Rules as Excuses

October 20, 2011 — 36 Comments

The opening sequence of the movie 50/50, shows the main character Adam, out running. He comes to a traffic light and stops. The soundtrack stops too. There are no cars anywhere nearby. Another runner blows past him through the light. Yet he waits, refusing to go until the light turns. The soundtrack cheerfully starts again. The implicit message in the movie: this guy follows all the rules, he doesn’t deserve anything bad to ever happen to him.

I have no respect for people like that. When I see someone waiting at a light when they could easily and safely cross, I think ‘what a loser’. I see it for what it really is: an excuse to not do what is obviously more logical because an arbitrary rule says otherwise. In this case, it’s a pretty convenient excuse to get a break from running too. To me, it is an excuse to not push themselves as hard as they could.

The other variation of this is the jogger who runs in place while they’re stopped. Their logic is just as self-defeating. The reality is that if you have to artificially keep your heart rate up during a 30 second stop light, you’re not running hard enough. You may as well just go for a long walk next time. But no, jogging in place makes you feel dedicated, like you’re superior to all those other people who have to rest and that is why you do it. (My philosophy, earn the opportunity to rest, so that when it arrives you don’t feel guilty taking advantage of it. Earn it by truly exerting yourself.)

There is something worse than breaking the rules—following the utterly pointless ones.

Compared to the selfishness and greed endemic to our time, people who follow the rules seem quaint, earnest. When things are bad enough, they almost start to seem like silent heroes. Especially when they stand up for rules the rest of us take for granted. But this is dangerous, because you find yourself wrongly conflating an excuse to not utilize your full potential with “doing the right thing.”

The reality is that most rules are dumb. And poorly thought out. And an impediment to action. They tell us how to dress. How to think. Make us be like everyone else. The more banal the rule, the more likely it is to have these effects—less reason for existing for smart people. These rules steal our time and our lives, cutting us off from shortcuts, secrets and creating change. Of course, we never get to ask Adam if, after finding out he has potentially terminal cancer a few days later, he regrets wasting so much time at pointless traffic signals.

Doing what you’re supposed to do does not make you a good person. There’s no one keeping track, ready to award you a special ribbon for staying inside the most lines. There is not. But you know what there is? A good chance at any moment that something could come along and render the past irrelevant and the future non-existent. And at that time, all your notions about rules and waiting and feeling superior aren’t going to matter.

You’re going to wish that you did what needed to be done. That you didn’t let restrictions restrict you.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

36 responses to Rules as Excuses

  1. There’s no one keeping track, so you don’t really “earn” a rest from running. You decide to rest because it feels good to your self image (and body) to stop only after you’ve pushed yourself enough. But then it’s effectively the same as jogging in place because makes you feel dedicated, like you’re superior to all those other people who have to rest and that is why you do it. Two arbitrary internal rules applied differently.

    The discipline and self control it takes to do either, the skill it takes to enforce your own internal rules, I’m all for that. It’s one of the best tools we have at our disposal. But it can lead to making you think you are a good person for following the rules, your own or someone else’s.

    • No you did earn it, in the sense that you need the rest to keep going. That is when it is ok to stop, particularly if it coincides with a busy intersection you can’t cross or something like that.

      • “The other variation of this is the jogger who runs in place while they’re stopped. Their logic is just as self-defeating. The reality is that if you have to artificially keep your heart rate up during a 30 second stop light, you’re not running hard enough.”
        Ryan, you are obviously not a runner.

        • Just someone who has run 6 days a week for 10 years

          • Well I guess I can’t know for certain, just as you can’t know what “Scootah” thinks when he sees someone waiting at a red light… Still, I bet you have run six days a week exactly NEVER. Or maybe in the last ten years of running nearly every day you have never pushed yourself to run beyond 1 mile. If you had ever run a real distance, you would know that if you are 8 miles into your 10 mile run, at race pace, and you came to a stop because “Oh man, I have been running so hard I just can not possibly go on without a break at this stop light.” your legs would turn to jello and your run would be over.

          • I did 5 miles yesterday, I’ll probably do 4 today because I did BJJ in the morning. I’ll do a long run tomorrow because it’s Saturday and I’ll have more time.

            If you’re going to be a troll, just leave.

