Unknown Unknowns #16 - Questioning Legitimacy
4 min read

Unknown Unknowns #16 - Questioning Legitimacy

The Olympics are here!  The Olympics are always interesting to watch, but they also make me think.  Every four years, most countries get together and compete in various games for two weeks.  And then everyone forgets about them for four years.

I also ran into the issue of burnout a couple of times.

What do they have in common?  Legitimacy.

The Olympics

The Olympics are fascinating.  They're a combination of sports that no one pays any attention to at any other time and sports that are well known but are being played by people they've never heard of.  It's fun to learn new sports and see the talent, resolve, and athleticism on display.

The Olympics are fascinating in another way.  Everything about them is constructed.  The events, the participants, even the rules of the individual sports are chosen by nameless committees or by rule formulations.

Baseball/softball, karate, skateboard, sports climbing, and surfing were all added to the Tokyo Olympics.  Parkour, polo, and squash were among the sports left out.  Tug-of-war (!) used to be an Olympic sport but was removed one hundred years ago.

Olympians are not necessarily the best athletes in each sport.  There are limits for each country - it can be easier for worst performers to qualify from a small country.  Eric the Eel from Equatorial Guinea is an example of this.  He learned how to swim eight months before the Olympics!  The first time he swam in an Olympic sized pool was in the Olympics.

Elizabeth Swaney became an Olympian in the halfpipe because qualifying points are given to the top thirty competitors and she only entered contests where there were less than thirty other competitors.

Perhaps the most interesting example of arbitrariness in the Olympics are the rules of each competition.  The rules will favor a certain type of athlete or encourage certain styles of play.  You would assume that the competition is meant to select the best team or athlete, but do you think about what that means?

The three disciplines of speed, bouldering, and lead were combined when climbing was added to the Olympics this year.  The three disciplines look similar to non-climbers, but require different techniques and favor different body types and musculatures.  All three also differ from outdoor climbing.  What does winning the gold medal actually mean?  Is the gold medal winner the best climber in the world?  Will it change how the top performers train and climb?

Olympic basketball uses FIBA rules, which are different from NBA rules.  Why are they different and why did they choose to not use the NBA rules, from the most popular and talented league?

In modern judo, competitors can win by winning more points or by making your opponent commit fouls.  Competitors have taken to playing it safe and not going for points and instead denying the opponent opportunities until they foul.  In taekwondo, scoring is counted through electric contact now.  Previously judges called hits and needed a "thundering blow" for it to count.  The electric contact is much more sensitive, so competitors now just try to initiate contact.  Sports are invisibly shaped by the rules and regulations but everyone's eyes are on the spectacle, not the infrastructure.

The Olympics give legitimacy.  But why?  Most people don't know who decides all the rules, yet the rules shape the opinions of billions of people.


Who doesn't have burnout?

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) has an article about the measurement of burnout.  The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) measures burnout as a negative score in three areas:

- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
-   Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
-   Reduced professional efficacy

Compare this to what David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) said about burnout.  "I was suffering from what clearly felt like burnout at Basecamp – not from overwork, but from under-purpose."

Goodhart's Law states "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."  What should you do when the MBI tells you that you have burnout?  Get more energy or sleep.  Get more enthusiastic about your job.  Become more efficient.

Is this treating the symptoms or the disease?

When I read DHH's statement, I asked, "What is purpose?", "Why am I doing this?"  He raised questions for me that made me think about my own situation.  Although he doesn't define burnout or purpose, I got a lot more out of what he said than the HBR.  He might not give you prescriptions, but I'm looking at the problem from a different point of view.  HBR gives answers, but it feels like a long slog of "How-to" books.

The map can never be the territory.  All abstractions of reality are not the actual reality.  This means that  you can't have black and white answers and the answers are limited by how far from reality the abstraction is.  There will always be nebulosity.  Because everyone's situation is different, it's important to decentralize.  Centralization requires metrics and those whose situations are ruled by those metrics but whose situation is different from those metrics will be worse off.

Why is Goodhart's law true?  Because it makes you create metrics where the map does not equal the territory.  You then try to fix the metrics, but you're not fixing the underlying territory because it's not mapped correctly.  You're fixing the symptoms, not the disease.

Questions, suggestions, complaints?  Email me me at [email protected].

Questions, suggestions, complaints?  Email me me at [email protected]  Feedback welcome.

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Have a great week,


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