Everything Society Taught You About How To Live Was Wrong

If you’ve never broken the rules, now would be a good time

Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

You really thought you had it, didn’t you? You truly believed that, this time, you were making progress. Finally.

After years and years, you began to understand. How online dating works. How to advance your career with your laptop. How much you can get for how little. Great experiences. Cool things. Trips that make you richer. Products that make the world better. Finally, everything was starting to click.

And then, in an instant, it all fell apart. You went back to zero. Back to bewilderment jail. “If you pass go, do not collect $200.” Actually, that’s not true. You collected $1,200. You might even collect another. But what does it matter if you’ve lost your job, if your husband is sick, if your restaurant had to close? The money can’t make the anger go away.

That’s what you are. Angry. Deep down, you resist. It should not have been this way. This was not what you signed up for. You had a plan. You had ideas. You’ve invested thousands of hours of blood, sweat, and tears. And now, all those hours have been invalidated.

Everything you thought you knew about life was wrong. You feel remorse. You wish the rules would still apply. You regret learning them. You regret falling in line and getting all your ducks in a row. What did you do it for? What’s the point if it all went to shit anyway?

One event changed everything. Absolutely everything. It’s like someone ripped the curtain from its rail, and you were still sleeping. You’re blinking. You can’t see. It’s too bright. What is this? What is this light? Why is it so aggressive? No, mom, not today. Let me just go back to sleep.

The light is aggressive because sometimes, aggression is the only language humans understand. If the light wasn’t blinding, it wouldn’t force us to open our eyes. If we want to take it in, we must take in everything. No more blinders. No more curtains. Even if, at first, the light will make you angry.

You’re angry because yes, life is actually fragile. 16 million cases. 600,000 dead. How many in your country? How many in your town? Someone you know? A friend of a friend? Fuck. Death really gets everyone, huh? Fuck. What a scary reminder. You didn’t ask for it. And that makes you angry.

You’re angry because, despite how many times other people have told you, you didn’t really believe that “there are no guarantees.” You were gonna be the exception. The one person whose five-year plan would work out. Randomness wouldn’t apply to you. Except it did. And now, you’re angry.

You’re angry because the walls are fake. Not just the one down in California. All of them. All these little in-groups and out-groups we use to comfort ourselves and pretend everything is fine and normal in our neighborhood — they don’t exist. Black? White? Rich? Poor? Freelancer? Employee? Tattoo enthusiast? Activist? Golf club member? Car nut? Mother? Daughter? Father? Orphan? Everyone is wearing a mask now. Everyone only has one label left: Human. One label. One species. One planet. The walls have come down, and that makes you uncomfortable. You can’t hide behind them anymore. But the very safety they offered is also what kept us apart. Both of these things make you angry.

You’re angry because your boss lied to you. Your boss said remote won’t work for your company. They said you should focus. Pick one thing, get really good at it. Accounting, maybe. Your boss said you need a degree before they can hire you. It’ll provide you with everything you need. Your boss said freelancing is risky. Where will the money come from? But your boss didn’t show you their cash balance. They didn’t tell you they had to solve that same problem. Your boss said you should work hard, fund your pension, buy a nice suit if you get a raise, and don’t ask too many questions. Except now, all that has gone to shit — including your boss. Your boss is out on the street because your boss didn’t do anything. Your boss just told people what they needed and had to and should. Just like you, your boss is hoping for another $1,200 check. But they still lied to you, and that’s why you’re angry.

You’re angry because you’re way more productive from home, and you wish you’d have tried it years ago. You would have been a freelancer all along. Fuck buying another suit. You could have cereal with your kid while typing an email. Wait. Everything works without meetings? Oh wow, it does. It really all works without meetings. At the very least, it works even if you’re snoozing while Zoom is on mute. So I guess it works without meetings. No one is watching anyone anymore. And yet, everything gets done. It’s weird, isn’t it? You give people autonomy and they use it responsibly. Who knew. Your boss can’t believe it. Then again, your boss isn’t your boss anymore. Maybe, even that makes you a little angry.

