Stop Looking For Rules. There Aren’t Any.


rulesTwo months ago (I’m guessing), I put my email address in my Twitter profile. As a result, I get a lot of email. And I’m not complaining. I enjoy getting to correspond with new friends who either follow me on Twitter or are familiar with the blog. I work out of my apartment most days so, frankly, it’s not like I’m exactly overflowing with social interaction, you know? [waves to her cats, JackJack and Swat]

But I’m noticing a pattern with a lot of the email I receive. They’re from people looking for the “ultimate” way to do something. They want the “rules” for creating a personal brand, developing a power Twitter account, writing a successful blog or for growing a community. [I know. Don’t ask me why they think I have insight on this.] They’ve been suckered into reading stuff like this bullshit touting the 8 Ways To Do X or the Ultimate Handbook For X. They want the secret rulebook and they’re hoping that I’ll be kind enough to give it to them. So they email me.

Problem is, there no secret.

There’s no ultimate handbook. There are no solid rules. For anything. So stop looking for them and focus on creating your own game.

But let’s pretend there was a secret set of rules. Ten things that everyone said you absolutely HAD to do. Would you do them? Would you really? Would you voluntarily follow the exact same template that everyone else was using so that you had zero chance of standing out? If you would, you’re a moron.

As the proverb goes, fortune favors the brave. Not the copycats.

  • Had Henry Ford followed the rules of selling cars, we may have never had mass-produced affordable automobiles.
  • Had Zappos followed the rules of selling shoes, they’d be nothing but a thin affiliate site.
  • Had Chad Hurley and Steven Chen followed the rules for video, we’d have no YouTube and they wouldn’t be millionaires.
  • Had Cirque Du Soleil followed the rules for how to run a circus, they’d still be competing with Ringling Brothers instead of forcing others to compete with them.
  • If Amazon had followed the rules for being a bookstore, they may not have even survived.

And there are a million more examples.

People looking for the rulebook are doing it backwards. If anything you should be looking at who’s following the rules…and then figuring out how you can get your hands dirty and break every single one of them to be better. Why the hell would you choose to stay on the same path that everyone else has already trampled through? Get your hands dirty. Figure out what works, what doesn’t work, what’s fun, what hurts, etc. Then take that and create your own game with your own set of rules.

  • How did I create my mediocre “personal brand”? I didn’t. I was just me.
  • How did I create my “blogging strategy”? I didn’t. I started blogging and over time learned to duck, weave and punch at the right times.

There are no surefire “rules” for replicating anyone else’s success. Nor should there be. You don’t want someone else’s success. You want success on your terms, based on who you are.

dangerousYou create your own rule book by jumping in and mucking things up. Then, little by little, you feel it out. You get an idea of what works for you, what doesn’t, and you create your own personal strategy. Pretty soon, you learn to smell blood and you’re able to replicate the success time and time again because the strategy becomes ingrained in you. And that’s when you become dangerous.

The “rules” you read about on this blog and elsewhere aren’t rules. They’re suggestions. Take them as such.

Right now, you have the power to create a brand new world in your niche, maybe to even create your own niche. You don’t have to play by their rules. In fact, screw their rules. Create your own game, form your own vocabulary and make others cave to the way you say things should be done.

The best advice anyone can give you is to follow what feels right to you. You may be totally ass backwards in your attempt. But when you fall on your head, you will have learned something about that tool and its capabilities. And you will have learned how to use the tool instead of just mimicking back what other people have told you. Do that consistently and you’ll be a hell of a lot smarter the second and third time. Pretty soon, you won’t even have to think about it anymore. Don’t be the kid who got through high school by memorizing names and dates. Success lies in your ability to master tools and then hack them in ways that work for you. That’s how you become dangerous.

Your Comments

  • cat pickett

    They’ve been suckered into reading stuff like this bullshit touting the 8 Ways To Do X or the Ultimate Handbook For X.

    I was just talking with a client about this last night. Any time I see those lists or handbooks, it screams “linkbait!” and I’m immediately skeptical. I’ve always learned best by jumping in with both feet, screwing up, and learning my lesson. Not always the easiest way, but certainly effective and authentic.

