Rules: what are they and how do you get to play by your own?

August 10, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Freedom

Speaking of superstars, they seem to play by their own rules. Most of us wish we could. How do you get to play by your own rules, not someone else’s?

Today I’ll look at rules from a few different contexts and ask a few questions about them.

A rule describes how people should behave.

Context 1: Mutually agreed-on rules

When I think of playing a game, rules make sense. We want to enjoy ourselves or maybe see who is better. Playing chess only makes sense if we agree on rules. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Context 2: Rules agreed on by some

Laws are kinds of rules. Most laws imposed on me were written before I was born. I tend to agree with many of them, but whether I do or not, I have no choice in accepting them — or rather in dealing with the consequences of other people enforcing them on me.

It’s odd to me to think of rules in this context in this way: if I don’t do what someone who may have died centuries ago said, groups of people today may put me in jail.

Context 3: Rules agreed on by no one

Rules of language fall into this context. Books on language may list rules most people follow when communicating, but those books have no more authority than anyone gives them, and most people don’t read books on grammar to know if the rule exists, why, or to whose benefit.

So what does it mean when someone says you aren’t supposed to end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive? It just means someone wants you to follow patterns set by people before. But those patterns were created by people who broke the patterns of people before them. And writers, orators, singers, and other communicators we consider the most innovative and creative break those rules.

In what sense do rules exist, if they do?

You can point at words on pages for rules for games and laws, but it seems to me those words only represent the rules. A representation of a rule is not a rule, or as the Tao Te Ching puts it “The tao that can be named is not the true tao.” To me rules exist in how they influence people to behave. I don’t see them as having tangible existence.

For most of my life I learned you aren’t supposed to split infinitives. One day I thought to ask why not and who said so. I soon concluded nobody with any authority said so. People were saying things as rules to follow but I only had to follow them if I wanted. My behavior would have consequences, though, and if I didn’t follow other people’s rules, I would have to deal with those consequences. Then again, all my behavior already had consequences. Only not following rules I would have to deal with them.

You could say that in “proper” English you should not split infinitives, but then you realize nobody has any authority to define what about English is proper or not.

Once you start asking these questions, you start seeing a lot of rules in life — beyond the examples from language, games, and law I used — that you’ve been following without asking why or considering alternatives.

Then you start thinking about rules and asking what I consider very interesting and liberating questions. Blindly following rules I call the rat race, the opposite of freedom.

  • What are rules?
  • Have I agreed to them?
  • Why should I follow them?
  • Who is trying to impose them on me?
  • What are the consequences to following them or not?
  • What alternatives do I have?

How I look at rules now

I stopped accepting imperatives as imperatives and searched for meaning behind them and realized their consequences were more useful. I started reinterpreting rules and found alternative ways of stating them more helpful and liberating.

For example, I looked at the consequences of “Don’t split infinitives.” Of course anyone can split infinitives anytime they want. Here’s how I look at it. My goal is to communicate to be understood. I’ll do whatever works. If I split an infinitive a certain number of people will notice, evaluate me based on that behavior, and behave in certain ways as a result different than they would if I didn’t split it. Other people may behave yet differently.

You can look at all rules this way. I recommend you do. “Don’t swim for thirty minutes after you eat” is not as useful as “you can swim whenever you want, but if you do it within thirty minutes after you eat, you’ll get a cramp.”

“You can only move bishops along a diagonal” is not as useful as “you can move a bishop any place you like, but if you don’t move it along a diagonal, people will stop playing chess with you.”

Most New Yorkers seem to interpret “Don’t jaywalk, it’s against the law” as “you can jaywalk all you want, but if you do it too blatantly or a cop needs an excuse to stop you, a cop may stop you.” During Prohibition, most people interpreted prohibition laws similarly.

I suspect Thoreau, Gandhi, King, Mandela, and their peers thought similarly. I suspect they saw not merely that some rules were made to be broken, or merely that some rules didn’t apply to them, but that many rules were just self-serving ideas that others wanted to impose on them, but they had no obligation to accept.

Picasso, Cummings, Joyce, Elvis, … art is filled with people who broke rules they found no longer useful and made up their own.


Blindly following rules requires little responsibility. If anyone questions your behavior, you can point to the rule someone else made and absolve yourself of responsibility. You also abdicate some control over your life. It feels like the opposite of my words to live by

Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for making things better to the extent you can.

I made that rule for myself, so I don’t mind stating it as an imperative. I guess I could say, “If you blame others people will disagree and argue and you’ll abdicate your power to do anything about the situation. If you take responsibility for changing things, you empower yourself to do change things and you can improve them. You might as well improve them as much as you can.”

Regarding rules in general, to realize you can follow or not follow any rule, but whatever your behavior you will have to deal with the consequences, requires more responsibility, but enables you to do a lot more. You risk people who follow rules blindly condemning you or retaliating if you don’t follow the rules they do. But they way I see it, you have to consider them more personally than you do if you blindly follow rules. You have to care about them. Isn’t that a major part of responsibility?

Personally I consider this change a step toward superstardom.

Exercise to the reader

Try to think of rules that you follow and ask the questions above of them

  • Have I agreed to them?
  • Why should I follow them?
  • Who is trying to impose them on me?
  • What are the consequences to following them or not?
  • What alternatives do I have?

and see if you don’t find more freedom, yet also more responsibility in your perspective.

You may want to similar things about any imperative someone gives you. They want you to do something. Are they also threatening you with consequences if you don’t? Or are they helping you with a suggestion? How does it help you? What about them?

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1 response to “Rules: what are they and how do you get to play by your own?

  1. Pingback: Rules are other people telling you what to do; Breaking rules lets you excel » Joshua Spodek

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