BREAKING RULES

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Einstein was a consummate rule breaker. He grew up hating sense- less regulations. Flagrantly or slyly, he broke every rule he despised. He got into repeated trouble at school, although he was a brilliant student. He did not get a university post until he was one of the world’s leading scientists because he resisted academic protocols. He renounced his German citizenship and became stateless. His con- stant battle with the rules caused Einstein much personal difficulty, but it had a positive influence on his scientific research.

For example, he had no trouble breaking the rules that blinded his contemporaries to important ideas. Einstein’s musings on physical phenomena while riding on a beam of light led him to identify and break the key rule that had kept other physicists from relativity. Einstein realized that time need not be absolute. By violating this inviolable rule, Einstein solved one of science’s most important problems. Appendix B shows how breaking this one rule led to the first of a series of amazing solutions. Learning to think like Einstein is learning to break the rules.

YOU HAVE TO BREAK THE RULES

“Particularly pleasing was the possibility that Joshua [Lederberg] might be so stuck on his classical way of thinking that I would accomplish the unbelievable feat of beating him to the correct interpretation of his own experiment.” JAMES WATSON

Every problem has a solution, but some tasks are nearly impossible. We make solutions unattainable by making these impossible tasks a condi- tion of the solution. Bureaucracies are particularly adept at making the simplest activities unrealizable. If a problem seems to defy any solution, a rule is at the heart of the difficulty. You can’t both follow convention and solve a tough problem. You must break the rules.

Legend says that Alexander the Great solved an early impossi- ble problem, the Gordian knot. It was an incredibly complex knot joining two ropes. Whoever had the wisdom and skill to resolve the Gordian knot would become ruler of all Asia. Alexander sliced it neatly in two with his sword. He then conquered Asia with similar directness.

Some may object that Alexander was not a true rule breaker. It was not a “real” rule that one couldn’t cut the knot. Everyone had just assumed that the knot must be untied. But this is true of most rules. Rules are only unbreakable if we assume they are so.

Rules do serve a useful purpose. We should respect them when it is moral and prudent to do so. But rules are not truth. They are a convenient shorthand for truth. There are times when even cherished rules must be broken. However, our respect for rules is so great that we just can’t do that. Rules are too vital to our understanding of the world. Instead, we look for ways to prop up the very misconceptions that are keeping us from a solution.

Early astronomers had the rule that everything revolves around the earth. It worked well. Only planets didn’t fit the rule perfectly. But instead of discarding the rule because it didn’t work some of the time, astronomers invented additional rules to explain the wan- dering of planets. The complicated rules predicted a planet’s motion with amazing accuracy. It was a brilliant effort, but all wrong. And the partial success of those rules stifled further progress.

Logical, well-reasoned rules prevent solutions. One city found that it could reduce car and pedestrian accidents by removing crosswalks, a clear violation of the “crosswalks equal safety” rule. Making pedestrians wary as they crossed the street turned out to be more effective than creating an artificial zone of safety. But it was a hard rule to break.

Successful businesses have a tough time breaking the rules that made them successful in the first place. The rules have worked so well. The business is organized around those rules. This repeatedly leaves such businesses vulnerable to competitors who are willing to challenge the old rules. How could a time-tested rule be an impedi- ment to a solution? Rules mislead in many ways. Here are just a few.

Things Change

“Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.” FRIEDRICH NIETZCHE

We think of our current solutions as the pinnacle of human achieve- ment. After all, no one has done better yet. But any endeavor from athletics to zoology will be improved upon. There will not just be small changes but enormous, major advances.

In 1904, the year before Einstein published his three remarkable papers that changed the world, it was hard to imagine how the world could change significantly. Developed countries had some democ- racy, although most of the population was disenfranchised. Athletes were closing in on the absolute limits of human performance. Ships, telephones, and even airplanes had already been invented. It seemed as if nothing could possibly change much.

As Figure 7.1 illustrates, the rules have changed since 1904. They will change again, dramatically. But the here and now feels so permanent that it is hard to imagine what those changes will be.

Local Rules

“It almost seems that those who have yet to discover the known are particularly equipped for dealing with the unknown.” ERIC HOFFER

Many rules are local. The sun rising every morning is a local phe- nomenon. At the poles, the sun doesn’t always rise or set. An astro- naut in orbit sees many sunrises in a “day.” If one were to move away from earth’s orbit, the sun would always be up.

The local nature of rules is always getting people into trouble. In the 1950s, Vice President Richard Nixon went on a goodwill tour to Latin America. The United States was very unpopular in the region at the time, so Nixon wanted to make a good impression. Emerging from the airplane, he grinned and, holding his hands high over his head, touched his forefinger to his thumb, a gesture communicating “OK” in the United States. His audience understood the local meaning—“screw you”—and reacted violently. Remember, what is true in one place is not necessarily true every place.

Traditions Masquerading as Truth

“The search for truth and knowledge is one of the finest attributes of man—though often it is most loudly voiced by those who strive for it the least.”

—ALBERT EINSTEIN

Many traditions have been around for so long that we treat them as facts. But these “truths” vary widely from culture to culture. What is ridiculous in one part of the world may be considered a funda- mental truth in another. For example, if two mutually exclusive ideas were presented to you, could both to be true? Of course not, you might say if you are from some parts of the world. But many of the world’s cultures accept the contradiction without a qualm. There is no reason to believe that our cultural biases represent abso- lute truth.

Herd Thinking

“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

Strong opinions can be very persuasive, even when there is evi- dence to the contrary. In one study, actors tried to convince test subjects to change their minds about some facts. The subjects were very confident of these facts prior to talking with the actors. But after being subjected to the actors’ passionate indoctrination, the participants would pick an answer they knew to be wrong 37 per- cent of the time.

It is easy to believe an erroneous idea if everyone else believes it too. Despite generations of historical experience to the contrary, we will not believe that the whole world can be wrong, even though it repeatedly is.

Scale

BREAkING RUlES

“I have no special gift. I am only passionately curious.”

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Rules often change with the scale of things. Generalizations that work so well at one level, like “objects that are much bigger than you are too heavy to carry,” simply aren’t true when reduced to the scale of an ant. The physics of Newton worked well for big, slow objects. However, when the scale of an object’s size or speed changed dramatically, Newtonian physics broke down. Einstein’s rules of physics work over a wider range of circumstances, but they also break down in extreme circumstances. We still have more rules to break.

Human dynamics have similar size-dependent quirks. What works in a small group does not always work in a massive organization. Solutions and problems do not scale nicely. But that does not stop us from trying, and large organizations often continue implementing old solutions that worked for smaller groups until the situation becomes preposterous.

Self-Modifying Rules

“Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.” DEMOSTHENES

Many rules are self-modifying. Their unstable state causes them to change, and change again. A good example of this is oil prices. Since the 1970s, petroleum prices have repeatedly swung from cheap to costly. When prices are high, demand slows while producers sharply increase their investment in new reserves. No expense was spared. Then with demand moderating and supplies flooding the market, prices drop, encouraging consumption and curtailing investment.

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