Brad Keywell

Four-and-a-Half Rules You Must Break: A Message to 2020 Grads

Class of 2020, I’m here to tell you that you need to break some rules.  

But first I’d like to tell you about five monkeys, a group of scientists, an experiment. And some bananas.

These scientists put five monkeys in a cage with a ladder in the middle and some bananas on top of the ladder. Every time one monkey went up the ladder, the scientists doused all the others with freezing cold water (which monkeys especially hate). Soon, every time a monkey even motioned towards the ladder, the others beat him up, thinking that his ambition would cause them to be doused with water.
Before long, no monkey dared climb the ladder. What was left was five monkeys, each one hungry for bananas, yet none going for them out of fear for being beaten up.

Then something interesting happened. The scientists took one of the monkeys out of the cage, and put a new one in his place. The new one instinctively headed towards the ladder to get some bananas – and immediately got pummeled. He quickly learned “don’t climb the ladder”, and “don’t go for the bananas”, without any idea that freezing water was even a possibility.  

The scientists took the other four original monkeys out, one by one, and replaced them with new ones.  And the new ones quickly learned the same lesson – don’t go for the bananas – even though they weren’t sure why. The new monkeys didn’t know about the freezing cold water, yet they joined the others and beat up any monkey that tried to climb the ladder.

What was left was five monkeys, none having any clue why it was bad to climb the ladder. Not one understanding why the others beat him up. Yet all five dutifully following the unwritten rule – don’t even think about going for the bananas!

Let’s be clear – we’re living on a planet of the apes.  

We follow rules, lots of rules. Too many are followed without even asking ourselves why.  

I suggest that you become more aware of the rules that you’re following. For the sake of your potential, you owe yourself nothing less than a full consideration of these unwritten rules.

Everyone feels pressure to be like the other monkeys. I feel pressure to conform, and I’m sure you feel it too. Conforming to be like the others is another way of saying “follow the unwritten rules”

Too many rules have authors unknown and purposes outdated. You see, these unwritten rules that create conformity are subtly obstructing your potential. If we allow too many unwritten rules to govern our lives, we won’t even be able to see the bananas!  

I’m going to tell you the 4 ½ rules I believe you need to break if you want to live a life of purpose and impact.. I suppose you could call this my “Rules about Rules” Consider this my encouragement for you to go for the bananas!

Rule #1: Failure is considered a bad thing. You must break this rule!

We all fail. It’s not only ok, it’s inevitable. Failure will likely be the most valuable part of your journey.

Let me tell you a story about Groupon—something that most of you don’t know. The Groupon story began with failure. It started out as, and after 18 months we had spent $3M and the site had barely any visitors and zero revenue. A failure by any measure, right?  Instead of shutting the business down, we tried a new way to leverage the technology and group-action model -- and it worked. Last year, Groupon had over $2 billion in revenue, and had the third-most visited retail app in the US (behind only Amazon and Wal-Mart).

What I know now is that failure is only bad if you don’t learn from it.

How can you make failure your friend? Dive straight in to something that scares you, something that looks really hard. See how you do when you push your limits. Intentionally open the possibility of failure, knowing that within it is learning. And if you fail, try again. 

The artist Michelangelo said, “The greatest danger is in actually achieving all of your goals – it means you didn’t set your goals high enough.”  Class of 2020, let failure show you the way by allowing it to show you what isn’t the way.

Rule #2: If you listen, take lots of notes, and then regurgitate what you’re told, you’ll be set.  You must break this rule!

Many of you will soon begin your careers. Thus far, you’ve been rewarded for excellence in rote listening and regurgitating with good grades and lots of praise. You’ve been taught to be a professional voice recorder, able to repeat with precision. Unfortunately, you’ve been taught the wrong lesson.

If you take what you’re learning at face value, believing that rote repetition is the secret to success, you may get a good performance review, but you’ll fail life. You must challenge, debate and expand upon what you’re told.  

Your greatness will be determined by your ability to deploy your own special and unique perspective— improving and interpreting things in a way only you can. Your job is to collect lots of facts and then infuse them with your unique perspective ideas. Your job is to expand and interpret and riff and build, not to repeat.

