The Sharpened Quill

Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin Kelly
Tarrytown, NY, USA
December 31
non-fiction author/speaker/consultant
Bio Author "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail" (Portfolio, April 2011), deemed "an excellent memoir" by Entertainment Weekly. Out in paperback July 31, 2012. I also edit other writers' work -- everything from thrillers to business books. Email me for hourly rates; references available.

Caitlin Kelly's Links

OCTOBER 7, 2011 9:15AM

Break Some Rules Already!

Rate: 5 Flag

If there's a phrase that sets my teeth on edge, it's this one:

"But I played by the rules."

This week the world, literally, mourned the untimely death of someone who broke just about any rule he encountered, Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Here's an Apple video that beautifully sums it up, with images of iconoclasts from Callas to Ford to Gandhi to Picasso, all powerful reminders that rules are made to be broken.

If Steve Jobs had "played by the rules" I wouldn't be writing this on a Mac desktop or check my email on an Iphone or Iouch.

We need -- now more than ever -- determined and ferocious cage-rattlers like him. Like, say, the protestors spreading in cities across the country fed up with the popular lie that if you just do what you're told, everything will work out just fine.

Did you create those rules? Did you have a say in creating them? Did you think they were smart or useful or truly fit your life?

I do not mean: breaking the law, behaving unethically or immorally, cheating or lying.

I do mean: figure it out for yourself, question authority, ask why, investigate, challenge.

My worldview, like everyone's, is a direct outgrowth of the family in which I was raised. Only my brothers and I attended university.

My parents, who did not, (my Dad eventually finished his degree in his 70s),  never "held a job" or eagerly, patiently and politely awaited the standard rewards of a pension, paid vacation or job-linked benefits. Instead, all of us work for ourselves, invent businesses, hire agents to represent our interests and attorneys to review their work.

My father, still alive at 82, was an award-winning film-maker, a director of television and documentaries and feature films. My mother was a journalist and my step-mother wrote for television.

We had steak years and hamburger years.
We never counted on things remaining the same.

I grew up learning to save and to invest, in my own skills as much as in any faith -- if any -- in "the system."

This notion that "playing by the rules" will win you the game is utter madness.

It works beautifully to keep entire populations hopeful, polite, eager to accept whatever terrible working conditions and wages are offered.

A friend's husband, a man in his late 30s, recently applied for a retail job. He was offered $9 an hour. We live in New York -- it would have cost him $8 in tolls simply to drive from his home to his new job.

Which is why thousands of fed-up, worn-out Americans are now occupying Wall Street and other locations; here's a link to several writers there on the ground.

Because too many of today's American "rules" work only to further the obscene gains of the already wealthy, not for millions of the rest of us.

These are rules that, we all know now, are deeply and consistently enriching a small, narrow slice of the population. The wealthy do not need to buy their 6th or 7th home on the fruits of our cheap, benefits-free, employed-at-will labors.

If you really hate being screwed by the rules, stop following them with such unquestioning, docile obedience. The "game" is only possible when people keep showing up to play as usual...

Teach yourself and your kids how to acquire and use and sell effectively, freelance when necessary, a wide range of skills, whether how to fix a toilet, soothe an elder or speak Mandarin. Don't keep buying into the costly and misleading notion that we have to pay others a ton of dough to teach us stuff. To acquire "credentials" that -- funny thing -- now seem to have no market value at all.

If you don't want to keep getting screwed by the system, you've got to change your MO.

I love this recent, helpful and inspiring blog post by a woman who lives in rural England about turning desperation into inspiration.

The only rules I know that have really helped me?

Hustle. Every single day. (Read Seth Godin's blog.)

Moderate your material demands to live (safely) with the lowest possible overhead, which gives you the creative freedom to try new (ad)ventures without the fear of losing your home or nutrition. Teach your family to do likewise; drive an old car, or none at all.

Create and nurture networks of people who love, trust and respect your value(s) and skills.

Work with the best and smartest people who will return your calls and emails.

Give 150 percent effort when necessary and 75 percent when possible. (Many of your competitors are offering 50 percent, believing it to be more.)

Save money -- to keep your "f--k-you fund" topped up, so if you find yourself in an untenable situation related to your income stream, you can afford to leave and seek something better. It might well mean working for yourself instead. 

Save a ton of money, (and invest it wisely), even if your income goes up.

Eschew debt.

Break some damn rules!

Make your own!

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
thinking is work - learned helplessness is real - look to jobs parents for the question he answered -
Good point. The challenge is to learn to be your own person inside a larger culture that so demeans those efforts!
It works beautifully to keep entire populations hopeful, polite, eager to accept whatever terrible working conditions and wages are offered.

I've thought that for a long time . . . the system is basically geared to keep almost everything just barely out of reach . . . but close enough that we keep "striving."

What if...we didn't? If people just said "eff you and your shitty wages"?! But, no, economic desperation is such a...motivator.

They certainly do say that when it comes to agricultural labor as farmers have to keep importing workers from Mexico. NO one American born is willing or able to work as field hands.
much more than half of america does not have the education, opportunity, intelligence or character to follow your rules.
Al, what is to be done then? Intelligence ans character are self-chosen and developed. Education is paid for by our taxes. Vote for them -- or not. Opportunity...isn't this THE American myth?
Well this made me think so much and want to say a LOT. I agree with a lot of it, but you are too facile in tryng to apply your methods universally.

I do believe that is some way shape or form, people who really do make it have been given some sort of opportunity or advantage and/or good fortune along the way.

Great parents provide the primary opportunity to succeed in life. A person is lucky to be born (or adopted) to two good parents and starts life with better opportunities and a huge advantage because of it. That is my case and it sounds like yours was too.

Native intelliegence was a key opportunity/advantage I was given. As were you. ( Thanks Again,Mom and Dad)

I always remember that not everyone starts like with the opportunities / advantages that we got.
Thread drift. We are all at choice. No matter where you begin, you can still -- if you have the physical and mental capacity to do so -- make smart(er) and brave(r) and bolder choices than many ever do.

Even those blessed with opportunity squander it then wonder why they are so miserable. The rules are not working for them, yet they keep following them blindly.