“Occasionally he stumbled over the truth but he always picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.” WINSTON CHURCHILL

Breaking rules is never easy. Violating the rules that are keeping you from your solution requires creativity and intelligence. You must also ignore common sense and have some fun. I like to apply one of four techniques to rules I need to break. These techniques are very simple and will work for any rule. I will show how they have been used to get around some important rules, like the law of gravity. I am not suggesting that you jump from a tall building. These are serious rules, humorlessly enforced. But many talented people have worked hard to break these rules and succeeded.

Violate the Rule

The first rule-breaking hack is the flagrant violation—you break the rule and dare the consequences. It is the essential strategy when nothing else works. A flagrant violation demands boldness.

It requires an “I don’t care about the facts, nothing will stand in my way” attitude.

During his civil war with Pompey for the dictatorship of Rome, Julius Caesar was faced with a dilemma where a flagrant violation was the only option. Caesar’s rival, Pompey, was in Rome, gathering power and support. Caesar and his armies were in distant Gaul, far removed from the levers of power. The solution was obvious—drive Pompey from Rome. But Caesar could only do that with an army, and entering Italy with an army was an act of rebellion that would enable Pompey to mobilize all the might of Rome against Caesar. Caesar would be forced to fight a superior force in strong defensive positions, a serious violation of the pragmatic rules of warfare.

It seems like another unsolvable problem. But Caesar adroitly realized that his only choice was to take Rome. Violating the rules that you should not attack a stronger defensive force or make your opponent stronger, Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Italy with a single legion. Plunging toward death or destiny, he came up with a strategy. Moving quickly, he eliminated resistance before it could solidify and used early successes to add supporters. Soon Caesar controlled Rome, the only way to win. He would have only been a footnote in history had he not had the courage to break the rules.

Gravity is ignored all the time. We jump from fences, jump into pools. We know there is risk, but we take our chances. People have even survived falls from airplanes and tall buildings. It doesn’t happen often, but it is proof that flagrant violations can work even in extreme cases.

No rule is inviolable. It would seem to be a firm rule that a plant species that does not produce seeds or shoots will die out. But a family of orange trees has been successful in breaking this rule. Years ago, a branch of a single orange tree was found that produced

seedless oranges. Orange growers have made it their business to help this sterile mutation to propagate. Rather than being doomed to extinction, seedless oranges have become a common variety. All rules can be broken.

How would you flagrantly break your rule? Don’t worry about being clever or cunning. Just break the rule.


How can you turn breaking your rule into a solution? Record the idea. It will not be a complete solution. It may not even seem like a good idea. But it is a start.


Circumvent the Rule

The second rule-breaking hack is to circumvent the rule by avoiding its penalty. Circumventing rules is a kind of stealth rule-breaking. You go around the rule by changing the consequence. You still break the rule but don’t get hurt.

Adrenaline addicts skirt the painful consequences of the law of gravity by jumping out of airplanes with parachutes strapped to their backs. They still fall to earth, but they descend the last few thousand feet slowly enough to avoid injury.

President Franklin Roosevelt tried to circumvent the rules when the Supreme Court struck down many of his New Deal programs. He couldn’t oppose the court directly. The Supreme Court is one of the most immovable of American institutions. So he tried to pack the court, increasing the number of justices until enough of his people were on the court to give him a majority. It didn’t work, but it was a creative solution to an impossible problem.

Find a way to circumvent your rule. Be clever about it. Slip around the obstacles. Be legalistic and exploit a trivial loophole. Ask a devious friend for advice. But do what you must to nullify the rule.


Record your idea for circumventing your rule as a solution seed. Remember, there are no bad ideas, only ideas whose solution hasn’t come.


Adopt an Opposite Rule

A great, counterintuitive hack for breaking a rule is to create a new opposite rule and follow it. This is not as absurd as it appears. The opposite rule to “You must pay taxes” is “The government must pay you.” To comply with this new rule, find a way to get the government to give you money. Many have successfully used this strategy to avoid being net tax contributors. In some countries more than a third of the potential workforce has done this.

This strategy is not limited to Byzantine rules and convolut- ed bureaucracies. Physicist Richard Feynman won his Nobel Prize when he and others asked, “What would happen if just the opposite were true?” It turned out that their new counterintuitive rule made much better sense of the universe.

Businesses once adhered religiously to the idea that economies of scale were the key to competitive success. Factories, airplanes, and organizations grew bigger and bigger to improve efficiencies. Then some discovered that the opposite rule also worked. Smaller fac- tories, airplanes, and organizations nimbly exploited opportunities that bigger competitors could not touch.

Adopting the opposite rule even works on the law of gravity. Balloonists use gravity’s pull to thrust themselves into the sky. Gravity pulls surrounding air down, pushing the less-dense bal- loon up.

Nature has validated the opposite-rule strategy in many ways. Cowbirds use an opposite-rule strategy in raising their young. The normal rule for raising birds is that the parents must provide for the babies. Cowbirds have changed the rule to “abandon the baby to raise it.” Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nest of another bird. The cowbird chick pushes its foster siblings out of the nest and is raised by its unwitting and hardworking foster parents.

I used an opposite rule to get my kids ready for bed. It used to take me an hour every night to get them in bed. I decided to adopt the opposite rule: kids can take as long as they want to get ready for bed. Then, to make my opposite rule a solution, I made them start

preparing for bed an hour or more early. They could resume play- ing as soon as they were ready for bed, but not before. The faster they were ready for bed, the more time they had to play. They soon learned to take less than a minute to complete everything.

Formulate a rule that is exactly opposite to the rule you are breaking. Then follow that rule.


And of course, record your idea as the seed of a real solution.


Special Cases

A popular way to break rules and a useful rule-breaking hack is to create a special exclusionary case. Those that qualify, and they do by design, get to break the rule. Special cases are regularly used to avoid paying taxes. It has been quite legal to exempt oneself from taxes by claiming nonprofit status.

The special-case strategy is not confined to legalistic problems. Astronauts seem exempt from the law of gravity while in orbit. Gravity is still there and still pulling, but the astronaut has arranged his trajectory so that gravity can be ignored.

Einstein worked out his special theory of relativity long before his general theory of relativity. By granting himself simple circumstances in his calculations, he was able to find an initial solution. With those new insights, Einstein then solved the more general problem.

Create special circumstances that allow you to break your rule. Exempt yourself from those messy details that make your problem hard to solve. If your problem is ending traffic congestion around a major urban center, then simplify the problem by ignoring private cars. Eliminate the congestion for mass transit passengers. If you could solve this problem efficiently, the bigger problem may take care of itself.


Record your special circumstances as seeds of real solutions.



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