(Okay, stick with me here. This is going to require some concentration.)
There’s “the rules” and then, there’s “The Rules”
“The rules” – with a lowercase “r” - are those written stipulations that govern the way something is to be done. Board games have rules. Sports have rules. Companies have rules. You’ll find them in the employee handbook. They are the corporate guidelines for professional conduct such as dress code, calling in sick, and the private use of email on company computers. Don’t be fooled. The employee handbook may call them “guidelines” but that’s just semantics the Human Resource Department uses in hopes of garnering the goodwill of new employees. Try violating a few of those “guidelines” a time or two and you’ll quickly discover they’re really rules, not recommendations.
There are rules for filing your taxes, driving an automobile, playing Poker, owning a firearm, and how to behave at the symphony. There are all sorts of rules for just about everything.
Some rules are clearly posted for everybody to see. You’ll usually find them on signs like “No Parking”, “No Smoking,” or “Emergency Exit Only.” The posted speed limit is a rule. Fast-food restaurants announce their rules right there on the front door to make sure every customer understands “No Shoes, No Service.”
Other rules are “just understood” as part of the social landscape. The rules of etiquette often fall into this category. For instance, while there aren’t any written rules about talking to others in an elevator, people generally honor the space and privacy of those with whom they share the ride. Nobody ever said you can’t wear a bikini to the mall, but most women wouldn’t. Most people understand you shouldn’t take a phone call while watching a movie in the theater. (I said, most people. There’s always “that guy.”)
That’s rules with a lowercase “r”.
Then there are “The Rules” with a capital “R.”
“The Rules” are those larger, non-negotiable principles at work in our universe completely independent of restrictions declared on some sign. “The Rules” include things like gravity, time, discipline, kindness, honesty, compassion, self-initiative, endurance, and teamwork - just to name a few. These governing principles have a profound influence on the way life works whether they are written down in some book or not. You’ll never see them posted on a sign.
Take gravity for instance. Gravity falls into the category of “The Rules.” It is a universal principle at work in the world regardless of how you feel about it. With some ingenuity you may be able to briefly suspend its effects, but you will eventually run out of enough momentum, fuel, or force to override the clutches of earth’s gravitational grip. Gravity will always bring you back down to earth. It’s non-negotiable. It’s just best if you plan on it.
Like gravity, there are a few other principles at work in our world that have enormous implications on the way life works. They are more moral than cosmic, but every bit as influential. For those who recognize and honor these Rules, the game of life tends to work out in their favor more often.
Wise People Play by The Rules
Knowing The Rules for the way life generally works is part of what it means to be wise. In other words, wise people understand The Rules and people who honor The Rules are wise. These people accept that certain principles apply to life regardless of how they might feel about them. Even when others may ignore or disregard The Rules, wise people submit to them with both humility and confidence.
Wisdom is taking what is true and applying it appropriately to various situations of life. That is very different from intelligence. Intelligence takes certain facts and figures, information and knowledge and correctly plugs them into particular applications. Wisdom, on the other hand, grasps truth and applies it with more universal discernment. But here’s the rub: just because you are intelligent doesn’t mean you are wise. Sadly, there are plenty of really intelligent people out there whose life is full of drama because they’re not particularly wise.
There are times in life when the rules – lowercase “r” – collide with The Rules – capital “R.” When this happens, the larger, more universal principles at work in our world – The Rules – generally win. While the rulebook may level the playing field between two entities, the one who plays by The Rules almost always comes out on top.
For instance, two athletic teams can compete in the exact same sport on the exact same field in the exact same league under the exact same rules. The contest is officiated by referees who ensure both teams play by “the rules.” In the event that a player or team should violate one of more of “the rules,” the referee identifies the foul and imposes the appropriate penalty as defined by “the rules.”
And yet, with two teams playing the exact same sport by the exact same rules, one team can completely dominate the other.
How is that possible?
Well, it’s not because they’re playing by different rules.
The reason one team dominates another team is that it plays more by “The Rules.”
· They may be the better team because they are stronger or more skilled than their opponent due to diligent preparation. Preparation is one of The Rules.
· They may work together better, harnessing the power of cooperation and synergy. Teamwork is one of The Rules.
· They are more disciplined about the fundamentals of their sport than their opponent. Discipline is one of The Rules.
· They have a greater understanding of the game and a more thorough strategy for their game plan. Planning is one of The Rules.
· The winner has more hustle or a stubborn refusal to give up even when the odds of winning look pretty slim. Tenacity is one of The Rules.
I doubt you’ll find any specific stipulations governing Preparation, Teamwork, Discipline, Planning, or Tenacity in the rulebook. However, a wise coach recognizes the larger principles at work in his world and trains his team in them. This gives his team an advantage over their competition…every time. Even when both teams play by the exact same rules.
Principles like discipline, determination, and diligence are some of “The Rules” that give one person an advantage over another even when all of “the rules” are being followed. This explains why some people excel more than others.
Five of Life’s Most Important Rules
Here are five of The Rules I have observed that make an enormous difference in how we experience life. There are several more, of course.
Wise people understand the importance of discipline.
Discipline is honoring the essential exercises or practices required to develop the proficiency you need to excel. From athletes to accountants, from authors to astronauts, the best ones understand the importance of consistently sharpening the skills they need to thrive in their pursuits.
