Breaking rules

December 5, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

How do we rationalize Follow the rules and stay out of trouble vs. Rules are made to be broken? Can both be true?

Indeed, both can be true and often are at the same time. We follow the rules that keep us safe and respectful of others but break the ones unhelpful, antiquated, flawed, or not worth following. As soon as they’re broken change and forward motion occur.

I’ve spent most of my life being a rule-breaker while many of the people I know and respect wouldn’t consider following that path. Both approaches to life work, they’re just individual choices.

My rule breaking habits are fairly consistent: I won’t trespass on someone else’s property but I will not stop at an empty red light in the middle of the desert either. One set of rules sets personal boundaries I find easy to respect, the other is mindless rigor I cannot follow.

In the same vein, I rarely question or disobey the rules of physics, but routinely advertise that electrical engineering rules are meant to be questioned and broken. The one tends to get me in trouble, the other leads to discovery.

If you’re out in the wild the only rules to follow are those that keep you from harm. Those imposed by society are best left in the parks and managed spaces.

When it comes to design I find it ever so valuable to know the rules so that I can relish in their breaking.

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15 comments on “Breaking rules”

  1. Rules have superordinated goals. A safety standard often requires a minimum safety level. It is not forbidden to increase the level of safety by breaking the standard. An other example are threshold values for pollution. In many cases standards are intended to create non tariff barriers and often they can block innovations and progress. What is the superordinated goal of a red light? 🙂 The biggest problem with rules and regulations is that bureaucrats sometimes forget the superordinated goals and the regulations develop an dynamic contrary to the originally intended goals. Parkinson Syndrome !

  2. Amen to this!

    It seems the more someone breaks rules that would limit him, the more successful he is.
    The only downside is, that (extended from pure engineering to more common business habits) this can also lead into (still successful) megalomania, lingering a lot of the time near abyss (Elon Musk might be an example)…

    …or it can lead into transferring this strategy into social behavior (each one can put in his favorite politician as an example), which mostly also leads to great temporary success, not rarely at he cost of morals.

  3. The rule “What sounds better to me is better for me.” is a simple rule that seems to be hard to follow. People do their best to throw all kinds of grenades your direction to distract you from that one simple goal.

    1. Very true – that could be a subject of multiple Posts. Wait – I guess it has been ; )

      Seriously though, part of why that’s hard, IMO: It is easy to get caught up in trying to determine what a possible “weak link” in your system is; looking into what might be the best way of improving that; the Theory behind a certain device or change that might fix that….. All in advance of the actual experience of the thing.

      * Please – not intending to start an Expectation Bias discussion! : )

  4. This is an argument based on a false premise. the word “rule” derives from meaning regulation or convention generally as might be applied to the orderly conduct of society. Rules are essentially man-made and often have a good purpose, like making hifi units around 440mm wide, so they can be stored conveniently. In this regard PSA sticks fairly rigidly to the rules of unit sizes, even though many components contain mostly air and could be a lot smaller.

    That said, I would hope hifi is constrained by the laws of physics.

  5. In Aerospace we have “Guide Lines”, not “Rules”. In any complex and rapidly changing engineering field there are too many exceptions to any hard rule. Guide lines on the other hand provide a safe and often overly conservative path for design decisions.

    Engineers are free to deviate from guide lines, but to do so requires a good understanding of basis for the guide line. To often however engineers see the shortest path to success is rigidly adhering to guide lines. The results being boring and generic designs.

  6. Breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules is anarchy and often leads to disaster. The difference between a designer and an engineer is that while a designer can look up formulas in a handbook or on line and apply them the engineer is supposed to be taught and learn how the formulas were arrived at, what assumptions were made, what their limitations are and where they don’t apply. In short the designer’s knowledge is superficial while the engineer’s knowledge is supposed to be profound. Accidental inventions where people luckily stumble onto something new that works aside without exactly knowing why which does happen, people who successfully break the rules to innovate in any field first learn what the rules are and understand them. There would have been no Beethoven if there hadn’t been a Bach first. There wouldn’t have been an Einstein if there hadn’t been a Newton first. So the laws are understood, their flaws or limitations are understood, and innovation can come when the rules are broken with purpose.

