Self determination — or why breaking rules means progress

Universal Storyteller
10 min readJan 17, 2019

Remember the beautiful movie Dead Poet’s society? It tells the bitter-sweet story of the progressive teacher Keating who stands up against the arch conservative norms in an elitist boarding school in the 1950s. Mr. Keating, wonderfully portrayed by Robin Williams, warns his students against leading lives of “quiet desperation,” and encourages them to break social rules and norms in order to find their own voices.

He is disobedient, unconventional and does not fit into the reactionary surroundings of 1950s private schools, and for that reason, he eventually gets discharged from his position. However, he leaves a mark; his students are inspired by Mr. Keating and follow his unorthodox example. They not only liberate themselves from their conservative surroundings and start breaking norms, but they also get intellectually more curious and eventually live a more self-determined life. All thanks to their teacher Mr. Keating.

Mr. Keating was a rule-breaker.

Better to say sorry afterward

One of my early college professors once told our class: “It is easier to say sorry afterward than to ask for permission beforehand.”

There is a lot of truth to it. If you always follow the rules, there is a real threat that you will end up in a homogeneous herd and do and think what everybody else is doing and thinking. Your life might become more controlled by others than you ever wanted to.

In this chapter, we mainly look at two things: Self-determination as well as the concept of rule-breaking, which often go hand in hand. As we will see, these are traits most heroes have in common.

The simple definition of self-determination is to be determined by oneself without any external control as well as the freedom to live the life one chooses.

Sounds pretty enviable, doesn’t it?

However, like many good things, this is easier said than done. There is one thing that often prevents us more from determining our own life and being our true self: rules.

To trigger change, we need to break rules

Rules are everywhere; there are social rules, hidden rules, and very obvious rules. In addition, there are rules which are wrapped in code of conducts & standards and on a very macro level there are state rules which are ordinarily called laws.

Rules often draw an invisible line in the ground and determine who can belong to a certain group and who cannot; who is in and who is out. Violating the rules means that you might be kicked out from a school, a private membership club, a gang or a fancy-dress party. And not being included in something can create societal pressure.

Think about it: From early on we are taught to belong. This is of course not a bad thing per se. However, often we are taught to fit in, to keep our heads down and not to push any limits at all. In short: not to question the rules.

But of course, there will be times when beliefs need to be doubted, when limits need to be pushed and when rules need to be broken.

Unfortunately, often rules are simply assumed and not questioned. We obey them without realizing and they can hinder us from living to our full potential.

Sometimes we wonder why rules don’t seem to be working all that well; until Mrs Rulebreaker or Mr. Renegade comes along, breaks the rules and things work suddenly better.

In order to create change or any kind of progress, we have to break rules.

Think about it: Very often rules are mere generalizations and designed to apply to most people in most situations but not specifically fit your very unique circumstances. In addition, rules are often dated and based on information available at the time the rules were set up at first. Just think of the controversial gun laws that still exist in the USA today, which were set up on, uh, December 15th in 1791.

Similarly, there are given rules you might not have agreed with from their inception. They could have been forced on you and you might not be in line with your values. This is often the case because you do not approve the authority that created those rules in the first place. For example, they were established by a morally questionable board of directors or, even worse, a bad regime.

Never forget that rules are frequently set by people in power who have a strong interest in staying in power. If you are not a fan of the system that created the rules, you should ask yourself if following them is the right thing to do.

In worst-case scenario obeying rules keep us from doing the right thing. Just think of a doctor who does not treat a patient because he has no health insurance in place.

And of course, there are all those small unwritten rules and norms that do exist within your circle of friends or in the company you work for. All these subtle codes of conduct are so deeply engrained in the culture that everybody seems to blindly follow them; even though they often turn out to be complete nonsense if you take a closer look at them.

Pushing the limits gives you identity

You are hopefully convinced by now that blindly following every rule in every situation is just, with the greatest respect, plain stupid.

Especially if obeying rules can harm other people, bend or break them. Heroes would.

I have more good news for all rulebreakers out there: breaking rules can enhance your creativity. Really! Researchers from Harvard Business School and Marshall School of Business found out that the more creative you are, the more you break rules, and the more rules you break, the more creative you get. Sounds like a circular fun ride, doesn’t it?!

Oh, and if you happen to have teenage kids who break the rules in Ferris Bueller-style … don’t be too hard on them. Research from Arizona State University showed that minor rule-breaking in adolescence predicted a rather well-regarded occupation in adulthood: entrepreneurship. Yes. So, if you want your kid to be the next Richard Branson, let him get away with some minor damages to your old-timer collection.

Of course, I am not advocating complete anarchy here. After all rules and laws are part of the foundation of our society. Without a certain degree of obedience, there would be nothing but chaos and anarchy. Without some stable values we follow, the well-being of the citizens became non-existent. Laws or rules that protect other people from harm should of course not be broken at all.

But it is crucial to break the occasional rule, to question authority and push the limits once in a while; it makes you human and can foster progress and change. Also, it will prevent the people in charge from becoming complacent and make them amend their rulebook for the better.