Whether they feel like it or not, they get up each day determined to do the hard work of getting better at what they do. In spite of inclement weather, nagging injuries, fragile resolve, challenging obstacles or even relentless criticism, wise people hone their skills every day because they know that’s what’s required to perform at a higher level. Athletes practice the fundamental movements of their sport for what seems like the millionth time. Accountants stay late reading tedious compendiums of the current tax codes while less disciplined peers head home. Writers sit at their desk and write even when words seem to fail them. Anything. Something. Just write for the sheer discipline of crafting words to communicate ideas. In these moments, it’s more about practicing than it is about publishing.
Discipline often sounds like “Practice. Practice. Practice.”
Discipline is the work of self-leadership and personal initiative. Somebody else can motivate you to do what you need to do to improve, but they can’t do it forever. Somewhere along the line, you’re going to have to adopt the disciplines it takes to achieve your ambitions as your own responsibility.
Disciplined people succeed more often than their undisciplined peers.
“The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
- Gary Player
Rule #2: Goals
Wise people understand the importance of goals.
A life lived without goals, rarely achieves anything of importance. Goals provide the definition that keeps us focused on the prize. They push us beyond what we think is possible; beyond what we feel is capable.
Wise people understand that left to their own assessment of progress, without a clearly defined goal they will accept their excuses for failure. Without goals, we are prone to rationalize our desire for comfort, convenience, pleasure and ease. We simply do not push ourselves outside of our comfort zone without a compelling goal in front of us. Inside our comfort zone we typically get lazy, ungrateful, critical, and bored.
In the end, it’s not really about meeting or exceeding your goal as much as it is tenaciously striving toward it. Whether you reach your goal or not, you will always get a whole lot more done or make greater progress with a goal than without one.
Having a goal often separates successful people from the rest of the field.
“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.”
- Bruce Lee
Rule #3: Plans
Wise people understand the importance of a plan.
You can have the most inspiring goals in the world, but without a realistic plan for how to accomplish them, all you have are wishes and wants. Wise people take the time to think through the strategies, logistics, details, and resources they’ll need to execute the numerous steps required to achieve their goals.
Alan Lakein said it best. “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
There is nothing about having a plan or being a planner that inherently means one has to obsess over details. However, to completely ignore some forethought to what you hope to accomplish usually results in failure. Wise people increase their likelihood of success because they take the time to put together a plan while foolish people attempt important projects by winging it and hoping for the best. Sometimes that works, but not very often.
People who plan often find themselves spending more time enjoying their success than fixing what they failed to anticipate.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Rule #4: Time Management
Wise people understand the importance of managing time.
The most purposeful and productive people you’ll ever meet live with a grateful awareness of time as a precious commodity. They recognize time is a limited resource and every passing hour is one less they will have to accomplish their goals, enjoy what revitalizes their spirit, or share with those they love.
Wise people understand they really don’t have all the time in the world. In knowing they are not guaranteed tomorrow, they make the most of every moment they are granted as a precious treasure.
The discipline of wise time management is not about always being in a hurry or never having a moment to relax. Don’t be fooled. Some of busiest people you meet are often the worst time managers in the world. Wise time managers understand and enjoy the place rest and relaxation has in a healthy life. Wise people make time to rest and seize it for all it’s worth.
Good stewards of time always seem to accomplish more than those who procrastinate, dally, or always talk about “someday.” Time management is simply math. Allocating the appropriate number of hours necessary to accomplish each of your ambitions over the course of a week, a month, and a year always adds up to greater success.
Wise people recognize that they can’t stop time, but they can make it work for them.
“Time management is life management.”
- Robin Sharma
Rule #5: Character
Wise people understand the importance of character.
Oh sure, there are plenty of people who get away with all kind of things that look like success and prosperity through illegal and immoral means. Inevitably, something or somebody pays the price for it. Sometimes, it’s a severed conscience that robs them of the vitality that comes from a peaceful spirit. Always looking over your shoulder, covering your tracks, and sleeping with one eye open is exhausting to one’s soul. It takes a terrible toll even while you live in the lap of luxury.
Truth, justice, and integrity eventually prevail as more noble and sustainable ideals. While your character may not necessarily change the entire world, it can create an inner world that inevitably inspires those in your circle of influence. Like the ripples from a pebble tossed into a lake, this influence ends up touching enormous numbers of people beyond those you know personally. In this way, our world becomes a better place in each corner your influence is felt.
“Character is the real foundation of all worthwhile success.”
- John Hayes Hammond
There are a few other important Rules that space does not permit me to explore here. Teamwork, Accountability, Endurance, Compassion, Tenacity, and Kindness – to name a few - are all integral forces to how life works best for those who would honor their practice. Those who honor The Rules seem to find favor wherever they go in whatever they do.
If you hope to live a life that rewards you with peace, joy, and the satisfying returns of fulfillment, you must learn The Rules at work in your world. To ignore them invites trouble, disappointment, and regret. The Rules will not be mocked.
I’d love to write an article about how to change your life without having to do anything different. But that’s like writing an article about how to lose weight without changing a single thing in your diet, how to sculpt muscles without doing a single exercise, or how to make a million dollars without working a day in your life. Life just doesn’t work that way.
There are certain Rules governing the way life works and ignoring them usually results in failure, or at least, frustration. We may not like the Rules. They may be inconvenient and stifling. Your maverick spirit may bristle at the thought of outside forces telling you what to do. You may wish it were easier and more convenient to get what you want.
Wishes and wants are a dime a dozen. Everybody has them. However, the ones who are honoring the larger principles at work in our world - as restrictive as they may be - seem to find themselves on the winning side of things a lot more often than those who don’t.
It might not be fair, but them’s The Rules.