Introducing Innovation To Old Thinking: How to create the change you want

20.09.20 04:11 PM By Heather Kleinschmidt

Master the Rules to Break the Rules

The researchers wanted to know why some people risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors, while others avoided that risk and quietly let the situation escalate.

Adam Grant writes about it in his book Originals:

The rescuers [non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust] had much in common with the bystanders: similar educational backgrounds, occupations, homes, neighborhoods, and political and religious beliefs. They were also equally rebellious in their childhoods…. What differentiated the rescuers was how their parents disciplined bad behavior and praised good behavior.

When the Holocaust rescuers recalled their childhoods, they had received a unique form of discipline from their parents:

Explained Reasoning. As children, the rescuers’ parents explained the outcomes of behavior. They explained the cause-and-effect that their individual choices had on the people around them. When they punished or praised them, they showed how it was on the basis of the impact their behaviors had on specific others.

As a result, those kids developed an internal ethical compass — a capacity to think critically and independently about the outcomes of their behaviors — one that stood the test of circumstance.
Reasoning does create a paradox: it leads both to more rule following and more rebelliousness. By explaining moral principles, parents encourage their children to comply voluntarily with rules that align with important values and to question rules that don’t. Good explanations enable children to develop a code of ethics that often coincides with societal expectations; [but] when they don’t square up, children rely on the internal compass of values rather than the external compass of rules.

- Originalspgs. 163, 165 [emphasis added]

These are the true free-thinkers.


This study demonstrates the root of conscious behavior: knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s not about following the rules or breaking the rules. It’s about how your behaviors contribute to the whole.

It’s about intentionality. It’s about discretion.

There are two mistakes that can be made:
  1. Accept the rules without understanding or considering their full range of implications.
  2. Reject the rules without understanding or considering their full range of implications.

In any pre-existing system, there’s a standard set of ways in which something is done.

Whatever the rules — the norms — are, there’s a reason why they were generated in the first place. They serve (or served) some purpose.

When we break them apart without understanding what purpose they’re there to serve, we don’t do anyone any favors — we just create new, pointless problems.

On the flip side, when we follow those norms without understanding what purpose they’re there to serve, we also don’t do anyone any favors — we just slow everyone down with weighty nonsense that may no longer be needed or useful.

Things are done the way they are done because the situation has been iterated on over some length of the time, developing into the current status quo. Each iteration has addressed some problem, with the aim of improving the whole thing, but each iteration has also carried forward legacy items that haven’t all been reviewed for their necessity.

When you find yourself engaged with something that has been around for more than a day, the temptation can be to either absorb directly into the flow of things or to ignore them and just do things your own way — and then to never question or change your own mode of interaction with the system.

But if we take a lesson from the local heroes of WWII, there’s a better way…

The Master, the Foolish Follower, and the Foolish Rebel
The Foolish Follower is the person who exclusively follows the rules, usually in the name of doing things “the best way” or “the proven way.” But it actually comes from a place of blind timidity.

The Foolish Rebel, contrarily, is the person who exclusively breaks the rules, usually in the name of “making things better.” But it actually comes from a place of ignorant arrogance.

The Master, on the other hand, is wise. He doesn’t rush to destroy what’s been built up. He knows the situation is complex, and that he doesn’t have the answer. He also knows that he holds a vital place in the improvement of the current status quo — because what’s current is only the best that could be done by those who came before, and it’s also not perfect. The Master breaks the rules consciously — not for the sake of breaking the rules or for the sake of destroying something that’s broken, but because he knows what he’s aiming for, and he’s practiced in the different paths to get there.

The Master relies on a deep insight into the situation. She understands the landscape in which she’s making moves. She also trusts her own compass. She needs neither the Old Guard nor the Rebellion to tell her what she should think or how she should behave.

The Master doesn’t accept shaming for not fitting into either category. The Master has developed a reliable internal code that guides their behavior.

Becoming a Master
At the heart of being a Master is a deep grounding in a strong knowledge and understanding of the context.

But how do you get to that point? Where do you get started?

Start with a blank page.

From there, follow four steps:

1 | Imitation
Identify someone who is a trusted model, who has been operating admirably for an extended time within the landscape.

This is one of the primary ways we learn: by simply imitating. When a child sees a parent or a friend do something, she mirrors that behavior as a means of learning.

Imitated behavior is an analogue to the writer’s “shitty first draft” — it’s the thing that moves you beyond the blank page and gives you something to begin to work with.

But it’s more than that…

By imitating someone who has more experience in this territory — someone who you admire — you’re giving yourself the best “shitty first draft” you can.

Imitation gives you a good initial sense of the landscape in front of you. It helps you begin to explore and to feel out the shape of the territory.

Gift #1: The gift given to you by imitation is action, which is what catalyzes learning. It gives you a mode of operating that allows you to safely explore and familiarize yourself with the context in front of you, quickly.

You don’t want to end with imitation, but it’s a great place to start.

2 | Curiosity & Close Observation
In everything you see and imitate, ask what’s going on with it. Ask why it’s needed. Ask who’s affected by it. Ask not only others but ask yourself — observe and pay attention to whether you can find any secondary or tertiary outcomes to each thing you encounter.

While you imitate and begin to explore, you’re also observing closely.

You’re observing what happens in response to each of your behaviors. You’re observing what happens in response to others’ behaviors. You’re observing how each small piece of the puzzle fits into the whole, larger organism — how it all connects.

