5 Shortcuts to make yourself more valuable

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.

Posted in Office politics, Self-management
48 comments on “5 Shortcuts to make yourself more valuable
  1. Bill says:

    This is really useful advice, thanks!

    Your mentioning the Yarn Bombers reminded me of Guerrilla Queer Bar, which is fundamentally the same idea. Unfamiliar with the concept? Just search, there are plenty of links.

  2. Denys Yeo says:

    Great Blog! I totally agree you can’t change anything until you understand the rules of the system you would like to change. Unfortunately, many people go into an organisation, with the intention of changing it, but end up becoming “seduced” by the rules and become part of the system often forgetting why they were there in the first place! How do people remember why they wanted to learn the rules in the first place and move onto being a change agent?

  3. Karina says:

    I like your point about learning rules before you break them, but I these don’t sound like shortcuts to that end at all.

    That said, I don’t think I’ve ever clicked on more links in one of your posts. We both must be totally trending.

    Are you trying to demonstrate some blog title rule-breaking here?

  4. subject-verb agreement says:

    i feel like maybe you’ve been spying on me. i need this so badly right now. i’m a reckless rule breaker. i see rules and i think i don’t like them, so i blow them off, but with enough earnest charm and enthusiasm to somehow avoid walking into walls. it’s incredibly lazy and narcissistic; and it’s absolutely holding me back from doing my best work.

    usually, i read your blog for the raw personal narrative; but today you totally froze me with this highly focused and strategic advice. thank you.

  5. Prime says:

    This is why I think even rebels need to try the corporate route some time. If you don’t know the rules, how will you break them? It’s the same thing that I advise to young journalists – if you don’t know the formal structure of the story, if you don’t know how to write a nut graf, how can you write something groundbreaking? How can you do some investigative journ if you don’t even know how to write a simple lead?

  6. Dave Egyes says:

    Phenomenal post!
    Re-tweeting the following:

    @PenelopeTrunk To think outside the box 1st know the box you're in. To break the rules 1st know the rules. To #innovate 1st know what already exists http://bit.ly/fqexVE

    #documentation @PenelopeTrunk says how we dress at work is more important than good grammar. Wonder if that goes for tech writers too?! http://bit.ly/fqexVE

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      I’ve never seen a comment that is tweets in the future. But it’s fun. Those are great tweets. Thanks.

      Penelope

  7. Elizabeth Harper says:

    Great post with more than one lesson in the layout and content. I think you may be following the rules …

    I learned how useful knowing the rules could be when I was in the army and needed to stretch or bend a few at times.

  8. James says:

    So basically focus your all of your attention on one facet of business you want to be in, and immerse yourself in it to the point where you know just as much if not more, than anyone else.

  9. Floortime Lite Mama says:

    What a very smart post
    One of my friends’ recommended your blog ( because I have a son who is on the spectrum ) and I am really enjoying it

  10. Robin says:

    Brilliant, and my sentiments exactly. I am nearing 60 and have coached youngsters for over 30 years to learn the rules so they know how to break them.

    You can’t manage until you have learned how to be managed, both well and badly. Only then can you create a better system or improve upon the old.

    Thanks, Pen.I can always count on you to get us all thinking outside the box on Monday morning.

  11. Cal Enti says:

    “beyond the Western cannon”…

    Canon, Penelope.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Ugh. Thanks. I fixed it.

      Maybe the sign that the Western canon is totally out of date is that we can’t depend on spellcheck to recognize it.

      Penelope

  12. Lisa says:

    Great advice Penelope. Spot on, as the British would say.

  13. greezalita says:

    hi penelope!

    i like your blog a lot, find a lot of useful info here & there, and enjoy your stories…

    just thought i’d fill you in a little more on yarn bombing- the only misinfo you have is the pieces are generally knitted beforehand, and then brought to the street where they’re quickly stitched to wherever. because even though the picture you provided is BEAUTIFUL, but as a graffiti writer for 20+ years (done time, still write. if it’s in your blood it’s in your blood.), you are correct in that it’s breaking the rules- while not as “damaging” as some think spray paint may be, yarn bombing is illegal as far as I know/am concerned… but seriously- who’d stop someone doing that…except a total uptight azzhole!!

    the ones on trees/poles are big scarves… beautiful, great stuff though! knitting takes a little while. we yarn-bombed a couple things on our farm. well, i just got asked to leave after 13 years, so i guess it’s not “our” farm anymore… so i guess i’m farmless. keep kicking ass on your farm!!!

    cheers!
    greezalita

  14. KateNonymous says:

    Art provides good examples of this. Picasso learned to paint by the rules before breaking them.

    If you don’t know the rules, you’re not breaking them, you’re running amok. If you know them and break them, you’re making choices. There’s a big difference. Thanks for pointing that out. (But I agree with an earlier commenter–these are useful tips/insights, but not shortcuts.)

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Kate: This part of your comment is so profound: If you don’t know the rules you’re not breaking them, you’re running amok. So so true.

      I know people think I hate the rules, but I actually think we really undervalue following the rules right now.

      Penelope

  15. Erin says:

    “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).”

    This quote makes me wonder again why you are not writing for 30 Rock.

  16. Vanessa McGrady says:

    If you learn the written and UNWRITTEN rules of a corporation, you will have an easier time of it and have a better understanding of what is important. You’ll work more efficiently and realize there are some places you’re wasting an incredible amount of time (regular meetings where nothing’s getting done). Find a mentor who knows how it’s done.

