Rules as Excuses

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.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.