You’re not making decisions about what should be done instead — not yet.

You’re asking why are things done this way? And has anyone yet tried doing this that way?

And you’re making note any time you don’t get a satisfactory answer.

You’re working to understand how each piece connects to the other.

You’re working to understand the history behind why things developed in the way that they did. What problems were solved by the development of this system of behaviors? Are those problems still relevant? Or were they only necessary in a previous context?

Dig, and dig, and dig.

You’re seeking to understand how each action that takes place creates a cascade of effects in every direction (not only in the obvious direction[s]).

In applying this thoughtfulness, you’re deepening your familiarity with the landscape in a way that the majority of others don’t.

By suspending your own ideas about how things should be done, you’re creating for yourself the strongest foundation you can for the change that you want to make.

Gift #2: The gift that close observation gives you is intimate insight. It helps you develop a comprehensive and deep understanding of the landscape, which sets the stage for further progress.

3 | Experimentation
You’ve witnessed the status quo.

You’ve begun to understand the status quo.

Now, you begin playing with the status quo.

In this stage, you’re developing your own hypotheses and putting them to the test.

During Imitation and Observation, you noted which activities no longer seem to have a reason to them. Now, you begin to challenge those activities or to suggest improvements.

Now, you begin putting yourself on the line — you put your own ideas and your own capacity in the spotlight. Now, you set yourself up to be judged by the merit of what you offer.

You’re not burning bridges. But you’re also not cow-tailing to anyone.

You’re offering your honest opinion based on the understanding that you’ve developed and everything that you’ve learned up until this point.

And then you’re putting your own ideas up for scrutiny. Not the scrutiny of public opinion, but the scrutiny of reality.

Gift #3: The gift of experimentation is discretion. The more of your own skin you put in the game, the more you gain a rich understanding of the situation, as well as the capacity to discern between nuances of specific use cases.

4 | Conversation
Finally, we keep our communities — and ourselves — in check through conversation.

Conversation is the push-and-pull of ideas. It’s open interaction with each perspective that comes to the table.

Because even after all the work that you’ve put in until this point — even after everything that you’ve learned — no one knows better than the Master that he doesn’t know it all.

No one knows better than the Master that she needs to be questioned and challenged, and that she’ll sometimes be found to be wrong.

No one knows better than the Master that we need each other — we need each other’s perspectives and backgrounds and opinions and feedback.

When this element is lost, then the whole thing starts to tilt, until a major corrective force comes swinging in (and likely over-corrects).

Gift #4: The gift that conversation grants is expansion. Your own understanding continues to expand, and the understandings of those around you also continue to expand — and this is the enabler of healthy ongoing progress.


This is the path of the Master.

She begins by imitating exactly. Walking directly in the footsteps of a trustworthy mentor — following motion-for-motion everything that they do, because she knows that there’s wisdom in practicing something established.

As she imitates, she also observes. And she considers deeply. And she questions. She questions where this came from. She questions why it didn’t develop into any of the alternative possibilities. She identifies what positive functions it’s serving — or used to serve. She questions how it might be improved without losing the good that it currently produces.

Then she experiments. Her questions have led to hypotheses, which she now presents to the world and tests against reality. The results she gets informs her further hypothesizing…

With each iteration on her tests, she engages in deep and candid conversation with all of the other stakeholders.

The Master knows her situation intimately before she begins messing around in it. But she also remembers that it’s on her shoulders to make things better — to discard the fat and to strengthen the good.


When all four of these elements combine in the right way, we all improve, and we all benefit. When any one is lacking at scale, however, the ecosystem begins to tilt a little more and a little more — becoming ever-more unstable.


Humble Courage
This approach calls for a few qualities from you:

First, it calls for humility. It calls that you assume you don’t know it all. It calls that you trust that the people who came before you did the best that they could with what they had, and that they’ve solved a lot of problems in what they’ve built. What they’ve built isn’t perfect — that’s why you’re here: to improve it. But if what they’ve built has stood so many tests of time, then it wasn’t reckless either.

It also calls for courage. It calls that you reach outside, beyond what’s known, what’s familiar, what’s comfortable. It calls that you risk getting it wrong. The world needs you to introduce new ideas and a new perspective on the old, expected ways of doing things — but not in the same way that everyone else does. We need your honest thoughtfulness and discretion. We need you to not fear going against every grain. We need you to learn to navigate by your own internal compass to discern what you should do.

Humble ambition. Practical optimism. Respectful rebellion.


Rebel With(out) A Cause

It’s sexy to go against the grain in the name of replacing the old and outdated with something new and fresh. And it’s true that there are things that are old and outdated and insufficient that need new life and new perspective to come in and improve things.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good to throw the whole thing out the window…

There are probably a few babies hanging out, quietly, in the bathwater.

(It takes humility to spend time finding those babies.)

If you don’t know — completely, thoroughly — what you’re overhauling, if you don’t know everything that you’re rejecting, you could end up throwing out the good with the bad.

Don’t assume the whole thing’s garbage. That’s what arrogant morons do.

Gain understanding of why things are the way they are. Extract the good seeds. And then get rid of everything else. Master the rules better than anyone so that you can break the rules.

Break all the rules you want — but not until you understand them better than anyone.

The status quo needs to be challenged and rewritten. But it also needs to be acknowledged as an attempt by mostly good people to navigate a complex world... and it needs to be seen as a tub of bathwater that probably still has a couple babies in it, which need to be sought out and preserved.

Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.

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