  • Jack Leblond

    There’s an often quoted comment from Edison that seems to fit today “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. I simply found 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb”.

  • Dr. Pete

    I knew that attitude was out there, but I didn’t realize how pervasive it was until I started answering more forum questions a few months ago. Not only do people want one-sized-fits-all, guaranteed answers, but underneath it is always the hidden implication that your advice should by easy for them.

    Here’s the ugly truth – no new form of marketing has ever changed the rules or made anything easy. Sure, a tiny handful of people always find some way to exploit new things very early on, and some get rich doing it. We think of those people as “lucky”, but chances are they saw an opportunity early, took a risk on something that no one had heard of, and spent a lot of time and energy doing it.

    Not only are there no rules, but you can spend 100 hours on something, do it well, and still fail. I launched a site early this year as a bit of a PR stunt, spent about 3 weeks on it, was happy with the end result, and then it fell flat on its face. That’s life. I learned what I could and moved on. If that idea makes you uncomfortable, then you just failed my one-question entrepreneur quiz. Get a job and let somebody else take the risks.

  • michael-gray

    well done bear cub

  • Joe Hall

    So there might not be rules for what to do. But, aren’t there rules for what not to do? I mean I could write a book about that!

  • Rae Hoffman

    Joe – I “break” almost every “what not to do” rule on those lists – and yet, for me, it works.

  • michael-gray

    @joehall things like don’t insult your followers would probably be a lot of those lists … yet we see people who do it and make it work for them everyday. It’s all in how you frame it … do you use humor and sarcasm … are you giving ppl a much needed kick in the ass … are you trying to help them? it’s about finding a way to make it work for you.

  • Anthony Verre

    Once again, a very insightful post. (It gets tiring saying that all the time on your blogs. ;) ) So there’s this quote I like very much about “RULES”:

    “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.” – Douglas Bader

    And, that’s the point. Do you really want the universe to act, behave, and speak exactly the same way? Use common sense, let “rules” guide you, not dictate your behavior and mannerisms. Stop giving a shit about your follower counts; that’s the last craze out there. Who’s following me and is it growing. It’s about quality, people. I’d rather have 100 quality, engaging “followers” than 10,000 automatons who do, say, and think the exact same things.

    It’s a little pathetic and boring to be honest. It’s the SugarRae’s, Graywolf’s, and even SEOHack’s of the world, that spice your existence.

  • Dr. Pete

    @Michael That’s a great point. One of the reasons that there are no one-sized-fits-all approaches in thing like blogging and social media is that it’s personality driven. For example, I’m a “nice guy” – if I tried to do what you or Rae do, I’d look like a poseur. Being controversial just isn’t me. So, I try to make nice work.

    BTW, pardon my previous rant. I’ve had my coffee now, and I promise to behave ;)

  • Bob Phillips

    You are sharp as a tack! I tend to be one of those who has to double check that I’ve parked in between the lines perfectly. Thanks for a great reminder that it may be better to park on the sidewalk occasionally.

  • Lisa Barone

    Cat Picket: Agreed. Those 10 Ways To gain Followers On Twitter Lists are typically bullshit. Did I say that? I mean, I’m sure the author put a ton of care into them. You should totally take it as gospel. Yep.

    Jack: Nice. :)

    Dr. Pete:

    Get a job and let somebody else take the risks.

    The people looking for the “easy rules” typically are those that have a job. Makes sense, I guess.

    Joe Hall: As Rae and Michael both mentioned, your “what not to do” is someone else’s ticket to fame. I imagine many people look at my Twitter account and are HORRIFIED. I mean, it’s all nonsense, but somehow, when I was in Ireland NOT tweeting bullshit…I lost 30-40 followers. You never know what’s going to work for you unless you try it.

    Dr Pete: If I was to limit your ranting than I’d have to limit my own. And we know that’s not happening. Rant away. :)

  • Cooper

    Great article Lisa! Those that get a chance to read it will be in the know =)

    Personally, I love that there are a million and one regurgitated “How-To” lists and repetitive insider lists floating around on just about any topic you can think of. Let the trend continue and let all the sheep fall into place in a nice sheep line.

    Having them all headed in the same direction makes it way easier for those of us that know to attack from varied angles. As you mentioned in the article, this does not only apply to the online world, but every action you take in your day to day journey.

