Breaking the rules

“I don’t understand,” I said. “How come they get to break the rules?” Years back, when I had decided to start writing for publication, I began reading all types of books on the craft. I discovered many rules for good writing such as don’t write in first person, limit the use of adverbs, don’t begin a story with dialogue and so on.

“There are no rules here, we are trying to accomplish something.”

— Thomas Edison, American inventor

and businessman

“I don’t understand,” I said. “How come they get to break the rules?”

Years back, when I had decided to start writing for publication, I began reading all types of books on the craft. I discovered many rules for good writing such as don’t write in first person, limit the use of adverbs, don’t begin a story with dialogue and so on.

I had heard that good writers read all the time and from a variety of genres, so I started reading everything from the classics to romance novels. As a result, I encountered some great writing and some dreadful writing. I decided instead to seek out books that were well reviewed and considered ground-breaking.

That was when I discovered something perturbing. Many of these ground-breaking authors were not following the apparent rules of good writing. Many best-sellers were written in first person, some had a proliferation of adverbs sprinkled throughout, and a lot of them dared to break the cardinal rule of starting a story off with dialogue.

Now I was confused. Was I dealing with a series of hard and fast rules for good writing or not? Turns out, there’s an exception to every rule and it takes experience and discernment to know when to adhere to a rule and when to break it. Breakthrough thinking in any endeavour (writing or whatever) is really about figuring out what “the rules” are, why they exist and how they benefit or hinder you before deciding if it’s sensible to change or break them.

Many of the world’s greatest achievements and innovations came into being as the result of courageous men and women who defied convention: those radical thinkers who, despite opposition and sometimes personal and professional circumstances, chose to break the rules.

American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote, “The world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease. That happy man inevitably confines himself within ancient limits.” Consider history’s quantum leaps forward in science, medicine or technology. Each came as the result of someone understanding the rules and then, after careful consideration, breaking them.

Many of us adhere to specific rules in all situations and then wonder why our lives have be-come dull, lacklustre and predictable. There was a time when I was the perpetual rule-follower and enforcer. Once the rules had been established I never strayed from the course – even if the course was leading to heartbreak. This tendency originated in my childhood when breaking rules (to my way of thinking) meant disapproval or rejection. I adhered to the rules out of fear and a lack of self-worth.

It is worth asking whether a person of low self-esteem might get too caught up worrying about possible consequences and exaggerating them to reinforce the rules that make him feel comfortable. In my situation, that was certainly the case. It seems to me that it takes self-esteem to consider breaking the rules. The individual with poor self-esteem will likely find a sense of security in following rules that someone else wrote.

Years ago I was charged with writing policy for a department where I was supervisor. I wrote the rules and I enforced them vehemently. Eventually, I moved on to work for a competitor where I created a new and more flexible set of guidelines for my department. As it turned out, I had the opportunity one day to discuss policy with the individual who had replaced me at my former job. When I said the old policies (rules) were arbitrary, inflexible and no longer relevant, the new supervisor became enraged and told me that I was completely out of line. The fact that I had written the rules and now suggested breaking them seemed beyond comprehension.

Of course, the rules I’m suggesting you break are the self-defeating, life-limiting and ultimately harmful variety you’ve imposed upon yourself or had imposed upon you.

Perhaps you’ve created or accepted as true a rule that says you can only achieve so much success or happiness in this life or that you’re not truly deserving of love and friendship or, worse yet, that you’ll never transcend a family dysfunction or traumatic upbringing.

Life-limiting rules of this variety serve only to box us in and leave us feeling victimized and unfulfilled.

Where did these rules originate?

In all probability, many came into being during your child-hood. They were likely put into play by your parents and reinforced by you social standing, teachers, religious leaders and culture.

I was surprised to discover that many of my personal rules were not (as I had long believed) all-encompassing. Some rules had served me well at a certain time in my life.

Rules like keep your mouth shut, keep your head down and do what you’re told. As with anything, some rules are just no longer relevant. Take a close look at your life. Are you still bound by old, outdated rules and regulations?

British playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.”

Whether it’s for the sake of writing, music, business, personal development or countless other endeavours, most rules exist for good reason and usually it’s because they work. Stepping (successfully) outside the rules requires introspection, understanding, forethought, planning and yes, hard work. Master rule-breakers won’t generally waste time challenging rules that work; they break specific rules because something is not working and needs to be reassessed and readdressed. And sometimes they break the rules to create something ground-breaking.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

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