“Well-behaved women rarely make history” – Eleanor Roosevelt, rule-breaking badass and longest-serving first lady of the United States
When was the last time you broke the rules? As children, we are taught to mind our manners, to listen to authority figures, to behave and do what we are told because others know best. While being kind and polite is certainly valuable, rules are meant to be broken, y’all. If you look at most of the highly successful people in our society, pretty much all of them did something that hadn’t been done before, they thought outside the box and didn’t follow the crowd, they didn’t listen when people told them they were crazy, they broke the rules in some way, shape or form.
Obviously, there are plenty of the cases where the rules are in place for a good reason and it is in our best interest to follow them. For example “Don’t feed the lions”, “Don’t hang out on the railroad tracks” and “Don’t touch this electric fence!” But sometimes rules are silly and are simply begging for you not to follow them!
The rules I’m talking about are generally not the kind you see on a signpost, or in a rulebook of some sort, but are nebulous and abstract and created by society in general rather than by a specific governing body. Rules like “You shouldn’t dance if nobody else is dancing” or “Don’t talk to people you don’t know” or “Girls shouldn’t ask men out on a date” or “Don’t let people see who you really are”. Who came up with these rules in the first place? And why are we all so willing to follow them without question? In my experience, allowing our lives to be constrained by these types of rigid social guidelines leads to unhappiness and inauthentic experiences.
A lot of these are not necessarily things we have been told directly, but are messages that are deeply ingrained and that we may not even be consciously aware of. In addition, we all have different sets of rules based on where we grow up, who our family is, our sex, our ethnicity, and all sorts of other influences in our lives. While many of these rules may be useful and have helped shaped who we are as a person, I am also willing to bet that most of us have rules that are holding us back and keeping us in some way from pursuing the life we really want. It’s a useful practice to notice the rules we have in our minds and evaluate which ones are serving us and which ones are not.
One of the strongest sets of rules that we have in our lives revolve around whether we are male or female.
A while ago, I read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg and was surprised to learn that “An internal report at Hewlett-Packard revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed. Men apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements.” This was originally taken as a sign that women lack confidence, but upon further investigation, it turns out that the three main reasons women don’t apply for such jobs are “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications, and I didn’t want to waste my time and energy”, “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications and I didn’t want to put myself out there if I was likely to fail” and “I was following the guidelines about who should apply.”
So really, it turns out that women are simply taking for granted the idea that a company will not hire someone who does not meet 100% of the qualifications. Women are socialized from a young age to be kind and sweet and follow the rules and this is just another way that is comes up as we turn into adults. Men are much more encouraged to be independent thinkers and rule-breakers, to take charge and lead the way. Women who do this from a young age are labeled as “bossy”, which does not have very positive associations. Have you ever heard a boy or a man called bossy? No, because they are expected to act this way, they are expected to be a boss, whereas women are not. We may have come a long way in this country but we clearly still have a long way to go. There are currently more CEOs in the top 100 companies named John than there are who are women – how crazy is that!?
From a very young age, products send a very clear message to boys and girls about what kind of people they should be and what colors/activities/toys/sports they should enjoy. By the time kids enter Kindergarten, they already have a very clear idea of which colors are for which gender and whether they should be playing with Barbie dolls or G.I. Joes. Both this video of a little girl being rightfully upset at her options in the clothing store and this article written about a father whose little girl wanted a Batman shirt, not one that says “Training to be Batman’s wife”, do a really great job of highlighting how gender norms are ingrained in us from a very young age. Boys get shirts encouraging them to play with trucks or be an astronaut or superhero, whereas girls get t-shirts covered in flowers and hearts and claiming to be “Daddy’s little princess”. Wildfang is a really awesome clothing company geared towards creating more traditionally masculine clothing for women, and there are some really great clothing lines out there for young girls as well that encourage girls to be whatever they want to be, instead of simply being “pretty” or a “princess”.
Another aspect of our lives that has clear societal expectations is around our career and family choices. The traditional path is to go straight to college after high school, find a well-paying job that you can make into a career, get married and have kids, then retire and spend the rest of your days golfing and wintering in Florida. For some folks, this path may truly be their calling and fulfills all of their needs and that is completely fine. But assuming that this is the ONLY path an adult can take in life is simply ridiculous. There are so many different ways our lives can look and each of us has different priorities.
Unfortunately, not following this path often results in being labeled as “irresponsible” or “a drifter” or “not ambitious”. People assume that it’s just a phase you are going through, that eventually you will grow up and settle down. I hate it when people say things like “Well, that’s good that you’re doing it while you’re young!” because it assumes that as people get older, they will eventually have to start making more “practical” life choices. I know that things like kids and a career can make it more difficult, but there is always a way to incorporate travel into your life if it truly is a priority.
What would you do with your life if there were no limits, if you could truly create your ideal living/working/relationship situations? While I don’t think it’s practical to simply quit everything to go chasing after a dream, I do think we can all take steps to work towards what we truly want while still being practical and creating a safety net for ourselves. Maybe you can cut back on your hours at work so you have more time to write that book you are dying to finish. Maybe you can spend less time watching TV and more time learning a new language. Maybe you can move into an apartment that has month-to-month rent so you can pick up and go any time you want! There are so many ways to live an “alternative” lifestyle without completely giving up all sense of stability and comfort, but you have to be willing to think outside the box a bit, figure out what your real priorities are, and slowly work towards creating the life you really want to be living.
Go ahead, break the rules
I like to fancy myself a rule-breaker from time to time. Although I have the same rules ingrained in me as everyone else, I do my best to question these rules and think about what I really want to do, rather than what I have been told I should do. Fortunately, I live in a place that supports people who think outside the box and grew up with a family who supports me no matter what I do. Here are just a few of the rules I have chosen to ignore in my life – so far, things are working out pretty great!
“Don’t travel alone in foreign countries, especially places like India”
“You need a stable, good paying job if you want to be happy and secure”
“Rock climbing and other rough sports are for men”
“You can’t love more than one person at a time”
“You should be married by the time you are 30”
“Girls should never make the first move in relationships”
“You shouldn’t call yourself a musician/writer/photographer unless you are a professional”
You may have some of these same rules in your mind, or you may have a completely different set! Whatever those rules are, take some time and think about what each of them really means – is this a rule that came from practical experience, or is it simply something that was taught to you by society and doesn’t really deserve your obedience? Are there things in your life that you would like to do but haven’t because of some rule you believe you should be following?
Leslie Knope, one of the best TV characters of all time, loves to give her best friend Ann Perkins amazing but very strange compliments – in one episode, she calls her a “beautiful rule-breaking moth”. Let’s all be rule-breaking moths and show the world all the amazing gifts and talents we have to offer!
So, what are some rules YOU have broken that lead to great things? Share your stories in the comments section – I’d love to hear them!