  17. awiz8 says:

    “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.”

    I’m sure that Bernie Madoff would agree that this is the way to go, at least until you get caught by the Feds, and sentenced to 150 years in prison, which means you’ll never see another day as a free person.

  18. adam says:

    Woooooooooooooo! Go Denver! (where that photo was taken).

  19. Kathryn C says:

    I was feeling good about myself for a few seconds for working for corporate america, until I read the last paragraph on how it slows down your learning of rules. I’ll pretend like I didn’t read that part. YAY great post. feeling good again.

  20. Scott Moreno says:

    Penelope, great advice for students and current employees alike. Rules are required to keep order in our society and companies. Those who expertly know the rules and your 5 shortcuts are the ones who can bend the rules and develop things outside the box. Following what you said can help you gain an advantage over most others and become an innovator for the future. I enjoyed what you said and will try excelling at some of these shortcuts.

  21. Vicky says:

    This is why I still check out your blog. When you’re on it’s fantastic!

  22. Patrick says:

    I feel like many young professionals are in a hurry to move up and don’t take advantage of the time they have to learn as much as they can at each level, including which rules to learn and which to ‘bend,’ which can’t be done unless you know what’s out there and what would happen because of it. This is a great post!

    theexperiencecurveblog.com

  23. lynne whiteside says:

    excellent Penelope. I think this is the process I’m in with my small business, learning the ropes of the Business, while already having the creative part intact. Still learning alot about personal communication

  24. Tzipporah says:

    I’ve never heard of the Yarn Bombers until now. Now I’m imagining gangs of furtive knitters lurking around every blighted corner… :)

  25. Liz says:

    Great post!

  26. Mark W. says:

    There are a couple of things going on here.
    The status quo and the rules.
    It’s important to know both, how they relate to each other, and the reason the rules were created and why they still exist.
    So I agree with – “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.” and “People who understand all the rules know intuitively how to break them because they know the rules that really are not working.”
    The status quo is a moving target. Consequently it has the potential to make some of the rules obsolete, not work, and breakable. Status quo may also make it necessary to create new rules.

  27. Kerry says:

    Small nit…typo first line. You hear all this talk aobut how … (about)

  28. Ken says:

    Penelope you have been on a roll lately. I’ve been reading for years and never commented but since you mentioned lately how much you crave comments, here you go. I could pretty much post the same thing every time:
    “Boy that Penelope must be from a different planet.”
    “But its such an *interesting* planet.”
    “Is she really sharing these details of her whacked out life with us? What does this have to do with business?”
    ….several hours later….
    “I think I learned something about myself from that post.”

  29. Celine says:

    Best.post you’ve written. On point and very true.

  30. Sandra Pawula says:

    The work of the Yarn Bombers is fabulously beautiful. Thanks for sharing it with us. Yes, you definitely need to know the lay of the land, don’t you!

  31. justamouse says:

    oh, fine then. :p

  32. Adam says:

    two thumbs up

  33. Nicole says:

    Funny how all the commenters have been discussing “the rules” as if we are all in agreement about what the important rules are.

    So, for all you who have an opinion about the importance of “the rules,” please let me know what these rules say I ought to be doing. ;)

  34. Jana says:

    Here’s another “kid” who is breaking the rules. He started a surfing blog at 13 but wrote under a pen name knowing the industry wouldn’t take him seriously. He’s interviewed numerous surfing greats among other things and now four years later has revealed his name to his readers. The Surfboardman.com is Chase Miller

  35. Sinead says:

    hey – I thought Melissa had gone to Italy? what’s she doing in your cupboard … and taking photos on your farm?

  36. Bingo Babe says:

    I’m not sure if this article is a shortcut, more of a reminder. #4 – Leverage the rules you already know really hit home with me. Thanks for the advice.

  37. Mark W. says:

    I don’t watch much TV and that especially goes for a weekly series. However I’m starting to get hooked on the new reality show ‘The Voice’. Last night there was a performer named Nakia who sang Cee Lo Green’s song “Forget You”. Ce Lo Green said the following after the performance – ” … I think you can be an exception to the rule … “. Ce Lo picked Nakia (and Nakia picked Ce Lo) for mentoring sessions. It appears to me Ce Lo sees enough talent in Nakia to make a significant difference in Nakia’s career by teaching him some of the rules and how to break them. The 4:26 length video is at http://www.nbc.com/the-voice/video/week-two-nakia-audition-forget-you/1324528/ .

  38. Francisco Pina says:

    Wow great article on rules, I read it couple of times and I liked when you said that the people that don’t know the rules and break them are just annoying people! Here is an article that I read that gives the growing entrepreneur ways to deals with the duality of the job: http://www.openforum.com/idea-hub/topics/lifestyle/article/the-duality-of-entrepreneurial-success

  39. Jen Krall says:

    So now that all of this ruckus has unfolded with Anthony Weiner, does the incident add to his cleverness of understanding the rules? He knows the rules, but broke them. Well, maybe not the rules of Congress, but at the very least the rules of society – and in the public arena he’s stirring things up pretty well. Will passion for his constituents trump his actions?

    I guess now at least he’s getting some more attention from the microphone like you wanted!

  40. prettypinkponies says:

    Awesome (below):

    “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.”

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