Saturday, March 19, 2016

Questioning Rules

"What advice would you give your sixteen-year-old self?"

I saw that headline somewhere, and it got me thinking. At sixteen, I was a rule follower. I got good grades, because I did what teachers asked me to do. I assumed if I continued down the path the experts had laid out, all would be well.

It took me a long time to discover this:

The ten commandments were brought down from the mountain on a stone tablet; all other rules were made by people, and people are fallible.

Now don't get me wrong. Rules and tradition are important. The only way to make progress in society is to build on the experience of those who came before us. It's a sign of wisdom to listen to those who have been down the path and can give us the pitfalls and highlights. But nobody knows everything, and if they say they do, they're lying.

In college, I continued to follow the rules. If my instructor assigned reading, I read. If the TA rambled incoherently in the 8:30 lecture, I was there, trying not to nod off. It worked. I was an honor student. But when I was a senior, I wanted to take BASIC programming as an elective. (Yes, I'm that old). Only trouble was, a certain low-level math class was a prerequisite and my major hadn't required that class because my math SATs were above a certain level. So, I called the instructor and explained. At first, he refused, but finally asked about my SAT score. He said he hadn't realized I was one of their gifted students, and he'd be happy to relax the rules and let me take the class. Gifted. Who knew?

But for a gifted student, I was a slow learner. As a newly minted college graduate, I pulled out the want ads and started my job search. Hmm, two years experience in sales. Nope. Only that summer job in the ice cream shop. Types forty words a minutes. Maybe on a good day. Assistant needed for insurance agent. What do I know about insurance? 

It wasn't until later that I discovered most of the people who filled those jobs had no experience either. They learned on the job. And  sometimes a bright, eager beginner can pass up an experienced plodder in a matter of months. I finally got a job I liked in a Savings & Loan, where I received another lesson about rules. I discovered that, although someone who cashed in a CD early had to pay a penalty, if that person went upstairs and complained to the president, their penalty got waived. Rules are only rules until they aren't.

All my life, I've been an avid reader. I'd even made up stories and scenes in my head to pass time and entertain myself. But it wasn't until my forties that it occurred to me I might write stories, too. I assumed the rules meant writers had college degrees in fine arts, or were teenage prodigies, or had done something extraordinary like climbed Mt. Everest. But it turns out all it takes is time, a love of language, and the willingness to learn. Not that there's any guarantee of publication or making a living at writing, but that's all it takes to be a writer. To write.

I still believe in rules. I obey the speed limit. I only deduct legitimate expenses from my taxes. I don't cut in lines. But I've learned that sometimes rules are flexible. That the people who make those rules don't have all the answers. It's good to learn from the experience of others, but it's important to weigh their advice. 

Life is like a jigsaw puzzle in a blank box. It takes a long time to fit all the pieces together before you get a glimpse of the picture, and nobody ever completely finishes the puzzle. We're all works in progress. And that's good. I mean, if you know it all, why stick around? 

But that also means that  the people who make the rules may not have the whole picture. When someone assures us the puzzle is all about dogs, or architecture,  maybe it's because they've only put together those pieces of the puzzle. 

Old Book Store Puzzle

Maybe we'll have to talk to a lot of people to discover the picture is actually a bookstore. Or maybe we'll have to figure that out for ourselves.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Katy. Of course the scary part is realizing even the people in charge don't have all the answers. And that's life.