The Anatomy of a Rut
A rut is a pattern of behavior that has become dull or unproductive but is hard to change. Many of my friends, my colleagues, and the people I grew up with say they are currently “stuck in a rut.”
Presumably in pre-modernity days, ruts did not exist for long. Our local environments had enough variability and stressors to act as rut-breaking forcing functions. If ruts didn’t break, you died.
The world today is not any less variable than the ones of our ancestors; we’ve just found better ways to move this volatility out of sight. Chaos has been shuffled out to the peripheries of what we can perceive.
As a result, it is much easier to get stuck in certain patterns of behavior. To paraphrase Nassim Taleb, modern life is a repetitive stress injury. Our stomach for chaos is low, and we spend most of our time over-analyzing static local environments, spinning in ruts of our own making.
To understand ruts, let’s imagine for a moment that humans are sense-making machines. We perceive the world around us and see how it fits in with what we expect. This sense-making process is constant, working at different time scales-- moment by moment, week by week, decade by decade. There is a fractal logic to it that isn't fully visible to us.
I imagine this sense-making process as a tension between scope and legibility.
Local scope and low legibility is akin to hacking through the wilderness by any means necessary. All you see is in front of your face, and it doesn’t make too much sense. You just keep moving.
After some time in the wilderness, you start making some sense of what’s around you. This is still local scope in that you can only see what’s immediately around you, but you begin identifying small patterns in what you see.
These local patterns accumulate, enough so that you might notice a language of patterns emerging in this wilderness. There is a more global, systemic scope that you can try to make legible.
As goes with the wilderness, there’s enough chaos at any perceivable scope that whatever legibility you arrange will fall apart in some significant way. Black swans swoop in as monsoons, sand storms, and flash crashes, killing your “All Swans Are White” theories.
After such a tail event, you pick up what remains of your fragmented, broken, shattered legibility and get back to hacking through the wilderness. It’s that fateful loop of making meaning through creation and destruction.
Someone who makes this journey repeatedly is what mathematician Samuel Arbesman calls a generalist, and the world needs more of them:
“... we need to cultivate generalists, individuals who not only can see the lay of the land -- the abstract physics style of thinking -- but can also delight in the details of a system without necessarily understanding them all -- the more miscellaneous biological style of thinking.”
The Persistence of Ruts
A persistent rut is a modern affliction. The ways in which we have organized our lives wish volatility away, and so we spend less time picking up the pieces of our shattered legibility. Tail events are flukes, not information. Our model isn’t broken, it just got unlucky once. Or so we think.
And so we get stuck in dull and unproductive patterns, overly optimizing certain legible models of the world. As they say about models — some of them are useful, all of them are wrong.
We can relabel this sense-making 2x2 with archetypes. The naturalist collects. The biologist arranges. The physicist sorts it all out. And then the philosopher breaks it all apart. I’d like to think I cycle procedurally through these quadrants, but my credit card transactions would argue otherwise.
We tend towards ruts. Our dull and unproductive patterns become apparent when we get stuck in particular quadrants.
When I spent time working at a startup in NYC, we hit a rut in making sense of our business after early wins dried up. An advisor told us that shooting from the hip got us very far, but that it was time to tighten up. We had spent too much time as naturalists.
Many artists, pontificators, and idea pornographers find home in the biologist’s quadrant, constantly refactoring and rearranging the meanings of their perceptions. I find myself rut-stuck in this quadrant most often. Because of how new all these rearrangements feel, it’s easy to think this type of rut is not a rut.
Most of my management-consultant and engineer friends struggle with the ruts of the physicist, in which meaning-making revolves too frequently around finding global order. I reckon that economists also become rut-struck in this quadrant. Many people here don’t even realize they’re in a rut until catastrophe strikes.
Finally, the rut of the philosopher is one of unbounded nihilism. Nothing makes sense, very little to grasp onto or find footing in to keep moving. What’s the point of even farting around?
There are ruts of reading and learning. Too much raw information (naturalist) without a chance to arrange and sift (biologist) can create a psychological unease with the new.
