My son is seven and three quarters years old. Having reached second grade, he is having a nice time defining himself in the little society of the public school system. He likes being the creative one who invents the games that his classmates play at recess. Defines himself as a good reader, a respectful class clown, and the guy who always gets his homework done.
Last week, when finishing up a writing assignment on the kitchen table, he asked for my help and I could tell he was frustrated.
“Dad, I just finished this big story and I thought I was done. But it says I have to write the whole thing out in my notebook now.”
I looked at the sheet where he had meticulously written out his story about a journey to the center of the Earth. At the top were the instructions: “Write a story in your notebook about travel.” Then the whole page below was filled with blank lines, implying that you were supposed to write the story right here on that worksheet, which is what he had done. The instructions were conflicting.
“Ahh”, I told him. “It looks like the instructions were not clear. But since you already wrote your story on this worksheet, you can just hand the page in instead of the notebook. Or if you want to get really fancy, we can cut out the story and glue it into your book!”
This suggestion seemed to bring him great unease. The instructions were telling him to write his story in the notebook, and he had clearly written his on the paper instead. He was in violation of The Rules, and this was scaring him.
I suddenly realized I had some teaching to do. It was time to share a deeper explanation of what The Rules really are, and I thought you might want to join in for the session as well. Because if you look around carefully, you will see that most of the problems of our society are based upon an incorrect understanding of these rules.
Let’s dig into the Money Mustache Mailbox for a recent example. When I first announced that I had bought a new 1950s house and was planning to renovate it, a complainypants comment came in with the juicy content:
“Wow“, I thought, “Is this person completely unfamiliar with the principles of this blog?” I went through the usual cycle of one raised eyebrow, two raised eyebrows, a clenched fist, a finger poised over the “delete” button, and then at last I calmed down and saved the text to share with you instead. For while the complainy can’t-do-attitude of this comment is inappropriate for my comments section, the underlying assumptions about rules are worth studying:
“You can’t get a structural engineer to sign off on renovating an older-than-50 house” – Here our friend has assumed that there is a rule that old houses can never be restored. The idea is silly, of course, because people renovate much older houses in the same neighborhood every day. In fact, a friend and I just finished a major addition on a 103-year-old one earlier this year. But if I had started the project with an imaginary fear of such a rule, I would be dead in the water. And at this point I can report that the structural design is just about done and will be “signed off” this week.
“Transaction Fees make house moving too expensive to be worthwhile” – the imagined rule here is that house transactions are always very expensive, so we should shy away from them to avoid this cost. But I have done eleven of these transactions since moving to this country, and some of them were done for only the $50 county recording fee. To tilt the scale further, my wife deliberately earned a real estate license seven years ago to cut the cost of most other transactions in half. Again, the imagined rule proves false and we are all free to move to a new house whenever we like.
“A small and simple house is not desirable” – Hmm, I wonder which society dreamed up this rule? First of all, a 1532 square foot soon-to-be-luxury home on an 80 x 80 foot lot adjoining a 1.3 acre public park overlooking the Rocky Mountains in the walkable central district of one of the most desirable cities in the world’s richest country is probably good enough for plain old Mr. Money Mustache. But if there is anyone who thinks that even a quarter of this standard of living is a key to happiness, you might want to check to see if your brain tissue is sparkly and white, because you have received a near-fatal dose of brainwashing, derived from a book of rules that helps nobody.
But I can’t win this battle with just a list of single-issue defenses. To cure the disease of Rules Excusitis, you need to elevate yourself to the next level and understand exactly what The Rules are. And a nice way to illustrate this is to turn to one of my favorite concepts from Dungeons and Dragons:
In D&D, your imaginary characters come with personalities defined along two different scales:
- How Good or Evil they are, and
- How much respect they have for The Rules
So you end up with descriptions like Chaotic Evil, Chaotic Good, Lawful Evil, and Lawful Good. If we put these into a colorful table with some insightful examples, it would look like this:
At this point, you may see the connection between The Rules, and becoming wealthy. I propose that the biggest advantage you can give to yourself and your society is to be as high on the Good Scale as you can be, but pay less regard to your score on the Lawful Scale.
Now, before the police officers among you pack up some handcuffs and begin a stakeout of Longmont, let’s explain that with a few examples.
