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THE BOOK: 7 Rules You Were Born to Break
Introduction and Chapter Preview
Having had some training as a magician as well as a comedian and circus performer, I want to tell you a secret that I learned about how magicians fool us.
It works like this.
Imagine that the magician removes a small red scarf from his pocket. He holds it up for us to see and then tells us what he’s about to do. He says, “I’m going to place this scarf inside my hand, then I’m going to count to three, and by the time I open my hand, the scarf will be gone.” In the meantime, he has stuffed the scarf into his fist.
Then he says, “Now pay attention, because if you’re not watching carefully, you’re going to be fooled.” He implies that if we concentrate on what he’s doing, we’ll be able to figure out the trick. We may even feel empowered because we’ve been given a warning and the opportunity to save ourselves from being deceived.
The trick we’re hoping to catch, however, has already happened. The scarf is long gone from the magician’s fist before he invites us to start paying attention. In our naiveté, we believe that the magician is giving us a sporting chance. I’m sorry to say it, but no, he isn’t.
This is an exact metaphor for what is currently happening in our daily lives. On the stage of real life, it is our cultural conditioning that takes the place of the magician. As hard as we try to watch carefully, most of us keep getting tricked into compromising our vision of excellence. That’s because the unwritten rules of our culture have already happened. They were introduced to us early in our lives, and they now have an influence on us that we don’t even see. By the time we start thinking about realizing a personal vision or dream, we’ve already been stripped of our potential.
Usually, when a magician performs a trick, it’s better not to know how he does it, since the feeling of mystery is so much more satisfying than understanding how it’s done. It’s one thing to have a quarter disappear before our eyes—entirely another when half our life savings disappears. When important things go missing, we have a right to straight answers. If our joy, enthusiasm, fulfillment, and delight are nowhere to be found, we deserve to know what happened.
Before becoming a corporate presenter I street performed for almost twenty years. A street show is a micromodel for organizational growth. It is interactive, and, as in any business, nothing happens without the active participation of others. The street entertainer, like the business manager, must have strong relationship skills, engender trust and confidence in his or her audience, and inspire others to action. To do that, he or she has to deeply understand the things that stop us.
This book is about seven rules that we unconsciously obey and that stop us from taking positive action. The obstacles that prevent an entertainer from building a successful show are the same as those that prevent organizations from thriving. In this book I share strategies for individual and group success that I learned while performing on the street and while entertaining the leaders and executives who run our largest companies.
The best thing we can do in support of any organization we care about is to encourage the development and progress of its members. As you are about to read, however, there are some unaddressed obstacles that lie between excellence and us. When these hidden obstacles are properly understood and managed, both individuals and the organizations they work for experience dramatic benefits.
The primary focus of any organization is to remain true to its core vision and purpose. Today we face many significant challenges in all of our organizations, from families to neighborhoods, from businesses to governments, and from nations to the global community. While this book doesn’t pretend to address the full complexity of those challenges, it is meant to spark a fresh conversation about where excellence really comes from and how it can be sustained.
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I’ve made a living as a juggler, actor, comedian, and variety entertainer for the last thirty years. The first phase of my career involved performing on the street for donations, which I did while traveling throughout the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and China.
A vice president of marketing for General Electric Corporation “discovered” me at a street performers’ festival when I was in my thirties. He invited me to perform for an event GE was holding in Tampa, Florida.
One day I was rolling dimes and quarters from my donation hat into coin wrappers and taking them to the bank to deposit for rent. The next I was on a plane to Florida, taken in a limo to a posh, upscale resort, and shown to a room that had its own spa, bar, and patio overlooking the pool. A far cry from the street, here I would have at my beck and call an entire production team dedicated to providing me with whatever lighting, sound and staging I would need to entertain my audience.
I was happy but also quite nervous, as I wondered if I could live up to the expectations of this corporate executive and adjust to an event of this caliber. My street show depended upon audience participation for its success and involved direct and spontaneous interactions with my crowd. It was designed to have an edge that challenged the boundaries of standard behavior. The corporate environment, in contrast, involves observing clearly defined protocols, roles, and hierarchies—not participating in their breakdown.
I spent the night prior to the performance anxiously trying to figure out how to modify my street show to play to five hundred GE management executives who had come from all over the world for this meeting. I imagined what would or wouldn’t be acceptable to them and started editing my standard presentation according to my guesses about what they would tolerate.
The next morning I got up early and headed toward the ballroom, where preparations for the evening event were already under way. I spent the day coordinating with the technical crews: establishing cues, timing, sound levels and presentation details that would assure everything went off according to plan.
When the ballroom doors finally opened, I watched the attendees file in. They were finely groomed, self-assured, obviously intelligent, multilingual, and well-off. I had a detailed picture in my mind as to how I was going to adapt the broad slapstick of my street show to the conventions of this crowd. I repeated it in my head right up until it was time to go on at the end of their meal.
When the emcee finally announced my name and I set foot on stage, the extensive plans for how I was going to provide these corporate executives with what they expected vanished. Once I was in front of the crowd I instinctively turned to the one main thing that had been the basis of my success as an entertainer.
A single street show could include rummaging through a woman’s purse, sampling the food of passing shoppers without their permission, stopping traffic in the middle of the road, and coaxing reluctant volunteers on stage to help me. Added to this mix were the throwing of sharp objects into the air, stealing the watches of audience members without their knowledge, and at the end asking for money from people I had never met. I’d cross lines and break rules that under other circumstances could have resulted in jail time; yet, in the context of my performance, people loved it and paid me for it. In short, I had become a professional misbehaver.
