Experience and Rule Breaking

I have worked as a mental health therapist for twelve years and have been doing jiujitsu for almost ten years.  So, I have a decent amount of experience in both endeavors.  Both my profession and my passion require a lot of technique, and for beginners of either activity, the nuances of that technique might not be readily apparent.


From day one, I was taught to learn and drill technique for both.  Sound technique has saved me from getting choked unconscious by people countless times!  It’s also helped me while grappling people.  Developing proficiency in technique is how I improve; and is critical when I am confronted with some brute trying to hyper-extend my arm or getting through to a sullen teenager that was drug to my office by her parents because she won’t do her homework.

Recently, I’ve begun to discover it’s possible to break from technique and use “bad” form in certain situations.  It takes a lot of experience in a given activity to know when it’s okay to break from technique, as the consequences of doing so can be disastrous.  If I have my opponent’s back and while going for a rear naked choke I happen to break from good technique by crossing my feet in front of my opponent, I’m going to get ankle locked by anybody that’s been grappling for more than one month.  If I’m talking with a client that is processing their trauma and I take a break from good technique by having them talk about too much too soon, I run the risk of re-victimizing them right in my office.  Both those options suck.

The thing is, an experienced grappler will come across situations in which breaking from the use of “good technique” is correct, just as an experienced therapist will know when to push their client a little bit, even if it may appear to be a break from standard clinical practice.

I’m sure this concept has carry over to a lot of other domains as well.  Have you noticed this dynamic anywhere?


2 thoughts on “Experience and Rule Breaking

  1. This is good. What you describe is what the ancient philosophers called phronesis or what is translated as “practical wisdom” Aristotle gives some great insight, but this is usually what I say to my class when I teach phronesis.

    When we think about ethics, we think we have to follow certain rules. Think about the utilitarians. Their rule is to maximize happiness as much as you can. That’s the ethical rule. For the deontologists, the rule is to universalize your maxim. However, the ancients—especially Aristotle—suggested that rules only take you so far. A person who has all the right moral virtues knows what ends to pursue, but without phronesis, that person will not know how to set about pursuing the right ends. Contrary to modern assumptions, Aristotle is telling us that having one’s heart in the right place is not good enough: being a good person requires a kind of practical intelligence as well as a good disposition.

    Some philosophers think of ethics like math (much like the Utilitarians), but Aristotle thinks of wisdom as more like a learnable but uncodifiable skill. Practical wisdom is needed precisely because there are no rules or instructions on how to act. If morality was like following rules, then that could be done by a moral idiot. For example, don’t shoot these people, do shoot these people. Don’t kill them. Kill them. Don’t give money to them; give money to them. With all of this, it’s just simply following instructions. But by doing so, there no rationality behind it. Again, rules only take you so far.

    Think about a doctor: rules don’t tell you on how to balance your everyday work. The doctor has been educated in the rules of medicine and health, but is constantly called on to make more complicated decisions. How is a doctor balance respect for the autonomy of its patients with the knowledge that sometimes, the patient isn’t the best judge of what is needed? How should the doctor practice empathetic involvement with each patient with the detachment that is needed to make sound judgments? How should the doctor balance the desire to spend enough time with each patient to be thorough, compassionate and understanding, with the need to see enough patients to keep the office solvent? How should the doctor balance the desire to tell patients the truth, no matter how difficult, with the desire to be kind?

    Apply this with your field. You have to use your practical wisdom to face choices. But here’s the thing: it’s not about choosing the right thing and the wrong thing; it’s about choosing the right things that often clash, or between better and best, or sometimes between bad and worse. These aims can be at odds, and the doctor must decide to be honest or kind, or more likely how to balance these two that is appropriate for the patient. And more importantly, these are not a one-size-fits all kind of answers. Each patient has different temperaments and the doctor must decide, by using practical wisdom, of what to do.

    Rules may be useful as guides, but they will never be subtle enough and nuanced enough to tell you what you should do that applies in every situation.These practical things are not thought experiments that you learn in an ethics course. These are real life situations and you gain this skill through experience, not thinking it out theoretically, or by plugging it in a rule formation calculator.

    Practical wisdom isn’t about thinking of some hypothetical person choosing to do an act. It’s about what am I to do here and right now with this situation. Moral virtues tell us what to do; practical wisdom tells us when to do it. Working for incentives is not the same for working on a telos of an activity. A good doctor aims at recommending the right kind of treatment and has the know-how to tell this particular patient with this particular history with these particular life circumstances.
    If we fix the problem of incentivizing doctors to do too much, rewarding them with a fee for any service, paying doctors bonuses for doing less, they may end up doing too little. Worse, they will make their decisions because of the incentives. We want the doctors to do the will and skill to do the right amount and do it because it’s the right amount.

    Rules cannot replace practical wisdom anymore than incentives can. Indeed, we may have rules at the beginning but then once we have the basics, we can play around and the rules become more like soft guidelines. At the same time, sometimes not having enough rules can be detrimental. Rules without wisdom are blind.

