“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” – Richard Branson
“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” – Robert A. Heinlein
What if there were no rules? Or, at least, what if they’re far fewer than we think?
When we’re young, rules help us learn how to live and interact in a world with other people. Parents try to teach their children how to behave appropriately and treat others with kindness and respect. Teachers use written rules to keep classrooms organized and allow them to teach effectively. Friendships and peer groups follow unwritten rules – watch any high-school aged movie and you’ll likely find a scene where the new student is getting introduced to the various cliques and the rules that define and guide them.
These rules stifle creativity and individuality, encouraging us to keep our heads down and fit in. “We are raising today’s children in sterile, risk-averse and highly structured environments,” remarks Darell Hammond, the man behind the KaBoom movement to save play. “In so doing, we are failing to cultivate artists, pioneers, and entrepreneurs, and instead cultivating a generation of children who can follow the rules in organized sports games, sit for hours in front of screens and mark bubbles on standardized tests.”
Our rule-following behavior continues into adulthood, with unwritten rules about everything from the right kind of career to have, to what activities are “acceptable” and how to communicate with others. And then there’s dating – how long do you have to wait after a date to call or text, what can or can’t you say on the first, second, or third date, what constitutes a date in the first place.
These rules end up putting a barrier in between us and our lives. Our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and desires have to pass through a filter of what we “can” or “can’t” say or do before they make their way into the world.
The Secret: There Are No Rules
For every human rule that exists, there’s at least one person who didn’t follow that rule and had amazing success as a result. Likewise, behind most of the major innovations and insights, you’ll find a person, or a team, of rule-breakers. Sebastian Thrun, one of the scientists who helped build Google’s driverless car, even advises, “Most rules that you think are written in stone are just societal. You can change the game and really reach for the stars and make the world a better place.”
- You’re supposed to fit in, and yet one of the most famous commercials of all time celebrates “the round pegs in the square holes,” because it’s those same people that “push the human race forward.”
- You’re supposed to hide your weaknesses, but when someone shares their struggles or asks for help it’s often seen as a sign of bravery or strength.
- You’re not supposed to marry someone until you’ve dated for a while, but one of my best friend’s dads proposed on the first date, to a woman who was in a convent at the time, no less. (btw, their relationship is still going strong.)
- You’re not supposed to tell your parents that you’ve been seeking their approval your entire life, and feel like nothing you do is good enough. But then you say that, and after the resulting discussion, you feel closer than you ever have before.
Who writes these rules anyway? It turns out the answer is – no one in particular. Which is awesome, because it means that it’s up to us to make them.
- You’re allowed to want the things that you want, and to have them (so long as you’re willing to work for them).
- You’re allowed to feel, whatever it is that you’re feeling – happy, sad, hurt, exuberant, ashamed, vulnerable, blissful.
- You’re allowed to share what you’re feeling with others, to tell them that you’re nervous or scared, that your heart is pounding, or that you love them. “It is so simple and yet so brave,” shares Mark Nepo, “to say that we are hurt when we are hurt, that we are sad when we are sad, that we are scared when we are scared.”
- You’re allowed to be you. Because really, there’s no better person to be.
Where Are “Rules” Holding You Back?
Can you think of a time or situation where you wanted to share yourself with someone, but didn’t follow through. Or where you got tense or nervous about doing something because you couldn’t fit your actions into a pre-determined pattern.
What would have happened had you trusted yourself or listened to your intuition?
Next time you’re wondering whether or not it’s OK to do something, remember that there are no rules, outside of the ones that you give yourself.1
You are responsible for you. “Write your story as it needs to be written,” suggests Neil Gaiman. “Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. […] We do what we do, because of who we are. If we did otherwise, we would not be ourselves. I will do what I have to do. And I will do what I must.”
- Of course, please obey all legal regulations and don’t do anything that would harm yourself or others. The author assumes no liability for any actions taken as a result of reading this article. Be smart, and safe. [↩]