Don't Follow Instructions

It might seem horribly obvious once I say it, but following instructions is no fun. The outcome of following instructions might be good. You might enjoy the outcome. But the process is never enjoyable. It isn't fun to be in the army and follow instructions. It isn't fun to fill out a tax return if you are just following instructions. Painting by numbers is amazing -- you just follow instructions, you have no idea what you are painting, but you end up with a good painting. But that's an enjoyment of outcome, not process. As far as I know, many people have painting as a hobby but no one has painting by the numbers as a hobby.

Unfortunately, when a game or sport is taught, it is usually reduced to following instructions, thereby ruining the enjoyment of the game. There are several reasons for this. First, people in our culture know the enjoyment of outcome and are unlikely to be aware of the enjoyment of process. So they focus on winning/succeeding, and assume that enjoyment will come with winning or succeeding. Second, they think that successful action comes from following instructions and are unaware of flow. Finally, there is the small but important point that if you teach someone rules to follow, it seems like you are doing a lot (and should be paid more money). If you don't teach instructions to follow, then you have less to do as a teacher, and even if what you do is very difficult, it doesn't look like you are doing anything.

So teachers teach rules, inadvertantly making the sport or craft actually less enjoyable. The example par excellence is the card game Bridge. Bridge became popular soon after it was invented in the 1920s. It deserved this popularity -- it is a marvelous card game. Then the experts figured out the best way of playing and formulated these strategies as instructions. If you sat down nowadays to learn bridge, you would be told a huge number of instructions to follow. It would not be fun to try to memorize the instructions, it would be no fun when you forgot them, and in any case the process of playing bridge would not be fun, because following instructions is no fun. Nowadays, few people under 60 play bridge; it has essentially died as a popular game in our culture. As bridge is taught, it deserves this death.

It isn't just bridge. If you learn golf, you will be told instructions to follow. If you learn tennis, you will be taught instructions to follow. Instructions are everywhere. I will discuss the issue of the effectiveness of instructions in a moment. But that issue isn't relevant. The whole point of a game or sport is to have fun. So you never want to reduce a game or sport to just following instructions.

For example, when my daughter was seven, she learned to play the game called Skip-Bo. Because she was young and people could see the mistakes she was making, people tried to help her play better. That sounds nice. But in reality, they were just telling her what to do. And that was no fun for her. They increased her chance of winning, but they decreased her enjoyment in the process of playing Skip-Bo.

When I played with my daughter, I gave her a head start, so that she had a reasonable chance of winning even if I didn't help her. Then I didn't help her. She enjoyed Skip-Bo and we played it a lot. She also improved her playing, but again the purpose of the game was enjoyment. Of course, enjoyment signals learning.

Do Instructions Increase Enjoyment?

The only rationale for giving people instructions is so that they will do better, hence experience winning-getting enjoyment. Suppose instructions actually succeeded in doing this. Then instructions still are unlikely to increase enjoyment. First, if everyone gets the same instructions, then everyone improves the same and no one has an increased chance of winning. For example, if two novices play chess without any instructions to follow, they have an equal chance of winning. Teaching effective strategies to both players won't change this balance.

Second, there is an "adaptiveness" to winning-getting enjoyment that undermines any efforts to increase it. In other words, your winning-getting enjoyment tends to be about the same no matter how good or bad you are at an activity, so it doesn't help to improve. For example, if you play bridge at a bridge club and win 10% of the time, you will be very happy when you win. If get lessons and start winning more often, say 30% of the time, you will grow accustomed to winning that often and and winning will not be as exciting as it was before. Bottom line, any increase in your probability of winning will be exactly balanced out by your decreases enjoyment from winning.

So, if following instructions increased your chance of winning, you would experience increased winning-enjoyment for a while. But in the long run, following instructions cannot increase your winning-getting enjoyment. Meanwhile, following instructions decreases your enjoyment of process.

Do Instructions Increase Effectiveness?