    Rules and incentives are best for those who don’t care. It may make them good, but it won’t make them wiser. But if we focus our ethics on those who don’t care, we miss those who do care. We miss out on those people who want to do the right thing, but miss out on the practical wisdom available.
    Even worse, rules can kill skill; incentives can kill will.

    Let me give a real example. There was a day care center for kids in Israel. The center closes up around 4 PM, but some parents don’t come until later. This creates a dilemma: the center closes at 4, but they just can’t leave the kids on the doorstop after 4 or else their parents will get mad. What to do? Well, they decided to put in a late fine. If the parents come after 4, they will be charged with a late fine each time they come in late. So now the parents have two reasons to come on time: one, because it’s their obligation; and two, they will be fined if they fail to meet that obligation. This seems to create an incentive so that you don’t come late right? So you would assume that less parents would come late, right? It actually turned out not to be the case. In fact, it actually increased late parents. Before they put in the late fee, about 25% showed up late. After the put the late fee into practice, 40% of parents started coming late by the 16th week. Why is this? To many parents, the fine was just a price. But we all know that a fine isn’t just a price. We pay for a price when we want goods and services. It’s an exchange of willing participants. A fine, in contrast, is a punishment. But there’s no stopping you from interpreting the difference between a price and a fine. If it turns out that it costs $30 to park in a garage, you may reason that it’s cheaper to park illegally in the street. The moral sanction is lost. You’re not doing the wrong thing; you’re doing the economically thing.

    This is what happened in the day care center. You’re giving me permission to be late. Is that a good price to be in the office a little longer? Sure is. The fine’s demoralized what was originally a moral act. You’ve now changed this to “is this right or wrong?” to “is this worth the price?” Now there’s probably nothing wrong with imposing a fine. That’s probably what we’d all do. But this is just an example of how teachers, doctors, and lawyers work. The incentives can kill off doing the right thing.

    Here’s another example: Mike is a custodian. What is his job description? In terms of jobs, not much skill is needed. In fact, we consider that low on the job hierarchy. Mike works at a hospital. Everyday, he basically does the same thing: cleans up the floors, picks up the garbage, cleans the bathrooms and hospital rooms, and makes sure that everything is clean. One day he stopped mopping a certain hallway floor. Why? Mr. Jones, a patient, was recovering from major surgery and he got out of bed to get some much needed exercise by getting out of bed and walking the hallways.
    Another example: Charlene, another janitor, ignored her supervisor’s advice of vacuuming the lounge because a patients family was in the lounge and they were napping, waiting to hear back from the results of another family member.

    Notice with these people, their job descriptions have nothing to do with taking care of patients, nor with medicine. Yet, Aristotle would definitely say that these people are practicing practical wisdom.
    These custodians saw themselves as playing a role in an institution whose major role was to take care of their patients. Their job descriptions doesn’t point them on what to do; the aim was what the job had crafted.

    Other example: there was a study with firefighters at the Urban Wildlife Interface. Teaching them a more detailed list was a factor in decreasing survival rates. The old list was basically a general guideline and the firefighters could easily remember it, but they knew it had to be interpreted, modified, embellished based on the circumstances. And they knew that the experience they’ve had would help them with the modifying and the interpretation. They were being taught by experience. But the longer the checklist, the more improvisation was shut down. Rules are aids, but too much can squeeze out the judgment to do the work well. Do more training for skill and training instead of rule-following.

    Knowing how to be honest, knowing how to be kind, and knowing how to balance those things requires judgment. Practical wisdom is something that cannot be taught at least in the narrow sense of in classroom lectures, or having an academic discussion, or doing exams or papers.
    It can’t be learned as an isolated subject or even as a general skill. Rather, practical wisdom is embedded in the actual practices of being a lawyer, a teacher, a banker, a military leader, a statesmen, an officer, a councilor, or even a janitor. It can’t be learned outside of those practices.
    Moral will and skill are learned by practicing the craft.

    Think about parents. Usually, the kids don’t achieve their best because the parents didn’t get involved. However, can children not achieve their best if the parents are too involved? Yes, and even studies show this as well. The parents were so intent on making sure that the children weren’t hurt and spared from pain, safety and success that the children never made their own mistakes and learned from them. The parents wanted to keep their lives error free.

    This is why Aristotle thought that ethics could never be a science. Ethical decisions could never come from clear-cut rules and principles. Rather, it’s an art. That’s why practical wisdom is needed.

    Wow, this was a long comment, but I think the more we get older, the more we realize that phronesis is really important and that rules are good to start learning the craft, but through experience, you begin to see the rules as guidelines and you have to use your practical wisdom to determine how much bend should you do for the best situation. No rule can teach you that. Instead, it’s phronesis: practical wisdom.

    • Man, that was a good read. I can absolutely relate to a lot of what you are saying. Especially with the doctor example and having to make decisions where there is no black and white correct choice. Phronesis. New word! 🙂

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