If you think that breaking free of the system, disregarding the rules, and thinking outside the box will fix everything, you join a celebrated crowd — 90% of whom are completely wrong. In real life, rules really weren't made to be broken, and there are significant benefits to those who follow them.

A Useful Narrative Versus a Useful Reality

Imagine this movie: A top organization takes in a number of new recruits. Most of them are by-the-rules types who have trained for years to become part of the organization. There's also the one charming rebel, who finagled his way in and who doesn't do things by the book. The rebel thinks outside the box, solving tests by "hacking" them rather than using them to test skill, and frequently going "off mission" to explore different angles of the situation. Although he lacks formal training, he brings his own experiences and his own innovation to the organization.


The rebel fails, totally and completely. During his exit interview, the Powers That Be patiently explain that all those other recruits came from a certain background for a reason. When it comes to success, training matters. The tests that the group were given weren't meant to be hacked, they were meant to measure important qualities which the candidates needed to succeed in their position. And all the strict rules that were imposed on the group were there to maximize the group's chances at success, not undermine them.

The last third of the movie would be the rebel sadly packing up and going home, which is why this kind of situation never gets made into a movie. The single person who defies both the odds and the system makes for a great narrative. The person who finds that their passion and innovation isn't enough makes for only two-thirds of a depressing story.

Rule-Breakers, Teamwork, and Survivorship Bias

The narrative of one person defying the prevailing viewpoint and leading the way to a better world isn't just used because it's a pretty story. It emphasizes and encourages good qualities like critical thinking, creativity, and personal integrity. Consider Galileo, trumpeting the truth about heliocentrism, Columbus bravely sailing away towards what everyone thought was the edge of the flat world, and Darwin going public with a theory that defied creationism.


That's one way to look at it. Most people reading this will know that almost no one in Columbus' time actually believed that the world was flat. The story was made up entirely to fit the exactly this narrative. Galileo did suffer for putting forward a belief that defied the ideas set out by the powerful, but he wasn't the first to do it. Nicolaus Copernicus presented the theory well before Galileo was born, and his version was met with the approval of many, including those within the religious establishment. As for Charles Darwin, evolution was also a well-established idea by the time he was born. Two naturalists, Edward Blyth and Alfred Russel Wallace, even touched on the concepts of natural selection before On the Origin of Species was published.

This is not meant to criticize the work, the intelligence, or the bravery of people who have developed and promoted important ideas. It's meant to demonstrate an alternative to a popular narrative of their discoveries. These stories are often held up as one person defying the hegemony of the establishment, but they could also be framed as the gradual ascendance of a new establishment. Members of a community cooperated, shared evidence, and built up cultural capital. Instead of one person triumphing over "the system," these scientific breakthroughs could be viewed as two systems competing to see which proved the most useful.


And it's important to remember that, at the time, there probably weren't just two systems. Most scientists, when they get a couple of drinks in them, will report getting emails from people with theories on how to create cold fusion, cure all known diseases, or illuminate how the universe began. Museums are inundated with notices people who are sure they've found evidence of an ancient civilization in their back yard. This is not a new phenomenon. The one thing that every genius has in common with every quack is the confidence that they have an idea that will change everything.

What separates the quack and the genius is that we still remember the geniuses three centuries later. It's called survivorship bias, and it's seen across all disciplines. For every popular singer who "just believed" in him or herself, there are at least a hundred whose belief didn't boost them into stardom. For every professional athlete who "ignored the haters," there are at least a hundred who really should have listened to the haters. And for every instance in which someone had a crazy idea that shook up the establishment, confounded the experts, and made the world a better place, there are many someones who just had a crazy idea. We only take notice when the crazy idea is right and the experts are wrong.

Rule-Breaking the Right Way

No system can get better without change, and no system embraces change. These things are true. Sometimes in order to change a system, people have to break the rules. So how do we distinguish between necessary change and mindless, egotistical rebellion?


In general, people advocating for necessary change are taking the hardest, most boring, and least-profitable option. Civil disobedience ends with nonviolent people in jail, not people taking a bat to a window and running away. Scientific innovation involves long, detail-oriented studies, not a web page full of things to buy. And anyone who really wants change welcomes a crowded stage.

This is one of the most important markers of someone who actually believes in their idea. If you're sure that you're right, you don't want to be a rebel. You want collaborators - and if they're smarter and more popular than you, then all the better. You want a system - the more widely taught, the better. You want to establish a new order - one which gives more consideration to everyone and everything in it, not less. It's the paradox of rebellion. The real rule-breakers strive to create a system where no one has to break the rules.