment bank spread through the company so rapidly – the nonconformity, or eccentricity, indicated that individual’s high confidence in himself and his courage. Every other applicant had the opportunity to do this, but they didn’t.
The Rule of Understatement
Call it “strategic sloppiness.” We’ve known for years that the higher you are on the food chain, the more license you’re allowed to take with the rules of professional communication. It’s why Michael Bloomberg can reply to e-mails with “tx” instead of spelling out “thanks,” and why many of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s e-mails to his subordinates consist of only a single question mark, appended to the top of a customer’s e-mail. As the boss, you can make as many mistakes as you want. Cutting corners is a time-saving mechanism that doubles as a display of dominance.
This is what author and columnist Kevin Roose observed in the business world.
Only those in the middle-class are super anxious about the rules. They will take special care to cater to those above them in order to show them that they know the rules. But, this extra care and conformity only indicates to those in the upper class the fact that the person they are corresponding with is self-conscious – which indicates this other person may be in the middle or lower class, or they don’t have an abundance of skills – so they must follow the rules to compensate.
Those in the upper class aren’t worried about following rules, or being sloppy, because they are class-secure.
And the important point is this: there’s no one playing in any of these theaters, no matter how imposing, who isn’t, much of the time, scared to death that he’s going to stumble muff his lines, appear in the wrong costume, or otherwise bomb. If you find an American who feels entirely class-secure, stuff and exhibit him. He’s a rare specimen.
Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System
Class-security is a scarce trait. If you want to be seen in the same class (or as a higher class), you also need to be class-secure. Never show your embarrassment or shame at misunderstanding a rule or overlooking it. Embarrassment and shame are make people wonder about your self-consciousness. Don’t waste your remorse on that time there was an unwanted crease on your tie, or didn’t pour enough red wine into your client’s glass – save it for real events and issues that deserve them.
In regards to understatement – perhaps Monocle founder and journalist Tyler Brule was onto something when he frowned on CMOs taking selfies next to each other and tweeting about it. He believes a lot of brands are wasting their mystique by being too accessible.
Or, as a smart person once wrote, “If you have to share a photo of something, that’s probably the surest way to let people know it doesn’t happen regularly.”
(I’m so pissed I lost the link to the original article or Tweet. If you’ve come across it, please share.)
The Rule of Affiliation (and Lack Thereof)
As you move up the classes and the understatement principle begins to operate, the words gradually disappear, to be replaced, in the middle and upper-middle classes, by mere emblems, like the Lacoste alligator. Once, ascending further, you’ve left all such trademarks behind, you may correctly infer that you are entering the purlieus of the upper class itself.
Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System
Notice how Gap has its brand all over the sweater, whereas Lacoste and Ralph Lauren only have small logos on their shirts? People in positions of power are so class-secure that they don’t need to flaunt their affiliations. (This is what Kanye West meant about the ”Lanvin thousand dollar tee with no logos“.)
In the case of B2B marketing, their stories are almost completely built on affiliations – through client lists, strategic alliances, or press coverage. In this case, it’s better to display a smaller number of clients, but are extremely famous. For example, when I see designedmemory‘s page and see Beyonce’s and Lucy Liu’s name (and of course, the rather unique design), any questions I had about credibility became a lower priority.
If your business requires you to name drop, flaunt only famous affiliations when absolutely necessary – and never make it too flashy.
At the end of the day, when you break these rules, you make people think that you’re good enough to get by without having to follow them. If possible, indicate that you’re aware there are rules – and you simply don’t care. This earns you the respect of those in power, who will build a relationship with you as an equal.
Make sure you have the skills to back this image up, and you’re golden. No one likes to be disappointed, especially by a loudmouth.
[I wasn't too sure whether to publish this piece or not, as it seems a bit manipulative and conniving. Nonetheless, I channeled my inner Robert Greene.]
Image Source: romainguy
The realms of relationships, politics, and conflicts pour into our daily lives. Each is also related to war. (For example, author Alain de Botton once wrote about “romantic terrorism“.) Similarly, the business world is built on war principles, hence the terms “campaign” and “strategy”.
