There are rules for everything. There are rules for how to dress, how to behave and how to think. Most people go through life following the rules without thinking about them. But what if you could break the rules and create something extraordinary?
Often, dispensing with the status quo is the key to escaping mediocrity.
Rules are selfish. They exist to perpetuate themselves. They care only for the efficiency of the system, not the autonomy of the people within it.
You need to decide if you’re just along for the ride or if you have someplace to be. If you have ambition you must go against the grain.
Here's a well kept secret I've been exploiting for a decade. Feel free to use it if you're ever in London: At London Bridge station, the fastest way to switch from the Jubilee line to the Northern line is to ignore the signs. There's a tunnel labelled Northern Line, and another unmarked tunnel right next to it. Whenever I take people there, they hesitate. They stare at the signs confused and say 'but it says that way'. And I hold out my hand like Aladdin and say 'Do you trust me?'
The signs aren’t telling you where to go to reach your destination quickly. They’re telling you where to go to cause the least commotion. You must travel in a way that minimises risk to the system.
Here's another quirk. At stations like Bank, there are several signs on the train platform that say 'way out'. You'd think that because they all say the same thing, they'd all take you the same way. They don't. They're designed to reduce congestion. On one platform, the exit at the back lets you transfer lines fastest. The one at the front helps you leave the station fastest. The one in the middle takes you in a loop, adding an extra four minutes to your journey. With any luck, say the engineers, you'll miss the next train and voila - less congestion on the line.
Sometimes that’s fine. If you’re in an orderly queue, follow the rules. But sometimes you need to decide if the rules are intentionally taking you far from your individual goals in the name of system efficiency.
Sometimes the rules aren’t rules at all. They’re just illusory swim lanes designed to corral you.
Use the compass, not the map, and you’ll find the fastest way.
The fastest isn’t necessarily the easiest - and there’s no guarantee that you’ll make it. That’s the risk of breaking the rules. But deviating from the path is the only way to make a new one.
Paved roads and Desire paths
If you’ve ever come across a trodden dirt path through a park, you’ve seen a desire path. As the name suggests, desire paths are unofficial paths made by walkers, bikers, and animals who carve out routes that travellers find more appealing than what the route planners had in mind.
Desire paths are what happen when people break the rules - they follow curiosity and either discover new things, or a more direct route. And then others see the new trail and follow suit. But then something funny happens. The desire path becomes the path. In some cases, city planners will come and pave the new path to make it official. And thus the search for creativity becomes the new constraint.
There was a time when deep scholarship was entirely optional. Everyone else had a trade or enough money to busy themselves with political chit-chat. Those that chased the desire pathways of continued study made unusual discoveries which changed society. Then, school became popular, and everyone did it. The desire path became the path. Now there are people with multiple degrees who can't get jobs working for people who left school at 16.
The new desire pathways are in fields like technology. The internet, at first, was largely ignored. Then a few went deep. They strayed from convention. They found the magic. Now people are saying plumbers must learn to code or die.
Today, it's vogue to say you dropped out of Stanford to pursue a startup. The desire path has become the path. And the truly curious minds must find another way.
There are two ways to look at this. The first is that we’ve become a society of lemmings, all going the same way because it’s the path of least resistance. And there’s some truth to that.
But there’s another way to look at it, which is that the desire path has always been the path. And societal progression relies on people brave enough to leave the comforting safety of the known path behind, and show us the way to something better.
Escaping the mundane
Mediocrity is the enemy of progress. It stifles originality and breeds conformity. To be creative, you must be willing to challenge the rules. You must be willing to take risks. And you must be willing to embrace the power of asymmetry.
The moments I feel most stagnant in my life are the ones where I forget a fundamental truth: Rules aren’t real.
People often use age as a heuristic; a way to measure what you have and haven't done. It works well because age has a linear progression. The number goes up by one every 365 days.
You tell me your age and then I'll tell you if you look young or old, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or haggard. The expectation is that your level of success should track similarly. And if you haven't achieved thing X by age Y, you're in big trouble.
Let me give you a simple razor:
Unless you aspire to be absolutely mediocre in every respect, never get caught doing exactly what people expect you to be doing.
Sometimes that means going above and beyond. Sometimes it means foregoing the exercise entirely.
Why? Because most of the time, expectations are a trap. The rules are a snare. A sham. They’re designed to draw you into the alluring grip of fitting in.
In your career, as in creative pursuits, fitting in is dangerous.
As complicity leads to commodity, following the status quo leads to comfortable complacency. And worse than that, it’s boring. In my book, there’s no greater sin.
If Frodo and Bilbo never left the Shire, The Lord of the Rings would be a Hobbit cookbook.
If Luke Skywalker never left Tatooine, Star Wars would be a horticultural digest.
Doing the expected is what kept Harry Potter in a cupboard and Neo in an office cubicle. The magic only comes when you break out. So does the risk, the danger, the adventure.
All the hidden treasures are buried on the road less travelled.
Rules are designed to corral the outliers. They optimise for status quo.
Rules are selfish. They prioritise their own longevity. They stave away risk, variety and anything novel.
Rules maintain a stasis of replicable simplicity.
There is a time for rules. There is a time to build well-oiled machines and conform for their assemblage.
Sometimes the best way to drive results is to become a nondescript cog in a beautiful machine.
At other times, it is best to become a lynchpin.
And on occasion, we must dispense with machinery altogether and make art.
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