There are no rules
September 23, 2022
Crossposted to LessWrong
Over the course of this past year, I’ve slowly become a magician.
No, not a literal one. But in the sense that I’ve become a version of myself that I previously would’ve called a magician.
I feel less social anxiety and awkwardness when asking people for things. I feel more inclined to find unusual or uncomfortable answers to problems. I have gotten noticeably better at not letting uncertainty and hypotheticals stall action.
Before, I would quickly concede if told it wasn’t possible to get a Thing I wanted. Now, I’m usually able to pry until I get that Thing, or at least come away with a compromise or special arrangement — unless the Thing I want really isn’t possible.
And it feels really good.
As I think about what’s contributed to this mindset shift, one phrase immediately comes to mind — well, the internalization of one phrase comes to mind: there are no rules.
Humans are prediction machines. We expect things to unfold in a certain way because that’s what happened in the past.
This is generally a very useful heuristic, since it saves the mental energy of thinking about what’ll happen next or how we should respond in certain contexts — when you pass by a friend on the street, you don’t need to think very hard about what social niceties to say.
But it’s too easy to fall into these predictable patterns. Invisible social norms develop. Interpersonal dynamics slowly settle. People sleepwalk through daily routines and events.
This can be dangerous if you don’t think about it once in a while, because you can forget that things don’t necessarily happen the way you think they should or would.
Because the world is not static — there are no rules! You can simply do most things, and usually with minimal social costs, if any.1
(It’s at this point I should explicitly state: the idea that “there are no rules” is more of a mindset than a literal phrase. Many people are kind, willing to help, and tolerable. But don’t abuse that trust and goodwill; don’t overtly disregard how your actions affect others. See this post.)
- I skipped most of my classes last semester because the lecture slides were online. In one of them, I left immediately after taking the short quiz given at the start of class. I got access to the same content, spent my time by doing things I found to be more valuable, and still ended up doing very well in those classes.
- For many non-technical classes, prerequisites seem more like suggestions than requirements — I talked my way into several classes with this in mind. I also sat in several classes I was initially denied admission into, and after a quick talk with the professor, I was let in.
- Relatedly, you don’t have to be fully qualified to apply for (and get) a job or internship — though the credentials may be helpful.
- Before going back to school, I got a haircut. At some point, I liked how my hair looked, but the barber was still going. By default, I was just going to let him finish the haircut, but then I realized that I could just tell him to stop. So I did. And I was happy with how it looked.
- During move-in week, I intentionally missed a mandatory dorm floor meeting, suspecting it wasn’t going to be important. I figured if it was, someone would let me know — or that I could arrange a separate meeting to make up for my absence. My suitemates later told me that the meeting was a waste of time.
- These are all things that I either wouldn’t have done in the past, or have felt extremely uncomfortable doing. But that’s changed! I suspect one fundamental cause: directly witnessing narrative-breaking and agentic behavior.
Breaking the narrative
Growing up, I’d been fed the standard upper-middle class narrative: get good grades at a good college, land a secure job, get married and retire peacefully — all while enjoying hedonistic endeavors along the way.
High school felt super formulaic and cookie cutter as a result; all my peers (including myself) were following the same playbook. But actually going to college shattered that narrative — I quickly realized how many people were doing different things, which was inspiring.2
- I watched people casually approach others and simply ask for things, seemingly unfazed by any social repercussions.
- I talked to peers who strategically neglected grades to focus on other priorities.
- I constantly heard about people going into the city on weekdays to party.
- I saw a friend drop out to run a full-time startup.
After a while, it became painfully obvious that I didn’t have to follow the basic narrative. So I started questioning my values and desires, as well as exploring new option spaces. It’s been very freeing, and I generally feel way more excited about embarking on endeavors that deviate from the standard narrative.
Seeing agentic behavior
I also spent a lot of this past summer around a lot of effective altruists, many of whom were very agentic.3 I’d repeatedly seen stories and advice about agency on Twitter and LessWrong, but it was a whole other thing seeing those lessons and strategies implemented in person.
It’s hard to fully capture the feeling — but I would constantly notice a lot of small actions or tasks getting done right away. I would see my EA friends ask strangers for something they needed without any hesitation, or realize that they wanted something to happen, and then go through extensive means to make that thing happen.
Easily the most inspiring story I’d ever heard was during a 1:1 at EAG SF. I might slightly be misremembering the details, but it went something like this:
- Daniel thought it would be interesting to document an active war zone, so he got some friends together and flew to Ukraine to film a documentary during the war.
- They wanted to get this documentary published in one of the big newspapers (CNN, Washington Post, etc).
- Except, in order to do this, they needed a recommendation from one of the editors, which they didn’t have.
- So they heard about an upcoming press conference where prominent world leaders and reporters were going to be present, and decided that’s where they needed to be.
- They basically just cold-called the receptionist overseeing the conference, and asked if they could get let in.
- They got let in, and were able to talk to the big newspaper reporters, who were very confused about how students got let into the conference.
My memory trails off here; I don’t fully remember the aftermath and what happened with the documentary, but this by itself is an insane series of events and hearing about it left a long-lasting impression on me.
He also told me a couple more agentic anecdotes: one of the exercises assigned by his startup incubator cohort was to go out and get 10 random things from 10 different strangers. Another one was to go to a doctor’s office and take tissues out of a Kleenex box, one by one, until the box was empty — as excruciating and awkward as it was, no one stopped him.
(To reiterate from earlier: don’t literally do this. It is an asshole thing to do — Daniel even said so himself. But the lesson it illustrates is quite instructive.)
Hearing all of this in-person was really fascinating.4 It helped instill the thought that I could just do things or ask people for things without significant repercussions. Then, actually doing those things and associating them with positive outcomes reinforced this newfound belief.
I’ll leave it at that. If you’re someone who feels like you need permission to do something, then hear this: there are no rules. You are allowed to deviate from the central narrative. You are allowed to ask people for things. You are allowed to do the thing you want to do. So go do it.
1. The show Nathan For You beautifully illustrates this idea. Nathan not only gets away with suggesting the most absurd schemes, but actually implements them through ridiculous means. This is probably one of the most uncomfortable shows I’ve seen. I would highly recommend checking it out. ↩
2. I can easily imagine a world where I meet certain people in certain environments that reinforce the standard narrative. But I'm very glad to have met the people I have who have helped shift things the other way. ↩
3. This was my first time having spent extensive time around EAs; I suspect that overall, EAs are more agentic than non-EAs.↩4. I want to emphasize the in-person part. Listening to a physical human being, two feet away from me, telling me their story feels very different from reading about it online or hearing it secondhand. Something about the distance can make the latter feel less believable. You might even feel this way reading this very post.↩