A few years ago I changed the way I taught my kids rules. I started teaching them how to break rules. It’s wonderful, refreshing, and feels a bit subversive.
From an early age, I had been taught to follow the rules. We live in a world full of rules. And that’s probably good for when a person is starting out. Everyone needs to develop their own internal operations manual for life, and following the rules is a good starting point.
The problem is, there are too many rules. I learned this as a nuclear submarine officer in the Navy. The Navy has lots of rules, being a big bureaucratic organization, and not having fought in a war for many decades. It’s also important to not break the nuclear power plant.
But as a junior officer, I was trained to learn the theory, all the standard operations, and then everything else about the submarine, so I could choose which rules to break!
See, we trained often. We trained for big, deadly problems. Fire, flooding, close aboard explosion, nuclear contamination. There were processes and procedures and manuals for how to combat all types of problems. We were good at responding to them, and knew exactly what to do. But that was for a single problem.
For multiple problem situations, the rules were in conflict with each other. And that’s where the captain wanted us to break the rules. For example, normally if the reactor was scrammed — a rapid shutdown by the control rods dropping in their holes-the engine room should be shut down and no more steam drawn out. The nuclear reactor operating procedures were very clear on how to maintain reactor safety.
But if there was a close aboard explosion that shut down the reactor, started flooding the boat, and we started going deeper underwater, we should do whatever necessary to get to the surface and not die. If that meant delivering tens of thousand of shaft horsepower to the screw while sucking the last bit of steam out of the steam generators and rapidly cooling down the reactor and breaking it, that’s ok.
It’s better to be on the surface with a broken nuclear reactor than at the bottom of the ocean, dead, but having followed the reactor operations manual to the letter. It’s obvious that’s the right answer when you can discuss it calmly. But unless you’ve thought about it ahead of time, you may not know what to do when it actually happens.
We all agreed it would be much better to have to explain our actions at a court martial, than to not have the ability to tell our story to anyone ever again.
I’ve boiled this down to a saying that I teach my kids:
Know the rules, the reasons for the rules, the chance of getting caught if you break them, the consequences of getting caught, and if you can deal with the consequences.
So I have an answer I can use for them when I roll a stop sign. It also lets me teach them to think more for themselves.
There’s a second element to the conflict of rules submarine example, and it’s a little trickier. The breaking of the rules in a multiple casualty situation was not written down anywhere that I could find, even in the many classified documents comprising the reactor operations manual. There were rumors that submarine captain training had a whole different set of books, but I wouldn’t know about that.
These were unwritten rules, passed down from officer to officer. They came from organizational history and experience, and embodied the results oriented real world operations done daily for decades in the submarine force.
Unwritten rules are hard to defend under the scrutiny of people not involved in the situation. Imagine a headline in the newspaper, “Navy submarine Captain teaches crew to violate nuclear safety procedures!” The complexity of the potential life or death situation would be lost in the simplified headline.
So some of the most useful guidelines and rules on how to act and think about different situations get passed down verbally. That’s why I talk through these things with my kids, and I tell them:
When you are part of a group, learn the unwritten rules for how to succeed. Ask experienced people for advice, and listen. You have to have the ability to recognize the right answer when told.
Unfortunately, there is the danger that unwritten rules can teach the wrong thing as well, and since they are unwritten, they are not open to scrutiny by others outside the group. Questioning and critical thinking are necessary before putting those into one’s internal operations manual.
Furthermore, I explain to them there are different sets of rules, and they have to know the priority when they conflict. It has to do with their loyalty.
I want them to be loyal to themselves first. They’re children, and I don’t want anyone to use rules to take advantage of or abuse them. So I teach them to think for themselves first. Next comes our family, then everyone else. This is what I tell them to do when different rules conflict:
Your own personal rules come first, family rules next, then community, state, and country. After that comes group rules for companies and organizations.
This is a complex and fast changing world. I want my children to have every possible chance to succeed in life. A big part of my responsibility is to help them develop their own internal life operations manual. Teaching them how to learn rules and how to decide which ones to follow are important.
But even more importantly, to get what they want, I teach them how and why to break the rules.
I write articles on business, technology, and life, and have a different perspective than many…
Was a nuclear trained officer in the Navy on a submarine based out of Pearl Harbor from 90–94, after graduating from Annapolis. Started an IT business in 2002, grew it to $52 million in sales, and sold it in 2015. My wife and I have 3 girls who are competitive gymnasts, and a son who plays soccer.