I was chatting with a musician recently about how he learned to play jazz. He told me that one of the most complicated aspects is that your playing gets worse as you learn more technical skills before you get better.
He explained how one of the critical parts of successful jazz playing is improvisation, but you can’t successfully improvise if you haven’t mastered the technical skills that underpin it. You have to get the basics of the craft right, and only then can you dismantle the rules of how you play to play more masterfully and interestingly.
In short, you need to learn the rules and then learn how to break them.
There are rules in all aspects of our life. A quick google and book search found plenty of books based on rules. There’s Jordan Peterson’s best-selling (and controversial) The 12 rules for Life. There are also loads of career books based on rules. Here’s a sample:
- Love your job: The new rules of career happiness
- The Career Code: Must know rules for a strategic, stylish and self-made career
- Career Warfare: 10 rules for building a successful personal brand and fighting to keep it
- The Career Clinic: Eight simple rules for finding work you love; and
- Practice Perfect: 42 rules for getting better at getting better
Oh and lastly, I couldn’t resist this last one, The Complete Book of Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart Of Mr. Right. With rules like ‘never call a man first,’ it shows there are rules, albeit often ridiculous, for everything.
Of course, many of those rules are outdated, impractical and often constricting. It’s the battle between the ‘should do’ and ‘could do’.
Often in life, there are many things that people tell you that you ‘should do’. For example, you should go to university, get married, raise a family, live a conventional life, work hard and so on. There is nothing wrong with any of those options; they are all perfectly valid. However, the danger is when adopting the ‘should do’ limits you.
The first questions to ask is who is setting the rules by which you are living your life?
Let’s look at a few things you’ll have no doubt heard before:
- Nothing good comes from free – and yet, as many of us discovered over the last 12 months, much of what we enjoyed was the simple things that didn’t cost anything. Walking in the park. Basking in a gorgeous sunny day. Having a conversation with a friend
- Practice makes perfect – striving for perfectionism in everything you do can be a burden, not a blessing. It can lead to overwork, unnecessarily long hours, an eternal sense of dissatisfaction and heightened stress levels. Yes, striving to do well and do your best is important, but like everything in life, there’s a balance
- Jack of all trades, master of none – it’s the age-old argument of generalist versus expert. Expertise is highly valued, but there is growing recognition of the value of the polymath, a person who isn’t solely focused on one discipline but has knowledge across many
- When in Rome, do as the Romans do – why do what everyone else is doing? Following the leader (or the pack) often doesn’t lead to fulfillment. Instead, it’s far better to forge your path, one which aligns with your purpose and values
- Let sleeping dogs lie – this suggests that we should accept things as they are. But when the current state is sub-optimal and founded on a system that’s unfair and unjust, then we should wake the dogs up
I am sure there are many other statements you could add to that list.
Next, consider if those rules are helping or hindering your progress? Are they fair, just and equitable and creating an environment in which everyone can succeed? Are they enabling you to be your best everyday?
Rules are usually created by the people in the system who hold power. They don’t want the rules to change because the system currently tilts in their favour. Also, some rules are based on tradition, custom and expectations, and they adhered to because that’s all someone thinks is possible. And that means the limitations are, at times, self-imposed.
Breaking rules can feel scary, and it takes courage. To me, the fear will always be there, and it’s in accepting the fear that I find the courage to step over it and act.
So, what rules might you need to shift, walk over or break to move forward in a way that’s aligned with your purpose and values?
In answering that question, think about the comment from the fabulous actress, Katharine Hepburn, who said: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun“.