This is adapted from a story I shared at the Fearless Change Campfire on 22 Sep 2023
I’ve always been someone to ask questions about ideas. Questions about rules for behavior seemed different. I went to high school in New York City in the early 1980s, and there were students around me who wore “Question Authority” buttons. I was not one of them. —Though I think a part of me secretly wanted to be.
As a child I was a rule follower. If a teacher had a rule — unless it was obviously harmful to someone, I wouldn’t even consider breaking it. It’s not that I thought that teachers were infallible; I learned early that teachers sometimes make mistakes and some — not the good ones — don’t admit them (but that’s another story). I just didn’t have a framework to think about rules. Until junior year of high school.
The class was Algebra II and Trigonometry. I did well in the class, and I liked it, in part because the teacher — Ms Yearwood — was an amazing, caring person in addition to being a great teacher. But she was strict. She had Rules.
A few days a year Ms Yearwood, would have laryngitis. On those days she'd sit at her desk, do grading, and drink tea. And the rule was that students sit silently and work on exercises.
On one of these days the person sitting next to me — I think her name was Lisa— asked me for help with a problem. Since I understood the subject and I wanted to help. But there was this Rule. In the end I decided to lean over towards Lisa’s desk to discuss the problem.
Did I mention that our desks were near the front of the classroom? As we were (quietly) talking through the problem Ms Yearwood looked up, turned in our direction, and glared at us. Time seemed to stop.
Then she realized that we were working together on a problem, and not being disruptive. Her expression shifted to a smile and she gave us an encouraging nod.
At that moment I learned a perhaps obvious lesson:
Rules have a purpose and context, and aren't necessarily absolute, or even fully described by their words.
I this case “work quietly” was meant to maintain order and enable learning. There were exceptions to the the rule, in particular when what you were doing served the purpose of learning.
A second lesson was
You can learn important things in unexpected contexts, and in brief moments
This was a math class. I wasn’t expecting to learn a deep moral lesson, and certainly not from an ad-hoc interaction.
This isn’t the only case where what I learned in class transcended the subject matter and helped me in my life and career. — But this story sticks with me because I’ve been able to apply these particular lessons in many aspects of my life including as an employee, colleague, partner, change-agent, and citizen.
I sometimes still give rules the benefit of the doubt. But for all but the most obvious ones, I try to be curious and seek to understand why the rule is there. And I’m highly skeptical anytime I hear the phrase “Zero Tolerance.”
Even with this healthy skepticism of rules and willingness to, analyze, if not question, authority I wonder if we really need to always try to understand the why for every rule before we follow it? Or Are there any universal rules about behavior that don’t have a why worth understanding?
My sense is is that, beneath any rule that seems intuitive there is a purpose that supports something you value. But I try to not fall into complacency. The status quo is comfortable, and easy. And sometimes we need comfort and ease. But growth requires change and change requires curiosity and enough fearlessness to push boundaries when you see a rule that seems arbitrary and is a barrier to doing something valuable.