Only Suckers Follow the Rules

This a guest post written by Chrissy of The Executive Assistant’s Toolbox.

I’d like to make a confession: I like rules. I’m not kidding. I really love them. I adore boundaries and policies – anything that helps me believe I’m on-track. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing; I’m headed in the right direction.

It was only a few years ago that I started to realize the direction I was heading wasn’t really mine. It had been mapped out for me by some big, invisible ‘rule maker’ – the same genius I had allowed to run my life for the last twenty-eight years; the one who had gotten me into a perfectly average job, working for a perfectly lousy boss, making perfectly standard pay. Yep, that ‘rule-maker’ sure had the smarts.

It was hard at first, realizing that playing by the rules had led me to a totally boring, average existence. I had done what I was supposed to do – I went to college, I graduated, I got a corporate job and got promoted quickly. I had, by all definitions, followed the rules.

But then it suddenly hit me like a frying pan across the head – Duh! What did I think would happen? How can blindly following the rules, neglecting to challenge conventional wisdom, and mindlessly going with the flow get you anywhere but smack dab in the middle? Sure, you probably won’t fail miserably (which is the part that I once found so comforting) but you probably won’t succeed beyond your wildest dreams either. You’ll just be one of the masses of people following the rules, headed in the same general direction, mapped out by some faceless, arbitrary ‘rule-maker’.

Facing the Facts

It may seem like an obvious concept now, but the idea that being a ‘follower-of-the-rules’ actually makes you a sucker was something that completely rocked my world. After all, I was a straight A student. I was teacher’s pet (what I wouldn’t do for one of those stupid gold stars!). I cry when I think of stolen elections and corporate corruption. I want to scream, “That’s not fair!” when I hear of sports heroes taking performance enhancing drugs. When I see someone run a red light I have an impulsive desire to make a citizen’s arrest. I believe in the rules. I believe they exist to keep us safe. I hate, hate, hate to see them broken.

But that’s just the problem: the rules keep us safe. While that’s great on the road, it can be deadly in your career. Safe is the opposite of risky. In business, without risk, you probably won’t find reward. Safe is the middle ground. It isn’t cutting edge, it isn’t experimental. It’s ho-hum, everyday, tastes-like-chicken boring. Following the rules will probably always keep you in the ‘protected zone’ –a few steps above failure and a few steps below success. It’s not a bad place to be. But it’s certainly not where I want to be.

It’s taken me a while to reconcile my feelings here. I have two very different sides of my personality that have fought a long, hard battle over this issue: the compulsive rule-follower who wants a pat on the head for doing exactly what she’s told; and the ambitious professional who wants to be recognized as a leader and an entrepreneur. And let’s face it: the two don’t really mesh. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well behaved women rarely make history.”

My Answer

So what conclusions have I come to? How does a compulsive rule-follower come to accept that rules are for suckers? This is how I’ve come to see it:

Rules are important standards to have in place. They just are. Without them, all hell breaks loose. So it’s important to know the rules of the game you’re playing. Whatever career you have, or want to have, you must know what to expect and what is expected of you. The system that is in place is there because it works – or at least, it did at one time. It’s your job to first understand how it works. It is then your job to understand how it could work better. There is nothing wrong with breaking the rules as long as you know what they are and why you are breaking them. It’s the same reason artists go to school to learn technique – to then mess with it and create something completely new. Breaking the rules should not be an arbitrary thing – it should be done with intention for a purpose. You should know what you are doing and why.

Don’t be afraid to challenge conventional thinking. Don’t be afraid to let your voice be heard, especially if you’re saying something that others aren’t saying. Create your own rules, but do so carefully and thoughtfully. Breaking the rules is fun and empowering, but it shouldn’t be done for these reasons alone. Let a systematic breaking of the rules help get you somewhere not mediocre. Remember that it’s a risk and you may end up on either end of the spectrum. But you likely won’t end up smack dab in the ho-hum, needs-a-little-salt middle.

This article was written for Scott H. Young by Chrissy. You can visit her anytime at The Executive Assistant’s Toolbox where she blogs regularly about professional and personal development. Stop by and check out some of her most popular articles, like Getting Over GTD and How to Speak Your Mind (and Keep Your Job).