I’ve always looked at myself as a bit of a rebel.
I never broke enough rules to get kicked out of work or school. But I stayed close enough to the edge that I was still cool with the cool kids. (I think.)
(Which reminds me, the Number 1 way to be cool, is to not worry about being cool. If you worry about being cool, you’re not cool.)
But anyway, back to breaking rules. I don’t know about you, but I hate it when people tell me I “should” do something. It brings out the rebel in me. Yet, society is full of rules that we’re expected to follow. Or at the very least, we’re pressured to.
Depending on the people you grew up with, you were taught certain rules as well. You might have been told there’s a “right” path in life that you should follow. But are all those rules really good for you?
The Traditional Rules
These are the rules they said I needed to obey. This is the path that society wanted me to take. Does it look familiar to you?
- Go to school. Focus on academic studies. (Play sports if you want, but hell no — you’re not becoming a pro athlete.)
- Go to university. Preferably study law, medicine or engineering. On a scholarship if possible, but if not — loans are available. Focus on getting good grades.
- Get a job with a multinational corporation. Be loyal, work hard and climb the corporate ladder.
- Buy a car and a house. (And another house for investment.)
- Get married and have kids.
- Put your kids through school and college.
- Save enough money and then retire, after 40 years with the same company.
Why Have Rules?
But where did all these rules come from and who decided they were best? Most of us would be tempted to say “our parents,” but it’s not just your parents or my parents saying the same thing. It’s the majority of the parents, the majority of the teachers, and the majority of your aunts and uncles. Sounds like a conspiracy eh?
So were the rules really set by our well-meaning ancestors, or someone else with an agenda? For example, society says that you need to be patriotic; be loyal to the country and pay taxes. But does being patriotic and paying taxes really benefit you and me, or does it benefit government officials? What if the government was really corrupt…
Let’s talk about another common “rule”: marriage. We know that children with married parents are more successful and better behaved. And of course, marriage has a deep, longstanding link with religion: in this part of the world at least, it’s still unacceptable to have kids outside of marriage.
But apart from the individual benefits and religious obligations, I’ll argue that marriage also has a critical societal function. Imagine a society where no one is sure who his/her father is, and the partners have no legal/financial obligations to each other. Sounds like a recipe for chaos and heartbreak.
So are society’s rules really good for us, or did they evolve out of practices that achieved the greater good for everyone?
My theory is that it’s a mixture of both. Individually, society’s rules are good for most people. But they’re also useful to maintain order and stability for large groups of people. So that we don’t become a horde of starving, angry rioters.
Though Actually, the Rules Change All the Time
But let’s explore further. We all know the rules of our time; they’ve been preached to us endlessly since we were kids.
But if you look back as recently as 150 years ago, the rules were very different.
Imagine you were the son of a paddy farmer in 1850. Your father knew everything about planting paddy. He knew which seeds were good, and when the ground was fertile. Maybe he was the best-producing paddy farmer in your village.
And his rules for your life might have been something like this:
- Help out in the fields as a child. (If you were a girl, help out Mom with domestic chores.)
- Grow stronger, and take on more responsibility as a teenager. Do more “heavy” work.
- Work alongside him as an adult. Expand the paddy farming land.
- Get married and have a son — so your family can continue the tradition of farming.
- Take over the paddy fields completely when he retires. And take care of him as he grows old.
- Repeat the process with your son, and continue the circle of life.
What if you told your 1850-father that instead of taking over the paddy fields — you wanted to sit in an office cubicle for 10 hours a day, continuously stare at a 15-inch screen, and spend your free time drinking coffee (that you did not make yourself!) while smiling at a 5.5-inch rectangle piece of glass?
It would have broken the old man’s heart.
Should I Follow the Rules Then?
The rules are actually good for most people. They allow you to fit in and have friends. Be good at the rules — and most people will view you as a respectable member of society.
Understand however that there will always be winds of change. Societies, economies and entire nations change. And people either adapt, or grow bitter and obsolete. Imagine if you came from a long line of farmers. Yes, you could still be a farmer today — but you wouldn’t be very successful if you didn’t break some of the “old rules” and modernize your ways.
For example, back in 1850, maybe teenage farmers didn’t need to go to college. In 2016 though, it would be beneficial to your farm if you learned about accounting, international trade, and the Internet.
But apart from just adapting to broad changes in society, you can go one step further.
If you want an out-of-the-ordinary life, you’re gonna have to break some rules.
Break the Rules at Your Own Risk
We’re already seeing how young people today are breaking the rules of their forefathers. Millennials are marrying later than ever. More and more of us are choosing not to have children. Some of us don’t want to own houses and cars anymore.
Jobs are changing too. Many of our parents stayed loyal to one company for the whole of their careers. Today? I just read a LinkedIn study that millennials have an average of 4 jobs before they turn 32. (Personally, I’ve been in 3 companies and had 6 job roles.) And the dream seems to be this: ditch the traditional 9-5 job completely. Make money from home or while traveling the world.
This is all great and wonderful to hear. (I’m a rebel after all.) But what worries me is if people jump in without thinking carefully.
The thing about breaking the rules is this: it comes with risk. Remember how the rules help you fit in to society, and give you a “normal” life? It’s the safe path.
But if you go against the rules, not only will you have the exhilaration of choosing your own path — you will also experience the things they tried to protect you from. Things your parents never wanted you to go through — like anxiety, uncertainty and loneliness. That’s why they asked you to stay on the tried-and-true path.
Remember that for every dropout who has a money-making startup, there might be five other dropouts who still need cash handouts from their parents. For every enthused world-traveler, there’s a burnt-out entrepreneur who wants stability. And for every happy bachelor, there’s a lonely old man who desperately want a son.
Breaking the rules can give you extraordinary positive experiences. But it also comes with the risk of extraordinary negative experiences.
The “Immortal” Rules
Are there timeless rules that are good for everyone? I think so.
Life, work and relationships will change. But ultimately, our basic human needs will always need to be met.
People will always need love and connection. People will always need friends. And people will always need to do useful things to better their lives and contribute to society.
So these are my rules which I think will serve you well forever:
- Learn and explore as much as possible when you’re young. (And never stop learning.)
- Find out what you want to do in life, and focus on it as you grow older.
- Become competent in at least one skill that brings value to other people. (Then, no matter how work or money changes — you will always have food to eat.)
- Be nice to people. Be open to love, and love freely.
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I love to question the rules. (That’s why I sometimes make stupid decisions.)
But questioning is expensive; it takes up mental energy. You can question a lot of things, but I don’t think you need to question everything. Some things you just accept because they make sense and they work.
For example, I don’t question why I need to brush my teeth in the morning.
I hope you’ll question the rules that don’t make sense to you though. And make your own decisions about whether to obey them or not. Then, if you decide to play it safe, and follow the tried-and-tested path — at least you’ve made a conscious decision that you won’t regret.
And if you understand the risks and still decide to do something out of the ordinary; regardless of whether you succeed or fail — you’ll have stepped into the path of choosing your own destiny.
I’ll be cheering you on, together with everyone else who has ever dared to do something different.
Welcome to the extraordinary.
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