Why You Must Master the Rules Before Breaking Them

“To break the rules, you must first master them.”

I’m currently in Las Vegas attending at tradeshow for work, and I saw an advertisement (pictured below) with this trademarked quote. At first, I just thought it was kind of cool. Then I thought about it a little more, and it stuck with me enough that I’m actually changing my article today from my previously planned topic.


Some of the greatest writers, speakers, artists, and business people were recognized rule breakers. People like Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Claude Monet, Earnest Hemmingway and many others bucked tradition and the establishment to ultimately become masters of their craft. But their choice to break the rules didn’t happen nonchalantly. Each had a deep understanding of the way things should be done before choosing to break the rules in their own ways. But why is mastering the rules so important? Because shortcuts don’t pay off when trying to be great at something.

Too often today we see novices trying to shortcut to mastery by making their own rules up about how to accomplish something. Before I go further, let me spit out one caveat: lightning strikes, luck happens, genius exists. However, for the vast majority of people, none of those occur and they just end up failing what they were trying to do.

I see this a lot in the training industry when it comes to adult education. There are some well-known and scientifically proven principles about how adults learn, what keeps them engaged, and best practices in how to structure their training. Yet I often see or hear about novice Instructional Designers or Subject Matter Experts departing from these principles to try and create something new, fun, flashy, or “different”. What their learners are often left with is wasted time and failed training.

One of the biggest places this is visible is in gamification. For those that don’t know, gamification is a word mash of games and education. It’s essentially the attempt to make learning fun by turning it into a game targeted at adults. But as anyone in the gaming industry will tell you, there are a lot of rules around how to make a successful game that keeps the player interested, engaged, and challenged at just the right level. Not only does a gamification designer need to know that rule set, but they also need to know and understand adult learning principles. Know only one or the other, and Super Mario’s cart is going off the track to crash and burn.

When someone lacks a mastery of the rules for any given situation, they also lack the wisdom and understanding to know what rules can be broken, and when. One illustration of this would be the use of capitalization and punctuation in marketing ads. Looking around me at the ads in view, I see many that don’t capitalize or punctuate correctly. They are an English teacher’s nightmare. But they are also brilliant marketing. The copywriter knew the rules, and chose to break them in a specific way to convey the marketing message. Well done. The writer is applauded for their work rather than failed out of English class because they know what rules to break, and the proper way to do so.

Know the rules. Master them. Have a deep understanding of them. Then, based on your knowledge, choose when to break them. Just please, don’t skip the first part and move to the rule breaking. Many wasted training hours can be recovered with this single change.


This entry was posted in Gamification, Learning Theory, Quotes, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

Have a thought?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.