You’re angry because your textbooks from college don’t have anything useful to tell you. You didn’t understand it at the time, but you were sure they’d come in handy someday. Well, someday came and went, and your textbooks are still useless. Your textbooks never held the key to great work. Not even good work. Your textbooks were overpriced from day one, and now, the ship that carries them is sinking. Academia is like the Titanic: Rusty. The shipwreck looks magnificent, but it’s still a shipwreck. It’s full of holes. So many icebergs in academia. Why don’t they teach what the kids need to know? You wish they had taught you what you needed to know. Does that make you angry?

You’re angry because your government won’t protect you. In fact, it seems like the government cares quite little. What does your government do right now? Bail out airlines? Tear-gas protesting moms? Promote Goya beans? Today, your government makes JFK’s words look embarrassing: “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said. “Ask what you can do for your country.” Back then, JFK brought some credibility to those words. If anyone else said them today, you’d laugh them out of the room — because your government keeps demanding but shits the bed when you really need it. Where has your government been through all of this? How well did they react? Some did better, some did worse. But there are no As here. Nowhere. Not in China, not in Sweden, not in Germany, and definitely not in the US. No As for handling 2020. That’s a good reason to be angry.

You’re angry because your healthcare is failing you. It’s been failing you every day for the last 20 years, but now, it’s falling apart at the seams. Every month, you’re overpaying while it’s underperforming, all of which you’d accept if only, right now, they’d have enough staff, enough masks, enough ventilators. But they don’t — after five months they still don’t — and that makes you angry. Maybe save that second $1,200 for a medical emergency.

You’re angry because everyone said, “Just give it time.” It all takes time until it doesn’t. The universe snaps, and the world flips upside down. Where’s the spare time to build your freelance career on the side? Where are the low-stakes, random bar encounters to find yourself a partner? Where are the relief mechanisms? Where’s the cinema and the pool and the weekend trip to Spain? Just like your plans for all of these, the roads towards them have disappeared overnight. No more clear signs. Not even paths. All wiped away, like footprints in a sandstorm — and that makes you angry.

You’re angry because the world told you how to live, and you trusted that if you followed the rules, kept quiet, and just jumped through the hoops presented to you every day, eventually, one day, you’d get what you deserve. You trusted them. You trusted all of them. The politicians. The in-groups. The news. Your boss. Your teachers. Your elders. Your peers. You trusted them, and they let you down. The lines you were supposed to color in never existed, and you, like them, have fallen for the same, false, collective ideas about what life is, about when you’re supposed to get what — about how to live. You’re so right to be angry.

You’re angry because, after five months of all this shit, you’ve finally realized: It’s not coming back. Nothing is coming back. There is no return to normal. Not even a new normal. Just a new different. This really is all we’re going to get. This is our world now. This pile of broken glass is all we have. Oh, you’re so angry at all of it. Good.

Good, because that anger will be the best thing that ever happened to you. Your anger is the chance of a lifetime. It’s the catalyst. The spark that will ignite this gasoline-doused pile of wood called your potential. Don’t let go of the anger. You’ll need it. You’ll need it if, this time, you really want to mean it. Want it to mean something. To make a difference. To let this be day one of true change.

You know who was angry? Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi, symbol of peace, beacon of compassion. “Bapu”, they called him. Father. Gandhi did not let his anger go to waste, nor did he throw it in his enemy’s face. Gandhi turned anger into change. Gandhi did not believe in the caste system. He did not want an India in which some people were deemed “untouchable.” So he protested. He went on a hunger strike, which helped improve their rights. Two years after his death, untouchability was abolished. Gandhi did not believe in paying tax on an essential, abundant good to a ruler he hadn’t chosen. He defied the British tax law on Indian salt by marching 400 km and picking up no more than a few grains from the sea. Thousands followed his example and set in motion the movement that would give India its independence from the British empire 17 years later. Everything Gandhi did, he did it without violence. And yet, much of it was fueled by anger. It’s okay to feel anger. It’s better to use it for good. Make anger the engine of change. When Gandhi died, a million people joined his funeral procession. Another million watched as they walked by. In 1913, he wrote: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. We need not wait to see what others do.” Anger is an agent of change. What will you do with your anger?

