Positive constraints

Can you think of an instance in your life where an inconvenience turned out to have unexpected benefits?

To be a black cab driver in London, one has to go through a process called “The Knowledge”, where they spend about four years memorizing the names of the 25000 streets of the gargantuan metropolis, and the fastest routes through them. They would then be thoroughly examined until they can imagine every curve of a street at the mere mention of its name. This tradition is more than a 100 years old, dating back to the era of hansom cab drivers. In today’s world of satellite navigation, using this process seems illogical. Why should people have to go through this four year grind in this day and age?

Rory Sutherland points out how, among other things, The Knowledge doubles up as a commitment device. He says that a driver who has spent four years of their life in getting a black cab license can be trusted simply because they have too much skin in the game. A mere string of minor traffic offences or complaints from tourists can cause these cabbies to lose their hard earned licences. Therefore, the inconvenient process of getting a cab license brings with it the unexpected benefit of automatically disciplining these drivers on London’s streets.

In the course of listening to podcasts and audiobooks, I observed how I could still comprehend and appreciate conversations played at 1.5x or 2x speed. In fact, several episodes were more exciting this way. I considered this an unquestionable benefit. I could now listen to more podcasts in the same amount of time. And yet, after a couple of weeks of listening to squeaky voices speaking as though they had downed 10 cups of espresso, I realized how in the pursuit of quantity I had diluted quality. Alas, more information wasn’t the point. I went back to normal speed, and I now queue up only episodes that are good enough to enjoy even at this slower rate. Imposing this constraint made me a more selective podcast listener.

At the face of it, the term positive constraint might sound like an oxymoron. And yet, inconvenience can lead to scarcity that can have unexpected benefits – from making our roads safer to curating the information that passes between our ears.

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