Week 7-10 / "Don't! How rules can hurt us"

And how First Principles can free us from letting our college majors confine our potential.

“What is focus — and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?” — Julia Margaret Cameron

This was a quote from “Don’t! Photography and the Art of Mistakes” exhibition at SFMOMA. Curated by the talented Clément Chéroux, a range of photographs from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries were exhibited to challenge the roles of rules and norms in making good photography. The impact of rules on our potential is something I have been thinking about over the past few weeks. Walking through this exhibition helped organize and articulate those thoughts, especially the parallels I drew between the impact of rules in photography and the impact of them in the traditional higher-education system on the mental models we develop and our ability to break the norms, unleash our potential, and live lives on our own terms.

“I don’t think I can do X. That’s not related to my major.” is probably one of the statements I hate to hear from anyone, especially those I care about. The “College Majors” structure of most traditional higher-education systems trains us to think that we shouldn’t pursue other paths that aren’t common for others in our majors to do so, at least for a few years after college. Also, doing something out of the norm could feel like we are ditching the investments we made in our education. These mindsets become problematic when what is set by precedented classes and the system does not align with our genuine interests and values. It’s even more dangerous if we automatically assume that the “success” of those commons path will lead to a fulfilling life. We could end up in our 40s wishing that we should’ve spent our 20s experimenting with different interests and crafting our unique paths. And we don’t want that.

There has been amazing work done to rethink the structure of the higher education system. For example, the adoption of Liberal Arts degrees and how in the U.S., students are given the freedom to explore and can declare their major(s) at the end of the second year. But the rate of changes in such a complex system is too slow for the rapid changes in opportunities today. Besides, with the abundance of opportunities we have today and our capabilities to experience amazing things this world has to offer, life is too short to live lives confined by rules that don’t align with what we value. So, what can we do?

We need to remember that every rule and norm is set by the understanding of the world by a group of people at a unique time under a unique circumstance to collectively achieve something. With that mindset, we will open up our minds to question how the rules in the system shape what we do and who we are. We need to know the rules to break them. I find First Principles as one of the most effective mental models to unpack complex systems. Let’s try it.

  1. We want to treat our college majors as some of the specialties in our knowledge buckets, not the only things we could use to shape our career paths.

  2. Why do we feel confined by our majors? Higher education is expensive. We feel obligated to utilize the skills we have invested in developing over a relatively long period. Also, following how things have always been done gives us a sense of certainty and security, which are human’s basic needs and natural tendencies.

  3. Why has it always been done this way? What’s the purpose of “College Majors” structure? Why do we need it? The purposes of education are to expand our ability to understand how things work, ourselves, and our roles in the world. Good education produces active citizens that are mentally healthy and contribute to society. The “College Majors” structure helps organizes and trains us towards a few specialties, which enables 1) us to define and feel certain about the outcomes of their learnings and 2) the schools and the economy to predict the future of supply of labor and plan their intervention accordingly.

  4. So, can we utilize our skills without being confined by our college majors, and how? Yes, if we can find a way to achieve the degree of certainty and security, both on the individual and the societal levels, close to what the “College Majors” structure provides us.

Thinking in First Principles helps break down complex problems into smaller pieces so that we can build those pieces from the ground up. Now that we know the key purpose behind the “College Majors” structure we bend the rules to our own terms. I have been compiling a few tips on how to get started, which I hope to share in a future entry. Reply to this email to get the current version of them or to help co-create.

Mental models and mindsets you can apply to bend the rules and conquer

  • First Principles: To unpack and rebuild how things work to set your new and unique directions.

  • “We need to remember that every rule and norm is set by the understanding of the world by a group of people at a unique time under a unique circumstance to collectively achieve something.”

  • “Never let rules outlined by others define your limitless potential.”

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All opinions are my own.

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