The first thing you should do with your anger is realize it’s a gift and accept it as such. Not superficially. Sincerely. Make some time to accept the gift of anger. If you don’t accept your anger, you can’t use it for good. It’ll mutate and grow and destroy everything around you. Remember what happened to Anakin? Don’t become Anakin. You must accept your anger.

Once you’ve accepted your anger, use it to see the world clearly — maybe for the first time. See everything as it truly is. Yourself. Others. Society. The lines connecting everything. Anger is a lens, a lens that bundles rays of light. Those rays become a laser, and it burns away everything that is fake. The ads. The news. The games of status and power and perception. That’s what this is. That’s what “The Great Pause” is for. It’s The Truman Show, and you’ve finally hit the dome. You found an exit door, a phone cell to get out of the Matrix, and now, you must look at it from the outside. Look at everything. Take it in. Don’t waste this moment. Don’t waste the clarity of the lens.

If you look through that lens for a while, one of the first things you’ll see is something that, at first, seems to make everything worse. You’ll see that, my god, you really are alone. “Life is a single-player game,” Naval says. It’s true. You’re born alone, and you’ll die alone. In between the two, you must learn to love yourself, lose yourself, find yourself, and do all of that over and over again forever. Right now, the great recess is something we all experience — and yet, we all experience it alone. All of your life’s most important moments, you’ll experience alone. The pain from your near-fatal car accident, you’ll suffer alone. The dopamine high of winning the marathon, you’ll enjoy alone. Everything you experience while being with other people, you still experience alone. Butterflies in your stomach. A first kiss. A passionate night. You’ll see, hear, and feel all of this through the only perspective you have: your own. Your entire life is happening inside your head — it happens to, from, and for you alone. And yet, this aloneness is not something to be feared. It is something to be cherished. Aloneness is the soil on which we grow change.

When you start from the assumption that you’re alone, that no one is coming to save you and that everything is your responsibility, you’ll also start from the realization that you’re free. Finally. Freedom. That’s what it is. Terrifying yet liberating freedom. Freedom from gatekeepers. Freedom from teachers. Freedom from disappointment, victimhood, and impatience. Most of all, it’s freedom from expectations. To paraphrase Naval again: No longer will you expect your doctor to make you healthy. No longer will you expect your teacher to make you smart. No longer will you expect your trainer to get you into shape, your mentor to fill your bank account, or your apps to calm you down. No one will have to come and save you because finally, for the first time, you’ll truly understand that you must save yourself. You can do it. Only you. It has to be you. You’re the one who must look outside and inside, who must understand and process and accept everything, who must venture into the depths of their soul and grab every thread, every spark, every little bit of life that is in it and bring it to the surface. You. No one but you.

Deciding to save yourself means severing the connections that kept you coloring inside the lines. It’s taking a knife and cutting every thread in the web of rope that has become your parachute stuck in a tree. The parachute saved you from falling, but it also kept your feet from the ground. You have to fall to get back on the ground. Once you’re there, however, you’ll be able to move without strings. Those strings grow around all of us. They’re not malicious. They come in the form of good people, reasonable requests, and well-thought-out policies. But they’re still strings. They’ll still tie you up.

Living without strings means living without rules. Not breaking them. Not ignoring them. It is a refusal to accept that the rules even exist. Not in an I-can-get-away-with-anything kind of sense. Living without rules is not living without morals, but it is coloring outside the lines, on the front of the book, and across the entire goddamn wall.

Living without rules means living without a speed limit. Not on the highway or in the drug department but pretty much everywhere else. When Derek Sivers went to Berklee, a studio owner taught him five semesters of harmony in five three-hour sessions. He graduated in two-and-a-half years instead of four. “Ever since our five lessons, I’ve had no speed limit,” he says. There’s always a way to achieve a goal ten times quicker, make technology three times faster, connect the right minds in half the time — but you can’t find it when you’re busy looking for the next speed limit sign. Don’t wait for society to tell you when you’re supposed to get what. Don’t listen. Make up your own, obnoxious timelines. Be unreasonable. Be preposterous. Go at maximum velocity, and then let life unfold in front of your eyes. You’ll never know what you’ll find, but it won’t be on any road that’s been paved for thousand of years. You’ll blaze your own path, and if it leads nowhere, you’ll just teleport to the next palace in the sky. Don’t have a speed limit, and don’t let anyone to dictate how fast you can go.

