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When the Rules Get in the Way

February 5, 2019

At the end of last year, we had a graphic design intern at ADDO. He’s an incredible student who took initiative and helped us dramatically improve the visual representation of our company’s brand. He rolled out a new visual identity standard for ADDO and presented it to our whole team. At the beginning of his presentation, he quoted Pablo Picasso, saying “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

For someone like me who doesn’t feel cultured in the arts, quoting Picasso might not usually grab my attention, but I love this quote. It cuts to the core of what I believe about life. If we understand the rules, veering from them can be a strategic decision to move toward something unique. I’m not just talking about a mistake that ends up turning out OK; I’m proposing an intentional deviation.

This quote reminded me that the people moving the world forward are not always the rule-followers, but they aren’t necessarily the consistent rule-breakers—they are the ones who know when to color inside the lines and when to break free. It’s important to know the rules, and it’s also important to know when to break them.

I recently read an interesting article about straight-A students. The premise is that students with perfect GPAs are more likely to fall into a system rather than take a risk on a creative opportunity. That’s why many of the world’s most influential individuals didn’t graduate with outstanding grades.

In this article, psychologist Dr. Adam Grant gives some significant examples: “This might explain why Steve Jobs finished high school with a 2.65 G.P.A., J.K. Rowling graduated from the University of Exeter with roughly a C average, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. got only one A in his four years at Morehouse” (The New York Times).

Following the rules is not wrong, but if you’re locked into a system, you won’t push things forward. Your perfection won’t allow you to move from good to great.

If you’re like me and lean toward breaking the rules, make sure to channel this energy appropriately. It’s important to remember your boundaries. Listen to the rule-followers, but make intentional, measured decisions when it’s time to buck the system.

If you’re a rule-follower, I want to challenge you to occasionally break free of the system. For you, this might mean helping the rule-breaker break the right rules at the right time and earning the opportunity to be a part of something truly extraordinary.

The rules are there for a reason. But you are here for a reason too. Make decisions that show you value both.

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