And this is where the beauty called self-autonomy kicks in. If you obey all the rules and don’t even question them, you make yourself dependant on others and do not leave any traces. If you break them, on the other hand, you by definition won this part of self-autonomy that makes you stand out and helps you to be the authentic-you. And when you start being self-initiated and self-directed there is a much higher likelihood that you will make things happen in life. Your things. In your life.

So, go out there and question authority. Break a few rules. Be a little naughty and disobedient. Ask “why?’ a whole lot more. It just means you’re alive and kicking. And this is what heroes do.

Don’t let other people’s rulebooks affect the decisions you make or how you feel about yourself. Have the courage to stand up and be the champion of your own path no matter how weird it may seem to society’s neat little rules. It can take tremendous strength to go against common rules but isn’t that what a self-determined heroic life is all about?

Listen to Nelson Mandela: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” He was a real-life hero and lived a self-determined life.

Rule-breaking heroes

Let’s take a look at some movie heroes that broke rules.

Take Thelma and Louise, in the eponymous film. They take their own revenge on a rapist, deliberate themselves from all social rules and break diverse laws on their journey. Yes, they end tragically but they stay true to themselves, had a lot of fun on their way and were influential to a generation of moviegoers.

Take the classic example of Robin Hood who famously stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He was an outlaw and rule breaker par excellence and changed many lives to the good.

Take a more modern example: Dirty Harry. The dirty part in Harry was that he was a cop but also an unforgiving vigilante. In order to get the bad ones, he breaks all the rules and even some laws he is supposed to protect.

All classic detectives are rule breakers. From Sherlock Holmes, over Philippe Marlowe to Jack Gittes in Chinatown. They all break rules and are disobedient in order to solve their case and (mostly) get the bad ones behind bars. Also, our favourite secret agents James Bond and his American pendant Jason Bourne were big-time rule-breakers.

Even more drastic examples are superheroes who break social norms and laws as they take the law in their own hands to save the world.

Often rule-breakers come across as charming and playful, like the grumpy Gru in the animation Despicable Me who tried nothing less than to steal the moon.

Another classic example is the seminal movie Easy Rider. The two protagonists reject social rules and go on a memorable journey to find their personal freedom. The Jack Nicholson character George wisely explains in one scene a sad truth: Americans value freedom but fear those who exhibit it.

The list goes on and on. Every movie hero of note is a rule breaker at heart. Be it Indiana Jones or Han Solo, Erin Brockovich or any Bette Davis or Charlie Chaplin character.

They all have in common that they deviate from the norm to achieve their noble goal.

Without deviating from the norm, there is no progress

I hope, I convinced you, that breaking rules and being self-determined can be real assets for your life.

Don’t devote your whole life doing what you think would please or meet with the approval of others. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to please others or to get their approval; a problem arises, however, when you seek to please or gain the approval of others in order to validate your own self-worth. In that scenario, there is a real threat that your self-worth rises and falls depending on the good graces of others.

Believing that you’re constantly needing to live up to someone else’s rules and standards can drain your motivation and internal drive.

Thoughtlessly obeying the rules can be a very easy and convenient way to live your life. You get clear instructions on what to do and what to think, and you don’t have to take any personal responsibility for your actions. Easy.

You just have to do as you’re told, and then you can justify all your actions with “I was just following the rules”.

This is exactly what the Nazis said at the Nuremberg trials. Their defence was that they were merely carrying out orders from those above them. By using this defence, they attempted to remove the blame from themselves.

Think about it: Historically, most terrible things — war, genocide, and slavery — have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.

The political theorist Hannah Arendt was right when she said: “Nobody Has the Right to Obey”.

Real life heroes like Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Martin Luther King used civil disobedience and broke rules to change society for the better.

Frank Zappa prominently said: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

And Mr. Zappa was 100% correct. Progress always involves change; things cannot get better when everything remains the same.

There were always the renegades and mavericks in history who broke the norms, challenged the status quo and did something fundamentally different to anybody else. And this often resulted in a leap of progress for humanity. Of course, this is not always obvious or simple, but that often is the only way for things to change.

Being conscious of the fact that there cannot be full security and certainty at any point in our lives makes the notion of breaking rules even easier.

Listen to the words of George Bernard Shaw “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

If that sounds too highbrow, here is a piece of more practical advice from Katharine Hepburn: “If you obey all the rules, you will miss half the fun.”

Be self-determined. Break rules. Heroes do.

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For the impatient and hurried

Three reasons why you shouldn’t be afraid to break rules:

1. Rules are not universal

Mostly, rules are not universal. They are generalizations but may not be tailored to specifically fit you or your specific circumstances. Therefore, blindly following every rule in every situation is just plain, with the greatest respect, stupid.

2. Rules may keep you from doing the right thing

While blindly following the rules is the easy way, sometimes they stand in-between you and what is the right thing to do. It takes courage and responsibility to break the rules and do what you believe is right. Always prioritise doing the right thing.

3. Rules may be dated

Rules are based on the available information at the time they’re created but they might be dated and not adjusted to today’s circumstances anymore. If you feel they’re outdated, break them.



Universal Storyteller

Nicolai Schumann is the founder of Universal Storyteller and teaches storytelling at universities and to corporates.