Living without rules means shaping life as much as life shapes you — if not more. This is the dent in the universe Steve Jobs kept talking about: “The minute you understand that you can poke life, that if you push in, something will pop out on the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it — once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” This is not just a profound, new way of looking at the world, it is also how everything you know came to be in the first place. Or, in Steve’s words: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.” Don’t let others poke life while you’re tossed around by whatever happens to pop out. You do the poking. You be the architect. Design things. Make stuff. Don’t live in the world — invent it.

Living without rules means understanding that, without our rule-driven, regress-to-average, don’t-ask-too-many-questions society as a background, genius wouldn’t be half as interesting. Genius would just be normal, as it was always meant to be. Every human is creative. Every human can innovate. Every human is born to think, to explore, and to play. Tim Urban wrote a great article about this, using Elon Musk as an example: “We spent this whole time trying to figure out the mysterious workings of the mind of a madman genius only to realize that Musk’s secret sauce is that he’s the only one being normal. In isolation, Musk would be a pretty boring subject — it’s the backdrop of us that makes him interesting.” Cleopatra, Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou, Richard Feynman, Jane Austen, Gandhi, Ada Lovelace, Leonardo Da Vinci, Amelia Earhart, Alan Turing, Marie Curie — these people did not have some fluke genetic edge nor did they live outside the boundaries of physical reality. All they did was use their capacity for reason, imagination, and creativity to the fullest. They didn’t accept society’s invisible borders. They did what every one of us would do if we weren’t so busy abiding by the rules — and because of that, we put their pictures in our history books. Don’t be boring. Don’t blend in. Don’t become the backdrop. You’re the star of the show. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Everything you thought you knew about life was wrong. Never in history has the universe taught us that lesson as powerfully, as lastingly, and as globally as it is doing right now. It’s okay to react with anger. We all initially do. But soon, the question becomes: What will you do with that anger? What will you use your anger for? You can keep collecting it. You should. Add a little, burning piece of coal into a glass jar every day. But if you don’t direct it, if you don’t pour out the glass, someday, that glass will explode — and the shards will hurt you and everyone around you. Don’t waste your anger. Anger can mark the birth of great things. Convert it. Use it. Turn the glass into a telescope, and look at the world as clearly and intensely as you never have before. Transform your anger into energy. Make it the fuel that’ll propel you towards the stars, propel you from a sad, lonely ground zero into the stratosphere of true, lasting, positive change. Pour the glowing coals onto society’s invisible rules. Burn every convention away. No more “age-appropriate” behavior. No more “we don’t do that here.” No more “are you sure?” No more “that’s never gonna work.” And finally — finally — no more strings. You’re free now. Free to breathe. Free to move. Free to think. Free to make your mark — leave the mark that only you can make.

Kristin Wilson graduated from business school in 2005. She had two job offers: Startup marketing for $75,000/year or real estate in Costa Rica for $1,000/month. She turned to society for help — but all society had to offer were rules. “Don’t flush your MBA down the toilet.” “Don’t waste your potential.” “Don’t ruin your CV.” Everyone told her to take the corporate route — even the people who followed their advice with, “I wish I lived in Costa Rica.” I’m sure she was frustrated, but Kristin did not let her anger get in the way. Instead, she used it to override the rules. She took the job in Costa Rica. 15 years later, she’s lived in over 60 countries, runs multiple, fun online businesses, and continuously earns six figures. Kristin has never held a traditional job. She refused to play by the rules. In telling her story, she asks you an innocent question: “What if flouting the rules weren’t a recipe for disaster but a roadmap for finding happiness and fulfillment in life?”

Oscar Wilde said: “Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong.” If everything popular is wrong, a lot of wrong things are unjustifiably popular. Ideas. Traditions. Rules. If you’ve never broken any of them, now would be a good time. Forget the rules. Rules don’t exist. If a single event can stop the world from spinning, who knows what you can do if you dream?

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. For my best articles & book updates, go here: https://niklasgoeke.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store