B.H. Liddell Hart was generally recognized as one of the most brilliant military strategists of the twentieth century. He had fought in World War I and advised the British war leaders through World War II. History has clearly played a crucial part in his success as a strategist:
In predicting the decisive developments of World War II I know that I owed more to this practical application of the historical method than to any brainwave of my own.
That passage was taken from his book, Why Don’t We Learn From History? I’ve plucked some passages that have some interesting parallels to modern day life. It starts with history functioning not as a mere set of stories, but as a substance to soothe the mind:
1. History as Mental Medicine
A long historical view not only helps us to keep calm in a “time of trouble” but reminds us that there is an end to the longest tunnel.
Even a basic glimpse into the fundamentals of history reminds learners that times of trouble are temporary and will come to pass. Every tunnel has an end. Our fight lies not necessarily with bringing about a swifter end, but with enduring until we adapt and earn the ability to thrive under changing conditions.
2. The Best Sources of Thought and Advice
In contrast to the military, the medical profession has incessant practice. Yet the great advances in medicine and surgery have been due more to the scientific thinker and research worker than to the practitioner.
Many entrepreneurs or startup employees repeat the mantra, “Ideas are worthless, and execution is everything.” While many people err on the side of valuing ideas too heavily, simply executing harder is no panacea for life or business problems. As Liddell Hart writes:
A life spent in sowing a few grains of fruitful thought is a life spent more effectively than in hasty action that produces a crop of weeds. That leads us to see the difference, truly a vital difference, between influence and power.
Furthermore, Liddell Hart also suggests refraining from taking advice from just about anyone:
The test of whether the principle works is to be found in the product.
He also writes:
To take the opinion of generals, admirals, or air marshals on the deeper problems of war, as distinct from its executive technique, is like consulting your local pharmacist about the treatment of a deep-seated disease. However skilled in compounding drugs, it is not their concern to study the causes and consequences of the disease, nor the psychology of the sufferers.
Even the best sources can easily share flawed advice – either due to a lack of specialized expertise or situational context. If you must ask, try to find information instead of an opinionated piece of advice.
3. Keeping Your Hands Clean in a Dirty World
A different habit, with worse effect, was the way that ambitious officers when they came in sight of promotion to the generals’ list, would decide that they would bottle up their thoughts and ideas, as a safety precaution, until they reached the top and could put these ideas into practice. Unfortunately the usual result, after years of such self-repression for the sake of their ambition, was that when the bottle was eventually uncorked the contents had evaporated.
One of humanity’s greatest strengths is habituation. Unfortunately, this power also acts as our greatest weakness. Stay in a situation or system too long, and you risk changing to become little more than just a part of that machine.
In order to preserve their chances of promotion, officers bottled up their opinions and feelings until they reached the highest ranks of the army, claiming they’d change the system once they earned the power to. When they finally became the new leaders, they realized that their original ambitions were nowhere to be found. Ambition is not a constant, nor are drive and motivation. Use them while you have it. And if you do not, then it will be your job to get them back.
It was because he really understood war that he became so good at securing peace. He was the least militaristic of soldiers and free from the least of glory. It was because he saw the value of peace that he became so unbeatable in war.
What an interesting paradox – in order to secure peace, you must understand war. In order to spread generosity, you must understand greed. In order to fully live life, you must face death. I’ll stop with the cliches: these nice wordy paradoxes could go on ad infinitum.
4. How to Avoid Becoming a Yes-Man or a Yes-Woman
Loyalty is a noble quality, so long as it is not blind and does not exclude the higher loyalty to truth and decency.
Your greatest loyalty should always be to truth and decency. Any other priorities are secondary. All conflicting priorities can be negated. This is integrity and honesty, and while it may be brutal in the short-run, your friends and family will thank you in the long-run, and your advice will become more valuable.
5. Process and Shortcuts
Bad means lead to no good end.
This neatly summarizes Liddell Hart’s thoughts on governments that considered temporarily employing totalitarianism in order to speed up decision making during times of war. I am neither a historian nor a political scientist, so I won’t comment any further on this opinion – but I do agree with this thought in general; if your conscience goes against it, think twice.
