On Rule Following
November 25, 2013
I recently wrote a rather rambling post that eventually made its way around to the subject of rule following. As previously stated, despite being a more or less upstanding citizen, I do like to do things my own way. And if that means I color outside the lines a little, so be it. I tend to view the world in shades of gray rather than in black and white. The result of this is that most lines are rather blurred for me and I evaluate them on a case by case basis.
[The coloring analogy is a bad one since I have an intense dislike for coloring outside the lines when I’m coloring – really when anyone is coloring.]
For most of my life, as you might imagine, this has gotten me in trouble. In high school I had an affliction known as excessive-eye-rolling-at-teachers whenever they said something I deemed moronic. It got to the point where I honestly didn’t even know I was doing it.
For the most part I was never a trouble maker. I just skirted the edge with a few teachers/professors here and there – those that made rules that made no sense to me. In particular, this was a problem when those rules adversely affected me and/or made the teacher seem lazy. This included policies of not giving back credit for multiple choice exam questions that were admittedly poorly written or attempting to enlist me to correct my fellow students’ papers which were riddled with grammatical errors that should have prohibited them from ever being accepted to college. That may sound harsh, but I am of the opinion that if you can’t pass freshman English because you don’t know the difference between to, too and two then perhaps you shouldn’t be there in the first place. And it’s not MY job to help you pass by correcting all your mistakes before you hand in your paper to the professor. Even if the professor told me to do so.
But I digress. What I really wanted to write about was the ONE time to date that this quality has HELPED me in life. And it was that experience that made me realize that I have this trait and that it’s not a bad thing.
I once got a promotion precisely because I’m not a rule follower.
In grad school I had a fellowship award that paid my tuition and a small hourly wage for working in the computer lab. I believe there were six of us and one was given slightly more pay and prestige and the title of Manager for coordinating the efforts of all the others. When our Lab Manager graduated it was time for a new one. We all assumed it would be the most senior person. But he got passed over and I got the job. And I wanted to know why. I didn’t expect him to make a fuss about it, but if anyone were to question why I got it over him then I wanted to know my boss’ reasoning.
He told me that the other guy was a “rule follower” and that sometimes in this job a person who “could think on her feet” was needed. Someone that would do what it took to fix the problem even if it meant skirting protocol. I had never thought of it like that before but I very quickly saw that my boss was right. The other guy, while extremely intelligent and amiable, would never have broken even the silliest of rules in order to get the job done. He was the type that would nearly piss himself rather than leave the lab unattended for 2 minutes and run to the bathroom. OK, so that’s a gross exaggeration but I think I made my point.
The point is this: sometimes you need to break the rules to get the job done. And that’s OK.
That said, there are certainly limits to this behavior. The end does not always justify the means.
But I’m not talking about breaking the big rules. Just the little ones that often prevent us from doing our best work. This is my version of thinking outside the box and I think it makes me a better problem solver.
I would really love to hear others’ thoughts on this. Are you a rule follower or a rule breaker?