    “They will spot you from afar when you’re a stand out”

  • Todd Mintz

    If you need rules to follow, you’re probably not going to be that good at it anyway.

  • andrew wee

    The basic tendency when treading new waters is to understand baseline rules – whether learning to walk, swim, or understand new media.

    There are probably some baseline “rules” – (which are maybe like suggestions with an 90% accuracy rate) – like “Don’t send a prospect more than 3 emails a day” – then you’ll have a disruptive agent who sends out compelling content 10 times a day and breaks the “rules”.

    Although it may seem relativistic or boundaries seem to shift without logic to the newbie, I think there’s still a case of being able to understand the broad parameters before going about the process of breaking/disrupting/rewriting them?

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Rule #1 If you want to succeed, be sure to read Lisa’s articles!

    Rule #2 Or not

    At first I was pissed. I mean, “NO” rules? Like, it’s okay for everyone on Twitter to just start auto-DMing everyone else? Craptastic.

    You’re right of course though – what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for someone else.

    If people like Guy Kawasaki are going to continue to be assHats, and if enough sheep out there enjoy being led to slaughter, super. By not following all the typical rules, I’ve found my own success and established my own set of rules – that work for me…

  • Tim Staines

    I actually enjoy reading all the different rules people come up with, but not necessarily because I’m going to follow them. Rules and “how to” posts provide great insight into as to how people do their work, and even though their often lame or gimmicky or bullshit, they regularly open my eyes to new methods that I end up adopting in one way or another.

    For me it’s important to combine other peoples “rules” with my own . . . as a result, I find that I spend a lot less time making the same mistakes that others have made, which allows me more time to spend figuring out original methods to accomplish things.

    There’s just no need to rewrite the entire book when it comes to most innovations. You need to take the best pages, maybe tweak them a little, and then build on them. It’s standard evolution.

  • Yawn Webmaster!

    I don’t agree that there are no rules. There most certainly are, but perhaps it’s a problem with your definition. While there might be no rulebook, there certainly are conventions, and if you miss these you’ve had it.

    For example, grammar and language are important. If you look at the shorthand for mobile phone texts, using an agrammatical syntax could be exactly the thing that brings you closer to your audience, the rulebook might say otherwise, but convention hints that this will be a success.

    On creating rule for tech, onr possible explanation of the why: Technology/IT and the whole Internet thing has had a profound effect on how quickly people expect a) to see action done and b) how quickly that action then turns into results. It’s everywhere. Goto Google and type in “Top 10 Tools”…that’s 381 million results. “Ultimate guide” 51 million. People want stuff now, and they only want the best of the information. That’s part of how we’ve evolved as a society, and we’re still in transition.

    It’s a great time to be around, but it’s becoming even more important to step back look at things beyond technology’s functionality, to understand it at a more sociological level. When you see research where people were found to assign different human like attributes to a person based solely on the avatar’s format you start to realise that the 300page software manual, for all it’s words is gonna get you about 10% of the way to your overall success.

    What I do think is also interesting to note, is that the more you learn, the more you appreciate that in fact it’s all very simple. Technology, as some innevitable and unstoppable force continues to create anxiety for people, it’s a burden that forces individuals to keep learning, and obligates everyone to keep up with it.

    “have you been on your Widows 7 upgrade course bob”, said james.
    Bob bit down on his lip nervously.

    That’s another piece of the puzzle, Technology has still not advanced to a level where it is not annoying and it’s unlikely too either, because we are all so different it’s just not commercially viable to issue Windows on a 1-2-1 basis.

    But that’s the transition period in full effect.

  • john andrews

    Okay, so that’s great advice for all the latent winners out there. Be yourself and guess what? It’ll be awesome. But what advice do you have for the losers? You know, the ones who were themselves already, yet no one noticed. The ones who tried to “just be awesome” and were told to “get a clue”. What should they be doing?

    Personally, I love to see people publish rules, because then I know masses of competitors and their clients will follow them blindly. That translates into predictability, and even on my worst days I can compete with predictable sheep.

  • Kristi

    That was a great article. Get off your ass and go! Always look forward to your posts, Lisa.