What the GE executive saw on the street and had appreciated enough to fly me in for his event was the fun and power of rule breaking—an ability to dance on the lines of social order in a way that others found both hilarious and liberating. My show was a public celebration of misbehavior.
This is how I came to abandon my careful plan seconds from making my debut on the corporate stage and instead launch into the show I was meant to do. I delivered what had worked in every market, in every alley, and on every street corner where I had ever drawn a crowd. The production folks scrambled to follow the show as the “stage” expanded to include the entire room, while the audience ate it up. I discovered that day just how hungry these refined guests also were for the fun of rule breaking.
When I returned home I immediately began getting spin-off offers from executives of other companies and the meeting professionals who had been involved with the event.
Since then I’ve provided a unique brand of comedy for events attended by the Clintons, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Canadian ambassador to the US, Bill Gates, the international board of MasterCard, and countless upper management teams for Fortune 500 companies all over North America.
I’ve appeared on programs like Good Morning America and America’s Funniest People and performed for individuals who run the financial, pharmaceutical, insurance, and hospitality industries throughout North America. I’ve also continued to perform on the streets. This makes me a privileged person—not from the standpoint of luxuries but in perspective. I have an equal view of the dirt floor and the red carpet. From passing a hat on street corners to the banquet halls of the corporate elite, I’ve witnessed a great deal of the diversity of our world. At the same time that I’ve been making a living entertaining people for the last several decades, I’ve also become an accidental sociologist.
What I’ve noticed is that we are all culturally bound by a set of hidden rules regardless of how much we make, what we do, or where we live. We’ve collectively adopted limitations that divest us of the power, joy, clarity, and purpose with which we were born to live.
My experience working with so many people has made our strengths as well as our limitations apparent. I’ve seen that the human spirit in each of us never goes away, no matter how buried it might get beneath layers of cultural injunctions and obstacles. We are essentially good and we have an innate potential for excellence. Much more than we’ll usually admit. We long to grow, to create, and to bring value to others. We want to rise above challenges and to fulfill our highest purpose. Yet, many of us feel confused or even bewildered by what seem to be invisible forces that stop us from reaching our goals. I’m about to reveal exactly what those forces are, and you may be surprised when you discover how seven simple, accepted, everyday ideas are stopping us from living the lives we dream of.
When I refer to “the lives we dream of” I’m not talking about perpetually lounging on a beach on a tropical island, winning a million dollar lottery jackpot, or finding the absolutely perfect mate. Those are not dreams, they’re fantasies. True dreams have heart, and their fulfillment always involves freeing ourselves to be able to make the unique contribution to the world that we were born to provide. Deep down we know that we ought to be experimenting, participating, risking, making mistakes, and going after the possibilities that call to us. We know we should be challenging anything that prevents us from pursuing our highest aspirations—from actualizing our personal visions of what we could offer to this world if we were unhesitant in action, unapologetic in attitude, and confident in spirit.
This is what I offer: a street-level, practically oriented, example-driven guide to reclaiming excellence that is based on the necessity of rule breaking and the wisdom of Intelligent Misbehavior.
Intelligent Misbehavior is the willingness to challenge the hidden rules in our culture that compromise individual and organizational potential.
Here you will find real-life stories that will illustrate the seven unspoken rules that silently imprison us and the Actions of Intelligent Misbehavior (AIMs) that can liberate us. As you are about to see, I’ve been encouraged by the example of others who have stood up to these rules. At other times, I’ve been sobered by the ways we so quickly cave in to them.
Breaking hidden rules is the domain of the comedian: to go right to the heart of what is taboo and to release our tension through laughter. While I love entertaining others, I enjoy even more inspiring them to rise above the paralysis and confusion that is brought on by our hidden rules. There has been nothing more satisfying than seeing withdrawal and indifference be transformed into participation and enjoyment.
If we truly desire excellence, we must make an intentional choice to misbehave.
Let’s break some rules!
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I’m a college dropout and I’ve been divorced. I didn’t lose my virginity until I was twenty-one. When I was a child I wanted to be a mime when I grew up. I once invested ten thousand dollars in an oil well I never saw, and lost it all. I wet the bed until I was ten years old because I was too scared to walk out into the dark hallway at night. I never partied as a teenager. I was too busy in my backyard teaching myself how to juggle to spend time seeking acceptance from my peers.
I was not a normal child, and neither were you, yet you and I have both been conditioned to “be normal” when in public. The upshot of this is that we all have split personalities. We have the persona we put on in public like a school uniform that allows us to fit in, while on the inside we have Shirley Temple with her tap shoes on and Jim Nabors ready to sing.
When a stand-up comedian talks about the human idiosyncrasies, thoughts and habits that we’ve been trained to keep secret and private, we find delight, and we laugh. A new door is opened for us as we’re reminded that authenticity is an option. We don’t have to hide who we really are. We can accept ourselves, share our humanity, and stand out as we are.
Under certain specific circumstances fitting in is the intelligent thing to do. If you’re a traveler who is visiting a locale populated by thieves, it’s not a good idea to dress and behave like a tourist. While blending in is sometimes a wise choice, habitually conforming to the expectations of our environment can gradually lead us away from our authentic visions, goals and priorities. . .
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See. I told you this would happen.