The Willie Sutton Rule


Willie Sutton was a bank robber.

He robbed hundreds of banks across the mid-west, taking millions of dollars using a Thompson machine gun, because he said that…

“you can’t rob a bank on charm and personality”

He was on the FBI’s most wanted list for decades, but today he’s famous for something he never said.

Supposedly a reporter asked him, “So why do you rob banks Willie?” and he supposedly replied…

“Because that’s where the money is!”

Except he didn’t, sadly. It’s a shame, but it’s an urban legend. Someone should have said something like it, it’s too good not to, somehow it got around that Willie said it.

We believe it because it fits. It makes sense, that’s why bank robbers rob banks, because that’s where the money is dummy. There’s even a Willie Sutton Rule, that says the “obvious” answer is the right one. It fits with what we already think the answer is.

We’re 100% wrong.

Here’s Willie himself,

” Why did I rob banks?
Because I enjoyed it. I loved it.
I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job.
But to me the money was the chips, that’s all.”

The money was just how he kept score, but the reason why he played the game was that he loved it.

Willie loved the rush of a bank heist, other people love the rush of solving a knotty programming problem, or the rush of seeing something appear that they’ve made from nothing.
We were very wrong about Willie, but this false belief piggy-backs on another false belief, that money is the greatest motivator.

It’s not money, it’s doing what you love. That’s the real Willie Sutton Rule.

This entry was posted in psychology, systems thinking and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Willie Sutton Rule

  1. Pingback: The Willie Sutton Rule | What is My Purpose:The Observations of a Systems Thinker

  2. It’s a bit like that thing Ford never actually said about horses.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s