There Are No Rules: Creating Your Own Standards

There are two kinds of people in this world: former good kids and former bad kids.

I was a good kid. A really good kid.

Of course being good had nothing to do with whether or not I possessed a healthy concept of self, followed through on my commitments, had pure motives, or consciously chose to be inclusive of those different than me. At eight years old, I don't think many kids think about those things.

Being a good kid meant I followed the rules.

Come to think of it, being a good teenager meant following the rules.

So did being a good college student, a good teacher-in-training, and a good new employee.

Most of us grew up in educational environments and then entered a workforce influenced by the industrial age - which means our institutions were concerned with increasing efficiency and repeatability, not fostering creativity or exploration. Being products of a system more concerned with what we do instead of who we are has lasting effects. If we hadn't already evolved with a fear of being kicked out of the tribe for survival purposes, our institutions sure did a good job of reminding us there's an "in" and there's an "out" - and all you have to do to be in is follow the rules. And you definitely don't want to be out.

Get in line. Follow the rules. Pass the assessment. Hit your numbers. Meet the quality standards.

All around us there's a clear way to be in and a clear way to be out. Are you following the rules or not?

I see this influence friends and colleagues on all different levels. We obsess over meeting the standards, which we've confused as being accepted, and find ourselves miserable at work because we're trying to find our identities by doing work in a system that was never created for individuals to thrive. We're depressed, we're anxious, and we're scared our work won't look enough like the work others expect us to produce.

What's worse - when we believe our worth is dictated by whether or not our work measures up to the right standards, it's not only our level of creativity in the workplace that's affected. This belief we must have enough points on a certain scoreboard influences our internal lives and beliefs about who we are as well.

We're not only afraid we're doing the wrong things, we're afraid we're being the wrong person.

The rules and structures that once gave us so much fulfillment when we got a gold star at the end of the week are now causing us to have a crisis of identity.

This is why I created and delivered a TEDx talk titled Does Our Best Work Have To Kill Us? - I found myself and others working until exhaustion because that's what young professionals are supposed to do, right? I looked around and everywhere healthy examples of what good work looks like were being eroded by a culture more interested in pace than peace.

If we don't shift our thinking we're all gonna have asthma attacks, y'all.

Here's what I've come to realize - there are way less rules than we think there are. There are actually almost zero rules we actually have to follow when it comes to the work we do and there are no rules we must follow when it comes to who we get to be. If we're willing to find our identity in something other than the acceptance of others, we find freedom to do work that's both fulfilling and adds real value to the world.

As I navigated this, it was important for me to make a list of rules and standards I once followed and chose to divorce:

  • You don't have to answer email when others want you to answer email.

  • You don't have to believe what people in your workplace believe about the world.

  • You don't have to wear certain clothes to be effective.

  • You don't have to think things are funny even if you don't think are funny just so you can seem easy-going.

  • You don't have to speak in every meeting to prove you're engaged if you're the kind of person who processes silently.

  • You don't have to be quiet and respectful if you think you need to speak up.

  • You don't have to create work everyone likes as long as it's true, authentic, well-intentioned, and done with pure motivations.

  • You don't have to constantly seem physically exhausted and weary to be doing excellent work.

  • You probably don't have to go to most of the meetings you're invited to.

  • You can be happy, well-rested, and suffer zero nervous breakdowns and still be just effective as everyone else.

  • You don't have to speak stupid office jargon language to fit in - you can ask real questions about what it means to be a human and actually create relationships with your coworkers.

  • You can laugh when it's inappropriate - because life is funny and people do stupid things sometimes.

  • You don't have to make people happy who prefer to be cranky.

  • You don't have to wake up at a certain time or work until a certain time to add real value.

  • You don't have to work on your days off or on vacation (I can't believe I have to write that).

  • You can tell people no.

If you start doing all of those things tomorrow I can guarantee you most people won't even notice. They're not thinking about you. And if they are - so what? Do you really want to be in the good graces of people who like to gossip about whether or not you're working as hard as they are? Do you want to be like the folks who like to spend their time obsessing over what others are doing instead of focusing on who they are being and becoming?

Psh. Nobody needs that.

Perhaps one of the greatest undoings to occur within us is the elimination of the belief there are more rules than there really are.

Let us stop living for the acceptance of others by striving to perfectly follow the right rules and adhere to the right standards. We have this beautiful gift of life and we waste it worrying about doing the right things all the time. Enough.

This isn't about disrespect or rebellion, it's about freedom and peace. This isn't about being selfish or not being a team player - it's about humanizing a system that wasn't created for humans.

As Seth Godin often says, go make a ruckus.

Get new posts like this sent directly to your inbox: Subscribe!