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The Complete Guide to Learning from Criminals

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Whenever I’m in doubt and I don’t know where to turn, I turn to my idols, who never let me down: Brainiac, Two-Face, and Spongebob Squarepants.

Ok, just kidding about Squarepants. The rest is real though.

You know, until recently, if I were asked about my idols, I might have said someone like Marshall McLuhan, or maybe Hunter S. Thompson or something. Boring people. Real people.

Not any more. I have evolved. I now get my advice exclusively from imaginary criminal psychopaths.

It’s time you did the same. Here’s why.

What criminals get wrong

Let’s say a guy wants to rob a bank. He’s a normal guy like you or me. He doesn’t want to do a horrible job for 40 years, but he’s not qualified for anything either. He doesn’t think he has any choices in life, and society isn’t giving him of the upside he sees on television or anywhere else. He’s like “screw it, I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Now, let’s just say that this guy is like most people. He has reservations about killing people. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Thankfully, a bank isn’t people. If the bank gets robbed, nobody feels bad for it. After all, banks rob us every day; they just gradually introduce it so that they slowly get your consent. Besides, all the money is insured.

So our guy figures he’ll end up in a tropical country somewhere with a beautiful half-Latina half-Asian girlfriend or something. Who loses? Nobody. Exactly. Why would a bank losing a million dollars be a bad thing? Seriously, everybody would be happy. I’m not even kidding. Banks fuck over everyone.

So here’s the thing: if nobody feels bad for a bank, and all the money is insured and nobody gets hurt (in theory), why does nobody do it?

Well, simple. Too many things could go wrong, and the consequences for anything going wrong are massive and dangerous. In other words, it’s too high risk.

They deal in social deviance, doing things that most people aren’t willing to do in order to get ahead. This, by itself, is actually fine. There are lots of methods of social deviance that aren’t illegal.

So the problem isn’t social deviance at all. It’s that criminals do it in an old-school way, for which there are laws, and because of that, there’s collateral damage, death, destruction of private or public property, etc. In other words, the problem isn’t that they break the law, or that they’re criminals. It’s that, in doing so, they might harm you or your loved ones.

Criminals do what they do because they see it as a high-risk, quick, low-effort way of making a bunch of money. They go to the edge of what’s acceptable (and over) in order to get what they want. Some of them are horrible people, and others are doing the equivalent of cheating on their taxes– in other words, not much.

So not all criminals do things that are damaging to society. Some do things that average people consider totally fine, but that just happen to be illegal for larger, sometimes antiquated reasons.

So here’s our first distinction. Violent criminals go to the edges of acceptability. They do high-risk things in order to obtain large rewards quickly. They do this because they are impatient and fail the marshmallow test. This is why they end up in jail.

But hold on, there’s more.

What criminals get right

I was watching a movie the other week about Jacques Mesrine, the public enemy number one in France and Quebec in the 60′s and 70′s. He’s a sociopath if I’ve ever heard of one, but also an epic success in his own way. They literally had to ambush this guy in the middle of the Paris and blast him with automatic weapons in order to kill him. He was like a modern-day Rasputin. Epic.

It was while watching this movie that it really started to click for me.

Here’s a guy that flaunts the rules in a way that nobody else can. Seriously, this dude escaped from jail and then proceeded to return to jail with automatic weapons in order to help his friends escape.

As homicidal as this dude was, I have no words to describe how much guts he had.

So, in that sense, this is a guy we can learn a lot from. Not murder, not mayhem, rape, or anything else of that sort, but definitely what a few friends of mine and myself have now dubbed “skipping the line.”

Ok, imagine you’re going to a bar and the line is long. You stand at the back of the line like a good customer, and the hostess says your wait is going to be like 15 minutes. That time goes by but you still don’t get a table. You’re still waiting. You’re starting to get impatient.

Then, some guy walks in, goes right up to the hostess, whispers something in her ear and she nods and shows him to a table. How do you feel? Pretty annoyed, I’m guessing. WTF, right?

Now, another scenario. Imagine you’re at the airport. There’s a long line for security, as there was for my flight today, but this guy goes to another line, one that you hadn’t noticed, and just whizzes through everything. You watch him show people his iPhone, and he speeds past a giant line. Everything’s the same, except in this case, the system for skipping the line isn’t covert or hidden. He used a 3D barcode or something to get into a special category.

Now, here’s a trick question. Out of all the preceding examples, which one do you consider the most wrong? The bar, the airport, or the bank robbery?

All of these, done right, are victimless social deviance. They’re just deviance with different levels of risk, correct?

Let’s ask another question: If no one got hurt in either of those circumstances, from a one to a ten, how wrong are each of them?

What you need to do is not “play it safe”– which is downright idiotic– but to find is something as high-risk and high-reward as a bank robbery, but without the massive downside.

Let me give you another example. I end up in France fairly often, and since I mostly deal with Americans for work, one of my easiest conversation points revolves around a guy called Loic Le Meur.

