Sharing, musing, reflecting...

The Rule about Rules



Rules are an interesting phenomenon.  I’ve been pondering the nature of rules recently. My own and other people’s.
Whats the use of rules? When are they helpful and when do they just get in the way?

We live with all kinds of rules. Societal rules, moral rules, recreational rules, communication rules, parenting rules. The list is endless.

People have a ton of rules that they operate by – many of which are not visible to us. But if I asked you to think of certain ways of behaving that you  deem unacceptable, inside of the answer, you would discover some rules or principles that you live by.

We have rules about relationships, work, education, family etc etc. Many are learnt and gifted to us by well meaning parents and other authority figures.

Organisations have customer service rules and several other work related protocols. They are designed to help people to do their jobs more effectively. Often, they are used as a method of control. Rather than generating effectiveness, they constrain and limit what’s possible.

It’s interesting to see how rules can generate and foster creativity or they can stifle it. Rules can open minds or close them.

They often serve to reduce ambiguity and guide us through complexity. And for many, rules serve to provide a sense of certainty. They tell is what is so, how to behave, what is acceptable and so on.
We human beings have a tendency to want certainty and familiarity.

There are certain areas of life where rules are critical. Let’s take a card game as an example. Card games (and most other recreational games)  are reliant on rules to create a context within which the game can be played. Without rules, we can’t play the game.


Schools have rules. Imagine the chaos if there were no rules, no structure, no boundaries. Parenting experts often talk about the importance of boundaries and consistency to help children flourish. In this context, consistency and familiarity are crucial to their wellbeing.

Comedy is also an interesting playground for rules. For example, jokes have a structure. There’s an implicit rule when it comes to designing a good joke. It requires a set up and a punch line.

Music is another example of where structure and spontainaity meet. I love going to ‘jam’ nights at different venues. Musicians turn up with their instruments and they play together. It’s typically unrehearsed which is why it’s called a ‘jam’.  So, what makes it possible for people to make great music on the fly?  What I’ve come to appreciate about music is that it follows certain rules. Most popular music has 4 beats to a bar. Blues which is particularly common for ‘jamming’ has the infamous 12 bar blues structure. It’s this form or structure that allows the musicians to experiment and play with the music. In this context, structure enables spontanaiity.

At the same time, there are many compositions that musically violate certain ‘rules’ and yet they are still deemed to be masterpieces. Tchaikovsky and Beethoven were both known to break the ‘rules’ of composition in their own ways.








In the realm of creativity rules also play an important role.  It would seem on the surface that they would stifle creativity.  Surely structure conflicts with freedom and spontainaity? However the opposite is often true. Starting with some basic assumptions or rules can encourage people to freely express and explore.

A river flows freely because it is held within certain boundaries that we call river banks. Rather than constrain the natural flow, it encourages flow, allowing fish to flourish and boats to sail.

Rules and structure should exist to support us, to enable creativity, flexibility and progress. Otherwise, we should surely question ‘the rules’.

It’s also important to recognise that we each may have innocently trapped ourselves by certain rules or structures. Insecurity often breeds unnecessary rules. And when we notice these self made traps, we then have the choice to question, challenge and where appropriate, ignore or change the rules of the game, so we can play better and enjoy it more.



Chantal Burns ScreenshotChantal Burns

Executive Coach, Speaker and Bestselling Author of

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