If at First You Don’t Succeed – Cheat

Test Your Assumptions

How much are you willing to cheat? The answer is probably not enough. When I’m talking about cheating here I don’t mean the kind of legal or ethical violations that could wind you up in jail or sitting on a lifetime of guilt. No, the kind of cheating I’m talking about is breaking the assumptions for how things are supposed to be done.

Everyone has unwritten rules for how life is supposed to work. Unfortunately it often takes a brazen cheater to break those rules and show how they didn’t apply at all. You don’t realize what rules you are abiding until you see someone who sleeps three hours a day, works four hours per week or transforms from a chump to pick-up artist.

Cheating is More Than Creativity

Some of you may think I’m really stretching the word “cheating” here to encompass everything from creativity to luck. But here’s the thing, before you break an assumption and do something differently it can often feel like you are cheating the system. Even as you go forward and break old rules part of you feels dishonest, as if you are annoyed that the world doesn’t follow the assumptions you have.

I have had a minor case of cheating assumptions when it came to study for exams. Because aside for some quick review I didn’t do it. Even in University I’ve aced exams where the total review time before writing was less than a half hour. It may sound creative or smart, but until recently it always felt like cheating.

I shouldn’t be able to do well in exams without studying at all. In highschool I would occasionally study a little bit just to feel a bit less like a cheater. When you break your own assumptions about how the world is supposed to work, it feels wrong.

Creativity implies coming up with a solution you are comfortable with, perhaps even proud of. I feel creative when I come up with a new article idea, do some painting or just finish some brainstorming. But cheating never feels comfortable. Even when you are implementing your cheat, you often just sit there waiting for the universe to prove you wrong.

Cheating What You Can’t Explain

The reason cheating feels wrong or at least disconcerting is that you can’t really explain it. When you break down an assumption about the world, you are left with a vacuum of understanding. I’m sure many people after seeing Steve Pavlina’s polyphasic sleep trial shattered their notions about how sleep had to work.

I think many people avoid cheating precisely because of this vacuum. If your assumptions were broken, you would lose a lot of certainty. A lack of certainty terrifies most people, so they don’t bother to test the assumptions at all. It isn’t a fear of failure that keeps people from challenging assumptions. It is a fear that it might actually work.

Be Aware of Your Assumptions

You can’t leave a room if you don’t know where the door is located. Similarly you can’t cheat your assumptions if you don’t know how they surround you. Being aware of your assumptions about reality is critical if you plan on breaking any of them.

Whenever I examine a problem, I ask myself what my assumptions are. I’ll ask myself, “In order for this to be true, what would I need to believe.” As an example, if I’m going to the gym every day for three hours to get in shape, I might ask myself: “What would I need to believe in order to use this as a solution.”

This gives me a list of assumptions:

  • More workout time means better gains.
  • Working out for three hours is better than one.
  • Working out every day is better than a less regular cycle.
  • Exercise is a good way to get in shape.
  • Going to the gym is a good way to exercise.

Some of those assumptions will be true, but if you are struggling with a problem, chances are some of those assumptions are wrong. Even if you are doing well, there may be flawed rules you are obeying.

Cheat Assumptions Regularly

When I came to start blogging I had a lot of flawed assumptions. It took a fair amount of cheating before I realized they were nothing more than superstition. I used to believe that longer articles meant better content, images should be avoided and you should never try to actively promote. Without cheating those assumptions I wouldn’t be here today.

Regular cheating doesn’t just apply to small things, but entire life areas as well. I used to be a bit of a workaholic, trying to work on my goals for most of my waking day. I had to cheat the assumption I had that working all the time was the most productive strategy. Now I get more enjoyment and more work done without sacrifice.

Don’t Backslide on Your Cheats

Become a scientist. When you see that a cheat is working, don’t skew results just to prove it wrong. Instead, continue testing until you verify that the cheat holds. Once it does, come up with an explanation so that the cheat fits back into your web of understanding.

Many physicists feel quantum mechanics is cheating. This odd branch of physics devoted to tiny particles. There has never been a prediction of quantum mechanics theoretically that has been disproved through experiment. But to this date, most scientists still have no idea why it should work. Particles teleport, move randomly and exist in many places at once.

