Mapping Environments

7 min read

What is an Environment?

An environment is a space of actions and consequences. Within this space, certain actions map to certain consequences with some level of confidence. Outside of this space, these relationships have no guarantee of holding.

Metaphorically, you can imagine an environment as a certain terrain. For example, you may learn the climate and weather of a rainforest. This knowlege, not matter how deep, will get you nowhere in a desert. The space of actions and consequences for a rainforest does not extend to a desert and vice versa.

While the difference between a rainforest and a desert is painfully obvious to even the uninitiated, the ability to make distinctions between environments in modern real-world situations can be extremely difficult. Furthermore, small differences may matter greatly especially if the stakes are high. An industrial supply chain operation and a military operation may have the same focus on precision, but there is a huge difference between a late shipment and a wounded soldier.

How we observe any new situation is highly dependent on how we have interpreted similar ones in the past. Mapping our own knowledge of environments across appropriate lines gives us a better sense for how to intepret our current and futures ones. While the reality of environments is complex, we can look to controlled games like competitive sports to make some simplified, basic categorizations.

Ability Environments

Sports in this category favor athletes with extreme ability like strength or speed. Track, swimming, and powerlifting are examples of sports where athletes with extreme strength or speed win. Technique plays a role, but is overshadowed by the pure magnitude of ability when it comes down to odds. These environments are single player games. While there is competition between athletes, no opponent physically forces you to behave differently.

This type is probably the most common type of mistaken categorization because there is always some level of ability inherent in all problems. When young children first learn math or a language, they are overly sensitive to differences in ability. Those who realize that it comes rather easily gain confidence while those who have initial difficulties often get discouraged. In work, leadership can commonly be categorized as a magnitude type of environment. Some people seem to lead naturally without any apparent effort. In life, a person may seem so naturally social and charming that everyone wants to be their friend.

Despite being perceived as the most common, this type is actually the least common. There are very few environments where pure ability is the deciding factor for winning. Very few environments are so simplistic.

When they do exist, they are often extremely constrained environments (effectively talent competitions) and should be mapped very narrowly. It would be very problematic to go about life like it’s a spelling bee. Those who lean too heavily on this type of mapping in their thought process, often miss out on the idea of trying different approaches. Trying “harder” is often not the answer if your environment is not an ability one.

Technique Environments

Sports in this category favor athletes with superior technique. Ability plays a role, but you cannot “power” you way through to win. Golf, gymnastics, and skating are examples of sports where athletes must use technique to win. These environments are single player games where no opponent physically forces you to behave differently.

This type is the most academic type of environment and we all experience it in school. With technique, there are such things as correct and perfect. Our efforts are graded against a master set of truths and a score is given to tell us when we are correct and how close to perfect we are. Those who excel in school map this environment quickly and build their own systems or techniques to perform. Some will study intensely, few will camp out in office hours, and others will ask around for previous questions and answers. The method hardly matters as long as you get the right score. This is why cheaters will always exist; in this type of environment, the payoff to get the right answer is very high. School often imparts to us (somewhat inadvertently) the idea that life is like this type of environment. But outside of school, does this environment really exist? For a lot of young academically-sound graduates about to enter their first job, the answer is a resounding yes. They did well at school and now they have a great job. The system works.

But what happens to their answer a year later? Five years later? Ten years later? Chances are, the vast majority will answer no. Their life experience will be peppered with less “correct” competitors who got the promotion faster, made more money, and obtained more success. All to suggest that outside of school, most of life’s environments are not technique ones. Continuing on the path to correct and perfect when the environment is not a technique one can be extremely inefficient and result in internal bitterness at the perceived unfairness of the situation.

It is important to note that correct and perfect only exist within this type of environment. Seeking it where it does not exist is equivalent to waiting for rain in a desert.

Single Competition Environments

Sports in this category have athletes face opponents individually. Sports like (singles) tennis, MMA, and boxing fall into this category. In order to win, you must take into account your own abilities and those of the opponent. You win by using your relative strengths against the opponent’s relative weaknesses. Further, you need to consider both offense and defense. Unlike the earlier types, this type is an open system because opponents provide external interactions that you have to respond to. How your opponent acts changes your behavior drastically. Therefore being able to assess your opponent correctly is key; an unpredictable one can be dangerous. Likewise, being rather unpredictable yourself can be quite beneficial.

