Whose Rules Are You Following?

I’m going to start this post with a story from my adolescence - a story about the mid-90’s trend of wearing Adidas slides with white mid-calf socks. (Yes, socks and sandals, it was a strange time and everyone was doing it, hush.) This trend exploded at my middle school, and suddenly, all my classmates were sporting the familiar getup. I decided I simply must hop on board. I was not one of the cool kids, but I was trying desperately to be one of the cool kids, so when I pled my case, my obliging mother dutifully took me to the store one afternoon. The Adidas sandals were the gold standard; everyone knew that. I’d also seen a few kids sporting Nike slides, and those appeared to have been deemed acceptable as well. However, I ended up leaving the store with a pair of Filas, because they were more comfortable and less expensive than their counterparts. They were essentially the same thing in every way that mattered, I decided. Plus, maybe setting myself apart from the rest in this one specific way could actually work for me. Maybe I’d start a trend and everyone else would want in on the Fila train, too. The following morning, I pulled on a pair of crisp white socks, then excitedly donned my kicks, so ready to finally be a part of things. My teenage mind kicked into overdrive, imagining the possibilities. Maybe people would finally realize what an awesome person I was! I could see it in my mind’s eye: the “in” crowd would welcome me, with open arms, to their lunch table. The boy I’d been crushing on would suddenly fall madly in love with me. Maybe my picture would even make it into the yearbook for something other than band! Great was my expectation when I walked through the double doors of the middle school that morning, my coveted footwear still shiny with newness. In second period, however, everything went awry when my pencil rolled off my desk and onto the floor. Leaning over to retrieve it, and admiring my shoes on the way down, I noticed something I hadn’t before. My socks. Per the trend, they were supposed to be of the garden-variety plain white. But mine? Mine, though I’d never even noticed until that very moment, were emblazoned with a giant Hanes logo across the sole, in block format about five inches long. I realized, with dawning horror, that this logo had been visible with every step I’d taken that day so far, as my heel lifted and created a gap between my foot and the shoe.

As this realization dawned, I also became aware of something else: the shoes were all wrong. Of course they were all wrong. Hadn’t I known they were supposed to be Adidas? Why couldn’t I have at least gone with the Nikes, for fuck’s sake? It would have been a fairly cutting-edge, but still safe, choice. But Filas? Filas? No one else wore anything Fila. I was the only one - and I wasn’t cool enough to be the only one doing something. It wouldn’t catch on - I knew that now, with sudden clarity. No one else would buy them, the trend would continue on without me, and I’d be the odd one out - just me, my stupid Filas, and the stupid white socks with the stupid Hanes logo on the bottom.

I tell this story not to brag about my amazing fashion choices (insert eye roll emoji here) but to illustrate how very, very committed I was to following The Rules.

It’s true. I was never any good at breaking the rules. That didn’t keep me from trying, in a few sporadic moments of badly misplaced confidence, to subvert the system. I wanted so badly to be a cool rebel chick instead of a “good girl”. But if I skipped a homework assignment, my stomach would just churn itself into knots with worry about a failing grade. And at age sixteen, I snuck into an R-rated movie with friends and totally got away with it - but I felt so bad afterward that I found myself tearfully confessing to my mother when she came into my room to say goodnight.

Yup. I was a rule-follower at heart. I had a profound sense of right and wrong - but I discerned right from wrong based on the actions and opinions of others, rather than my own personal values.

The rules I tried so desperately to follow caused me to limit so many parts of myself in an attempt to fit in and be liked. They caused me undue amounts of stress and anxiety, as I tried in vain to be a carbon copy of everyone else, instead of just being me. I didn’t understand that I had the power to disregard those rules and write ones of my own. Instead, I let the existing rules - other people's rules - govern my entire life. Let me tell you, it was no way to live.

Many of the rules we are societally expected to follow serve the purpose of keeping us physically safe. Traffic laws are a prime example. We stop when the light turns red because if we didn’t, we’d be crashing into each other all the time. It’s important to follow rules like this to avoid causing harm to ourselves and others.

Have you ever accidentally run a stop sign? Just cruised right through it like it wasn’t there? Or what about turning the wrong way down a one-way street? When these things happen - and yes, I’ve been guilty of both at least once - I panic! My adrenaline kicks in, my heart pounds, and I am utterly horrified: I cannot believe I just did that.