When quantum mechanics was developed, many scientists, including Albert Einstein, were opposed to it. Einstein is quoted as saying, “God does not play dice,” when referring to the randomness in this field. But just because you can’t currently explain something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

If a cheat works, then it means your assumptions are flawed, not the cheat. Adjust your beliefs, not your methods. Don’t be afraid to cheat what you believe.

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  • kousik

    First of all, get the definition of cheating straightened: you have a wrong “assumption” about the word. How about using ‘hack’ instead?

    About studying for exam: there are ways you can achieve high scores in an exam without studying too hard (and I don’t mean real cheating), but then you’ll be left with a half-baked knowledge of the material (which, I am sorry to have to say, is reflected in the last few paragraphs of your post). A score does not always indicate how well you mastered the material. If you aim for a high score only, it becomes a different matter!

    About quantum mechanics: I’ll be glad to know which physicist in the current scientific world is skeptical about quantum mechanics. QM is inherently probabilistic that some people (you included) often take to be confusing. In QM when you talk about a particle in two different places at the same time you actually mean the probability of those particles in those places at that time! And “randomness” in QM (at least in your context)!!! I didn’t get that part.

    By the way, Einstein did not say those words regarding quantum mechanics; I’ll let you figure out the actual context (HINT: A Brief History of Time). But it’s true that he did not like the lack of determinism in QM.

    About cheating and assumptions: I feel cheated (that’s what I felt after reading this post), NOT because I cannot explain it, but because I did not get what I should have. (Well, you may argue saying that I came here with the “assumption” that I’ll get something!)

    Personally, I don’t like the sound of the word cheating, and I believe the people who cheat stand against humanity. (Another “assumption”?)

    I used to like your blog, but you broke my heart today!

  • Kali


  • Scott Young


    The point of the article was that when you use a “hack” as you put it, it often feels wrong because the world isn’t working the way you think it should.

    Plus, I’m being clever with the word “cheating” to describe the feeling you sometimes get when tackling assumptions. Don’t take it too seriously…

  • Jeremy

    This is a VERY important topic. Everyone must read this, and take it to heart.

    I must say, at first I didn’t particularly agree with this use of the word cheat. I have only rarely heard it mentioned in this context. The context of the word “cheat” is certainly less negative than, say, “swindle”. However, we cannot deny that the word “cheat” has definitely survived ages of English usage, and along the way has mainly claimed to itself a somewhat negative connotation. I only hope that many people do not question your good intent with this post, based on your headline, because this post is golden.

    If people let themselves, they can easily live in a bubble of assumptions, which they may never leave when they are not willing to “cheat what they [are told to] believe”. Many perspectives and assumptions are forced on us by teachers (who only occasionally should not be teachers in the first place). Many more are forced on us by the media/government. Some parents even make unqualified judgments about the way life should be lived, based on their own views (which they themselves received from the sources above, and have never “cheated” themselves!). And if that is not complicated enough, we make these assumptions ourselves as well! Pffff… if only things were not so confusing, LOL.

    If ideas/perspectives on life come to you, especially from a source other than yourself, you MUST “cheat” them (that is, challenge their validity). This is necessary for even the simplest ideologies.

    I just wanted to point out, on a deeper level, the consequences if we do not cheat our assumptions. If you do not question motives and assumptions, bad things can happen when you let others run your mind for you. Examples of these bad things could range from choosing a particular unsatisfying major in college (simply to please your parents, etc.). That results in a change of major, or a job that is not 100% satisfying almost every time.
    I better stop here. Sorry for the long post.

  • Jeremy

    I just wanted to add (then I’ll finally shut up) that discrimination itself is a product of these un’cheated’ assumptions. If everyone would be inclined to cheat their assumptions, there would be no racism or antisemitism at all.

  • Scott Young


    Thanks for your thoughts. I chose to use the word cheat, not in the extreme negative context that most people use it, but that easier solutions often feel like cheating before you test them.

    I’m not going to touch your historical thoughts with a ten foot pole.

  • Cris

    I disagree strongly that cheat is the correct word! Too many people in the world these days are clouding “cheating” with creative interpretation of the rules.

    The positive form of what you are describing is simply “thinking out of the box” and it’s not new.

