Exposing the Invisible Rules that govern us

Future of Society

I’ve been thinking a lot about “invisible rules” lately. I define an invisible rule as an unspoken mental, cultural or structural agreement between two or more people that governs our individual and collective behaviour. Invisible rules are incredibly powerful. They weaponise our fear of being ostracised to mandate behaviour that keeps power structures intact. From dating to mating, from job hunting to financial planning, from where we’re born to how we grieve, invisible rules are everywhere. They are intricately woven spider webs that strangle the entire planet in a rigid grip. I strongly believe these invisible rules are preventing human beings from living their most authentic, loving, flourishing lives. Not only that, but the status quo created by these invisible rules is devastating our vision for the future. In this essay, I’m going to share 5 of the most common invisible rules I’ve experienced and my suggestion for how to overcome the powerful hold that specific rule holds over our lives.

Quick note: I would LOVE your undiluted feedback on this piece. I’m starting a podcast where each episode will be dedicated to a deep deep discussion about a specific invisible rule (I'M VERY EXCITED!!!). As I line up the first few guests, I’d love to know which rules you want me to prioritise (and all those I’m missing!)

Invisible Rule #1: Only apply for jobs that are advertised

80% of all jobs that exist are not advertised. I’ll say it again louder to wake you up. 80% OF ALL JOBS THAT EXIST ARE NOT ADVERTISED. Which means that about 99.9% of job-seekers are trying to land only 20% of all open jobs. No wonder the labour market is in such a mess. The way I see it, there are 3 categories of jobs:

Category 1: Jobs that exist and are advertised

Category 2: Jobs that exist but aren’t advertised

Category 3: Jobs that don’t exist (yet)

Most job-seekers apply for jobs in Category 1 (95%). Job-seekers with decent networks apply for jobs in Category 2 (4%). People who see through the system apply for jobs in Category 3, by which I mean, they get a job made for them (1%).

Note: These percentages are entirely illustrative/approximate.

If you want to maximise your chances of landing a job (and a job you’re JUMP-OUT-OF-BED-EXCITED-FOR), I encourage you to explore Category 3. It's a completely permissionless approach to finding a dream role (unlike Category 2) and once you see what’s possible in the hidden job market, you won't go back.

Takeaway: Create the jobs that don’t exist.

Invisible Rule #2: Romantic love is the only love that matters

The Ancient Greeks thought that “philia” (brotherly love or deep friendship) was more important than “eros” (romantic, sexual love). Indeed, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century American poet and essayist, said that "a friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature". Yet today, our culture constantly reminds us that the only grand mission worth undertaking when it comes to love is the pursuit of passionate, overwhelming, romantic love. This conditioning is not only reinforced by media and culture, but also by the law itself. There is, after all, no legal structure comparable to marriage that allows you to commit to your dearest lifelong friend. Legal systems formalise marital relationships between lovers because of deep historical, cultural (and patriarchal) significance, providing a framework for rights, benefits and protections that is not extended to friendships. This invisible rule governs how we prioritise the different relationships in our lives and how much effort we invest in each of those relationships.

Takeaway: Lovers come and go, but friendships take up permanent residence in our hearts. Treat them this way.

Invisible Rule #3: Men are the dispensable sex

One of my favourite questions to ask when I’m in a gender-diverse social group is:

If you could get men to better understand one thing about being a woman/if you could get women to better understand one thing about being a man, what would it be?

It leads to the most fascinating conversation of the night. Without fail.

What’s most interesting is that women have a decent amount of diversity in their answers, while men’s answers are always very similar. There are many ways you could read this, but what follows is my personal interpretation. Men have been conditioned from a young age to believe that they are the dispensable sex. While their grandfathers were sent to war, their grandmothers were protected from a violent death. When the Titanic sunk, women and children were prioritised over men when it was discovered there weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone to get out safely. Women are born with a net positive asset–their natural beauty–while men are only valued when they begin to be perceived as “useful” to their families or society. Even from a biological standpoint, female babies are born with 1-2 million eggs which can never be replaced, while adult men produce millions of sperm every single day. It seems that this dispensability mindset is fuelling most of the other crises our men are facing today: loneliness epidemics, a net decrease in sex and a dramatic increase in suicide rates.

Takeaway: Unlearn the conditioning that men are the dispensable sex.

Invisible Rule #4: Generalists are worth(less) than specialists

Our education system and workforce are still structured like they were in the Industrial Age. it made sense back then: industrial workers had to be narrowly trained to perform a specific task over and over again. But this way of thinking about jobs is entirely outdated in a complex, interconnected world that is increasingly shaped by artificial intelligence and automation. In 10 predictions for the future of work, I wrote about how the demand for generalist talent will increase as AI powers more and more of the labour market. As David Epstein says in his seminal book Range, "The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”

Takeaway: We need to destigmatise generalism, reconstruct traditional hiring processes and elevate interdisciplinary thinking if we want to have any chance of tackling today’s most complex and interconnected problems.

Invisible Rule #5: The more labels the better

In The Over-labelisation of society, I wrote about how the dramatic increase in labels describing conditions, qualities and characteristics was starting to confuse me (and I’m literally a Gen Z, before you come at me for my Boomer sentiment). My confusion was triggered by feeling like an increasing number of labels are calling out universal human experiences, when I’d always thought of a label as a mechanism to spotlight non-universal or overlooked experiences. As a trained linguist, I think about labels a lot from a linguistic and anthropological perspective. What is the function of a label in society? How has that function evolved over time? Have labels actually increased our levels of empathy and/or self-awareness? Ultimately, I think today’s youth believe that the more labels the better. My hypothesis is that the representation of the utility of labels probably looks more like a bell curve: beyond an optimal point, an increase in labels stops contributing to an increase in our levels of self-awareness and empathy.

Takeaway: Critically question whether your use of labels is improving your quality of life or the quality of life of those around you.

More rules to come...

March 21, 2024