Metarules are better than rules

In the last five years or so, I’ve defined certain rules in my life and tried to live by them. This has mostly turned out to be a not-so-good experience.

Why is it still good to have rules in one’s life? The world is infinitely complicated. Hence, given any particular situation, we will always possess incomplete information about it. Had we had perfect information, we would know exactly what to do in that situation to reach our goals. However, because we have incomplete information, a plethora of possible courses of action suggest themselves. Rules help us quickly decide between these possible courses of action, so that we don’t spend all our time ruminating and deciding.

How do rules come into being? Some rules are those that help form cohesive social groups (eg. Help those in need, be a dutiful spouse and parent, etc). Others are created from experience (eg. Go early to the airport, back up your data, etc), or are perhaps religious or constitutional. When you see a red traffic light, you have a plethora of options available to you. You may stop, refuse to stop, aim for other vehicles, etc. Traffic rules short circuit the process of deciding between these options, and force you to stop unless you’re ready to incur a heavy fine.

Because rules are artfifacts of a world that existed in the past, and often lack nuance and context, they are imperfect and ill-suited to a constantly changing world. Moreover, applying the same rule to different people and situations often leads to suboptimal results. If you have a rule to be nice to everyone, for instance, soon people who are prone to taking advantage of you will be even more empowered to do so. If you have a rule to wake up everyday at 6 and go to work, and you insist on doing so after a late night out, you’ll be sleep deprived and probably incapable of non-trivial work that day. Hence, I have found that metarules, which are rules about rules, are often more useful than rules. Given below are some useful metarules:


All rules are imperfect, and one should be ready to change them with abandon, depending upon the context.

Rules are useful because they provide a way to quickly pick a course of action in response to external conditions. One should be aware of both their usefulness and their drawbacks.

Rules are ways to reach a desired goal. As conditions change, rules too must change.

Goals also change. Obviously, rules must consequently change.

These seem pretty generic and useless. However, just being aware of them can be useful. For example, if you create a certain rule for yourself in the belief that it will lead to a promotion of perhaps more research papers, and you’re unable to achieve your goal, being aware of the metarule that rules are imperfect and must constantly be changed will lead you to question your methods, and hopefully arrive upon a better rule.

Perhaps this game of ours has no rules; only metarules.

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Graduate student

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