We learn from history that expediency has rarely proved expedient.
A short-term focus on speed can result in a slower project overall. For example, pair programming appears to be more wasteful and slow than a single programmer. While they appear slower than two individual programmers, their results shine in debugging – where they produce 15% fewer bugs. As debugging is a large part of project time, having an extra pair of eyes allows programmers to nip these bugs in the bud.
A simpler example: One of my best friends was running late for our group date (unfortunately, I was extremely early), and was stuck on a non-express train into downtown. He hopped off to catch a cab, hoping to get into town on time. As luck would have it, there were no cabs around, and he had to wait for the next train. Due to his unfortunate forecast, he was later than he would have been had he stayed on the original train. (Not to worry, he still arrived before our dates – another story, perhaps for another time.)
6. How Freedom Bolsters Productivity
I believe that freedom is the foundation of efficiency, both national and military.
Liddell Hart recalled that the Australian Corps, a small fighting force opposed to conscription, was generally recognized as the best fighting force in the fourth year of the war. Their choice to fight contributed to their overall effectiveness.
While not in the domain of the military, I’ve found this to be true of my own personal productivity. My quality and quantity of output improves when I get to choose the times I work, the location, and the methods that I employ. Research from Concordia University supports this: freedom increases employee productivity and workplace satisfaction.
7. Submission is Not a Solution
…they at least showed themselves men of honour and, in a long view, of more fundamental common sense than those who argued that we should give aggressors a free hand so long as they left us alone. History has shown, repeatedly, that the hope of buying safety in this way is the greatest of delusions.
Submitting to a threat is not a solution; it should merely be a cost you pay to purchase more time – usually to strike back, or building leverage to compel negotiation.
When the Persians invaded ancient Greece, some Greek city states chose to side with the much more sizeable and intimidating army. Larger city states, like Athens and Sparta, realized that this was futile: there would be no mercy for these two powerhouses, and even if they had bended to Persia’s whims, they would only be losing power and morale in the process. There was nothing to gain by waiting out an impending conflict.
Or as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata writes:
It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!
8. Rethinking Victory
Think about why acquisitions are preferred to stomping a competitor out of existence. Besides the potential mutual conservation of resources and possible mutual benefits:
For victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, because victory breeds among the vanquished a desire for vindication and vengeance and because victory raises fresh rivals.
Although we mainly see conflict winning victories in movies and the news, the indirect method of victory could also be the most effective. Winning an argument does little except for a temporary boost in ego. Instead, leave a trail for your opponent to move back to and exit from the arena:
It is an elementary principle of strategy that, if you find your opponent in a strong position costly to force, you should leave him a line of retreat – as the quickest way of loosening his resistance.
Also, understand that if you push too hard, you may get bitten:
But the more right it is, the more vital that Western statesmen in taking counter-measures should bear in mind a long-standing lesson of police experience – that “a burglar doesn’t commit murder unless he is cornered.”
9. Postpone to Diffuse Tension
On the other hand, tension is almost bound to relax eventually if war is postponed long enough. This has happened often before in history, for situations change.
While procrastination can be a terrible trait, it can also be a great strength: if you can bring yourself to procrastinate on a vice, it could help diffuse the tension or inner conflict.
10. Embrace the Calm
I love Kanye West to death, but I think it would be easier to defend my musical tastes and opinions on him if he embraced this principle:
Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save his face.
Unfortunately, by calling out companies like Nike or Saint Laurent, he is only working himself into further anger – as well as repulsing them from potentially collaborating with him in the future. It’s an expressive choice, but certainly not the most pragmatic option.
11. Get Comfortable with Breaking Rules
A model boy rarely goes far, and even when he does he is apt to falter when severely tested. A boy who conforms immaculate to school rules is not likely to grow into a man who will conquer by breaking the stereotyped professional rules of his time – as conquest has most often been achieved.
Liddell Hart’s view on breaking rules is it’s a skill that will be tested. Should you continue playing in the boundaries of (artificial) safety, your skill in breaking rules and your courage will dwindle compared to someone who is forced to break from tradition and dogma often. If your day job doesn’t allow for this, perhaps you should consider a side project that forces you to think differently.
