Break the Rules

Many years ago a doctoral student shared some of his concerns with me.  He felt that he was in prison and everywhere that he turned someone was giving him rules about how to be a good inmate.  When he came up with an idea, people criticized why it wouldn’t work instead of developing it in to something that might work.  They informed him that his ideas were not in the right “theoretical domain” for the faculty or that his idea wouldn’t yield the right “methodological treatment.”  He even mentioned his pride in starting a martial arts club on campus, but he was cautioned not to share his involvement.  A faculty member might conclude that he had too much free time and wasn’t working hard enough.

I shared an insight with this student.  I told him that if he were to learn every unwritten rule in the academic culture where he was presently studying, and if he followed every rule to perfection, he would have a perfectly mediocre career.  His life would become an experience of quiet desperation, filled with psychic entropy.  This is the case in the life of many professionals.  I told this young student that establishing a notable career requires that we break the “rules.” At some point, we have to know, accept, and express who we really are, not be content with being what others want us to be.

Our work life takes on a distinctive voice only when we have something unique to offer.  We do not become unique by learning and following all the rules.  We must conform in order to master the professional technology, in the student’s case the theories and methods of his particular field.  Eventually, however, we must bring our deepest self to that technology.  We must, like a musician, learn to rise above the technical rules and begin to create, to give what is uniquely ours.

To be truly creative, we must be willing to accept punishment.  No one in the academic world, not even the most brilliant superstar, feels accepted.  There is always someone around to criticize what we do.  We are punished for failure.  Surprisingly, we are punished for success.  If we succeed, we come to stand for something, and that thing always gets criticized.  Some of the criticism is justified and some is simply rooted in jealousy.

The same is true in large corporations and even in families.  We must know who we are and begin to create, not in hopes of approval, but because we are in love with an idea.  We must create for the sake of creating.  We cannot fall in love with our ideas if we live in constant fear of judgment.  When we create, we experience deeper meaning.  We begin to do the thing because we must.  At that point, negative feedback takes on an entirely different value (Fritz, 1989).  Because we are doing something we love, we can let go of the concerns that drive our egos.  When we are doing what we love, negative feedback becomes part of the creation process.  At the very least, it keeps us grounded.

(Change the World, pgs. 43-44)

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