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When Breaking the Rules Is the Smart Thing to Do

How and when to do it.

Most people are afraid to break the rules. Others believe it is the only way to make things happen—they think rules are meant to be broken.

Some people approach life like everything is forbidden unless it is permitted. Others think that everything is allowed until it is explicitly prohibited.

What about you?

The problem with a rigid approach to rules is that it divides people—either you are a conformist or a rebel.

Not all rules are equal. Some were created to control people, others in a different time. Certain rules are black and white; others are open to interpretation.

Frankie foto / Unsplash
Source: Frankie foto / Unsplash

Sometimes, it’s okay to break the rules.

I’m not talking about doing it randomly, but with a purpose. Choose to break the rules that limit you, not just because you don’t like them. Break the rules, but consider the consequences on the rest, not only on you.

Start a Fire on Purpose

Breaking the rules just for the sake of it makes no sense. Continually challenging everything is not courage but a lack of focus. Just because we can transgress something doesn’t mean we have to do it.

Break the rules that limit more than they enable you.

Sometimes following the established rules is boring. That’s why people break them—to free themselves, not to send a message.

That’s what happened to William Webb Ellis back in 1823. He was tired of playing football (soccer for Americans); the player took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus starting a new sport: rugby—named after his school.

Those who start the fire get the credit.

"Fire-starters" is the nickname for those who spearhead change—they don’t just start the fire; they choose when and where to ignite it. They start the fire with a purpose.

Why We Break Rules (or Not)

Our own rules can limit us.

When American women relocate to wealthier cities, they adopt new fashion preferences to please the locals. For example, the heel height of women’s shoes becomes higher. If a woman moves from a lower-status location to New York City, there is an 86 percent chance that she will ditch the flats for heels.

The pressure to conform is self-imposed. When we try to disagree with social norms, our brain turns on an alarm. As science shows, we have internalized the judgments and preferences of other people.

Following rules is one thing. Sticking to the norms to be accepted by others is a different matter.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” —T. S. Eliot

Breaking rules is like cheating. Behavioral scientists found a correlation between dishonesty and creativity. People with the most creative jobs or mindsets are more likely to break the rules.

The more creative one is, the easier it is to tell the story in a way that justifies breaking the rules.

There’s an emotional upside, too—people who break the rules feel smarter than the rest. Maybe because they are not conforming. They are also liberated—getting rid of rules allows their brains to think freely and let their creatives juices flow without limitations.

Sometimes, you have to break the rules to start a fire.

A simple method for breaking the rules

“By all means, break the rules, and break them beautifully, deliberately, and well.” —Robert Bringhurst

Pablo Picasso wasn’t just a talented artist; he was one of the most prolific that ever existed. Most people associate the Spanish painter with cubism—an art movement he created. However, Picasso mastered traditional drawing and painting before he explored modern styles.

Master it before you break it—that’s what you can learn from the genius.

Understanding when and how to break the rules requires a method. Corporate rules tend to limit their people rather than enable them to do more and better. This is the approach I use when coaching teams become more innovative.

Outcome > Rule

Before breaking a rule, evaluate if the outcome is worth it. Simply put, will the outcome justify the consequences of breaking that rule?

Choose to start a fire when the outcome is worth it.

Values > Outcome

Each person has his/her values—the same as with organizations. I’m not telling you what’s right or wrong. Before deciding to break the rules, reflect if the decision will go against your values or not.

Choose to stick to your values over any ideal outcome.

Collective Good > Personal Benefit

Breaking rules has consequences. I’m not talking about people getting upset or not liking your behaviors. Sometimes, the aftermath of your behaviors can benefit you but hurt your team or organization.

Choose the collective over your personal benefit.

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