The first evil skill I acquired was subterfuge. Trying to deceive my parents is one of my earliest memories. I escaped from my crib by removing one of its loose bars and then, after climbing out, put the bar back in — as if to trick my parents that I was still in there.
Photo remixed from an original by Nowik Sylwia (Shutterstock).
That was what my baby mind was thinking at the time, at least. I’ve since had more practice and time to refine this and other “evil” skills, which I actually think has been a good thing. Subterfuge, gaming the system, and lying can be useful skills to have as an adult — when applied appropriately.
Subterfuge is about hiding your tracks or actions so you can get something you want (or avoid something you don’t). All kids learn it to some extent when they play hide and seek, looking for the best possible places to hide or the best way to outsmart the seeker. Winning the game is often about misdirection, a Navy SEAL explains.
Childhood offers plenty of opportunities to use this skill. You learn it when you get good at passing very important notes in class, or when faking a fever to get out of school. In my household, there was a firm rule that kids couldn’t leave the table unless we finished every bite of our food (even if it was green or had gills). So I learned where around the dining room I could hide said unwanted food and how to do it covertly. (To this day, my parents still talk about finding disgusting moldy food stuffed into the bottom of the blinds or the crevices inside our dining room cabinets when they moved.)
Another time, I wanted to watch a movie on cable that starred an actor I was obsessing about, but it was rated R so my parents wouldn’t let me see it. I set the VHS player to record the movie, and then covered the displays of the VHS recorder and cable box with black plastic from garbage bags so they wouldn’t know it was on. Thinking back, this wasn’t a really foolproof plan, but at least I was trying (and I got to see the movie).
Perhaps being deceitful isn’t an honourable skill, but it does help sharpen your problem-solving skills. All kids learn subterfuge to some extent, and honing it generally just takes practice. Whether or not you were also sneaky as a kid, you could strengthen your subterfuge skills as an adult by sharpening your critical thinking and observation skills — and maybe even watching spy movies.
Subterfuge comes in handy when you’re an adult, even if you don’t become a secret agent or an assassin. Just recently, I attended a surprise birthday party for a friend and the level of subterfuge the party planners and guests went to was interesting. We parked around the block in case the birthday girl recognised any of our cars, posted children as lookouts at all entrances, and made elaborate plans to distract her while the preparations were underway.
You’ll also need to be good at subterfuge to protect your privacy and security: When you’re hiding your valuables and sensitive files from thieves (or gifts from your family), applying for a job without your company knowing about it, covering up your browsing history, and even staying safe when you suspect you’re being followed. These things aren’t just accepted, they’re encouraged.
Gaming the System
Children are expected to know the rules and follow them. But, as with subterfuge, knowing your way around the rules — without necessarily breaking them — helps kids and adults get what they want.
My daughter is constantly testing for loopholes. If I say, “OK, you can buy one toy at the store,” she might pick up a toy and a dozen books and other non-toy items and argue I didn’t say she couldn’t pick up other things. I’ve learned I have to be very specific lest she back me into a corner.
Pushing boundaries is fun when you’re a kid (or a kid at heart). Like other members of Generation X, I and my friends grew up in the time of Atari, the Commodore 64, and Nintendo. It was an era when a lot of kids started sharing cheat codes, cracked games, and tricks on how to hack the start screen. It’s literally gaming the gaming system, but that kind of thinking — which kids today still are developing — paves the way for various types of success as an adult.
Pentesters (or ethical hackers) and programmers obviously need to be able to identify loopholes, but so do doctors, lawyers, teachers, and just about anyone in any industry. By looking for the outliers, the contradictions, and what could go wrong instead of relying solely on how things are supposed to work, we improve our chances of getting things right or — yes — taking advantage of a system which is often broken or unfair. For example, ripping DVDs you own for personal use.
Loopholes aren’t always unethical, either. Many consider just taking advantage of tax credits to be using a loophole, but they’re not illegal, and they could save you a ton of money, even if you’re not a billionaire or giant corporation. The key is to know the system and also, of course, know the risks of trying to go around it as well.
Lying well is a skill. According to child development experts, learning to lie is a developmental milestone and an essential part of healthy brain development. While kids rarely lie honourably, early practice means you’re better at navigating those tricky situations when lies are more appropriate. White lies are ok later in life when you compliment someone or want to make them happy, when you want to protect someone or keep a secret, or if you have to cover up a bad fart.
All kids lie, just like their adult counterparts. Maybe it’s because we can’t handle or aren’t ready for the truth. I remember my parents telling us a beloved rooster on our grandparents’ farm had “flew away to heaven” (and that night we all had a chicken feast), just as I remember lying to my parents that I didn’t care. Lying is a skill that helps you deal with life, even if you’re lying to yourself. (Lying to yourself can boost your confidence and be braver as you fake it ’til you make it.)
Learning how to lie with confidence doesn’t necessarily make you lie more often or make you a psychopath. When you know how to lie convincingly, however, you can practice the art of manipulation, which is a universally useful skill.
Kids use their powers of manipulation to get on their teacher’s good side so they can later do whatever they want, the same way that adults lie to their bosses to become favoured employees. They’re usually subtle lies: Looking enthusiastic during a lesson or meeting while thinking you’d rather be somewhere else, complimenting people or saying “good job!” when really disagreeing — the small lies that grease society’s wheels and create less friction. Everybody lies.
As we’ve seen through every Evil Week we’ve had here at Lifehacker, some skills we normally think of as “bad” can actually be used for good, or are at natural skills we develop as a way to survive. I’m learning that it’s not just about saying “don’t do that”. I don’t necessarily want my daughter to lie to me or try to deceive me, but I understand when it happens. I want to encourage this kind of curiosity (we’re really into learning magic tricks lately and reading books like Encyclopedia Brown) — while also teaching that using these skills too much isn’t healthy and, as with every ethical grey area, it depends on the situation.
Lifehacker’s Evil Week highlights the dark side of life hacking. How you use that knowledge is up to you.