You hear all this talk aobut how you have to march to your own drummer, think out of the box, blah blah. The truth is, you can't change anything until you know all the rules.
Advice admonishing you to break rules is so shallow. How can you break rules without learning them first? People who understand all the rules know intuitively how to break them because they know the rules that really are not working. People who do not know rules are not breaking rules. They are annoying people.
Because for the most part, rules are there to make peoples' lives easier. There are lots of us in society, in the workplace, driving through intersections. If we don't have rules there is chaos. Some rules need changing, but you can't tell that until you know the rules and how they work together.
So instead of giving you advice on how to break the rules, I'm going to give you advice on how to learn them fast.
1. Learn multiple sets of rules at the same time.
The more types of rules you learn, the faster you get at learning them. This is, basically, what a liberal arts education is — learning systems in disparate categories.
I'm fascinated by the yarn bombers. Here's a photo of some of their work:
What makes the yarn bombers so fascinating to me is the practitioners have learned two sets of rules that don't usually go together: How to do yarn work at a high enough level to do it on the street, fast and furtively. And how to create street art in a way that has social impact, defies arrest, and leverages networking tools to pass along knowledge.
2. Learn rules you think you'll have no use for.
Revolutionaries never know where they will land. Because revolutionaries seldom set out to make huge change — they just want to meet their goals, which, at the onset seem completely reasonable — too reasonable to require revolution. The American Revolution is a good example of this. So is the invention of the web browser.
The fact that most revolutionaries are people who have reasonable, thought-out goals, means that most have a whole catalogue of rules in their heads that they have collected as a way to meet their goals. Marc Andressen, for example, went to school for years to learn to code before he developed a graphical web browser.
Anthony Weiner is my favorite example of having learned a cataloge of rules. He is a Congressional representative from New York, and is renown for colorful antics on the House Floor. In general, he is simply passionate about pushing the very liberal agenda of his NYC constituents. But he is so fun to watch that if Congress would give him more time at the microphone, C-Span might be interesting enough to go mainstream.
Here is a video of Weiner leveraging his encyclopediac knowledge of Parliamentary Procedure to yell over a fellow legislator.
3. You need to know what's expected to do what's unexpected.
Great ideas challenge expectations. Which means you can't create anything innovative without understanding what has already been done. My favorite example of this is the freshman writing course I taught at Boston University. Most of the students had never read literature beyond the Western canon. So they wrote tales of sex and drugs as if they were breaking new ground.
In fact, it had all been done, since the time of Chaucer. It's just that my class was filled with writers who don't read.
You can't do that. You can't disrupt ways of thinking, or ways of doing, without understanding those ways.
Mary Flanagan is a professor of film and new media at Dartmouth college. She creates video games where there is no traditional game hierarchy. Instead of going from one level to the next, a player completes a task and then loops around to do it again — like catching groceries with a paper bag, or laying off a slew of workers and replacing them. During an interview with ArtNews, Flanagan summarizes her approach as “playing with conventions and expectations.”
Which is, of course, the approach of most artistic revolutionaries, which is why you need to know the rules that have created a set of audience expectations.
4. Leverage the rules you already know.
The young, groundbreaking entrepreneurs establish companies in a field where they are already an expert. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, started writing code in junior high school, and he started not getting dates in junior high. So by the time he got to Harvard he was ready to break the rules in those categories.
Tavi Gevinson had been studying fashion at home and writing in school for years and years. So that, although her life is relatively short (she's a freshman in high school) she knows enough on these topics to infuse her Generation Z sensibilities to fashion blogging in a refreshing way to rise to the top in the fashion world.
5. Don't snub your nose at corporate life.
I spent a lot of time in corporate America learning the rules. I realized that no one cared about my ideas, so I did my own stuff on the side, while I spent my days at Ingram Micro learning how corporate hierarchies function. I asked lots of questions about office politics, and salaries, and promotions. I did very little work but, at that time, other people knew very little about the Internet so they could imagine that I was doing more work than I was doing.
I learned how to do only work that people notice. I learned how to make people like me whether or not they liked the work I do. I learned what is important in corporate life (dress code) and what is unimportant (good grammar).
The safety and structure of corporate life is a great place to learn the rules, so it's no surprise that many of the rule breakers spend a good part of their early career navigating the Fortune 500.
The point I want to drive home here is that you can't think of ways to disrupt the status quo at its core until you understand the status quo at it's core. You don't need to pay your dues, but you do need to understand the field you're playing in.
The corporate ladder was a slow way to learn rules by allowing someone else to set your timetable and your career goals. Learning the rules is still something you have to do, but you can make your own path for learning that is fast and lethal and makes learning the rules look more exciting than ever before.