I have a congenital inability to follow the rules that has irked my mother, most of my teachers, and every single boss I have ever known.
Some would say it has been responsible for most—if not all—of the failures in my life and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. I say that it has been responsible for most—if not all—of the successes in my life.
I’m not entirely right either, but my successes and failures have combined to give me an outstanding view of which rules matter and which ones don’t. Most of them, as the headline suggests, don’t.
The World is Very Different Now
I stole that line from John Kennedy, and for a particular reason. Kennedy was the youngest person ever elected President and political historians will tell you his election represented a generational shift.
With that in mind, I have a question. Who taught you the rules?
If you’re like most people, it was some combination of parents, teachers, and assorted older neighbors and family members. Maybe there’s a boss, counselor, or coach in there.
Regardless of who it was, they were almost certainly older than you, and not by just a year or two. They were, in all likelihood, older than you by a generation. They grew up in a different world. My parents grew up in the Cold War era and I’ve spent almost all of my adult life in a world where the fall of the Berlin wall is much more relevant than its erection.
For most of you, the defining political and economic moment of your lives has been the global financial collapse of 2008. It stripped away a lot of expectations and exposed “the rules” to be utterly fraudulent.
And yet, many of my generation—not to mention my parents’ generation—still cling to those rules as if they’re the foundations of civilization.
The Rules Exist to Limit Your Success
Nobody who encourages you to follow the rules is going to admit it to themselves, let alone to you, but following the rules will limit your success. The people who preach the rules will tell you it’s a prescription for how you can achieve success, but they’re envisioning an entirely too narrow definition of success.
First there’s that generational thing. They’re looking at the things that made for success in their generation, and, as mentioned, the world is very different now.
But I’m trying to make a more significant point. The Rules treat success and failure as if they are a binary—you’re either a success or a failure—and that’s complete nonsense.
What the rules do is enforce predictability. If you follow them, you are—barring generational changes—more likely to be moderately successful. You’ll likely have a decent job, change careers three or four times during your life, and have the ability to raise a family.
It’s a good life. It’s what a lot of people want, and that’s fine.
But if you follow the rules, your likelihood of becoming exceptionally successful is minimal.
That’s because success isn’t a binary. It’s more akin to a bell curve. Human beings are naturally loss-resistant, so most of us would take the likelihood of a moderate success over the chance of an epic failure.
But here’s the thing. Reducing the chances of an epic failure also reduce the chances of a monumental success because the things that lead to the one are also the things that lead to the other.
The Rules Focus on the Trivial
Here’s another dirty little secret about the people that make the rules. They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.
They tell you to go to college so you can get a good job. That’s not a bad thing. College is useful, but the people who write the rules will tell you it’s about getting that degree, a thing you can hang on your wall and point to when people ask if you’re qualified.
The only people who care about that degree are going to be the people who hire you for your first job.
That’s not nothing, but it’s a heck of a lot less than everything.
What matters about college isn’t the degree. What matters about college is a combination of learning things, developing connections, and developing a learning mindset that’s focused on solving problems.
That’s just a symptom.
The people making the rules—even the people who are speaking specifically from their past—often don’t know what led to success. You can live your whole life, be a tremendous success, and be completely ignorant of the things that drove your success.
Life is not a Checklist
Life is not a list of things you check off to accomplish success. Life is a series of decisions based on fundamental principles. If you make the right decisions, you’ll achieve success by your definition.
Isn’t that the only definition that matters?
If you want to have a stable income so you can raise a family, you do that. If you want to make a difference in the world even if it means your income is going to be lower, you do that. If you want to ensure your income is high enough that you have the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, you go do that.
The rules are bullshit. They were written based on someone else’s life, and you’re not living someone else’s life. You’re living your life, striving for your goals with your values and your priorities. That means you have to make your own rules.
Don’t hurt anyone. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. That’s it. That’s all the rules there are. Everything else is bullshit. Build your life your way and you can reach your definition of success.