Society provides a foundation of rules that we are required to follow for a variety of reasons.  Some maintain order, while others keep us safe.  And there are known consequences if we choose not to follow them.

Those rules are actually not what I’m talking about today.

What I’m referring to are the additional rules that we set for ourselves.  The ones that we’ve created around how we should act in different situations.  The ones that dictate how we act in meetings, socially, within our families, or inside our organizations.

How much or how often do we actually think about them?  Or do we file them away with things like, ‘do not steal’ and follow them without question?  Heck, do we even realize we are living by them?

As we dig a little deeper into this topic today, I ask that you keep one question top of mind: Are these rules helping us or actually holding us back?


Given the time of year, I’ve been thinking more and more about what I hope to accomplish in 2019.  Fortunately for me, I found myself in a coaching session talking about my goal setting.

During the conversation, I found that I was running up against a wall in terms of how best to continue to grow, develop and lead within certain areas of my life.  I felt stuck.

As the conversation progressed, my coach pointed out a variety of examples where my reasons for why I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something were based on what appeared to be some spoken or unspoken rules… rules that were of my own creation, and only being self-imposed and self-enforced by me.

For example, some of these rules dictate how I traditionally operate (or don’t operate) within the context of organizational hierarchies and in the client / contractor environment where I perform.

As these various rules were highlighted during the discussion, I was challenged on the validity of them.  Specifically, why they needed to be seen as rules and what would actually happen (good or bad) if I didn’t follow them.

It’s given me a lot to think about…

Truth is, I’m the only one that set these rules for myself, and despite initially thinking they were keeping my safe, or were helping me operate ‘properly’ based on some cultural or organizational beliefs, the harsh reality is that they are more than likely holding me back and stifling my leadership.

Does any of this sound or feel familiar?

We are conditioned from our early years to follow rules. And there is a time and place for that.

Believe me, I’m a chronic rule follower and, to my fault, remain ‘afraid’ of getting in trouble if I break them.

However I’m realizing that some rules must be challenged and broken if we are ever truly going to move forward and become who we want to become.  Speaking personally, it’s a scary prospect, yet it is one I absolutely have to face and overcome if I am ever to find my own ‘best self.

Break the Rules that Need to Be Broken

It is my hope that some of your rules are starting to bubble up right now.  I know many of mine are becoming more obvious the more I think about this topic.

Much like negative mindsets, these rules are ingrained in us – so much so that they often exist undetected, and when identified, take a ton of work to overcome.

So how can we begin to do the work to identify these rules and start thinking through how to break them, or at least reshape them to allow us to grow and thrive.

Chances are, these rules aren’t going to be obvious or jump out for you to find.  So, as I start my own journey of discovering and analyzing mine, I wanted to share my initial approach and guidance to dig deep and begin to create some new possibilities for the future:

Identify areas of your life where you are getting ‘stuck’

While not necessarily stopped in your tracks (although maybe you are), where are you constantly being slowed down or tripped up?  Is it in your professional life, personal life, or other area?  Make note of all the areas in your life that are coming up for you.

Begin to ask the questions around why you are stuck

Now that you are clear on the areas of life where you aren’t moving the ball forward as desired, begin to bullet out the reasons why you are getting slowed down.  What are the external (and more importantly more this exercise) internal causes?

Listen to the words or phrases you use to describe your reasons

Whether you identify these reasons out loud, in your head, or on paper, pay special attention to the language you are using.  Are you citing reasons like me where I can’t do x, y or z because I’m a contractor or maybe, I can’t question or offer alternatives to the assignment or instructions I was given due to chain of command?  These are some simple examples (but very real ones for me).  What do you keep hearing yourself say?

Identify the rules or ‘norms’ that are shaping your responses, reactions, or behaviors in the stuck areas of your life

Based on the words, phrases or sentiments you are using, what rules or guardrails are being created around how you think and operate?  How much of what is or isn’t possible is being shaped by these rules? Make note of all of them that you discover.

For every rule, norm or expectation identified, question whether they are real, and who set them

Quite possibly the most important step: asking yourself which of these rules are actually real!  You may find that some of these rules that are slowing you down are very much real and need to be adhered to.  Acknowledge those, and move them aside for this exercise.  However, my guess for myself and for many of us is that most of these rules are simply self-imposed and self-enforced.  And if they were to be broken, nothing would happen (other than perhaps faster forward progress!). Take the time to review each rule and be honest about where they came from, who set them, and how they are possibly holding you back.

And finally, determine if they can be broken or rewritten

So, for those rules or guardrails that can be broken, break them! And for the rest, begin to change and rewrite them so that they can better serve you.  For example (and for the record, I hate this example), if you live by the rule ‘speak only when spoken to’, identify the few use cases where that is actually true in your life, and rework your personal rule or guideline to make it not only acceptable but also encouraged to speak up in each and every other scenario.

Become a Rule Breaker

We’ve all been conditioned from a very young age to follow and respect the rules.  These rules are helpful as we grow and navigate the new and ever evolving challenges through our young lives and into adulthood.

Yet there comes a time for all of us when we need to decide what our personal rules are going to be.  Will they dictate a ‘safe’ and predictable life?  Or will they allow for the opportunity to forever challenge our status quo and continually grow and evolve into the best version of ourselves?

So… which of your rules need to be broken?  Let’s break them together, and take those next steps toward making the impact we’ve always wanted to make!

Discussion Question: What self-created and self-imposed rules are you living by that are holding you back?  Are they true or real?  And how can you break them or reshape them to empower you to make the impact you want to make on the world?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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