  • Dave Curtis

    Thank you Lisa for that excellent rule: “Stop Looking For Rules. There Aren’t Any.” I love it. Have you got any more kick-ass rules besides that one? Seriously though, being “kickass” on your own is a plan – but that alone won’t get you noticed without support from lots of good people. It’s not just what you know or what you can do – but who you know, and who your supporters are. Examples from my life: Army, came in 1st out of 5,000 men in Brigade competition. My score was added wrong, shaving 2 points, another guy got the trophy, my official scorecard mysteriously disappeared from my records. Hilton: (14 yrs tending bar there) hardest working bartender they had, tried to make the front bar for years – finally 14 of my waitresses demanded I get the job – I got it & outsold the other 2 bartenders plus 5 waiters combined year after year. Best take on a double shift, no breaks, jewelers convention $6,000 cash, $6,000 credit card/room sales. Until the day I left the Auditing Department swears it never happened.

    Being a hot dog, doing your best, being better than the rest – pushing hard and not stopping alone won’t get you anywhere without friends. Recognition comes from friends who care enough to know you, follow you, trust you, help you when you need it, and vouch for you when the time comes.

    I’d like to thank you for all our pleasant quick back and forths so far on Twitter, and give everyone a real rule they can follow: Stop trying so hard to get noticed, and start trying to develop relationships. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance makes it clear – it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. Becoming a black belt isn’t about earning belts, it’s a process like taking a walk in the rain – eventually you get wet.

  • Joe Hall

    @rae @michael @lisa So your saying I can do what ever I want?? Cocaine and hookers here I come!

  • Rob J

    You gotta hate it when ‘just be yourself’ is actually the best advice there is. There really is no silver bullet other than that. I think it frustrates a lot of people because it’s so hard to quantify, and to standardize.

    Cheers for the excellent post, as always.

  • Jaan Kanellis

    Wow awesome, just awesome!

  • David Leonhardt

    Certainly when it comes to SEO, there are (almost) no rules. It’s a competition for a limited number of spots (like only ten spots in the first page of Google for any given keyword, no matter how many websites follow a set of “rules”), and nobody ever won a competition by doing the same as everybody else.

  • Tara Whitney

    This article is resonates with me so much.
    I get a ton of questions and emails asking me how I got to where I am, and I got to where I am by doing exactly what you talked about in this article.
    I don’t know what to do about the I want easy answers, one size fits all, I see your success and I want it for my own people. Now I am going to send them the link to this article! :)

    This, especially, made me nod my head.
    How did I create my mediocre “personal brand”? I didn’t. I was just me.
    How did I create my “blogging strategy”? I didn’t. I started blogging and over time learned to duck, weave and punch at the right times.

  • George

    Cool staff, reminds us again to shatter away stagnated guidelines.
    But if looked upon just from literary point of view, – rules of not having rules are also rules.. Its like self-denying statement: “This statement is falce”. You see? It is falce and true at the same time.. It shows again that words can hardly convey what is truly the case of reality…:) But we can’t help, we are people. We want to express ourselves, to commnicate. And it is great. In my opinion, it is not as important what you say, but how you say and for what reason. This, and not the mere content of the words, creates perception and reaction. This is a secret of a great writers. They knit a plot through the use of those “hidden behind words” golden ideas and emotions. So in total, when we have read it, we feel enriched. Not just by ideas and protagonists of the novel, but by that “silent charge of unspoken words in between lines”. By the way, influential speakers or preachers also possess this quality. People keep listening them with open mouths. It is pauses in between their words and emotional charge behind those words, which makes crowd follow and admire them.

  • Earl Grey

    Let your personality shine through.
    If you haven’t got one choose an attitude and be consistent with it.

  • bijuterii argint

    Nice description of people who ask the “ultimate info”. But I think this is the marketers way of sell their stuff. “This is the ultimate… hair dryer, car, business model, etc”. So, they get that ideea of “there should exists some ultimate rules to…”
    The truth is that, for some niches there might be a little of that ultimate info.
    But, when you want to get rich quick… so quick than you don’t have time to do anything but follow some “ultimate rules”, these rules, if they exists, are the “ultimate thing to look for” :)