Any sufficiently complex system can be gamed. Often, that should be your goal.

When I was in 7th grade, my math teacher told us on the first day how she was going to grade the class – what things counted for what percentage of our grade, etc. I studied that more intently than I studied any other piece of math in the entire class. I figured out that as long as I maintained a 90% average on tests and got a checkmark every day for class participation, I wouldn’t have to turn in a single homework assignment for the entire year and I’d still get an A for the class.

Sometime around halfway through the class, my teacher called me in for a one-on-one. She expressed concern that I simply hadn’t done any homework all year. Her exact words were “you’re barely getting an A.”

Most of the kids in the class who worked very diligently on the homework also had a 90% or better test score average and participated in class every day anyway, so they were gaining nothing from doing more work. Some number of kids scored low on the tests but diligently did the work; as a result, their test scores improved. That was good, but if their test scores hadn’t improved, the homework wouldn’t have helped them get a good grade. So it seemed to me like the system was working as intended: if you needed to do the homework, you should do it. If you didn’t need it (as evidenced by getting good grades on the tests anyway), then there shouldn’t be a penalty for not doing it.

It seemed to me, in other words, that my teacher had deliberately designed the system to work this way, and for some reason, no one else in the class had figured it out. Why else would she have told us how she graded at all?

It turns out I was very wrong about how the world worked. She told us which things were worth points not so that we would carefully balance our efforts, but so we’d do everything on the list.

That’s counter-productive nonsense, but it also turned out to be how most of the world operates.

Most of the world presents you with a system and then expects you to jump into the spirit of that system with both feet, regardless of whether you agree with the intent or whether you gain anything by doing so.

If someone puts a cage around you, they want you to stay in it. But if the bars are so widely spaced that you can walk through them, you should do so. You shouldn’t stay in a cage you can escape just because someone else wants you to.

You should consider all rules as requests, and you should consider all the pros and cons of obeying. You should figure out what’s actually worth points (and how many) and what isn’t. And then you should make your own decisions. But understand the system you’re in first!

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