If you’re the type of person who has to follow the rules in every situation without question because “there are rules for a reason”, you might have a difficult time with this post, but hear me out. If you’re the type of person who never follows rules because “all rules are stupid and created by the man to control us”, take this post with a grain of salt.
From the time we are children until the day we die, we are bred to follow the rules. Even when we’re allowed to think outside the box, there’s still an imaginary line we know we shouldn’t cross.
Consequences and rewards are built into our daily activities to ensure we stay in line. If you’re late to class, you get a tardy violation. If you never miss a class all year, you get honored with a perfect attendance award and a bumper sticker for your parents' car.
Your parents shouldn’t speed while driving though or they’ll get a speeding ticket. If they have a clean driving records and no accidents though, they’ll have a lower insurance premium. Consequences and rewards.
We’re conditioned to follow rules, so the simple fact is, for most of us it’s second nature to not fight it, and stay in the lines. But, if we learn how to bend or break rules that aren’t helpful or useful, it might just be our competitive advantage.
Rules, for the most part, are necessary and should be followed in everyday situations because even if we don’t agree with them or want to follow them, the consequences can be very real.
Common every day rules are not necessarily what we're talking about right now. What’s far more interesting and relevant, are the unspoken, non-official rules. The rules that everyone follows without much more rhyme or reason other than the fact that everyone follows them, so we figure we probably should do.
Or worse, we haven’t given them any thought at all. These unofficial rules are plentiful in the business and entrepreneurship world, and to truly find freedom in our work, we have to be aware of them, and make our own judgments on whether or not they’ll serve us well or hinder us if we choose to follow them.
Every business book you read, online course you take, podcast you listen to, and video you watch is going to try to convince you that there’s a best way to do something, and that there are common practices and rules to follow for best results. I guarantee you that for every business objective you’re trying to accomplish, there’s an “ultimate guide” that someone has written on the subject based on their personal experience.
Sometimes it’s good advice and good practice to follow, sometimes it’s the opposite.
When operating under the rules of “the way it’s always been done” or “the way that works for most people” is no longer serving you or your mission, make your own rules.
Take note that the advice here isn’t about finding rules to break, it’s about rewriting rules or creating your own to serve your mission. Here’s an example: When I started my first business in 2012, I did what most people do when they start their first business: I made a list of all the things businesses “should” have to be seen as a real and credible operation, and then got to work on those list items.
I spent weeks on things like a logo, establishing an LLC, printing business cards, and trying to get a website made. I even had 500 koozies made with the logo on them (350 of them are still in a box in my business partner's closet. Sorry Stephen!). The problem was, I did all of this before even getting one customer because I was following the rules of what “ all businesses should have”.
And to make it worse, I couldn’t get any sizable customers for months and ended up closing the business down.
Fast forward to when I started my marketing agency and I decided to make my own rules. One rule was that if I couldn’t get a customer without a logo or website, the service wasn’t valuable enough to make it anyway, so I set out to get customers first before investing any time, energy, or resources into the things “all businesses should have”.
Low and behold, I got customers without any of those things, and then was able to create things like a logo later knowing thatmy business was going to succeed, which mitigated a lot of unnecessary financial risk upfront.
If we only follow the rules that are given to us and stay within the walls where we’ve been placed with everyone else, we’ll never know the wonder that awaits just outside. All it takes is being able to think for yourself.
Sometimes rules are constraints that are good and necessary, and sometimes they are chains holding us back. The first step in identifying status quo rules that aren’t serving your mission is paying attention to barriers.
When you find yourself working on an area of your business that becomes particularly painstaking, stop and think, “what is the roadblock I’m hitting, and is there an alternative way around it?”
A great example of this is something I went through while writing my first book, It’s Time to Start: Conquer the Common Fears of Starting a Business and Master the Mind Tools for Success. You may not be familiar with the book publishing industry, so I’ll give you just enough intel to get the point across without boring you to sleep.
Most of the books you see in book stores and on the best seller lists were published through a traditional major publishing house. The rule of the industry is that if you want recognition for your book, widespread distribution, and a chance at becoming a best-selling author, you need to publish through one of the major publishers.
The roadblock here for most new authors who aren’t already famous for something else, is that major publishers almost never sign unknown authors to their rosters unless they can prove that they have the connections and resources to sell at least 10,000 or so copies on their own, in addition to the books that are sold in book stores and online stores like Amazon. Fair enough.
It’s not easy to sell that many books when you’re a new author, and it feels a bit like a catch 22. If the publishing houses won’t publish your book because you don’t have enough readership, how are you ever supposed to gain any traction and acquire any readers to be able to eventually have a bigger readership for future books?
I ran into this problem with my first book, and then a friend of mine introduced me to the concept of self-publishing. It turns out, you can still write a book and publish it yourself without the involvement of an established publisher. There are companies that will help you with editing, proofreading, book design, printing, and anything else you want to put your ideas into a book, and into the minds of readers.
It sounds so obvious when you hear it, “yeah, just write the book and sell it yourself.” But like most rules, publishing a book seemed to me at the time to have a structure to follow if you wanted to do it the "right" way. It was my first book, so I was still fumbling through the process of writing, formatting, and growing some kind of audience on my own. I hadn’t given any thought to alternative routes, so I’m forever grateful to my friend who suggested to just self-publish my book on Amazon’s Kindle platform, and print copies through a book printing company if I wanted to sell physical copies.
It’s a perfect example of identifying rules that aren’t serving you, and making your own rules. I didn’t have the qualifications to publish traditionally, so I self-published and there are now thousands of people who own and have read my first book, without a traditional publisher.
Remember: If an unofficial rule is not serving you, it’s hurting you.
Making your own rules isn’t about creating more restraints for yourself that are different than the norms, but still just as confining. It’s about being willing to think outside of the norms and create new ways of accomplishing goals that have less unnecessary red tape and barriers, and thinking of creative ways to solve the problem in front of you.
A lot of times, people simply do things a certain way because someone they watched before them did it that way, or they were told to do it that way.
Here’s the awesome thing about running your own business: You make the rules.
The most important thing to consider when making your own rules, is whether or not you’re making them for the right reasons. Each rule you accept, break, or make should have a clear outcome in mind. It can be as simple as deciding to work in your pajamas every day just because you want to be more comfortable, or it can be as complex as implementing an alternative accounting and invoicing system that better serves your unique company.
Either way, ask yourself if it’s actually accomplishing something for the greater good of your goals. If you work in your bed in your pajamas every day just because you can, but it hurts your productivity, is it really worth it?
When you’re making decisions about how to accomplish a particular task or solve a particular problem, ask yourself if “the way it’s always been done” or “it’s just the way the industry works” is indeed the best path for you. If it is, great, if not, make your own rules.
Don’t let other people’s rules define your future, write your own rules and define your own future.
In the words of Captain Barbosa from Pirates of the Caribbean, “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
Happy rule making.