We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the “conspiracy for mutual inefficiency.”
The people that want things to stay the same are the ones who are currently at the top (as the late political organizer Saul D. Alinksy called them, the Haves). This is a very small slice of the population; if you are to try to vault yourself into it, at the very least you will have to reinvent the rules and the system in some way.
12. Reinforcing Morals with Mutual Convenience
We must face the fact that international relations are governed by interests and not by moral principles. Then it can be seen that the validity of treaties depends on mutual convenience.
Because most people are governed by self-interest, you would do well to bind your promises to mutual conveniences. As much as possible, make sure your incentives or rewards are in line with your ally’s.
Entrepreneur Andy Fletcher suggests broaching this topic with your collaborator: “How can we protect each other from getting ripped off?”
His observation: “If they get insulted by this question. There’s a good chance it was an option to them.”
When in doubt, seek relevant information. Whatever problem you are facing, it’s likely that someone else has faced some form of it in the past – your job is to seek out the information (yikes), process it, understand it, and apply it. I’ll leave you with one of Liddell Hart’s gems from Why Don’t We Learn From History?:
There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind.
I am now 22.
Anyway…because of my own green-ness and relative lack of experience, I feel as though I’m barely qualified to share my advice. Thus, instead of doing that, I’d like to share pieces of inspiration that have gotten me through tough times. It is my hope that they get you through yours as well.
1. Act your way into a new way of thinking
The founder of Habitat for Humanity – a man named Millard Fuller — had a great phrase: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” I think it’s so true. During the Bible book, I wanted to be more compassionate. So I forced myself to go visit a friend in the hospital. I tricked my mind. And I became a little more compassionate.
In 2004, I wrote my first blog post. IT IS HORRIBLE! I say that Step #1 is knowing what you spend. That is exactly WRONG! I use the word “budget” multiple times. I have no narrative, only boring information.
In short, I hate myself of 2004.
But at least I got started.
You are a college fucking sophomore. You don’t know shit. No one is asking you. You are here to do gopher work until you have enough experience to contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way. I know you think you know what you are doing–I thought I was the smartest person on earth when I was your age–but I didn’t know shit, and neither do you. Your job here is this: Shut up. Do what we ask. Listen to what we say. LEARN. The only things you should feel confident about giving opinions about are these things: [this space intentionally left blank]
I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.
5. Question Rules
Doing what you’re supposed to do does not make you a good person. There’s no one keeping track, ready to award you a special ribbon for staying inside the most lines. There is not. But you know what there is? A good chance at any moment that something could come along and render the past irrelevant and the future non-existent. And at that time, all your notions about rules and waiting and feeling superior aren’t going to matter.
You’re going to wish that you did what needed to be done. That you didn’t let restrictions restrict you.
Dying to share this one. I harbour no hard feelings against anyone who is following the rules. Just know that you aren’t guaranteed the reward.
6. Forget About Others
Most people are lying when they describe what their life is like. Don’t listen, don’t use what they say as a baseline, don’t get jealous, just nod and then forget it.
7. Love is Stronger than Hate
I was once asked, “Which one is more powerful, love or hate?” I answered the question this way: I would run into a burning building, risking my life to save someone I loved. But I would not run into a burning building and risk my life to kill someone I hated.
8. Don’t Confuse Genius and Precociousness (Early Success)
Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.
I had promised myself I would ship this post by September 6, and I am late by a several hours. I’ve found that the most important promises are the ones we make to ourselves; unfortunately, they are also the ones that we break the most (wow, that sounds really cheezy, but I’m serious).
Dream big. Live well (because it’s the best revenge). If you doubt yourself, don’t sweat it – you are good enough.
To my friends who follow my work closely – finally, a post without mentioning either Kanye West or Tim Ferriss. (UNTIL THAT SENTENCE – you know I had to do it! Plenty of both to come.)
Seriously though, thank you for reading. Onward and upward.
May the best of your todays be the worst of your tomorrows.
- Jay Z, Young Forever
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