Fool's Gold: When the Obvious Choice Is an Uneducated Mistake



See beyond the obvious opportunities and make educated choices.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

I often call obvious mistakes "fool's gold" and people get it right away. In the martial arts training hall, I wanted to explain to beginners the difference between novice players and advanced players. The differences are many, but the most significant yet nuanced difference was that of fool's gold.

Advanced players are expected not to fall for fool's gold, beginner players consistently fall for fool's gold. If a beginner player doesn't fall for fool's gold, they are considered to have natural ability. Attacking in martial arts is about openings. Advanced players can create openings, and see openings where others cannot. Beginner players attack openings where there is none; this is a part of the reason they get dismantled in such spectacular fashion by the better players.

Beginners may believe advanced players see a dozen moves ahead; they do not. The better explanation: beginner mistakes are so apparent to the advanced player, they can exploit it to full advantage. It's the difference between basic understanding and critical understanding. Sometimes an advanced player will bait a move, making it seem like they are open to attack, when, in fact, they are fundamentally safe. When the novice takes the bait, the advanced player pounces. In other sports, this is called a rookie mistake.

Greed Is Not Always Good

Advanced players focus on process; beginner players plan for the end. In the example of submission grappling, an advanced player may leave an arm dangling. A beginner sees the arm unprotected and attacks, not realizing they are out of position. In attacking they move further out of position, unable to defend themselves. I call it being "greedy;" they dive for the finish line without trying to earn it and pay a physical price for their greed. (Skipping the whole engagement and sparring process, and jumping to the conclusion.) As a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) player, I am in it to have a productive training session. I liken it to investing: I am willing to have some days where I lose some money if, overall, I am a winning investor. A poker champion once related this same advice to me.

Whatever you start; if you're already planning for the end, that is why you will fail. If you start a diet, but you're already planning on what you're going to do when the diet is over, this is why it will not work. If you're in a classroom and you're already planning for when the class ends, your mind cannot remain in the present moment of learning. You don't want the beginning and the middle yet you wish to reap the rewards at the end.

An obvious decision is not always the same as an educated decision. A fundamental decision is one that is both obvious and educated. What tricks people is the assumption that the obvious is always educated, when they can be mutually exclusive. We are being fooled by the finish line, the promise of reward — what we want it to be, rather than what really is. Just like the real fool's gold, people are being misled by greed and "what if" fantasies of: "This must be it!"

Sometimes it turns out to be real; sometimes people win the lottery; sometimes people catch Hail Mary passes. Risk-taking is an integral part of success. It should, however, not be the foundation of a sound fundamental growth plan. Yes, there are opportunities in risk, but this is why people take calculated risks. One must carefully consider and weigh the advantages to the disadvantages. Fool's gold is lacking in any rational calculation. One just sees gold, the finish line, winning the match.

Novices can only see the obvious upsides to an opportunity; an expert sees the upside but also the pitfalls, both equally evident. Sometimes a novice only sees the downside and chooses inaction. Expertise is about being able to balance two clashing ideas at once. To a novice, clashing ideas are dissonant, and so, one must eventually prevail and the other rejected. An expert doesn't see incongruous ideas; they see harmony; they see yin-yang; they see the Way. Once one sees a complete picture, one can make sound decisions.

A Punch Is Good, Learning to Punch While at the Same Time Blocking Is Great

I love old adages; they are the creation of collective experience and trial and error. One adage that rings true for this example is:

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Meaning: if it's that obvious, it probably isn't true. Fool's gold seems to have three psychological components: it's obvious, it bypasses critical work, and it requires a certain level of convenient (motivated) thinking. Rather than entrepreneurship, if you find a magic yellow rock, you will get rich instantly. If it's that obvious to you, it's that obvious to scammers as well.

Another adage that has truth:

Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

In trying to prevent something that appears apparently wrong, don't throw out something right. This adage doesn't cancel out the other adage I mentioned. In fact, combined they make for better informed and conceived decisions. Calculated risk is about balancing these ideas for the best possible outcome. It's not easy, but life, aging, experience, and wisdom is all about getting better at difficult tasks.

A Player Plays

They play to some basic level human emotion. When this happens in relationships, we call them "players." If we get conned, we say we got "played." What got played was our emotions, our dreams, our vanity, and our fantasies. From pyramid schemes, Nigerian email scams, fake jobs, bad investments, weight loss scams, get-rich-quick schemes, to relationships with cheaters who keep on cheating — the methods are all the same: they promise easy outcomes that are too hard for some people to resist.

One Thing Leads to 10,000 Things

If it's a way of thinking, then it applies to anything that involves thought or the lack thereof. If you think conveniently about one thing, you may think conveniently about many things. The Way is about being uniform with proper thinking. If I can cultivate a more reasonable mind from martial arts, it would be in my best interest to apply this sensible mind to all of my endeavors.

