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: