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).

  • Jean Browman–Cheerful Monk

    Good for you for pointing out there are real risks…failure is possible.

  • jd

    Rules are pretty powerful. If you set the rules, you can win the game.
    If you play by somebody else’s rules, there’s a good chance you won’t play to your strengths.

    This is particularly true if you run projects. If you know yourself as a leader, then you know which rules you have to bend so you can be successful. For example, if you are “task-focused” but you are in a “people-focused” context, you can either adapt or change the game to suit your strengths. If you try and adapt, you may limit your success, if you stretch too far. Of course, the other option is to avoid those situations where you know you can’t change the rules and the rules don’t play to your strengths.

    Crossed-expectations is a “conflict in rules.” This is particularly interesting because you might share the same values, but then have a conflict in styles. This is easier to fix than fixing a conflict in values.

    I like a “ship” analogy a colleague gave me. Find out where the “ship” is going. If you like the destination, hop on. If you think it’s the wrong direction, share your thoughts — maybe they didn’t know what they didn’t know, or maybe you didn’t know what you didn’t know. Once you know where you want to go, and you know where the ship wants to go, if they are separate paths, then agree to disagree and go your separate ways.

  • nada

    I remember Maddox once posted a wonderfully biting image in response to some of his hate mail that read: “Congratulations, you’re mediocre!”. I heard that.

    There is a great irony in achieving exactly what you’re supposed to want to, only to find it is lacking exactly the lasting fulfillment you thought achieving it would bring. Without sufficient challenge to overcome, there is no real sense of achievement. I think this is true of personal relationships as much as it is work, “rules”, or life in general. Meaning comes through surmounting challenge. The particular form of that challenge and its results are up to the individual.

    The comfort that following the rules brings comes in part from simplifying life into tired and tested methods to avoid a lot of the painful failure and chaos that is an inevitable part of trial and error.

    Any tips on identifying acceptable challenge versus “needless stress”?

  • jd

    > any tips on identifying acceptable challenge versus “needless stress”
    The secret behind it really is two things: your objectives and your mindset.
    I could write a bunch on this, but I’ll try to be succint:
    – create a filter for the work you do — first identify what you want to accomplish and where you need to grow
    – when you identify where you need to grow, think of your problems as resistance — and resistance makes you stronger
    – flow is when you’re challenged enough to be fully engaged, but not over-challenged.
    – focus on tasks that are torwards your most meaningful objectives
    – avoid tasks that move you away from your objectives (this is a key behind anxiety)
    – don’t overly focus on results, or you’ll turn enjoyable tasks into stress
    – adopt a “one pitch at a time” mindset (keep your eye on the ball, not the scoreboard)
    – enjoy the process of a task, by turning it into a refinement / continuous improvement (takes the tedious out of repetition)
    – distinguish between stress and anxiety. The stress of swimming for the gold medal, is not the same as the anxiety of swimming away from a shark
    – pay attention to your energy. For example, maybe whiteboarding catalyzes you while crunching spreadsheets drains.
    – periodically dump your brain to checklists to free up your working memory

    Remember that you’re the one that ultimately assigns meaning (needless task vs. challenge)
    You may not be able to control what’s on your plate, but you can control how you eat it.
    That said, defend your plate from drainful tasks and tasks that move you away from your outcomes

    Key insights
    – working memory vs. routine activity –
    – adopt a growth-mindset over a fixed mind-set –
    – Here’s a note on the science behind why we resist change….

  • Alik

    “Plan is the basis for changes”, meaning you create the rules – the plan – to constantly challenge it and change it.

    “Make the rules (Rules) Then break them all cuz u are the best” – Prince, “Cream” song.

  • jen_chan, writer SureFireWealt

    Rules are there for a reason. However, it’s not to say that you have to follow all of them. Don’t be limited by these rules. Bend them. Break them. Fuse them with others. Do what feels right to you. My professor always said that to break the rules, you must first know them.

  • Stephen Hopson/Adversity Unive

    This is a great article from one of my favorite bloggers from Executive’s Assistant.

    Like you, I was also conscientious of following the rules and being the “good boy.” In fact I was afraid of authority because I let it have power over me. I viewed those in power as the ones holding the cards to my future.

    But like you hinted, while having rules is good as far as establishing guidelines, sometimes it can be too much. It can stifle creativity and cause conflicts where there doesn’t need to be any.

    Not to get religious or anything but look at all the man-made rules within the church community. I grew up Catholic and was atonished to discover, later in life, all those rules they had over the “faithful.” God never intended to have rules like that! In fact, man-made rules are the cause of so much hate and conflict.

    For instance, why do we need border separation between Mexico and Canada? Why do we need to have a passport to go into another country? Can’t we just love our neighbors and go where we want to go without having to worry about authority-figures standing guard over us? It’s ridiculous, if you ask me.

    Obviously, you touched a nerve in me and for that I’m grateful! It made for a lively discussion (at least I thought it did).

    Cheers and thanks for letting me share.

  • Mike Willis

    I like this article.. And yes rules are for suckers. Rules are definitely there to keep you in the middle.