Steve Jobs did not invent the computer, he made computers better. Beethoven did not invent the symphony, he took the symphony as it existed and interpreted it to make it uniquely his.

Be perpetually curious, read books, go hear speakers unrelated to your job field, join clubs outside of your comfort zone. Through college you’ve learned how to learn, and my hope is that you continue to learn. Being curious ensures that you’ll see the beautiful scenery of life.   

Rule #3: If you just fit in, everything will be ok. You must break this rule!

Stand out, don’t fit in!

You’ve been unconsciously taught that the best way to make things better is to just fit in. I’m sure at times you’ve changed who you are in small (or big) ways just to fit in. We’re all guilty of this subtle yet toxic mistake. 

Consider this -- thus far in your lives, the way to be accepted into a social group is to ‘fit in’, the way to be accepted into the honor roll is to ‘fit in’, and the way to be accepted into a college is to ‘fit in’. Then consider this -- the surest path towards mediocrity is to fit in.

I doubt many of you aspire to be average! Yet fitting in with everyone is a pretty good way to be exceptional to no one.

You are different. We all are. In our difference lies our genius, our uniqueness, our voice.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I was about to go live on national TV to be interviewed by the business anchor, bright lights in my eyes, the producer saying “15 seconds to live.”  And what am I saying to myself? “What if I screw up” and “How am I here?” My thoughts were about how perhaps I didn’t fit in, how I might not belong.  Not good!

Everyone has negative self-talk. We all spend too much of our time thinking negative thoughts like ‘I’m weird’ and ‘I don’t belong’  What makes a champion is what you say to yourself the second after you’re done being self-critical. 

Yes, you’re different -- you’ve been trained to consider that the self-critical part. But next time you say something negative to yourself, try then saying “And you deserve to be here, you deserve this.” 

You deserve to be great, your difference deserves to find its place of greatness in the world! And you will allow yourself to find the genius within your difference by getting out of your way -- get out of self-criticism and get into self-love.

What you say to yourself will define who you are. Your power comes from your difference, not your sameness. Embrace your difference -- You deserve it!

Rule #4: They’ll tell you everything you need to know. You must break this rule!

You must find a mentor. Why do I say this? Because there is no clear “they” who will tell you what you need to know. Your teachers, your university, your parents, even your first boss – they’ll tell you some of the things they think you should know, but you need to know more than that.

So you need to find a mentor—someone who can help you learn what you want to know.

A mentor is someone (other than parents or family friends) who will speak to you both for where you are, and also for where you can go. A mentor is someone who SEES you for who you are (however weird or different you think that is), and can help you navigate the gameboard of being your best.

I’m 50 years old, and I’m still seeking out mentors. In the past year, I’ve added two people as mentors in my life. Why? Because I want to learn from them, they agreed to both teach me and challenge me.  
No one is so smart and so right that they would not benefit from a mentor.

How do you find a mentor? No one magically assigns one to you. And you don’t just hope for one – hope is passive. You find a mentor by taking action. You introduce yourself to the speaker after a speech. You cold-call someone you find interesting. You write letters (with a pen and paper). And guess what? You will likely fail, but keep trying!  

Mentorship is a matter of the heart, and with all matters of the heart you’ll know it when you feel it – you’ll know when you’ve met your mentor. When you do, be a great listener. Be a student of their wisdom.

So … there you go. Four unwritten rules that you need to break.

But I said four-and-a-half. What’s up with the half? Then again, who says that lists of rules have to be in whole numbers?  

The half-rule is a reminder that the rules are constantly being revised. History (more accurately, herstory, or ourstory) is being created before our eyes!

And it also serves to remind you about the valuable rules you commit to following -- rules that you rightfully refuse to break. We call these ‘rules’ our values.

Values. Living with integrity, practicing empathy, being a loyal and trustworthy friend—these and other values become guardrails to keep you on the right track. These unbreakable commitments, your values, ensure that you’ll surround yourself with the types of supportive colleagues and friends that you deserve.  

It’s worth committing to your unbreakable rules, your unbreakable values—they will become your bedrock, guiding you, every time, to do the right thing when no one is looking.

Graduates, congratulations! Now go break some rules!

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© Brad Keywell 2021