Monday, November 7, 2011

Are Rules Made to be Broken?

My son, who has just entered high school (or perhaps because he just entered high school), announced confidently in the middle of a recent conversation that, "Rules are made to be broken."

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"Everybody knows that."

"Does that mean even the rule, 'Rules are made to be broken,' must be broken?"

He rolled his eyes and that was the end of the discussion.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to dismiss questions about rules that are meant to be broken so easily.

On the surface, it seems like a purely User sentiment: rules are made to be broken if it gives me the advantage or helps me achieve my goal. In contrast, Makers might seem like the ultimate rule followers.

But following a rule simply because it is a rule is as much of a mistake as flaunting it simply because it is a rule. Making is as much about wisdom as it is about technique; it is about being mindful and present. Among other things, that means being mindful of rules that no longer serve their purpose and need to be broken.

So, in what ways is it true that rules are meant to be broken?

To begin with, rules were made because they were broken. Someone did something that went too far, caused more trouble than it was worth, or simply didn't work. Many rules, like the yellow lines painted on shop floors, represent a consensus about a safe operating area.

Where rules are an attempt to systematize a body of knowledge and experience, can you understand the rules without breaking them and experiencing the failure yourself? It certainly seems to be the case that young children need to feel some pain to understand what, "No, don't touch, it's hot," means.

But systems are finite. Once you've mastered the system, you begin to discover the edges--cases where the rules provide no clear guidance. Does that mean the rules are bad because they don't cover all cases? Michael Shermer, in a recent skeptic column in Scientific American, discussed "scientific residue." In the case of UFO sightings, a fraction can't be easily explained away. Shermer pointed out the fact that if a theory doesn't explain everything that doesn't mean it's wrong, it means there's more work to do.

This brings us to the most important way rules are meant to be broken by makers: by transcending them. Many of the rules of writing, like don't have too many point-of-view characters, are rules because most writers can't go there and still deliver a good, coherent story. That is, they're rules not because something can't ever be done but because it is so rarely done well.

It takes a great deal of humility to truly transcend a rule. Most people engage in pseudo-transcendence: they find a way to excuse themselves from following the rule. Real transcendence come through following the rule so well and mastering the art so thoroughly that the rule becomes irrelevant.

I read of a master glass-maker who produced exquisite art not because he never made mistakes in his processes but because he knew how to compensate without ruining the work. This is the way in which true makers strive to break the rules.

Image: Bill Longshaw /


  1. Absolutely. ...he knew how to compensate without ruining the work.

    Rules are there otherwise we'd have anarchy. That's a given. Rules in writing are there for the same reason. We'd all just be writing in a jumbly mushed up babbling incoherence.

    However, when you master the rules, I think it's safe to say you can break them intentionally. Because you know how to compensate without ruining the work.

    Great post. Timely.

  2. Ask your son...So you think rules are made to be broken, are you then willing to take complete responsibility for the results of your actions when you have broken the rules? I.e. are you willing to take the punishment? Because that to me is the real issue. Who is responsible?

    Within the framework of rules we have total freedom. It is only when we break the rules that we lose our freedom. Of course I'm talking laws here.

    Within the framework of writing rules we have total freedom. We can bend them and even break them, but if we break them too badly then we are writing gibberish and no one will be able to read or understand what we have written. If we all spelled differently I think things would get pretty confusing.

  3. Seems to me, there are two separate trains of thought here: what a teenager means when he says all rules were meant to be broken, and how the rest of us (ahem) NON-teenagers view the topic. Granted, this is a gross generalization, but teenagers, especially intelligent ones, test and explore the boundaries of their world, and have an innate suspicion of laws and rules which threaten to curtail that creative exploration. We, on the other hand, possess enough maturity to differentiate rules set in stone from the ones intended as guidelines. I view most writing "rules", for example, as "guidelines." But I also believe it's necessary to understand the rules before we dare to break them.


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