A Rebel Heart
I was coloring with the five-year-old I babysit the other night and at one point, he gave me very specific instructions, “You have to color in the lines, like this”. He demonstrated by very neatly following the outline of the dinosaur with his crayon. It was true, I had gotten a little carried away as I filled in my section of the page. Though, I did find it interesting how quick he was to correct me. Mostly because at five years old, the world is still such a place that is up to interpretation, imagination, and experimentation. But, I happily obliged, because at five years old we are also learning all kinds of rules, either explicit or implicit. I taught at a daycare for several years, and coloring is a fun way for kids to develop fine motor skills, practice self-control, and to learn how to follow directions. In this environment, and with positive reinforcement, what starts as an activity or exercise, quickly becomes “the way we do things”. And so, we grow up coloring inside the lines. Which works just fine, but it can also be limiting.
On a recent episode of NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast, Shankar Vedantam interviews Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist and Harvard professor who studies rebels. Specifically, people she coins, “positive deviants” who break “the rules” and achieve feats of positive change. According to Gino, there is a lot of “goodness” that can come from rule-breaking. That seemed like such an oxymoron to me. So many of the rules that I could think of were ones that I staunchly believed shouldn’t be broken like don’t steal and don’t cheat. These kinds of rules make up the basis of our ethical code, when we break these rules, we are making the choice to cause trouble or harm.
That being said, we also impose so many “phantom rules” on ourselves and others, like that we have to color inside the lines, and these are the kinds of rules Gino is talking about. In the work that we do with teams, we often see resistance in the form of the phrase, “Well, that’s just how we’ve always done things”. Is it? Always is a pretty long time and change happens more often than we think. What really happens is that the more knowledge and experience we gain in anything makes us comfortable, and when we are comfortable, we don’t often challenge ourselves to think outside the box. In other words, we won’t fix what ain’t broke. But, why do we have to color inside the lines? Rule-breaking that is constructive challenges rules or expectations that should really be questioned. When we question what we know, we get to explore what we don’t, and that opens up a world of possibility, opportunity, and creativity.
One of the most moving anecdotes Gino refers to if from the 2003 NBA playoffs. Thirteen-year-old Natalie Gilbert is introduced to sing the national anthem and she forgets the words. In front of thousands of fans, and on national television, she forgets the words and panics. It’s the Portland Trailblazer’s coach, Mo Cheeks, who steps in to help with what some have lightheartedly called “the best assist of his career”, and soon the whole stadium is singing along.
Gino points out that this was a high stakes game for Trailblazers and that Cheeks had plenty of others things to be thinking about than showcasing his singing abilities. It may seem really easy to say, “Well, someone else would have stepped in”, or, “I would have helped”, but in the footage, it’s clear that no one else is rushing in to be her lifeline. In that heartwarming moment, Cheeks was a “positive deviant”, he abandoned the status quo and what was required of him in his role, and he demonstrated incredible authenticity, selflessness, and compassion.
I love this story because it goes to show that being a “rebel” isn’t always about starting a revolution or reinventing the wheel. Being a rebel is about stepping outside of our comfort zones and taking risks for the sake of others. That can be really difficult to do, but we can make an impact with some really simple practices:
- Go to “the balcony”. This mental exercise is actually the inspiration for the Leadership Inspirations blog. The principle behind it is that most of the time, we are on the “dancefloor”, we are a part of the action and have a limited perspective on what’s going on around us. When we go to the balcony, we get a new vantage point and we can actually see the big picture of everything happening at once which leads to new insights and realizations. In work and in life, actively take the time to go to the balcony to see what’s working and what can be improved.
- Adopt a learning mindset. I rode horses competitively for a long time and one of the things my trainer used to tell me was “even Olympic trainers have trainers”. This was significant because it just goes to show you that we all have things that we can learn, regardless of our experience or expertise. Be willing to learn from those above you, around you, and below you.
- Don’t be afraid to ask “Why?” We don’t have to question everything, but certainly the things that matter.
- Explore, don’t dismiss, disagreements. I have found in my work that most of the best ideas come from disagreeing with my team. When we lean in to and explore these disagreements with the intent to collaborate through them, we generate incredible solutions that far exceed what any of us could have accomplished alone.
- Challenge yourself. There’s a quote that I like that says, “Do one thing every day that scares you”. Start small and become braver. This bravery will push us to be vulnerable, to stand up for the things we believe in, and to take meaningful risks.
I am a person who generally likes rules, I think they help make the world go ‘round. But, I am also a person who likes to create and problem-solve, and that often means making my own “rules”. It’s a fine and paradoxical line to walk. There are times when the five-year-old I babysit and I spend our time together coloring inside the lines. And there are times when he wants to create his own, unique masterpieces. There is a time, place, and value to both.
Get started “rule-breaking” by inviting your group to brainstorm ways to change and improve a process they know well. It should be a process or procedure that you would be willing to see evolve. I think that meetings are often a great place to start. There are about a million different ways to run a meeting and asking your team to weigh in on this process can not only crowd source how to improve your meeting structure but it also increases buy-in from team mates for those meetings. Be willing to explore and try out a few of their ideas and take the time to evaluate each for their own merits. After you are done experimenting, decide as a group what you want to start, stop, and continue when it comes to your meetings!
*Meet the Author*
Caelan Cooney is the Program Coordinator for Leadership Inspirations and spends most of her time helping to create meaningful programming and content. She got her start in leadership as a high school DECA student, and went on to graduate from Chapman University with degrees in Business Management and Integrated Education. As a regular contributor to From the Balcony, her favorite topics to explore are personality theory, group development, and conflict management. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and listening to podcasts.