If You Play By The Rules, You Will Always Lose

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.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He lives on Alexanderplatz in Berlin, Germany, roasts his own coffee, and as of right now (2019-2020) is taking a little break.


  1. Fredrik
    1. Rick Falkvinge

      exactly. 🙂 There really is an xkcd for every occasion.

  2. juan c

    i like your articles, they always open new lines of thought for me

    1. Rick Falkvinge


  3. Henrik

    Cant really say I agree with this. There is one thing to challenge rules, but another thing entirely to say that you cant play by the rules, cause you’ll loose by default.
    I would argue it is because of that kind of thinking of the rules that we have corruption in our systems. That people think to themselves that they are not bound by the rules, and have to obey them.
    I see the point that is made in this article, but the motto “if you play by the rules, you will always lose.” is way to generic, and will act as a double edged sword.
    I would rather fight a lifetime to kick the rules down from the inside than ignoring them with the justification that “They are just to bring me down”.
    “Don’t play by somebody else’s rules” is also nothing more than a self justification not to abide by the set rules, bordering to anarchy.

    1. David Xanatos

      Break the law before the law breaks you.

  4. Geoff

    “Laws are nothing more than limitations of our freedom.” — Kant, Transcendental Dialectic II, Part A

  5. Geoff

    Rules and laws capture….so I also think this quote is relevant only in that it calls our attention to the primary apparatus that captures us. This is a great philosophical question of our time. What is the topology of capture/abduction.
    “Language is not informative. It does not aid to information or communication. It’s a transmission of a password.” — Giorgio Agamben

  6. Anon

    I would argue it is because of that kind of thinking of the rules that we have corruption in our systems. That people think to themselves that they are
    not bound by the rules, and have to obey them.

    There is a qualitative distinction between corruption and not playing by the rules.
    Corruption often entails abusing a special power to get away with breaking the rules for personal benefit.

    Corrupt police officers, judges and civil servants are entrusted with power over others,
    having at their disposal the power of the state to fine, imprison or kill their opponents.

    I think that you as a private citizen always have an absolute moral right to disobey an unjust law, but when you become a civil servant you’re endowed with special power and may only use that power consistent with the law. If a public official or agent of the state finds the rules unjust, he should not break the rules on work or abuse the resources of the state to get an upper hand.

  7. PiratGurra

    Some conventions and rules are sensible to make cooperation feasible and to make larger scale projects possible to do.

    However – and this is important – the most dangerous rules are often not absolute, but rather reinforced by means of social status. Doing something in a particular way is more “prestigious” than doing it in some other way. Someone spreading that idea of prestige and social status can make HUGE benefits from it. The most obvious one is in marketing… But even science – for instance – is utterly corrupted by that idea. Some of the most ambitious and smartest people in your local university probably buy that “social rule” or “convention” that a “prestigious” Journal is something to aim for. Then you will be a Great Scientist. That it’s not what you write or how good it is, but in what journal ™ it shows up that matters.

    If you tell some of those people; “That is exactly what THEY would like you to think – because they make money on it.” – that sure can be Painful. But it is so damn important to make people realize when they are being USED as TOOLS by manipulative bitches wanting to earn money on their hard labour.

    1. PiratGurra

      And in connection to this – I would like to make a small message 😉
      A new, more modern way to publish and review scientific works:

  8. Yazoo

    That explains why we lost our fight to prevent the county from closing down our local public school. The people at the county lied and didn’t play by the rules. We tried to beat the with the truth and by being straight at all times.
    Now the school is closed.
    The problem is that dishonesty just isn’t me…

    1. That "Ball" Guy

      Check out khanacademy.org
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM95HHI4gLk <–TED talk by Salman Khan, founder

      It's an evolutionary leap past industrialized education. The current education industry is set up on the same concepts of the industrial revolution (where everything had to be positioned in a factory around the prime mover- steam power)

  9. Thomas Tvivlaren

    “Think Matrix (a shame that movie never got any sequels, but that’s beside the point of this article).”

    That was some sort of a test right? If not, check these out:

    Part 2:

    Part 3:

    1. PiratGurra

      Maybe that the sequels were so bad you’d rather pretend they never were..

      1. Thomas Tvivlaren

        Hehe, I’ve seen a lot worse but I am probably too biased to be a point of influence on the matter.

        Btw, excellent points you made regarding what I tend to look upon as systemic corruption on an individual level. If you haven’t already, have a go at Dennis Töllborg’s free book “Sorg 2.1”. It discusses in great length what you are touching upon:


        1. PiratGurra

          Oh, I just read the “introduction” and I feel exactly what you mean on at least one topic. Those who don’t ignore the conventions or stand up are really being the “useful idiots” that you describe. It’s really a priceless face, someone really intelligent and ambitious suddenly realizing that their struggle can be viewed as “useful stupidity” for some behind-the-scenes manipulators cynically profiteering on their need for pats on the head by some self-proclaimed “authority”.

    2. Rick Falkvinge

      Those pages 404 for me. Laah laa laaah…

      1. jibbertyflibbit

        Perhaps those sequels just didn’t play by the rules….

        OK yeah, I’m only half joking – I think there’s only one film in the cannon too… make that two if you count animatrix…

  10. Thomas Tvivlaren

    ““If you play by the rules, you will always lose.””

