You've got to cheat a little
In the documentary Crumb, there is a scene where Robert Crumb, the legendary
comic book author, is with his son, who is making a drawing from an old photo of
a woman held in a penitentiary.
Crumb tells his son that he’s missing the defiant look from the photo, and that he needs to learn to exaggerate features a bit, to cheat a bit, in order to capture the spirit of his subjects.
Ever since I saw Crumb, in my early twenties, this scene has remained for me the crystalization of an idea: following rules is often not enough. Even if those “rules” are well intended, and even if it’s not rules you’re following, but advice, or conventional wisdom, or tradition; there is no guarantee that you’ll get the result you wanted.
Yet, unquestioning adherence to rules is everywhere, often coupled with disappointment. You can see it in the frustration of people who have gone through long years of university training, only to find that they are less satisfied with their career than others with less education. Or in the anguish of people who strive to be a “nice guy”, and yet see someone less worthy (in their view) “get the girl”. Or in the pain of strictly observing religious people who see some heathen be happier or better loved.
In the workplace, this takes a specific form: the belief that your job is to do as you’re told.
There is another movie scene that has stayed with me, this one from Wall
Street. Charlie Sheen’s character, the ambitious Bud Fox, has started working
for Michael Douglas’s iconic Gordon Gekko.
After a promising start, Gekko is unimpressed with Bud. Bud confronts Gekko. He’s ready to give it his all, what more does he want? Gekko responds that up to now, all of Bud’s success has come from information handed to him. He wants Bud to go out and get his own information, to surprise him. The movie follows Bud as he does just that, and it ends badly, but the advice is fundamentally good.
Those rules, those pieces of conventional wisdom, even the ones with a real foundation of success, cannot cover all cases and all motivations.
It is a bit ironic that people feel, or want to feel, unique, and yet think that following someone else’s footsteps will lead them to their unique and special goals.