Invisible Rules

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.

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