    Cheating might be an extreme case of thinking out of the box, but it *is* unethical and crosses well defined lines for which we must be responsible. Ethics are stronger than the “box” assumptions, as they have moral implications. A crack-addict who needs money for his next hit practices exactly this kind of “challenging of assumptions” that you describe. Only, he is breaking the law and will likely end up in prison or worse.

    The consequences of cheating in school is outlined clearly in the school rules – if you challenge those rules, you risk the consequences. Plagiarism – presenting another’s work as one’s own – is a fairly standard rule that you can find defined at most universities. It’s a form of cheating, just as having someone stand-in for you at an exam. The reason why reviewing for an exam exists is to help you learn. Courses are intended to provide knowledge to students, but that doesn’t come without hard work. Cheating by cramming is cheating yourself.

    Those ideas you discuss are all “creative” ways at getting ahead, challenging assumptions, etc., as you say. However, the difference is that true cheating has ethical consequences. Plagiarism and fraud on exams can get you thrown out of school. There are cases of extreme cheating where PhD diplomas have been revoked, because universities discovered later that graduates (who challenged assumptions to make it easier to get through the system) had cheated. CEOs (e.g., Martha Stewart) get nailed for going against assumptions that have legal implications.

    According to http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/… you are inventing a new definition of the term. None of the following approaches your use, as far as I understand it.

    1 : to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud
    2 : to influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice
    3 : to elude or thwart by or as if by outwitting
    1 a : to practice fraud or trickery b : to violate rules dishonestly
    2 : to be sexually unfaithful — usually used with on
    3 : to position oneself defensively near a particular area in anticipation of a play in that area

    I encourage discussion of thinking out of the box. However, I’d suggest your blog discuss the ethical limits to this kind of thinking. Too many people are ignoring the limits these days, precisely because not enough discussion of them is taking place.

  • Scott Young


    Thanks for the feedback. My post was more about how “thinking outside the box” solutions often feel wrong before you implement them, than ethical or moral violations, but it seems I’ve hit a nerve with some people.

    Thinking outside the box doesn’t really cover the topic entirely, as it wasn’t the creativity but your emotional reaction to a creative solution I was addressing.

    I’m not promoting actual cheating any more than I was promoting laziness in my post, “The Laziest Solution Possible.” But I’ll admit, that perhaps I was a bit too outside the box to still get my point across.

    Thanks for the feedback

  • Steph

    Me and rules have never got on, because I can almost always see a shortcut that is equally beneficial and way more efficient. The whole studying and exams thing is exactly the same too.
    But i’ve always felt a little guilty about it (i’m referring to the kind of ‘cheating’ you mention), as if i somehow didn’t deserve to have done it so easily when other people seem to always take the long way round.

    Really interesting, i’ve never thought about it this way.

  • Scott Young


    Thanks for the comment. I’m glad someone got the gist of this post. I was worried everyone read the title, focused on the word “cheat” and disregarded the message and then proceeded to inform me of my unethical worldview. 🙂

  • Keri

    “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one’. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.”

    Highly doubt you’ll actually see this but oh well… In my opinion I don’t think you know QM quite as well as you think you do. Don’t get me wrong, you do seem intelligent, possibly a bit too sure of yourself though.

    On your other point I agree with you completely. One of my friends got 11A* at GCSE by cramming all the knowledge in the last few weeks. She can’t remember any of it. I honestly not envy her at all.

    Scott –
    I know exactly how you feel. The amount of work I do compared to everybody else I know, doesn’t really feel fair. I often feel that I don’t really deserve the success that I have.

  • Dr. Whom

    1) INteresting…
    2) On my smartphone, your subscription popup covers the comment and login fields completely when the keyboard is present, and I can’t move it. Makes it kinda hard to type, y’know?
    3) “No worries, this form appears only once, and your email will never be shared.” Which forces me to subscribe in order to enter a comment, or else engage in awkward workarounds with a memo app, which I’m doing. Rather INDECENT, don’t you think?

  • Dr. Whom

    1) INteresting…
    2) On my smartphone, your subscription popup covers the comment and login fields completely when the keyboard is present, and I can’t move it. Makes it kinda hard to type, y’know?
    3) “No worries, this form appears only once, and your email will never be shared.” Which forces me to subscribe in order to enter a comment, or else engage in awkward workarounds with a memo app, which I’m doing. Rather INDECENT, don’t you think?