Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Misc. | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap

Breaking rules

Rules can, and sometimes should, be broken; however, it is important that they are broken from a position of thorough knowledge and understanding, and with awareness of both the positive and negative consequences. A rule, in its core, is a guideline that approximates an ideal rule created based on thinking, experience, trial-and-error, ...—sometimes created by people who know what they are doing; sometimes, regrettably, by those who do not. The point can come when someone has a deeper understanding of the matter at hand than is embodied in the rule. If this is the case, that someone may, depending on circumstances, be justified in setting the rule aside. (Note that this is very different from a thinking along the lines of “I am superior the rest of the world; ergo, the rules do not apply to me.”.)

The problem is that most people who break rules do not bother to gain the level of understanding that is needed, but break the rules from a point of ignorance, where the wisdom embodied in the rules exceeds that of the breaker. A particular danger is that these people often point to legitimate breakers, argue that if xxx can break the rule, then the rules are just a hindrance, and they are not only justified, but positively virtuous in breaking the rules.

Note that this applies to more or less all fields (not just laws and ethical principles), including arts, crafts, science, ...

As to when a sufficient competence level is reached: This will depend on the individual. One with just average intelligence will typically never reach this level; one with unusually high intelligence and a multitude of experience in other fields behind him, may do so in comparatively short time. Further there will be obvious dependencies on how hard the field is and what level of competence the rule-makers had. At any rate, it is usually better to err on the side of caution.

Apart from breaking rules outright, there is another option: Suggesting changes to the rules. This can be done from almost any level of experience, and will serve to either improve the rules or make their theoretical foundation more solid—provided that the rule-makers are sufficiently rational and open-minded to re-evaluate the rules in an objective manner, and have the competence and intelligence to do a good job. Unfortunately, this will often not be the case, and the suggester may make himself unpopular. (The same complication applies to breaking rules: Even a justified rule-breaking can lead to problems if others do not have the insight to see the justification. Typically, the semi-intelligent used to setting rules for the un-intelligent will react very negatively when someone intelligent enters the picture and dares to propose alternatives and changes.)


An error many rule-makers do is to not provide a rationale for the rule. As can be seen from the above, a rationale brings many advantages, e.g. that someone considering breaking a rule can better judge the rules original justification, that someone with a suggestion for changes (and the rule-makers) can be saved unnecessary work over something that has already been considered, and that re-evaluation of rules is easier. A bonus is that a rationale decreases the risk of reactancew.


An important caveat to the above is that people who stubbornly adhere to rules that they do not understand, or apply rules to a situation that they have not understood, can pose an even worse problem—as I begin to suspect after readings on http://www.fmylife.com, which contains many examples of this problem. The simple truth is that below a certain level of competence there is no helping, and no amount of rules or discretion, explanation, time to master the field, whatnot, will make more than a marginal difference. (This problem is likely to be worsened by many people in authority positions being too fond of exercising their authority.)

Fortunately for me, this problem has flown under my radar, because I have worked in environments with a strong pre-selection for higher intelligence and education—even the typical E4 employee had a college diploma and an IQ > 100.