People sometimes ask me if I have a motto to live by. I have several, but one stands out. I have posted it to the inside of my front door, so that I see it every time I leave my house. It reads, “If you play by the rules, you will always lose.”
Some people interpret this as an instruction to bend or break the rules. It’s not. It’s the insight that you can live beside them; that you should actively choose to not let the rules apply to you. Think Matrix (a shame that movie never got any sequels, but that’s beside the point of this article).
Rules are written to apply to other people than the one writing the rules. It is a way of corralling people. Even though the rules technically apply to the writer too, those rules are written to keep the writer on top. You can easily find many examples of this — rules for students in a university, for example, or the entire job market. And yes, politics. Definitely politics.
Following the rules means you accept that somebody else is putting out guideposts and stoplights in your life to not threaten their position. Therefore, by definition, you will always lose to the person writing the rules that you choose to follow. You can never be #1 as long as you follow the rules. Never.
Imagine, for instance, the American South in the 1960s. Blacks were systematically and categorically denied their citizens’ fundamental rights — right up to the right to life and health, sometimes. Every part of the establishment was stacked against them because of the color of their skin.
The right way — according to the rules — to fix this would have been for blacks to run for Senate and Congress, achieve a majority for civil rights, and change the laws. Something that would be utterly impossible, because — again — the rules were written by people in power who had no thought of giving up that power. The correct way to bring about change was therefore to not play by those rules.
(It went quick. This was 50 years ago, and today, the United States has a black President. All well within a human lifetime, and even an adult’s workspan.)
Now, this doesn’t mean that you can challenge all rules, all of the time. But you should always choose to not play by the rules where you primarily seek to succeed.
That’s the primary rule I live by. It can also be rewritten to the softer “Don’t play by somebody else’s rules”. But the key insight is that all rules are somebody else’s.