Open systems are in general more common in real-world scenarios. Most forms of individualized competition fall into this category. The difference is that you rarely get to see your competitors directly. For example, getting a job is a type of individualized competition. You don’t get hired by being the smartest (ability) or hardest working (technique). You get hired by outcompeting the other candidates on criteria that is most suitable to the company’s needs. This is why somewhat unconventional methods can be quite effective, depending on what everyone else is doing. If everyone else is sending in pristine resumes filled with 4.0s and big names, but you send in a complete redesign of the company website based on having used every product they sell, then you’re likely going to get someone’s attention. Likewise, if you’re on the other side following conventional methods and a competing candidate sends in the redesigned website, then your chances are going to drop. Let’s say this unconventional method lands you the job and you share your success. Suddenly everyone is doing it and the method becomes predictable. The edge you used is no longer an edge because everyone is doing it. The edge only exists to the extent it is unique.

It is very easy to mistake this type of environment for an ability or technique one because you cannot directly see the competitors.

Doing so can be extremely frustrating. If you mistake getting a job for an ability or technique environment, you might conclude that you simply need to kick it in gear and send out even more applications, network with everyone in the industry, and grab a few more advanced degrees in your spare time. This might work assuming everyone else is not doing the exact same thing. If they are, then you just ran to remain in the same place. It would be more prudent to assess yourself in relation to competitors first: what is everyone else doing and how can I be different?

Cooperative Competition Environments

Sports in this category have athletes work in a team to overcome another team. Basketball, soccer, and football are examples of sports that fall into this category. In order to win, a team needs to have a strong combination of players who can offset, balance, and enhance the team’s collective strengths and weaknesses. Dynamics between team members play a huge role in cooperative competition. Cooperative competition is the most complex of the explored types; control becomes significantly less clear and both cooperative and competive forces will change your behavior.

Most additive real-world scenarios involving other people fall into this category. A large number of major endeavors are done in teams.

A team is a collection of individuals where the combination is greater than the sum of its parts. If the combination is not greater than the sum of its parts, then it’s simply a group of people.

Pure group dynamics tend to have a lot of rivalry, inner competition, unstable power plays and generally lack the cohesive synergistic power of a team. In other words, a team is a structurally sound group where benefits and costs flow bidirectionally from the whole and its parts.

Leadership, commonly misattributed to pure ability, is constructed in an environment of cooperative competition. Good leaders only appear obvious to outsiders when the team dynamic allows its expression. Most of the work is done in building the team, relationships, and commonality required to allow members to function symbiotically. From the outside looking in, it’s barely visible. When most of the work has been done, the leader appears to naturally command respect and authority to outsiders who typically only get a first impression once the smoke has settled.

Playing in this kind of environment means you don’t need to be top dog to win. Instead, you can win by being part of a good team. Instead of competing against others, cooperative competition environments allow you to share in the rewards by contributing to the whole. Furthermore, you don’t really need to be “the best”. Instead, finding the right fit becomes more important. If you can patch up a weak spot or balance out another area, you can find yourself in a beneficial position.

Drawing Lines

Treating a cooperative competition environment like it’s a technique or ability one will quickly put your goals over the team’s, which means you risk getting removed. Treating a competition like it’s only against yourself or some standard, when in fact it’s against others, will drastically reduce the effectiveness of your efforts.

Using the wrong map for the terrain at hand is worse than nothing.

So how does one draw the map lines?

Arguably, by consequences. Environment differences matter to the extent you care about the consequences of its actions. Mapping by consequences also means that how you draw the lines is ultimately personal. There is no “ground truth” for all levels of granularity. At a certain point, your consequences will deviate from others. This is partially why it is difficult to copy the success of others. Genetic gifts, luck, or any combination of variables can change the consequences so that over enough accumulation, a person’s path can be near impossible to copy - even if they told you exactly what they did. You may be able to mimic the action, but it is significantly harder to mimic the consequence.