Yet, when we look back at history, we can’t point to any time where everything was copacetic — when everyone agreed about everything. There have always been struggles for domination. And in that context, there were many roles to be played. There were leaders, and those who entered battle as warriors. There were crusaders, evildoers and bad actors and of course, those who had no power, the weak, the abused, the persecuted. Good and evil. Establishment and order for a period and chaos brought about by rebels who opposed the status quo. Ever since humans felt a territorial urge — this crazy game called life has played itself out over and over. And who you were and what part you played was dependent upon the vantage you had when the delicate balance of power was upset in some manner.
We see it in every aspect of our lives. There are those who are in power. And those who aren't. The good guys don't always wear white hats and the bad guys come in 50 shades of gray (or more.)
I do believe at our core (despite circumstantial evidence this year!), most of us are rational beings. We understand that we function well when we can rely on each other, and peace and order is achieved best when there are certain knowns that everyone acknowledges. That’s why we have regulations, laws, and rules. Governance is an important part of a fully functioning society, workplace, school, and family.
The problem is that very often, those who make the rules use those rules to demonstrate authority, to impose order, rather than improve the factors that make achieving a goal attainable. (Dare I bring politics into this? Fill in your “favorite” here.) Often, the new “rules” make the very situation they are attempting to improve — worse, because the rule makers didn’t think through what they were trying to achieve nor the hidden implications of rules, once enforced.
"Any fool can make a rule and any fool will mind it."
Henry David Thoreau
Many years ago, when he was a relatively young and new manager, my husband was asked to enforce a dress code on his large, geographically dispersed team. The edict came down: all women were expected to wear skirts, nude hose, and heels to the office. Anything else was in violation of the company’s policy. (Ancient history? No, this was in the mid 90’s.) Now, he could have simply enforced the rules, yet he stopped to consider what was being asked of him. After recovering from shock (modern man that he is) he thought to himself. Do women think better in skirts? Do they perform their jobs any better? Do they turn in better research for their consulting projects when skirted? Does their work differ from women who wear pantsuits? And finally, if women have to wear them, do men have to wear skirts too?
Peter is brilliant strategist and realized quickly that the rule itself was in fact, flawed. He cited laws in California with which he could exempt his team, and ultimately, forced an evaluation of the rules that made a dress code like this necessary. The team responsible for making the rules had to stop and ask themselves “WHY.” What was the goal the rule intended to support? Did it actually support the mission? To have a nimble, happy, creative and productive workforce? The answer, in this situation, was “no” — it did not achieve the goal, in fact, it had the opposite effect. Had they worked in an environment where protective gear was necessary, or out in the public representing a brand, then certainly, some form of uniform might be necessary. But to make women coming into a back office dress in heels, with hose and skirts each day? What was the point other than to appease someone’s idea of what was “acceptable attire”?
I'm sure you can think of many examples, when upon reflection, the rules make no sense at all. Who says you have to have your salad before your entree? Why can't you wear white after Labor Day? Why can't you chew gum at school? Why can't you fist bump your friend in the hall? Wear braids in your hair? Why can't you eat dessert before the main course? How can you be old enough to bring a child into the world, to vote, to potentially lose your life in a war defending our country, but not be able to have a beer legally? Where is the logic in that?
As we enter 2017 with continued uncertainty, we have to keep in mind that there have been many rules that have been put in place in our lives without real thought to the WHY.
Rules can create a sense of order and can free people to live and work in confidence. On the other hand, poorly designed and executed rules stifle creativity and progression. While it’s impossible to get 100% buy in from everyone when regulations are simplified and the logic is explained, I believe the majority can learn to work within set parameters.
Many rules may be annoyingly inconsequential and can be laughed off compared to what is really worrying me.
Living in Central New York, we are situated on top of Marcellus Shale one of the largest sources of natural gas in the U.S., considered to be the second largest in the world. In fact, “New York has more than 7,600 freshwater lakes, ponds and reservoirs, two Great Lakes and over 70,000 miles of rivers and streams.” (Source: The Nature Conservancy) To put it simply, we have one of the greatest sources of natural gas sitting next to one of the greatest sources of fresh water.
I think about rules that have been made (exemptions from the Clean Water Act come to mind) and recall in disbelief what I saw watching the FLOW (For the Love of Water) documentary, and Gasland, where people who had fracking wells operating near their homes demonstrated lighting their tap water on fire! Water is a finite resource. It is essential for all life on earth. Yet those who exempted certain companies from the rules didn’t stop and consider the implications. And here we are years later, and they are still gambling with our very existence on this planet by contaminating our water supply. All that for cheap energy. What’s wrong with this picture?
I’m worried that across all of our ecosystems (families, schools, towns, businesses, government, and society) we have stopped being critical thinkers.
We have become so overwhelmed with getting by that we don’t have time (or more appropriately, we don’t stop and make the time) to think before we act. We feel a need for control so we DO and therefore we ACT without planning.
Lord knows, I’m guilty of this myself. I often run from one crisis to another, trying to keep the balls in the air and have precious little time to plan. When I stop and think about it, I have to laugh. I'm no doctor, I'm not saving lives! So, as sure as I’m sitting here, I'm thinking about how I want to change my tiny corner of the world. I know I must make an effort to think differently about the WHY before I say no or impose restrictions on my kids, my colleagues, friends, and family. Coloring outside the lines is okay. So is leaving dishes in the sink now and then. Or not making the bed, or going to every single practice. Sometimes we have to stop the world and slow things down.
I know this to be true. If we can’t be open about the little inconsequential things how are we going to learn to be open enough to change the world?
Being truly open means embracing the unknown. It means being willing to fail in order to learn and grow. It means admitting that you don’t know it all. It means being vulnerable. It means admitting that some rules are past their expiration date, that some rules are meant to be broken.
Damn, it’s a scary thing but something incredibly necessary to move forward, don’t you agree?
“Rules are made to be broken—true. Also true is that breaking rules out of ignorance leads to disaster, while breaking them from knowledge can lead to the truly special. It can also lead to disaster, too. Don't break rules unless you know them well enough to know when they shouldn't apply.”
―Charles Von Rospach