    In my own inventions and theories I start with a problem that the rules, or at least some of them don’t lead to a solution to a problem. Rather than rules sometimes they are really nothing more than flawed conventional wisdom. The question that arises first is why don’t the rules work. Where is the flaw? Did I use the rules incorrectly? What assumption did I make that didn’t apply when the rules were created. If I conclude that the rule is flawed I must invent a better one following rules that can’t be broken, mathematics.

    The process of rule breaking or rule changing is something many people do all their lives. Think of building codes, fire codes, electrical codes. In the United States experts from all over industry, academia, and other places are parts of specialized panels or committees that work for the insurance industry. They look at accidents that occurred when the rules were followed and they happened anyway. They look for the flaw in the rule that allowed the accident to happen and then they break the rule by amending the code to create a new rule that will preclude the accident from happening again when the new rules are followed. The rules are reissued every three years and are intended to create the safest possible use of knowledge to minimize insurance company payouts in our most litigious society in the world. In the ISO 9000 process a mechanism must exist to amend the proscribed procedures when a process is found to be flawed. So go ahead and break the rules but know why it’s a good idea to to do it, what your new rule is, and then you might be a successful innovator and invent something new and better.

    When you break the rules without understanding them because you think you have a better idea that doesn’t follow the rules you might just get lucky. But this can also happen. A lot of structural engineers broke the rules on this one. Six dead, others wounded, a 19 million dollar project totally failed, other damages incurred, and all because engineers who were supposed to understand the rules profoundly broke them thinking they were great innovators. Clearly they didn’t understand the rules as well as they thought they did. Suggestion, if you know someone who wants to pursue an education in civil engineering, don’t choose FIU as a place to study it. Find another school.

  7. You have hit it on the head. Rules are only useful as long as they make sense. The newest or antiquated ones that do not make sense should be given the boot sooner the better. This approach keeps one from going stale. Keep it up. Regards.

  8. When the first pilot broke the speed of sound he needed quickly to learn not to follow the rules of how to navigate a plane. I believe, up became down, etc. Rules are only good for the domain they have been “fairly designed” to operate in. America has the Second Amendment because a small group of wise men knew that rules are not always to be followed.

  9. I broke the rules, and the law for 25 years. I can say that as the statute of limitations is long past. Now those laws are being changed in more forward thinking states.
    On the running of stop lights, I would stop. If the light didn’t change in a very reasonable amount of time, I would than go. The reason I would stop is because it is becoming more common for states to use cameras. I would be concerned that it the modern version of the “speed trap”.

    There are people and companies that I trust will do what is right. There are others that without rules, regulations, and laws that impose penalties strong enough to act as a deterrent would put employees and the public at great risk.
    When I was a kid, we had a river about four blocks from my house. On one side there was grass, areas to have picnics, and a pond with benches, to watch the ducks. On our side it was woods with rough trails. About halfway between two roads that had bridges were the stepping stones. Before my time a barricade had been put up, to keep cars out. They had used the river to wash cars. The water was dirty, sometimes it even had a smell. It was just one of many places we played, so one day when we got there the stepping stones were gone and signs were posted to stay out of the river. Businesses farther up the river had been dumping waste and chemicals in to the river. Because they put a stop to the dumping, now you can see the bottom of the river. Without those rules, most of those companies would not have spent the money to properly dispose of their waste and chemicals.
    I am quite sure they knew the damage they were doing, as I am sure the smell would have been much stronger at the source. When it comes to regulations pertaining to the environment, I am all for them.
    Laws though need to be regularly examined, both to remove outdated ones, and to add new ones that weren’t necessary or involve things that we now know are wrong, some so wrong that in more innocent times we never thought anyone would commit them.

  10. There are conventions, rules, regulations, laws — and moral beliefs and integrity. Those distinctions help this kind of discussion.

    I’m with Jeffstar: Paul, don’t complain if a car w/o lights or patrol cop (or camera) you don’t see nails you and you end up in jail, hospital or morgue (though in at least the first two cases you can be happy you’re white). Successful rule (or law) breaking require some level of thought and intelligence, not just a rule-breaking personality.

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