By "effective", I mean you are more likely to play better and win, or you are more likely to produce a good art or craft. No doubt there are times that instructions will increase effectiveness. But instructions probably are not as helpful as you think. Before I knew better, I tried to teach someone the "bidding" portion of bridge by telling her instructions to follow. When I realized my error, I told her to just do what she wanted. I just wanted her to enjoy bridge, but to my surprise, she also started bidding much better. When she was trying to remember and apply a collection of meaningless instructions, she got them confused and made silly bids. When she just started doing what she wanted, I discovered she had a fine sense of how to bid.

In retrospect, her improvement made sense. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remember all of the instructions, especially if you don't understand them. And she was not trying to understand the instructions, she was trying to memorize them. Instructions are designed to be followed, not understood. So she was always forgetting the instructions.

When you forget a instruction, you can always try to use judgment and common sense. But she was not using judgment or common sense, and I was not teaching her to use judgment or common sense. She was just following instructions, which are designed to avoid the use of judgment and common sense. Once she started doing what she wanted, she started deciding how to achieve her goals. She started using her judgment and common sense, and she only made bids that she understood. Her Inferential System learned to bid better.

How often can people do better if they avoid following instructions? I suspect often, though I don't know for sure. My daughter learned to be a very good Skip-Bo player. As noted in the first chapter on flow, at a tennis clinic, the less-talented tennis experts could explain their form and strategy. The very best tennis players, though, just said that they did it (Carlson, 1998). And as Csikszentmihalyi found, when athletes are performing at their best, they aren't following instructions.

Avoiding Instructions

When you learn a sport, people will tell you the rules. Those might sound like instructions, but they are not. Instructions tell you what to do. The rules of the sport usually tell you what you can do and leave it up to you to decide what to do. For example, you can't throw your golf ball, you have to hit it with a club. That doesn't tell you which club to use, where to aim, or how to hit the golf ball. These rules make the game interesting -- golf wouldn't be the game it is if you could throw your ball.

People will also give you instructions. For example, they might suggest that you keep your left arm straight when you golf. If you want to be a very good golfer, you probably need to hear this suggestion.

The critical thing is what you do with the information. If you treat it as instructions to follow, you will decrease your enjoyment of golf, decrease your ability to flow at golf, and probably never become as good of golfer as your potential. Instead, you have to think of the information as suggestions. "Hmmm, I will try hitting the golf ball with my left arm straight. Maybe I will also try hitting with my left arm bent, and I will see which works better." You also can try to understand the instructions.

So, my advice is very simple. When you are playing a game or sport, do what you want. There are no "Shoulds." If people tell you what you "should" do, ignore them, or reconceptualize the "should" as a suggestion to try.

When it Matters

It is unfortunate that people today do not experience the enjoyment of playing bridge. But it is no tragedy, and young people are still playing lots of games. They just play new games that aren't taken over by instructions. It is unfortunate that golf and tennis are taught as instructions, but they are difficult to reduce to instructions, and for whatever reason they are still popular.

The real tragedy occurs when important activities are taught as following instructions. I am thinking of mathematics and writing. Mathematics is taught as memorizing instructions to follow. As a result, math is not enjoyable for students and they do not learn much math. I teach math as problem solving. (In fact, I try to make the problem-solving milleau as much like skiing as possible.) It is hard work for the students and they complain that I hurt their brain. But they enjoy math and they learn.

For some lucky reason, I learned math as problem solving -- much of the math I learned was learned in order to solve a problem, and when I learned math from a class or book, I usually saw it in the context of problem solving. I enjoyed math and I did well at it. I was not so fortunate for writing. I first learned writing as a matter of following instructions. For example, three sentences in a row should not all begin with the same word. I was a horrible writer, and I did not enjoy writing. Finally, about age 23, I learned that writing was a matter of following feelings -- did a word feel right, did a sentence feel easy to understand, did it feel like my writing was saying what I wanted to say? Paying attention to "feelings" meant using my Inferential System. Only then did my writing start to improve. And I liked writing. (The final section of this book will be devoted to the issue of learning.)


When your goal is enjoyment, you should resist just following instructions. Instead, you should do what you want, or what feels right, and you should flow because that is more enjoyable.

When you need to do well at a sport, craft, game, or art, then perhaps enjoyment is not your goal (though there is not reason not to also enjoy yourself). Then you should flow because flow is effective.