    I do understand the point you are trying to make but I see it a bit differently in regards to being a motto to live by.

    My take would be: “Do good but be perfectly aware that power always triumphs, as well as dictates, what is to be considered officially good.”

    Put differently, it is a way of realizing how the concept of right or wrong, i.e. the conceptual and basic definition of what constitutes justice, is not only dependent on what is considered just but also how the-powers-that-be are balanced.

    Democracy, for instance, needs to be understood from this concept of balancing powers.

  11. Dennis Nilsson

    We have to do a “Gorbatjov”.

  12. steelneck

    Another and much shorter way of saying the same – Take responsibility!

    Remember, the classic excuse when trying to weasel out of responsibility is “But i was only obeying rules/order..”

    Think of that every time a suit (exec decision-maker) ask for new rules to follow, what he is asking for is to escape some of the responsibility he actually is paid to take (i never hear them arguing for a corresponding decrease in salary..). It’s like – please rule me – or CYA-politics if you want. For the ruled it is to be denied the opportunity to take responsibility (usually done by people demanding what they just took away sic!).

    If i take the lead by saying (*): We do like this, blame me if something goes wrong. Then i am taking the responsibility. If all goes well, i get the glory and the privilege to flatter those who obeyed me. But if things go south.. well, then i have to deliver on that responsibility i took upon my self.

    Think of a ship on the sea, loaded with its cargo at the harbor, but it is blowing up to storm. The owner want the boat to set sail, the merchants trading the goods want it to sail, and so on.. A good captain refuse, no matter what, but a bad, weak and un-responsible one give harsh orders to the crew to set sail. Now it is a god damn obligation for the crew to commit mutiny! Or else mother nature will take her toll.

    Already Plato understood this and named the obeying kind as the tyrannical type, not because they wish tyranny, but because their un-responsible obeying behavior leads to it. Just as my example above when things (initially)go well. I could be the aspiring tyrant starting to surround me with the obeying kind. The tyrant can easily rise out of the democracy as a protector. But let’s say that i am trying to take responsibility by (*), but my peers is not of the obeying kind and they also think that i am about to do a huge mistake, then it is their responsibility to tell me that i am wrong and even disobey, that is actually something that make me safer. We are all only humans, we all do make mistakes and go wrong, those times the type who dare to take responsibility keep us from going too far. It is a security net for the ruler to be surrounded by responsible people that dare to disobey when they feel that they must.

    Almost 2400 year old wisdom below (my crappy(?) translation from a 1922 Swedish version of the Republic):

    Do you admit that it is right to obey rules?

    I do.

    Are rulers of states always right, or can they be wrong?

    Sure they can be wrong, they are only humans.

    In making laws they sometimes have it right, sometimes not?


    When right, laws are made for a higher purpose; when mistaken, contrary to that interest; you admit that?


    Laws which they make must be obeyed, that is right according to you?

    No doubt.

    Then justice, according to this, is not only obedience but just as well the reverse?

    What are you saying? he asked.

    The same as you, I believe. Have we not admitted that the rulers may be mistaken, and also that obedience is right? Has not that been admitted?

    I think so..

    Then you have to admit, that it is right to not obey when rulers unintentionally commanded things which are to injury to the purpose. You do say that it is right to obey rulers. In that case, there cannot be any escape from the conclusion that it is right to do the opposite, to disobey. Since the weaker is commanded to do injury to the higher purpose of the rule set out by the ruler himself?

    That is clear Socrates, said Polemarchus.

    1. Anonymous

      F*cking amazing comment…

    2. Scary Devil Monastery

      Amazing from many perspectives that Platos commentary is still valid today.
      You could see the intrinsic urge by humanity to play lemming after strong leaders as epic failure but I also take faith in that attempted information control of all kinds have failed for as long a time as well.

  13. Roger

    Then what is the real truth? what really is right or wrong? most laws seems arbitrary and changes with time and location.

    The only thing I’ve found to be truly objective is freedom of choice, or rather how does a law limit those choices.

    It’s impossible to say what is better or worse, but we can measure if a law takes away a choice from someone. On the other hand a law may also grant people choices we agree everybody should enjoy.

    If you do something that gives another human more choices, then I argue you have done a good thing.

    If you do something limiting other people choices, usually by expanding your own, then you have done something bad.

    Society must have some laws, but they must apply to everyone equally and they should not take away choices/freedom without good reason. This “reason” must be based on the scientific method and nothing else.

    I call this the “moral method”. Simply count the number of choices gained/lost to find out if you or the state are doing something good or bad. This is the only objective measure, But yes it doesn’t say how good or how bad since that would be entirely subjective to each individual.

    Sure some choices must be limited by society, and there must then be a debate about where that line should be. This will be relative, but should always be based on science and research. Not some politicians “gut feeling” or religious bias etc.

    I always wondered why in some cases man was more free when he was living in the forrest.
    Society we have buildt should be there to improve upon that freedom, so you are no longer at the mercy of the jungle. It should give us all as a group more freedom, more choices and not limit them.

    I agree with the original article. Most laws are there to serve some group at the top and has little to do with the common good. I see this “moral method” combined with the scientific method to be the next step after secularism to build a society where everybody can live free and prosper.

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