Breaking the Rules in 3 Cultures

As Americans, we like the idea of breaking rules. It feels anti-establishment and counter-cultural, like we’re sticking it to the man and coming out just a little ahead. We use phrases like “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission”  and “rules were made to be broken” to demonstrate this defiant, independent attitude. Interestingly enough, I believe America’s rule-breaking mentality actually makes it harder to break the rules. There are more lawyers in the state of Texas than the country of Japan and probably the continent of Africa because in America, catching rule (or law) breakers is now an industry.

Japan is a little different. Most Japanese wouldn’t dream of breaking the rules because conformity and loyalty are of the utmost importance. Japanese work culture dictates that you stay longer than your superiors because leaving early would be a sign of disloyalty. Falling asleep at work is viewed as a positive development because it means you have labored for the company to the point of exhaustion. In fact, some workers fake falling asleep at work to convince people they have been working hard! In this sometimes absurd culture, local proverbs like “The nail that sticks out gets hammered” demonstrate Japanese attitudes toward breaking the rules.

Perhaps counterintuitively, in Japan it’s easier to break the rules, especially for someone like me who can never fully conform to society anyway. For example, everyone knows that the best skiing is under the ropes. But in Japan no one goes there! I spent entire days snowboarding outside the boundaries. Occasionally ski patrols caught me but I would reason with them in Japanese, apologizing profusely and lamenting my foreign ignorance. At other times (I am somewhat ashamed to admit), I used the language card and only spoke in English. They would point at the rope, cross their arms into a big X, and be on their way.

Finally there is Kenya, where some would argue there are no rules. I would say there are rules, but they often exist to extort money from ordinary people, like when I was talking on my phone while driving. The instant I saw a police officer I jerked the phone away, but just a moment too late. She gave me a lecture about how dangerous it was to talk while driving (even though I was inching along in traffic) and eventually said she could either take me to jail, or I could give her 500 shillings ($6) for lunch. I chose option C and pleaded with her to forgive me this one time since I was from America where the rules were different. Employing my usual strategy when dealing with African police, I simply wasted enough of her time that she let me go.

Now to my point. Wherever you are, I think it’s important to think outside the box to create the kind of life you want. That often involves breaking rules, at least society’s rules on the right career path or who you’re supposed to be or how you should live your life. I like Frank Zappa’s quote when he says,

“If you end up with a boring life because you listened to your mom, dad, teacher, priest or some guy on television telling you how to do you S***, then you probably deserve it.”

I’m not encouraging anyone to break the law or wear Guy Fawkes masks. I just think nonconformity goes hand in hand with living intentionally because everyone can do something special, unique and interesting with their lives. But before you do that, people will think you’re crazy. To me, that is what breaking the rules is all about: finding that unique thing that you were called to do, even when other people (and sometimes yourself) tell you it won’t work. I am slowly learning that purpose for myself and I am trying deliberately to pursue it. It’s risky, but it’s the way I strive to live my life.

I will leave you with one more quote, this time from Sir Winston Churchill:

To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour