Playing By the Rules

Are the rules important? Some smart people weigh in on that question:

“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” ~ Albert Einstein

Rules do not only belong to science but also to art:

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” ~ Pablo Picasso

There are dozens of motivational quotes about either breaking or following rules. It is a good thing that these one-liners are not considered a business model because there would be total anarchy. The saying attributed to Einstein is probably my favorite because it does not use a strict interpretation of the word “rules.” There is an assumption that the game (which could be anything) has a set of standards that must be memorized. On a level playing field, those who learn to play by the rules better than all others will be a winner. One alternative to playing by the rules is to cheat, but those who brag about being rule breakers are often not bending, breaking or bypassing rules. Sometimes there is a need to set new standards. Picasso recognized that artists needed to push back the pretense of always doing things a certain way. “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not. ”

There are rules for breaking the rules.

  1. Laws that protect life and livelihood are generally not supposed to be broken. Unfortunately, some of these rules protect some parties while injuring others. In business, compliance with governmental regulations, requirements, and restrictions makes it necessary to look deeply into the spirit of the law to determine the intent. If it is right, embrace the challenge and promote it. If it is wrong, lobby to change it.
  2. Rules of games, probably including rules for life and work, are in place to insure equality of opportunity. Since people are not gifted equally, outcomes for different people will cover a wide spectrum of results. Penalties for breaking rules should apply to cheaters rather than those who are different. Applauding diversity of thought and ability celebrates the best aspects of following the rules.
  3. Some rules are more like guidelines. These become the foundation for standard operating procedures and commonly accepted business practices. There is a reason for these rules to exist. If it is a tried and true measure of past success there can be some hope that compliance will predict future success. If rules are simply made up as a show of authority they should probably be tested to determine if following them makes sense.
  4. Social norms can be considered to be rules on thin ice. Recalibration of these standards may seem to be necessary more than others, but there is also the danger of a bandwagon effect that often follows a bad idea or a charismatic leader down the wrong path. Following a shallow sound bite slogan to an extreme is not uncommon and makes original thinking seem like it is wrong.

It is not true that rules are made to be broken. If that were a true statement we would still be hiding in caves instead of living in buildings that are safe in a society that is organized. We work in a world where rules should always be challenged, but blindly following the leader depends on where that leads.

I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. 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

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