Is it right to break the rules?
Why do we have rules? Many would argue that rulebooks are there to help you get on in the world; that conventions help you to fit in and organise your life.
I believe that there is merit in both of these arguments – rules can help, and they can hold you back, but how do you know when to follow the rules and when to break them?
The good and the bad of rule-following
When you are young, you tend to have many rules to follow:
- You have to go to bed by a specific time
- You can’t eat sweets for breakfast
- You must tidy your room
- You should go to school and do your homework
For children, rules are a source of security and frustration. Just like adults, children are different, and they maybe need lots or fewer regulations to help them navigate the world. We can take comfort in knowing the rules because once we know what they are, we can relax. We can predict that if we follow the rules, then we’ll be OK and nothing bad will happen.
The flip-side is that children often get told to follow rules that don’t make sense to them. When they question them, instead of the parent or teacher helping them to reflect, they get told ‘because I said so!’.
In my opinion, asking questions about the usefulness of rules is one of life’s most essential skills. If we grow up, blindly adhering to the rules without question, we shut down curiosity. We learn to ‘fit in’ at the cost of flexibility and wisdom.
How to break the rules wisely
There is a danger that you become too impulsive, which means you overreact to your thoughts and feelings. You act without consideration for the consequences, and before you saw it coming, you find yourself in trouble.
Impulsive acts aren’t harmful by nature, because spontaneity can enrichen your life too. If you always took your time to think about everything before you did it, then you’d miss out on what it means to live with courage.
Knowing when and how to break the rules comes from life experience and reflection. As a child, you learn through repetition that when you hit your brother or sister, you will get told off. As an adult, you have a greater capacity to control your actions.
It can be wise to follow the rules and break the rules; it depends on the context. The right or best answers aren’t always clear, so reflecting on your choices can help.
What worked before might not work best now. For example, if you ever lived in an abusive or critical household, then you may have fared better by following a rule of compliance. What I mean is that you may have learned that when you do as your told, then you suffer less physical or verbal violence.
However, if you are now away from that person or people, then following that rule might be working less well. For example, if you are in a more supportive relationship, your partner may not know what you want or like because you are following an old rule of ‘going-along’ with the other person.
As time goes by, rules can become outdated. And they might only work under a specific set of circumstances. For example, when I have a set of skills that others don’t, then it will help if I offer some leadership. However, when I am with others who know more, then it will be better if I listen.
Some people struggle with this flexibility because they follow a rule that suggests they always need to be in charge or that it is constantly safer to let others lead.
What matters most?
Context matters, as does choice. You can choose which rule to follow depending on where you are and what you want to accomplish. You can choose to ‘not follow’ any rules, by being open to what you feel. You can be aware of what your mind tells you to do and let its advice wash over you.
It is a freedom we have. When we are stressed or in pain, we more easily lose sight of the truth that we have a choice. We get caught up in our heads, trying to work stuff out, seeking certainty and finding comfort as fast as possible. When this happens, you stop being curious and you lose the flexibility and wisdom to answer the question: what course of action might be best for other people in this situation and me?
I often fail to be curious. I know this to be true because I can track my experience. I can think back to recent times and events long ago, and I can remember that I reacted to my discomfort. The natural reaction to any distress is to resist or avoid it. When you do this, you shut down curiosity, discoveries and a wiser mind.
Curiosity is often a powerful choice because it opens the door to growth and connection. You can side-step conflicts, and save hours of time on frustrating tasks. When you are not feeling your best, seek it out. In my experience, it rarely lets you down.
The Openforwards Weekly Round-Up
- Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. An honest, compelling and eloquently written biography and polemic by Akala.
- For Better or for Worse: Conflict and Connecting in Crisis. Article by Anna Aslanian at Gottman Institute.
- 5 Ways to Cultivate Curiosity and Courage in the Workplace. Article by Todd Kashdan on Psychology Today.
- Getting deeper with your values and what you care about. Openforwards podcast interview with Dr Ray Owen.