- US society has literally adopted the phrase “standard of living” to be synonymous with “amount of money you spend on yourself”. If you follow this rule, you permanently lock yourself into needing more money to feel happy, which dooms most of us to 20-40 more years of office work than we really needed to achieve it.
- Far too recently, laws existed that made it illegal for African Americans and women to vote. But not long before that, it was legal to own human slaves. Somewhere in there, beer and wine became illegal for 13 years. We had philosophy, steam power, advanced astronomy and physics at the time, and yet these were the rules a lawful person would have to follow. Knowing this, is it logical to assume that our current laws on Marijuana plants, the rights of people who are not heterosexual, or what level of the natural environment we share it is acceptable to destroy are automatically correct? Of course not. In some cases, Goodness requires you to fuck the idea of Lawfulness and do what is right, working to change the laws in the process.
- Religions impose their own laws, which were often designed with the most noble of intentions but now cause bizarre and impractical side effects. A historical famine or disease made it sensible to ration certain crops or meats at the time, yet the rules were set in stone and are followed blindly to this day. Political alliances or wars generated hate between people, and now their descendants continue to bomb each other’s vegetable markets even centuries after the original sins were buried. Some leaders were opposed to gay people a thousand years ago, and now their descendants still work to write the discrimination into their country’s constitution. Although these may be The Rules today, a quick questioning of their origins should reveal that there is great advantage to all if you are bold enough to break them.
And to collect all of this badass rule-breaking philosophy and apply it to making yourself richer today, just look around you and try stirring up some of your own shit. A few examples to get you started:
- The Christmas Holidays are coming, and the crap has already arrived in the stores. You’ve been questioning whether you have to participate in the giant blizzard of plastic packaging and trinkets imported from China. You do not. You can go an entire holiday season without buying anything, and apply the spirit to sharing your skills and wealth with others who need it instead.
- You’re getting married, and your family thinks you need the giant ceremony with the flower designer, the experience consultant, and the limousines. The amazing news is that you do not! You can get married for ten bucks at the county office and then bring 100 friends, some slacklines, fiddles, banjos, boxed wine and a stand-up bass down to the local park and make everyone shed tears of joy when they realize how much fun they are having.
- You feel oppressed by the rules of your own city, family, or country. The cost of living is too high or the laws are restrictive, and you cannot achieve what you see the Mustachians here around you are doing because you are bound by different rules. You are not. You can move to a different city or country. You can earn a leadership position in your own family, or your own country. You can work within your own system, or move to any other system, to get whatever advantages you like. With sufficient disregard for The Rules, you will find new avenues of freedom opening in your life wherever you live.
- Everyone has told you that your kid will only prosper in the expensive school district where nobody speaks Spanish and the horseback lessons 20 miles out in the country are essential to round out the character to qualify for the eventual Ivy League school. Such well-meaning but tragic bullshit! Little MM’s officially-measured reading level is just about to hit the high-school level, and he can beat me at chess. And he shares a classroom with kids who don’t get enough for breakfast. He gets his advantage from parents who keep books instead of televisions in the house, and who sacrificed Mercedes SUVs and private schools in favor of having time to bike to school with him and help both him and his not-quite-as-lucky friends in the classroom when they get there.
- Junior Money Mustache will have the grades and the financial resources to get into the university of his choice, but also knowledge that there is no requirement to get a college education at all, for either a happy life or for financial success. For this old rule of society is another one to disregard.
I describe these happy examples not as an attempt to boast or to criticize others, but hopefully as an inspiring example of what happens when you question and break the goddamned rules.
So I hope that as my son grows up, he will cultivate his own healthy skepticism for The Rules, and call bullshit whenever something smells foul. Because as it turns out, the people who have the balls to question the rules, find that they are suddenly in the position of making them instead.
* This is just me poking a little fun at Mrs. MM. In reality she is a truly badass woman who proudly defies most social conventions, and I love her for it. She can also bench press almost her bodyweight and squat 150% of it. But occasionally we debate on the issue of taking long and educational family vacations because The Rules say that you shouldn’t miss too much school. When interviewed in person, the teacher and principal admitted they thought travel was a great idea for our son and they would gladly bend the rules for us. Yet another example of how to approach things: if you don’t like the rules, talk to, or become, the boss.