Why phantom rules hold you back (and what to do about it)

Ozan Varol
Nov 14, 2018 · 3 min read

In her brilliant book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert tells the fable of a great saint who would lead his followers in meditation. There was a slight problem. Just as the followers were dropping into their zen moment, they would get disrupted by a cat who would “walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone.”

The saint came up with a simple solution: He began 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.

When the cat eventually died (of natural causes), a religious crisis ensued. What were the followers supposed to do? How could they possibly meditate without tying the cat to the pole?

This story illustrates what I call phantom rules. These are rules that you can’t see. They’re habits and behaviors that have unnecessarily rigidified into dogma. They’re unlike written rules, which are visible. The written rules appear right there in the standard operating procedures and can be amended or deleted.

Although written rules can be stubborn to change, phantom rules are even more stubborn. They’re the silent killers that constrain our thinking and keep us inside an invisible fence without us even being aware of it. They turn us into a rat trapped in a Skinner box, pressing the same lever over and over again — except we designed the box and we’re free to venture out at any time. We’re perfectly capable of meditating without the cat, but we don’t realize it.

We then make things worse by defending our boxes and self-imposed limitations. We could do things differently, we say, but our supply chain, our software, our budget, our skillset, our education, this-or-that doesn’t allow it.

As the saying goes, argue for your limitations, and you get to keep them.

“In all affairs,” British philosopher Bertrand Russell writes, “it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you take for granted.” To expose these phantom rules, spend a day questioning everything you do — from the route you drive to work to the software you use to send emails. With each commitment, each assumption, each budget item, ask yourself: What if this weren’t true? Why am I doing it this way? Can I get rid of this or replace it with something better?

Be careful if you find yourself coming up with multiple reasons to keep something. “By invoking more than one reason,” as Nassim Taleb observes, “you are trying to convince yourself to do something.”

Demand current — not historical — supporting evidence. Many of our routines and procedures were developed in response to problems that no longer exist. But the immune response remains long after the pathogen leaves.

The best way to expose phantom rules is to violate them. Go for a seeming moonshot you don’t think you’ll achieve. Ask for a raise you don’t think you deserve. Apply for a job you don’t think you’ll get.

You’ll find, after all, that it is possible to meditate without the cat.

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Click here to download a free copy of my e-book, The Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating Your Thinking. Along with your free e-book, you’ll get the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom and changes the way we look at the world (plus access to exclusive content for subscribers only).

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned author and law professor. He has been featured on BBC, TIME, CNN, Washington Post, Slate, and Foreign Policy. He writes about contrarian thinking at http://ozanvarol.com.

Originally published at ozanvarol.com on November 14, 2018.


A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

Ozan Varol

Written by

Rocket scientist turned author and law professor. Featured on TIME, CNN, BBC, and Washington Post. Writes about contrarian thinking at http://ozanvarol.com.


A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org

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