Back in middle school, we played a lot of dodgeball. If you’re unfamiliar with the game (most American children are), it’s a fairly simple gym class exercise. The students in the class are divided into two groups with an uncrossable line in the middle of the gymnasium. Volleyballs or other similar equipment are placed in the center, and the goal of the game is to pick up a ball and hit another student with it without crossing the center line. If you hit them, they’re out of the game. The twist is that if you throw the ball at them and they catch it, you’re out. Once one team loses all its players, the game is over.
To the extent that I, as a relatively unathletic child, had a sport in school that I liked, dodgeball was it. The reason? Dodgeball’s rules had a loophole. I was small enough and agile enough to avoid getting hit, which made the first part of the sport fairly straightforward. As long as I kept moving and read my opponents well enough, I stood a reasonable chance of making it to a much thinner field of enemies, while the alpha males duked it out on the front lines.
What made dodgeball my sport was driven by the fact that my throwing skills were meager. If I returned fire, if I picked up a ball and threw it, odds were nearly certain that someone more athletic on the other team would catch the ball and I’d be out. The breakthrough for me was in 5th grade when I realized that I simply didn’t need to throw the balls back. I played completely within the rules the entire time but took advantage of the loophole: my opponents weren’t permitted to cross the center line. As long as I had all of the balls on my side of the court, they were stymied. It was a draw. Naturally, this strategy was relatively unpopular because my opponents were deprived of a “manly” victory, but my team certainly didn’t dispute it (the losers typically had to run laps or do pushups).
This was a powerful lesson for me as a child that has stuck with me over the years: there is probably a loophole, a system vulnerability that no one foresaw and that can work to your advantage if you know it’s there.
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There’s also a good lesson in there about something else: ” I simply didn’t need to throw the balls back.” Sometimes, doing nothing is a strategy. So is saying nothing — at least, if you don’t really have anything to say. You don’t always have to respond, and sometimes shutting up is the better choice in the long run — especially in a noisy world.