Nine Ways to Break All the Rules!

Recently by James Altucher: I Woke Up Scared and Angry Today

“You can’t do that,” my parents told me. I had just gotten back from my 9 to 5 job. I was 17 and still a senior in high school. I had gotten a job as a telemarketer selling newspaper subscriptions. I had beaten out two African-American women who had a ton of experience for the job. Nobody asked me my age (17, senior in high school), qualifications (none), resume (what’s that), social security number (huh?), or how I would do this job while attending high school (I hadn’t thought ahead that far). Looking back on it there must’ve been some racism involved in me getting that job.

I skipped school that day by hiding in the backyard until I heard the garage door open and shut twice. A standard technique I had been using since I was 12 (I hope my 12-year-old is not reading this). Then the public bus would either go to NYC or Princeton and my direction would be determined depending on what flavor of trouble I was getting into that year. (The year I was in a cult I would head to NYC. But most other times it was Princeton for pizza, video games, X-rated movies, and comic books).

Apparently that was the day the school decided to track me down. It was my 30th absence. That’s the legal limit in New Jersey. So my parents were frantic. “You can’t do that,” they said to me when I got home. I’m not good at listening but I went to school the next day and never returned to my job or returned the boss’s phone calls. I was horrible at cold calling and sold zero subscriptions on my first day at the job anyway.

The Philosophy of Andy... Andy Warhol Best Price: $2.05 Buy New $5.69 (as of 10:20 EDT - Details)

“You can’t do that,” one of the VPs of Marketing at a major media company I worked at told me. I had just told her I had a company on the side and was hiring myself to do the job for the major company I worked for. “And you can’t just walk into the office of the CEO and tell him what to do.” But I have a hearing problem in my right ear where I can’t hear the letter “T” very well when it’s used in a contraction. Maybe I need a hearing device. She was beautiful but I still only listened to her with my right ear.

She was right. I couldn’t do that. So I quit my job to run my other company full-time. Then sold it. Then switched careers 9 other times since then. Some of those careers crushed the soul out of me, where you consistently google all the methods of suicide, where everyone that previously had your back now stabs your back.

The VP and I recently became Facebook friends. I see now, 15 years later, that she got a promotion. Good for her. She deserved it.

“You can’t do that,” the policeman told me. I didn’t want to leave my house. I was lying down pretending to be asleep but both policemen were in my room. They stood there. “Wake up,” one of them said. They ended up forcing me to go downstairs with them and sit in the back of their car. The back of a police car is small and uncomfortable. My knees were up against the back of their seat. I ended up staying the night in a motel. Sometimes when you disobey the rules, the consequences are unpleasant. But even then, five hours later, wakening in a room filled with cheap, blue colors, a post nuclear fake blue sky with irradiated flowers painted into the wall, all I could think of was not what I had done wrong but, “this is a new life.” New new new.

Breakfast of Champions... Kurt Vonnegut Best Price: $1.61 Buy New $6.00 (as of 10:40 EDT - Details)

We are told from an early age to be “obedient”. There’s a lot of actors involved in that word. There’s “me” – “the obedient one”. Then there’s parents, teachers, siblings, bosses, wife, children, friends, employees, partners, investors, clients, customers, neighbors, citizens, the police, the law. We have to be obedient to all of them. Or else there are consequences. We get punished. Or people hate us. Or people get angry and want to argue. Or people think you’re crazy.

I feel like my chest is constricting even as I type this. So many people won’t speak to me anymore. So many people think I’ve broken some rule I didn’t even know about. And sometimes I screw up. A lot of times I screw up. I can think back to a thousand people I’ve disappointed. But I’m scared to death of slowly dying throughout life. Of living a life of complacency until death. The only way to not be handcuffed and jailed by all the rules set by the people around you is to fight for the disobedience that will set you free. Mediocrity follows the rules. Unfortunately, both success and failure disobey them.

Some examples:

  • When Google started there were already 20 search engines in the process of going bankrupt. I even rejected investing in a search engine company (see, “The worst VC decision I ever made”) because I was obediently thinking, “the whole search engine thing is a done deal”. I was being too obedient. Google was disobedient. They won. I lost my home.
  • Listen to a band like U2 or the Beatles or any band that withstands the test of time. Can you think of any bands that came before them that sounded like them? I’m not a music expert. But sometimes I can’t even figure out what instruments these groups are playing. They have their own styles unique to them. Although influenced by the past, in some important way they were disobedient towards their musical past and came up with something utterly new and astonishing. Einstein in Love: A Sc... Dennis Overbye Best Price: $2.00 Buy New $4.19 (as of 09:45 EDT - Details)
  • Kurt Vonnegut is a very disobedient writer. Sometimes he completely steps away from the story and characters and enters the book as the omniscient author. I never saw that done before. In the middle of a novel he might say, “ok, I’m the author so now I’m going to make these two characters which sprung straight out of my head meet each other in this imaginary bar.” (See his book, Breakfast of Champions as an example).
  • Andy Warhol is classic disobedience. He would take brand names and completely abuse them and then use his “factory” to mass produce his art. Disobedient to the art world and the commercial world (where he got his start) in every way.
  • Albert Einstein. You can’t get more disobedient than Einstein. He’s almost a fractal of disobedience. Meaning, no matter how closely you examine his life, no matter how minute you take apart his history, those moments you look at will be examples of disobedience. For instance, he renounced his citizenship to Germany in 1895. Then he opposed the war in 1914 despite the fact that almost all his physicist friends supported Germany (!) in the war. Politically, scientifically, and even in his romantic relationships (see the excellent biography, Einstein in Love) Einstein blazed his own path, often against the straight path followed by colleagues, family, and the governments which desperately wanted him for their own insidious purposes (Germany, America, Switzerland, Israel were all eager for their own political purposes. But Einstein was a nation of one).
  • Buddha, Jesus, Abraham, and so on, were all disobedient to their family, teachers, and peers. All three of them had to leave and fight the standards of proper behavior in their own communities. Buddha abandoned his father’s wishes that he be king, abandoned his wife and just-born son. Jesus went against the wishes of the ruling class of Jews at the time and Abraham left Ur and his father in order to follow his own religious path. (See my post, “Was Buddha a Bad Father”)

Disobedience has consequences, most of them not good. You have to fight for your life. You’ll end up a nomad. You have to fight the critics. You’re going to cry. People are going to abandon you. I just found out two people formerly very close to me are no longer speaking to me.

You have to fight the people who will laugh at your attempts. Thomas Edison had to try 1000 times before he figured out the lightbulb. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel was rejected by over 20 publishers. People hated it. Hated her. Her friends laughed at her attempts as a middle-aged single mom to become an author. Now she’s a zillionaire. Who’s laughing now?

Don’t you want to be like one of the people above? Or any of the other countless examples I can give? (please give more examples in the comments).

How To Be Disobedient: