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NPW Self Curious: Rebel with a cause

Published: 4 October 2018

Quick quiz: You’re in the Quiet Coach on the train and someone is on the phone.
Do you:
A) Give a quick eye-roll and move on. Orange is the New Black isn’t going to watch itself.
B) Spend the duration of that call brooding about how you would go and tell the lucky caller exactly what you think of their laissez-faire attitude to Quiet Coach etiquette.
C) Rip the phone from out of their hand, thrown it out into the vestibule end and ask the train manager to make an announcement to make sure nobody else has possibly misunderstood the concept of a coach free from interruptions.
D) Remember that you said you’d call your friend about your arrangements for Friday night so get on the phone yourself.

This exact thing happened to me the other day. I’d had a few micro-annoyances already (see previous Self Curious about zen travel) and I was B) teetering towards C). On a good day I’m A): I pop in my earbuds, adjust my Spotify volume to a considerate level, and crack on. But this day was not one of those days.

This was a Friday afternoon train up the East Coast. Every seat was reserved. And the rules did their job. Amidst this apoplectic buzz of northerners and Scots escaping London (and Londoners excited to visit the best end of the country, naturally!) there was a haven. A coach where people respectfully were keeping their noise to a minimum, most of the time. What a thing! Having a bit of work to get done, I felt very grateful to have the choice to sit in a space where people were committing to keeping things on the down low.

So this person makes their phone call. Totally brazen. Did I lose concentration on the work I was doing? No. Was I woken from a cheeky doze? Nope. Were they discussing something inappropriate? Not as far as I noticed. Did I have a relatively quiet journey in the Quiet Coach, even though this RULE BREAKER broke the rules for ten minutes? Yes I certainly did.

(Wee side note: if you are thinking at this point “you need to chill out”, you are likely someone who is quite happy bending rules. Please go forth, find a rule-keeper and mentor them in your ways of rogue action.)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about whether it is possible to make maximum positive progress if you find it difficult to break rules. I am a compulsive rule-keeper and truth teller, but on that train I could see that it hadn’t really mattered that someone had broken the sacred rule of the quiet coach – it hadn’t been a perfect team performance from all my travelling comrades, but our journey was more peaceful that it would have been down near the drinks trolley.

If you can’t sidestep a rule that doesn’t make sense, and feel duty-bound to follow every letter of cumbersome and often hierarchical procedure, you just don’t get things done. Besides that – and this is the biggie – constantly being in thrall to other people’s processes can seriously dent your self-worth and confidence in your own ability to make sound decisions.

Learning to balance risks and take decisions is one of life’s great journeys. We do it at work, sure, but we do it when we try limited edition craft beer and we do it when we choose to lean in to vulnerability in our romantic relationships. It matters. We try, we get it sort of right or totally wrong, and the next time we choose differently.

All businesses need processes – they mean that we can trust that everyone has the same rights and regular things get done efficiently. If I want to take time off to go on holiday, I have to check with colleagues first, so that nobody gets stranded with a stack of jobs to do. The same goes for everyone else in the team. Otherwise, it’s not fair. Process means parity.

But what when a rule is stupid and in the way? I feel a rule-bellion brewing…

So, from Captain Sensible to all me hearties on the HMS Straight and Narrow, here’s my list of rules for rule-bellion:

Rules for rule-bellion
1. Rebel with a cause. Only bend rules for net gain. If you’re going to get a worse or the same result just let it go. If you are tempted to go and rebel anyway, you’re probably acting from frustration that isn’t going to be satisfied in the long term by breaking a rule, so go a little deeper and work out why you’re really worked up.
2. Equal rebel rights for all. You’re not the only one allowed to bend the rules. Show solidarity and support to others in their rule-bellions.
3. Only spend what you got. Don’t cost others money, time or energy without permission. You’re breaking the rule, not them.
4. Know your end goal. It’s rarely about one thing. Bending a rule once might be a quick win. However, if you really care about making the world a better place, have a plan for how you’ll use the evidence of your riotously successful pilot to get that rule blown off the book for good.
5. Prepared to be noticed. Rule-bellion is awesome, so expect people to notice and to want an explanation. Don’t fear this part! It’s designed to make you feel like you’ve made a mistake. If you’re certain that you’re following rule 1 and have thought about rule 4, you will be absolutely fine, even if you usually dress the same as the wallpaper so as not to draw attention to yourself. Have courage, my friends.

Claire Eadington geeks out on workflow management, performance and wellbeing. Claire’s TEDx talk about barriers to performance for exceptional women kicked off the 2017 TEDxWhitehallWomen event in London.


Claire writes a weekly blog, Self Curious, on NPW’s website.
Read more blogs here.



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