Wisdom vs. Rules - Changing our hardwired helplessness


The Harvard Business Review did a massive study on tens of thousands of businesses to find out what “common rules” they could find among all those who succeeded. What did they find? Well, rule #3 was “There are no other rules.” I won’t spoil rules #1 and #2. This is, of course, disappointing to many readers who were hoping to find some rules for success. In order to offer some relief here is one more rule: Stop making rules! Instead, try wisdom.

Black and white thinking is ingrained into us from the moment we step into pre-school. We learn there is a right way to do something, and everything else is wrong. In real-life, there is a wrong way to do something (hint: it’s the one that gets you killed), and everything else is up for grabs. I hear you, “How can we make decisions without rules?” Easy, instead of thinking you need to find rules, why not look for wisdom instead?

You want to know the deep dark truth about why we are addicted to rules? We hate responsibility. Rules mean we get breath a sigh of relief and free ourselves from accountability and, hopefully, consequences. Humanity deals with the universe by saying “I will play by the rules, and you take care of me, in return.” We do this to such an extreme perspective that we choose our leaders according to those who are willing to help us make up rules to follow.

Wisdom and understanding are different from rules, they don’t tell us what to do, they just help us make our own judgements. Throwing away the knowledge and experience of the past is foolish, but clinging to it as some kind of sanctimonious liturgy is also just as asinine. We need to take the education and experience passed down to us as rules, and convert it to wisdom. This means we listen to the voices of the past, but do not constrain ourselves to them.

It is a hard habit to break. Even those who adventure out into the unknown and learn new things tend to come back down from the mountain with a new set of commandments. We don’t stop to think that we just broke the rules, why would we then make new rules? Instead we need to start sharing our knowledge with each other, and our children, with a little more humility. “Here is what I have learned, take it and grow it.” This should be our process, not “Here is what I have learned, follow it.”

Being countercultural by nature, I started my life pretty much rejecting every rule given to me. While this enabled to me to learn a lot, it also caused me a lot of pain. But when faced with the choice, “follow the rules, or keep going” I always kept going. I wish someone had told me, “listen the rules as advice, hear the wisdom, then decide for yourself.” That would have save me a lot of pain, and I still would have been free to adventure and explore.

The dangerous part of rules is that they imply, “this is it, there is no world beyond.” This assumption is nearly impossible for the young to swallow, meaning they rebel until they wear out. When we wear out, we become part of the choir telling others, “follow the rules.” The impossible conflict between rules and exploration is wisdom, and we need cultural shift to move forward.