Fool's Gold: Just a Carrot on a Stick

The difference between the beginners and the advanced is the ability to resist greed.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

I often call obvious mistakes "fool's gold," and people get it right away. In the dojo, 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, discerning a free carrot and a carrot dangling on a stick.

Advanced players are expected not to fall for fool's gold; beginner players consistently fall for fool's gold. If a beginner player can resist fool's gold, they're 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 are none; this is partially why they get dismantled in such spectacular fashion by better players.

Beginners may believe advanced players see a dozen moves ahead; they do not. The better explanation: beginner mistakes are so apparent to advanced players, they can exploit them 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 he's open to attack, when, in fact, he is fundamentally safe. When the novice takes the bait, the advanced player pounces. This is commonly known as a rookie mistake.

Greed Is Not Always Good

(Bobby Fischer | Ulrich Kohls)

(Bobby Fischer | Ulrich Kohls)

The advanced focus on process; beginners plan for the end. In the example of submission grappling, an advanced player may leave an arm dangling (the dangling carrot). A beginner sees the arm unprotected and attacks, not realizing he is out of position. In attacking, he moves further out of position, unable to defend himself. I call it being "greedy;" beginners dive for the finish line, wanting instant success without earning it, and end up paying a physical price. (Skipping the whole engagement and sparring process, and jumping to the conclusion.) As a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) player, I want a productive training session. I liken it to investing: I'm willing to have some days where I lose money if, overall, I'm a winning investor. Beginners lose because of greed. Advanced players have discipline. Like a disciplined investor, discipline is the ability to control short-term greed for long-term success. The difference between the beginners and the advanced is the ability to resist greed.

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, that is why it will not work. If you're in a classroom and you're already planning for the end of class, your mind cannot remain in the present moment of learning. You don't want the beginning and the middle yet you want to reap the rewards at the end. Fool's gold.

An obvious decision is not always the same as an educated decision. (The carrot is obvious but that doesn't make it the best choice. It's meant to be obvious for a reason, to control your behavior.) 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 it really is. Just like the real fool's gold, people are being misled by greed and "what if" fantasies of: "This must be it!" (Or perhaps we just want a pat on the head for figuring something out, even if it didn't require any deduction.)

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 not, however, 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. The calculation is in comparing what you know about the situation, information gathered, and evidence vs. all the risk you can dig up. The more you know, the less risk. This is how investors can sleep at night, because they've done their due diligence in gathering information. Fool's gold is lacking in any rational calculation. Information is like a spoiler for a TV show, a fool will cover his or her ears and not want to know. The fool only sees gold, the carrot, the finish line, and winning the match. The beginners are believers, but the advanced are skeptics. Just as in sports, advanced see things as errors, as strategic mistakes; the beginner will blame luck and superstition (hence, Hail Mary). How can a sophisticated investor make money on a bad deal? By making the deal too good to be true and selling it to an unsophisticated investor.

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 will only see the downside and choose inaction. Expertise is about being able to balance two clashing ideas at once. To a novice, clashing ideas are dissonant, and so, one idea must eventually prevail, and the other rejected. (Black-white thinking vs. grey-nuanced thinking.) An expert doesn't see incongruent 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 thinking and motivated reasoning. Why learn entrepreneurship, if you can find a magic yellow rock (the dangling karat), you'll get rich instantly. If it's that obvious to you, it's that obvious to scammers as well. ("Make money from home, act now!" "Learn the one deadly secret move that can defeat any man! Buy this book now!")

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. (Nuance.) 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 are all about getting better at difficult tasks. (If you're a donkey, carrots are good. But don't think like a donkey, carrots aren't always easy to get.)

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 the same: they promise easy outcomes that are too hard to resist. (And we tell ourselves, "This time will be different, if I run fast enough I will get that carrot.") Players will pull your strings as if you were a puppet. This can only happen when we replace skepticism with belief.

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.
— David Hume

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

("Stańczyk" (c. 1480–1560). the most famous court jester in Polish history | Jan Matejko)

("Stańczyk" (c. 1480–1560). the most famous court jester in Polish history | Jan Matejko)

Improvement is about changing what you are doing to make yourself work better. My friend asked me for help, yet he refuses the help given. He thinks: 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 was already taking 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. You can keep chasing the carrot and maybe the man will get tired and just drop it. That is a method. But what's better is to stand up, allowing gravity to dangle the carrot right into your mouth. You can't forget about the obvious, but you also have to be able to grow beyond the obvious. For the advanced, knowing what others find obvious and irresistible makes it easier to exploit them. (It's why con-artists rank high in empathy and emotional intelligence.)

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, like a closed door, new knowledge is not able to pour in.

His behavior is self-contradicting because his rational mind sees a need but his ego (irrational mind) won't accept it. This is why he asks and then resists. His rational mind acts, then once he receives help, his ego steps in and stands in the way of progress. His ego has already made up its mind. It wants improved results without changing its method. To change its method would mean the ego was wrong, and though the ego wants better outcomes, it does not want it at the expense of diminishing itself. (If you've ever wondered why people say ego is the enemy of progress, this is why.) My friend's behavior is like a broken record; he keeps finding fool's gold, but the possibility 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 in his robotic broken loop. Even when shooting a basketball haphazardly, the occasional basket will still go in. There is a reward just for trying. But only a fool would mistake that for the best method. (Though he is my friend, I would be a fool not to recognize that he is also a donkey.)

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. Not long after, 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 these scams 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 with multiple incidents). They willfully closed their minds for the promise of a brighter wealthier day. (Look at that carrot, so close. I know it's a trick, but what if...)

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, 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 I sounded like a donkey.

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.

Fool's gold is the inability to discern reality from wishful thinking. This is why new religions keep popping up and why a sucker is born every minute. We believe what we want to believe, in psychology this is referred to as motivated reasoning.

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 true for the mind. There is existing knowledge, but no matter the volume of knowledge, the value is in the empty space for more knowledge. This is an essential part of the Way. Cultivating a self that continuously gets better at challenging tasks. (A mind like a stubborn old mule has no value.) 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.

Beyond the Obvious

See beyond the obvious opportunities and make educated decisions. The missing element of "should have known better" is education. 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. 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 and motivated reasoning. Convenience and motivation have no place in logic.

Don't be a donkey. Leave your ego and shoes at the door, just as you would at the training hall. Educate yourself or seek counsel, wait for emotions to subside. Cultivate clear-mindedness. If you can't educate yourself enough or can't think straight, then find others who can. And when you find them, especially be open minded when they disagree with you. Maybe they see an obvious pitfall you do not. The hard part, however, will be listening to their advice.

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