issue no. 0014
There are few real rules1 in the game of life. And there are no admins.
People get this confused in part because we spend 12+ years trained by an education system designed to produce assembly line workers. We are led to believe there’s only one answer, and someone else figured it out. We were told as children that we could be whatever we wanted to be. Then in the next breath we had to ask for the teacher’s permission to urinate.
At my high school, there was fierce competition in grades. Dozens of us took 15 AP classes, and of course got straight As. One kid (or his parents) realized that any grade in non-AP classes (out of 4.0 vs. 5.0) actually decreases your GPA, and asked admin to not count his honors credits. He got valedictorian and was airlifted into Harvard.
In retrospect, this was really good optimizing slightly outside the box. But I was mad when I found out. Since most of my friends were second generation, going to a public school, we didn’t know about higher-class techniques like bribing lacrosse coaches, pretending to be LGBT, hiring essay writers, or claiming a disability to get more time on tests2.
Everything in this category, however creative, is still playing someone else’s game, plus or minus some willingness to cheat.
The hardest part of adulthood, for me, has been defining the game, who I’m playing with, what I want, what I’m willing to do. I can’t change the basic starting conditions, or the past, though I can change my interpretations of both. I see my peers still trying to please an admissions committee, and worry I still need to too. Fuck ‘em.
Many people conflate the inability to choose our starting conditions or outcome with an inability to choose our action. This is wrong. But it’s much easier to be a victim and blame factors outside of our control. It’s frustrating that the game isn’t fair. You can to walk away. You can petition other players to change the rules. You can even flip the table3. But sitting around complaining about why you aren’t winning as much as you deserve is unlikely to change your situation.
A consequence of defining your own rules is realizing how arbitrary the rules you think you’ve been handed are, and how other people aren’t even reading from the same book. Spend 30 minutes with a lawyer, and you’ll discover even the letter of the law is much fuzzier than most people think. Then there’s enforcement, which can be charitably described as inconsistent.
There are also many softer ways that other humans introduce rules. Decisions made and presented as fait accompli, or non-negotiable. Systems in place that take significantly less effort to be obeyed than to be disobeyed or circumvented. False dichotomies. Our desires are constantly manipulated through advertising, social validation / shaming, and the media.
But, to my knowledge, there are no stone tablets from God saying Thou Shalt Have A Bedframe By Thy Twenty-Third Birthday4.
Deriving everything from first principles quickly becomes unmanageable, not to mention there are higher costs of social coordination, so it’s probably not worth your time to define a new pricing structure with the power company or get people to wear kilts.
“There are no rules, only guidelines” is not a call to abandon your family, move to another country and live on a diet of cocaine. You may find that what you’re already doing is what you want to be doing given your goals, and the constraints that you’re under.
The upsetting implication, and why I sometimes avoid recognizing my own agency, is that if I have a choice, then what I’m doing is actually what I chose to be doing. This can be kind of upsetting for one’s self-image. Today, I’m choosing to continue being a middle manager at a software company instead of trying to become a pop star, artist, astronaut, comedian, or romanticized small business5 owner. Later, I’m going to choose to watch some mindless TV. All of that is okay.
This might be obvious to some people. But for me, accepting that what I’m doing is my choice forces me to reckon with my revealed preferences. My job isn’t preventing me from being a pop star. My utter lack of interest in the work of becoming a pop star is preventing me from being a pop star.
On an individual level, things you’re allowed to do is one of my favorite lists because it’s full of actions on an appropriate scale for an empowered human.
But the scope of what a small number (even 1) of dedicated people can do is quite large. Most people, confronted in childhood with the lie of “you can literally do anything” and the truth of “if you don’t ask for permission to pee, adults will attempt to punish you”, settle somewhere around the truth they experienced and never unlearn it.
There’s the famous story of how they train elephants in the circus. The general idea is that the baby elephants are restrained when they’re small, tied to a pole and beaten when they try to escape. When the elephants are adults, they can still be tied to the same pole, though adult elephants can easily break both the rope and the pole.
You can’t do everything, but you can do a lot more than what you’re doing today. I’ve only really started wandering off over the last few years, and it’s been wonderfully rewarding. I don’t always feel the rope.
Even the “laws” of physics are more like experimentally consistent descriptions of behavior. I don’t expect to violate them, but they’re probably not like… base code of a simulation.
Also, ten years ago these were probably still cutting-edge. I thought my kids would attend Berkeley, but the way things are going I may have pay up for USC.
You can see a form of this in the later stages of Catan, where some players with no chance of winning shift their behavior. They recognize they can’t win, so they decide to play “kingmaker” or “introduce randomness” or “get this over with”.
For the record, I have a bedframe.
Everyone has their own. Mine is a magically profitable, combination beachside cafe / bar / surf shop that plays hip hop