What if you’re practicing wrong? Then you get very good at doing something wrong. If we don’t get good instruction, then we don’t notice when it’s a little out of round. Surrender yourself to your teacher. That’s doesn’t mean you turn over your life to the teacher — you don’t want a guru. You have to keep the autonomy within yourself. You are finally the ultimate authority on your own practice.
— George Leonard, Mastery

In trying to help a friend whose progress had stagnated, I was regularly met with "what ifs" and rebuttals. The result of this mindset has met him with consistent beatings by the hands of opponents who have trained only a quarter of the time that he has. More practice, I am afraid may not help him, as this is only treating the external, the area of need is internal.

Open and Closed Mindset

Improvement is about changing what you are doing to make it work better. My friend asked me for help, yet he refuses the help given: What if his current method works better, he could bypass all this other hard work and finish his opponent straight away. Though the results are proving him incorrect, how convenient would it be if the opportunities he took were also the best available? How convenient if his way was already the right way? If I politely try to show him some other way, I am met with: "Yeah you can do it that way but you can't forget about this." By "this" he means something he is already doing. He is right, you can't forget about the obvious, but you also have to be able to grow beyond the obvious.

There's always more to learn. He has what I call a "closed" mindset. He is aware his progress has slowed, and his results make it even more evident, this is why he asks for help. However, he doesn't realize he is denying not only my help but the help of everyone else he asks. With a closed mindset, new knowledge is not able to pour in. He's already made up his mind. He wants to improve his results without changing his method. It becomes a broken record; he keeps finding fool's gold, but the possibly that this time it will be real keeps him going.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.
— Rita Mae Brown

Even if he does find one piece of gold, or even if he does get that one victory, it won't outweigh all the time he spent on his robotic broken loop. Even when throwing a basketball haphazardly into a basket, the occasional basket will still go in. There is a reward just for trying.

Closed Mindset Is Like Groundhog Day

As a young teller at a bank, I once had a customer come in with a check sent to him from a foreign country. He had won a lottery there he said, and this was part of his winnings. He said he had to wire over a certain amount of money for taxes and fees, and then they would release the rest of the "winnings." He ignored all of our warnings and sent the wire. The check never cleared but on the other side of the wire, someone received real money. Though this customer got burned, he kept falling for the same scam. Like an automaton (Einstellung effect: mechanized behavior and thinking), he would come in, convinced this time was different. Eventually, he bypassed us by depositing it into the ATM and wiring the money at other branches.

Eventually, his account was overdrawn and closed. Since then, new rules and laws have been set to prevent such scams. People who would have never fallen for this scam are now subject to the same holds on checks, higher fees on wires, and scrutiny. Our customer was not alone. There were millions of victims, many of whom had multiple incidents. They willfully closed their minds for the promises of a brighter wealthier day.

An open mindset is one ready to digest and adapt new knowledge. Tao or the Way is all about — nothing. The value is in empty spaces. A box is useful because of the space inside. A cup is helpful because of its emptiness. A wall is valuable because of its doors and windows. The same is said of the mind. There is existing knowledge, but no matter the volume of knowledge, there is always room for more. That is an essential part of the Way. Cultivating a self that continuously gets better at challenging tasks. Many of these ideas will not be easy, but they will get easier if you work at them with the correct mindset. Exactly like martial arts: right mindset, the right spirit, supple body, and thousands and thousands of hours of practice.

Finding Fool's Gold in Brazil

In Brazil, I was almost stabbed and mugged. I had gone to the birthplace of Brazilian jiu-jitsu for leisure and training. I met up with one of my local friends, and we went out to a bar. One of the most beautiful women I had ever seen approached me, and we began talking. She flirted with me in her broken English. I couldn't believe it, I thought I was dreaming, and I didn't want my dream to end. My local friend pulled me aside and slapped me in the face with harsh reality: Why would a local girl want some random tourist she doesn't even know? He was nice about it, but he told me I was a nice looking guy, but I'm not that good looking. I don't speak Portuguese, so she has no idea how intelligent or charming I am. I'm not a soccer player or a movie star. I don't look fabulously wealthy, but I do look like a tourist with a few bucks stashed in my hotel. I almost gave him a "what if this time it's legit" statement but even in my head it sounded ridiculous.

Leaving Brazil, I shared a van with a guy who had a harrowing story. He was robbed, then taken to his hotel and robbed again, then taken to the ATM for several days, then finally stabbed and released. He was at the same bar I was, the same girl had approached him, the difference was he left with her. From there he was met by two of her friends. Fooled by fool's gold, just like I might have been if not for my local friend.

Beyond the Obvious

To make educated decisions, one must be educated. The missing element of "should have known better" is education. (By this I don't just mean the education one receives at school.) When being fooled, there is often an exploitation of ignorance or sometimes willful ignorance. If you don't know enough about something, study and learn more before making a decision. When you are too emotional about a decision, wait until you are more clear-minded. If you can't educate yourself enough or can't think straight, then find others who can. The hard part after that will be listening to their advice.


See beyond the obvious opportunities and make educated choices. Don't be greedy and chase obvious rewards. Put in the critical time and work it takes to get there honestly. Beware the pitfalls of convenient thinking. Leave your ego and shoes at the door just like you would in the training hall. Educate yourself or seek counsel, wait for emotions to subside. Cultivate clear-mindedness. Listen to the advice of others, especially be open minded when they disagree with you. Maybe they see an obvious pitfall you do not.

Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):