There are ruts of making. In a letter to his creatively despairing friend Eva Hesse, artist Sol LeWitt implored her, in a certain sense, to start hacking through the wilderness again:
“It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say Fuck You to the world once in awhile. You have every right to.”
“Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itchin, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rumbling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself.”
“Stop it and just DO!”
Ruts are stagnancies that we are aware of but usually don't want to admit to. They are allowed to exist largely when we disallow healthy doses of volatility or chaos in our daily lives.
Your personality type is a rut. Your dogmas and religions are a rut. Financial bailouts are ruts, bad plans that were allowed to persist. The areas of life in which we become precious snowflakes making exceptions for ourselves are the areas in which we are rut-stuck. These occur at every scale of time and human consciousness imaginable.
Distressingly, every solution to a problem helps a system escape one rut … and fall into another. This is especially true in startup land. If a customer is a “novel and stable pattern of human behavior,” a successful business ushers its customers away from their old, dull patterns and into these novel patterns, until they, too, become dull and rut-like.
Crash-Only Planning & Rut Literacy
Ruts are here to stay. We can’t wish them away. The key may be to recognize them, accelerate into them, and then learn to escape them over and over again.
To be rut-literate is to design your plans to be crash-only. A rut-literate person crashes into whatever dull and unproductive pattern they have, crashes horrifically out of it, then picks up the pieces and start over again.
Crash-only planning, like crash-only thinking, isn’t always a clean and managed process. You’ve created this complex beast that loves structure and legibility in a particular way. Now you’ll have to starve him of oxygen, let him die, and be okay with that happening frequently.
How you choose to do this is implementation details; some would call it ethics. Batman and Ra’s al-Ghul spent an entire movie trilogy fighting over how a plan should crash. Our minds need to constantly have similar struggles to help us deal with our own personal, organizational, and societal ruts.
Karl Popper oh-so-romantically stated this as:
“Bold ideas, unjustified anticipations, and speculative thought, are our only means for interpreting nature: our only organon, our only instrument, for grasping her. And we must hazard them to win our prize. Those among us who are unwilling to expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation do not take part in the scientific game.”
I personally prefer Mike Tyson’s equally profound “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Crash-only plans are plans that are designed to seek out refutation and punches in the mouth. They periodically anneal themselves with the stressors that accompany uncertainty.
There’s no single way to consider a crash-only plan. Like Peter Thiel’s secrets, crash-only plans are worth hunting and collecting.
My current intuition is that each “quadrant” of ruts has its own particular archetype of a crash-only plan, mapping quite nicely to Brian Foote’s “Big Ball of Mud” patterns:
Boomtowns are prototypes, the rapid construction of the small and temporary. They help us explore new terrains without needing to commit to the mess we make; they crash when the mess becomes unmanageable and everyone flees the scene (“ghost town”). See: Google Ventures’ Design Sprints.
Urban sprawls are the product of iterative-incremental development, a “build-and-fix as you go” process. They help us stay nimble to a broad onslaught of change; they crash when all those fast iteration cycles give us something effective but aesthetically disgusting (like the NYC Subway). See: Basecamp, Eric Ries.
Shearing layers is the crash-only plan of colossals that have layers upon layers of meaning/history embedded within them. Shearing works by differentiating between layers that are stable and those that are vulnerable. This plan crashes when everything is tangled and boundaries between stable and vulnerable no longer seem possible. See: Netflix’s Chaos Monkey program, simulated annealing.
Finally, the crash-only plan of a Shantytown is grabbing whatever you see around you in the rubble of meaninglessness and trying to make sense of the smallest thing possible. This is the rediscovery of primitives and old capabilities after everything has seemingly fallen apart. Everything begins and ends here.
You hit ruts to escape ruts; the more of them you hit as an individual or an organization or a society, the more often you figure out how to break out of them. The more you organize your life to accelerate from rut to rut, the more comfortably you can deal with chaos.
There’s a strong resistance to ruts because they hurt to enter and exit. People (and organizations) strive instead to be well-adjusted, having their “shit figured out” in some major way.
But being well-adjusted is a myth; it is code for external legibility. The well-adjusted person is just a slow-motion rut in disguise. It’s better to be poorly-adjusted but really good at it. Crash into your ruts with reckless abandon.