It makes sense to feel that way in those situations, because breaking these types of rules can have serious consequences - physical, legal, and financial.

The other kind of rule, however, isn’t legally enforceable, nor will non-compliance lead to our certain demise. These are the societal rules we observe in our culture and adopt as our own, and they range in gravity from “don’t wear white after Labor Day” to “you can’t make a living with art." So many of these rules purport to tell us how we should look, act, live our lives, manage our careers, and take care of all the things.

The truth is that most of us, whether we know it or not, have been following a set of rules that we were taught throughout our lives, either by our caretakers, other people around us, or society in general. We didn't decide to follow these rules; we didn't know we had the option not to. And we have been conditioned, at the mere thought of breaking some of these rules, to feel the same sense of panic as we do when we accidentally run a stop sign. The holy-shit-what-did-I-just-do type of panic, despite the fact that you haven’t run anybody over and no one is coming to arrest you.

Here’s an example of what some of these rules may look like.

  • Always be polite

  • Put others’ needs before your own

  • Your value lies in how pretty you are

  • A blue-collar career is the only way to grow wealthy

  • You need a college degree if you’re going to get anywhere in life

  • Grow up, get married, and have kids, in that order, and definitely before you turn 30

  • You’ll never make a living by following your passions - learn a useful trade instead

  • Vulnerability only leads to pain - don’t let anyone get too close

  • Be a good girl so people will like you

Sound familiar?

Each and every one of us is governed by a set of rules that we have transmuted into beliefs - but the good news is that we can break those rules. We can change those belief systems. And we can create new ones that empower us instead of limit us.

Look. You can live your whole life according to the rules. You can do what everyone tells you: get good grades in high school, go to college, major in something that will make you lots of money right out of the gate, pay off your student loans in ten years, get married, reproduce, buy a shiny new house and a shiny new car, and dutifully pay into your 401k every month.

For some people, that works. They’re happy that way. And that’s great.

For the rest of us, trying to shape ourselves around that paradigm of conventional success feels an awful lot like trying to stuff an octopus into a string bag.

Because it’s not a fit. It’s not right for us. It doesn’t allow room for trial and error and wanderlust. It assumes we should know exactly what we want to do with the rest of our lives upon first setting foot inside a higher education institution. I don’t know about you guys, but that was never me. I always had so many interests and hobbies, and I spent my time careening from one to the other in a blind panic, frantically trying to decide which one of them was The One.

It wasn’t until my early thirties that I realized I didn’t need to decide. That I will never be the kind of person who has just one passion - and that I don’t have to be.

Let's get one thing straight.

Doing something the way it “should” be done does not make you better at it than someone else.

If, for example, you do a bunch of research on how to increase your social media following, and you find information saying you need to post on Instagram precisely four times a day at very specific times, using very specific hashtags and a very specifically planned grid, and you do this for months even though it’s a pain in the ass and not at all fun or fulfilling, and you get lots of new followers . . . does it make you better at social media than someone who just posts whenever the mood strikes?


It makes you better at following the rules.

And I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not that interested in being an awesome rule-follower. I’d rather direct my energy toward being an awesome writer, speaker, and entrepreneur, instead - and sometimes that means taking that rule book and throwing it out the figurative window. Sometimes it means rewriting the rules - and reframing our belief systems in the process - so that they can serve us instead of limit us.

Let me reiterate that there’s no shame in living life by the rules - as long as it works for you, makes you happy, and fulfills your spirit.

I just believe there are too many of us out there who are not fulfilled by that life, but who keep trying to fit into it regardless. To those people: this post was written for you.

In her beautifully-crafted book on creativity, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says: “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, then stands back to see if we can find them.”

That is the kind of life I want: the life in which I’m constantly and consistently digging for buried treasure. The life in which I create my own rules - ones that are designed to help me grow, expand, believe in myself, and build something beautiful.

The greatest treasures yet to be found lie buried in uncharted territory. That’s an indisputable truth.

Are you somewhere off the beaten path, digging for jewels?

Or are you following someone else’s guidebook and letting it tell you where to go?

My hope for you - for everyone - is that you’re holding a shovel, sifting through the soil to find something that shines.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​