Are you a rule breaker or a rule follower? Have you ever spent any time thinking about the function of rules in different settings? I’ve always been a rule breaker wrapped in a thin veneer of rule follower.

The other day as I was listening to a podcast episode about Game Theory, I was struck by the way Seth Godin described the functions of rules in the two major categories of games – finite and infinite.

To infinity and …

Let’s start with a brief definition of finite vs infinite games. Finite games have winners and losers; they have fixed rules that lead to winning or losing, and they’re designed to end (ergo winners and losers).

On the other hand, infinite games are designed to keep going. They aren’t governed by have hard and fast rules. Instead, their rules must be flexible and adaptable so the game can continue. Technology is an infinite game as is life (not to be confused with the board game, Life).

As I was listening to the podcast it occurred to me that another way to frame up a discussion about rules is to cast them as a story about expectations. Hard and fast rules apply when there is an expectation about how a game (or a situation) should play out. The implication is that there is either a right way or a wrong way to do something – a binary, zero sum way of thinking – that the rules are the means to a defined end, so the rules define the story.

Rules vs supercomputers

What happens if those rules are challenged? Does a finite game change to an infinite game? Here’s an example that you’re probably using right now – the smartphone. When someone at Apple (Seth credits Steve Wozniak) decided that super computers didn’t have to be huge and impossible for the average human to use, they blew up the existing rules of who has access to huge technology and created their own.

As a result, we hold supercomputers in our hands and interact with them by touching their screens – no keyboard required. And there is no end to the ways this technology can impact our lives, from our relationships to our finances to our health.

As he’s telling this story, Godin made an observation that I’ve heard before but processed differently this time. Roughly paraphrased he said that progress is only made when people decide to break the existing rules. Of course. Because the existing rules can only get us to the outcome that whoever created the rules could visualize. I’ve been known to refer to this as a limiting belief.

Then he asked what rules we could break in our businesses and our lives to make exponential progress. I was so gobsmacked that I had to pull into a parking lot and make some notes that turned into this post. That’s when I realized that our rules make up the stories we tell ourselves. And, in turn, those stories become the rules we live by.

Seriously, what is a rule?

So, as I was sitting at a table in a local bar sipping a London mule from a frosted copper mug and working on this post, I decided to look up some definitions of the word rule.

Rule: A principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc. The rules of chess. The customary or normal circumstance, occurrence, manner, practice, quality, etc. The rule rather than the exception. –

Notice that both example sentences reinforce the idea of rules enforcing a binary system (either/or, good/bad, right/wrong). The words customary and normal are laden with the idea that there is one right way to do things.

Wondering how is it that our stories become the rules to that we live by? I think it happens unwittingly. We tell ourselves and others our stories over and over again, reinforcing the rules we followed and the outcome that resulted. So, the stories end up becoming rules.

Are you a player?

I have talked to people whose story is “I don’t get good jobs.” And, since it’s been reinforced by repeated personal experience, it’s become the rule that guarantees the outcome they expect. What if they decided to break the rule and, instead, their rule became “I only get great jobs?”

This twist on positive thinking opens their minds the find and recognize the steps to locating a great job, including getting educated about how job search works today. They could also level up their approach and hire a coach. Or, they could find a group coaching program and work through finding a great job with other people like them who could provide fresh insights into their skills and job search.

Here’s the thing. The trick is to remember that life is an infinite game, and, in infinite games there are no winners and losers. There are just players. For the game (our lives) to go on, we have to create new rules and break or adapt the rules that don’t serve us anymore.

My unbreakable rules…or maybe not

One of my stories that became a rule is that “I can’t manage my money.” It turned into a rule because I said it to myself – and to others – so many times that I couldn’t picture (or recognize) any way to break it.

So, I decided to break my rule and say “I manage my money.” I didn’t attach any rationale or examples to it. Instead, I went with the bald-faced statement that “I manage my money.” Notice that sentence isn’t in the future tense. It’s in the present tense. I’m breaking the rule. And it’s working.

When I started saying “I manage my money,” I attracted new voices with different strategies for approaching money. I left space in my brain to recognize those voices. And, since I do manage my money, I can finally distinguish the techniques and strategies that work for me.

Another of my unbreakable rules is “I can’t maintain an exercise routine.” It’s served me well. It’s the story I pull out when I get into a routine and then stop. Since my rule is that I can’t do this, when I stop it feels comfortable; it’s normal; it’s a regular day at the office. “See, I really can’t keep up an exercise routine.”

Break those rules

For some reason my exercise rule is harder to break than my money rule. I think it’s because the ultimate results of not exercising are harder to imagine than being broke or giving up my business because I didn’t manage my money.

As a result, I now say “I exercise regularly.” Turns out the word routine is a non-starter for me. When I say to myself that I exercise regularly, I find strategies to make that happen. For example, right now I’m writing this post while walking at (on?) my treadmill desk – so progress. Because, normally, I write these in bed, propped on pillows, while gazing fondly at my treadmill desk.

Since our lives are indeed infinite games, then our rules must include words like adaptability, change, strategy, and flexibility. As a coach, I work with clients on embracing these concepts so they can examine the rules they’re following and the stories they’re telling and choose how to move forward. As a person, I work on identifying the rules I will break or adapt to keep moving forward.

What rules shall we break today?