  2. A few nights ago I was running through a deserted, low-traffic section of the city. I was coming up on a red hand signal with a green traffic light so I did what I always do and checked for traffic and ran through it. A few moments after I had crossed the intersection a driver behind me started honking and when I stopped and turned around he leaned out of his driver’s side window and screamed at me, saying, “That’s a red-hand signal it means stop! You can’t just run through that!” My crossing of the intersection didn’t actually affect him but it offended him to the point that he felt he had to stop his car and reprimand me. I was so baffled I didn’t know what to say. This guy was taking what you’re saying one step further. It’s one thing to force yourself to obey arbitrary rules, but when you’re to the point of demanding that everybody else follow them as well then you’ve really lost your grip on how the world works.

  3. On the contrary, I’m the type of person who DOES stop at the light to see how others like you react 🙂

    No, seriously, sometimes stopping, using that time to meditate, using that moment to let TIME sink in in the midst of it all…not to rush like a chicken without its head is important. Really, what did those 5.6 seconds gain you?

    I look at people WHO DO need to rush the light…and most of them did it to get to their goddamn java first, or because they want to cross the sidewalk to see what just came on the Blackberry, or rush to not waste time so that they can get to their job…where they can then proceed to waste 8 solid hours of their precious life.

    Is it worth it? Are those 5-10 seconds really what makes the difference between one person’s path and the other?

    Let me offer you the counterpoint.

    Do it next time. Stop like the rules tell you. Do it because you want to. You’ll see everybody else move ahead. How does it make you feel? You’ll then realize that it wasn’t those 10 seconds, or one hour, that “you lost” that detracted you — it’s this feeling that EVERYTHING needs to mean something that did it!

    Of course, we never get to ask Adam how he likes the feeling of his ribs getting crushed against angry chrome (I know, I know…you’re assuming its safe to cross)

    This ceaseless rushing around and trying to outdo FATHER TIME through these little “hacks,” as though they matter or say anything about who a person is, are what gets me…while we have no issue blowing our time reading through that article about Dropbox or posting on the social network.

    The rest of your message is on point, just don’t think that the examples above qualify as the ones we really want to rail against or make any meaningful assumptions over.

    • On the flip side, how much are you really gaining by waiting that 5 seconds for following an arbitrary rule, and even if you follow the rules someone could still plow you over, at that point does it really matter who’s fault it is?

      Just because most people use those 5 seconds in ways similar to those you mentioned doesn’t mean that you have to nor does it mean that you are in a rush. There is plenty of time for reflection throughout the day that will be more useful than a 10 second meditation.

    • Dude, his point is that the attitude in stopping for a red light when there is no traffic is really a cop out from using your brain and exerting effort. Your counterpoint is way off.

  4. Ryan, you’re the man. To summarize:

    “Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.” – Steve Jobs

    “Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.” -Thomas A. Edison

  5. When I see someone waiting at a light when they could easily and safely cross,
    I think ‘I bet they’re thinking about something interesting. I bet they’re on autopilot on their way somewhere while their brain is off somewhere else, doing something interesting. I wonder what they’re thinking about?’

    I mean usually I’m sure they’re just a window licker who hasn’t considered the possibility of ignoring the lights and making a safety decision for themselves. But I try and make my assumptions on a ‘not everyone is a complete idiot’ basis.

    Anger at the harmless sins of others (sloth, when you’re not waiting for them anyway) is probably less productive than any of those sins.

    • I bet you have thought that exactly ZERO times.

      • Which is still more times than I’ll ever think ‘what a failure, he stopped at a light when he could just go’ and much politer than any other phrasing trying to explain that when I space out thinking about how awesome a Taiko drum performance remixed as part of a drum and bass/dubstep live performance would be – it’s not that I give a fuck about ‘the rules’ – it’s that I’ve redirected processing time away from boring things (like walking from one place to another) and put it on automatic while I think about something cool.

  6. I suggest you go to India and witness traffic there.

    That’s what happens when any bit of logic gets taken to an extreme. I can appreciate the sentiment about the jogger. But the bigger question is, where do you then draw the line?

    Because in India, Taxi drivers go the wrong way on one way streets late at night “because there is no one coming anyway.” Forget that they do it in broad day light too, when there IS traffic also. And then they yell at you for getting in their way. But that only proves my point. It starts out innocently. Then eventually the boundaries get pushed further and further. But my point is this.

    Boundaries might be arbitrary. But they save us from having to face the slippery slope situation where suddenly you are at risk of systemic dysfunction. Think of it this way:

    1. Many rules are stupid.
    2. But there are many human beings who are even more stupid.
    3. Therefore, we need rules to mitigate the level of stupidity in our civilization.
    /end of logic.

    I see your basic point. But it can’t be taken to an extreme. It still needs to be tempered with it’s opposite.

    • And who took it to an extreme? Oh wait, that was you.

      • I was just trying to illustrate the notion of a slippery slope. Everyone has a different interpretation of which rules are worthy and which are not.

        I think what you were intending to get across in this post was “don’t follow the rules like a prude because that accomplishes nothing.”

        I can see the point in that. But I think it needs a little clarification, which is what I was trying to get across. I’d say “go ahead and bend rules, but preserve the spirit in which it was written.”

        • You’re right that’s what I was intending to say and that’s what I DID SAY.

          This is not a way to spend your time my friend. Pointing out minor, pedantic exceptions and raising hypotheticals that no one else is struggling with–just for the sake of saying something. We try to talk about big issues here, meditate on them and then move on with our busy lives. I assume my readers are reasonable people who don’t need to be treated like children. They don’t need someone to remind them of the dangers of crossing a street, nor that complete anarchy would be a bad thing. Maybe you don’t fit in that category and if that’s so then I’m gladly not writing for you.

          • Desperately defending yourself in your own comments makes me think that you are gladly not writing for anybody. Others don’t seem to believe your writing is as clear as you want it to be.

      • “slippery slopes” are fences that protect fences that protect sheep that have no intention of getting out in the first place.

        Just because I count to 3 does not mean I am going to count to 10.

        Fundamentalist Religions are great case studies when you warn people of the myth of slick slopes.

    • Thank you for reminding all of us why rules are necessary.

  7. People who take off the shells when they eat shrimp think that that ritual should apply to me, that it’s a rule pertaining to the proper ways of eating shrimp. I’ve always eaten it with the shell on.

  8. Oh yeah? Well i used to eat watermelon seeds; then the melons all went seedless…so now I don’t wash grapes.

    Anyway I like your basic point Ryan but Karthik’s seeing the forest, so to speak. If you drive w the same approach, sounds like you’ll need the definition of a STOP sign when no one’s around: Slight Tap On Pedal…

    Just hope the sun wasn’t in your eyes when you blew thru; nor a drunk on a lightless bike at night, nor a gnat in your eye so you missed the silent Prius, etc etc.

  9. I though it was a great analysis. I may be off base here, but it had me thinking of those who profess a tragic vision on the order taker who gets left behind. Those who ask why bad things happen to good people who obey the rules, who constantly question why that is, assert that this shouldn’t happen and that we should find a solution for this.

    I don’t think anyone who accomplished anything worthwhile spent any time thinking about that. I haven’t seen 50/50 but the opening scene you painted sounds like such a convenient way to lure the average person into these banal questions, questions that will ultimately lead you nowhere.

    I’m not an expert enough of this subject to continue so I’ll stop there, but I enjoyed the post.

  10. Wow, everyone has so many points to make about something I’ve never even thought about. It makes it hard to figure out what i think, but rules are just one of those things that have good and bad effects in life, some help and others pointless. I enjoyed reading this.

  11. I am always downtown and this scenario happens an awful lot. Most the streets are one way and about ten strides. It’s interesting that some people wait.. Who knows why they do it.. I am willing to bet they have not examined the issue thoroughly, even with all that extra time waiting at stop lights

  12. The core issue here is virtue vs. rule-based (deontological) ethics. On the one hand I am all for virtues, on the other there are far too many people too stupid to deal with the decisions necessitated by living life according to virtues. Rules like stopping at traffic lights keep from harm (and from doing harm). I feel sorry for them.

    Sometimes, I stop at empty intersections to enjoy the sunshine.

    • Don’t waste people’s time here with words like “deontological.” Say what you mean and say it in plain language. Or in this case, say nothing (because all you really said was “Some people are stupid and need rules.” We knew that already)

  13. …rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of the wise.

  14. …rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of the wise

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