Some of you may know Loic, but you’re probably not French, so you don’t know his reputation in France– a country where the majority view government work as being amongst the highest forms of service and status. Where Loic comes from, he’s considered socially deviant as well. So is my French friend Erwan Le Corre (Movnat is doing a workshop in Montreal, btw, which you should check out).

Guys like this, and they differ by country, have labels that their homelands consider fringe or weird. They aren’t easily accepted. They trot the edge in their own way, and are willing to take risks that others aren’t. They’re skipping the line as well– defining themselves differently and placing themselves at the top of their categories.

Normal people are not willing to do this. We don’t have models if we want to be out on the edge. For most people, they have no one that can relate to their need to be that far out.

Entrepreneurs won’t do. They are too acceptable. Politicians won’t do. They are too criminal and unethical (no, seriously, they are). We need someone else– a group we can look to and emulate, the same way people think “What would Jesus do?”

Society is far too boring. There is no one we can look to, so we have no choice. Magneto, Moriarty, and Mr Freeze– that is who it has to be.

Acting like a criminal for fun and profit

Let me ask you a question: according to Rotten Tomatoes, 94 out of every 100 critics thumbed up the Dark Knight. Why do you think that is?

Is it because of Batman? Guess again.

It’s the Joker.

The Joker is the personification of risk, something the average person finds thrilling. He does things that others would never dare to do, but everyone sees inside themselves. Why is that?

Modern society is stifling. The options for how to behave are limited and unfulfilling. Max Weber called it the Iron Cage because it eventually stifles and crushes anything polarizing. We have no choice but to submit in the majority of our lives.

What we start realizing if we spend enough time in cities is that this society breeds sheep. This isn’t even necessarily bad– it’s largely responsible for the stability of the age we live in. And these people can’t even be held responsible for it– the pressure of our society is so crushing that you have no choice but to submit, even at the cost of your long-term happiness.

The thing is, society also seems to have taken a wrong turn. When you combine it with the technological advancements we’ve had in the past several years, what we have turned ourselves into is a giant garbage production factory that is throwing itself off a cliff. There’s a fucking giant continent of plastic in the Pacific ocean for Christ’s sake, all made possible by the modern division between our actions and their consequences (Marx would have had a field day with this).

Clearly, social deviance is necessary at this point.

So who’s here to save us? Who’s here to make us feel alive once again, like a normal human being whose soul longs to be free and able to live without the crushing consequences of a drone-filled modern environment, where you can’t seem to make a difference and often don’t even know how to muster up the energy to care?

The only people who are capable of doing this are those who have lived outside society, those who have no place inside of it, and who ignore society’s rules.

The Joker is the personification of anarchy and freedom, and those feelings, when expressed to us in theatre or film, are deeply moving. It awakens a part of us that yearns to be free, but doesn’t quite know how.

But no modern hero exists for those that want to figure this out.

Now, here’s the thing: We don’t have to deface property, kill people, or rob banks in order to find edges. There are lots of modern edges to explore. They are valuable because they’re risky, and only through learning from criminals can we truly know what the edge is.

Finding an edge

Imagine a map of the world, but flat like it was thought to be a long time ago. At the edges, you fall off and die. But what about right before that, the places before these giant imaginary waterfalls? What’s there?

These are places nobody knows about because no one returns from them, or because no one even goes. If you go there, it changes you. You come back different.

But there’s a problem. The map doesn’t exist for these places. You don’t know how to get there. You need a guide.

Here is my suggestion. If you are looking for an edge and you can’t find one, ask yourself what you would do if you were a criminal, or a sociopath, or had delusions of grandeur, didn’t think you could fail, or that there would be no negative consequences. Ask yourself how you would act if you thought no one had the balls or brains to stop you.

The trick is to take on a personality. Play a character– one with no fear whatsoever, no conscience and no understanding of society’s rules.

Play a total sociopath. Find things with high reward, and act towards them as if there were no negative consequences.

Hard decisions will suddenly seem easy.

Fears that have no consequences will reveal themselves for the mirages that they are. Barriers will vanish.

My guess for what happens next? Your hurdles will have to be set a whole lot higher.

* Filed by Julien at 3:10 pm under direction, guide, humour, random, strategy


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

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6 Responses to “The Complete Guide to Learning from Criminals”

  1. Ara Pehlivanian Says:

    Great article, Julien. Nicely articulated. Thanks for putting in the work!

  2. Carl Says:

    Hey this article is awesome and i can relate. I wanna add something though. You said there are no modern heros for us to figure this out, but i believe there is. Marilyn Manson. He is so far on the edge that he is called the antichrist and people protest his concerts when they are scheduled for their town. The dude even got blamed for columbine! I think that he has a lot to teach us just as criminals do and characters in movies do.

  3. aomone Says:

    I’m socially deviant and I hated the batman movie you are talking about.

  4. Julie Says:

    Love the article! Well said!

  5. Debbie Says:

    Hahaha ! This is great I’ve been just recently thinking how great it would be to be a psychopath or sociopath before reading this article, but without hurting people. This pretty much sums it up for me! Brilliant!

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