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Know the rules before you break them

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Know the rules before you break them

Scott Miker

Years ago I taught audio engineering and entrepreneurship courses at the local community college.  Because of my experience owning a business that focused on providing audio solutions (generally recording and sound reinforcement) I was asked to teach the students about the basics of audio engineering. 

I spent the next four plus years working with students.  I explained how a microphone works.  I explained why there are sonic differences in various acoustic spaces.  I even explained advanced signal processing techniques. 

One of the areas of weakness that seemed prevalent in the classes was a lack of patience.  Students would want to play with the gear before they understood the fundamentals of signal flow or the specifics of that piece of equipment. 

There was a saying that I had while teaching that seemed to help them understand the need for the information and instruction first, before taking control of the equipment.  I used to advise the students that they had to “know the rules before you break them.”  I explained that there are rules (standards, norms, etc.) and that these were there for a reason.  Breaking them was only ok if you understood why you were breaking them. 

Audio engineering and music production in general is about being creative.  It is about thinking outside of the box and presenting something unique.  Because of this, many students make the mistake of believing that they can simply wing it and rely on their creativity to make them successful. 

But in audio engineering, or music or just about anything else, you have to learn the fundamentals before you can utilize advanced, creative, unique techniques.  The rules weren’t legal rules they were standards.  There was a standard way of doing things. 

By the end of the class most of the students understood why they needed to know the rules before they break them.  They understood that in order to try something unique you have to understand why something is done a certain way. 

To me this is the difference between thinking outside of the box to come up with a unique solution and relying on random luck.  You have to know the basic systems and habits first and the reasons behind your strategies. 

This perspective allows us to take on a learning mindset.  We can focus all of our effort on learning and understanding.  Then we can use that insight to accomplish our goals. 

Albert Einstein has a quote that reflects this perspective.  He says, “You have to learn the rules of the game.  And then you have to play better than anyone else.”

Whether we are talking about music, sports, academics or any other area that we want to succeed, we have to learn the rules of the game.  Not just the literal rules of the game but the intricacies of the game. 

The greatest musicians were creative, but they also knew their scales and how to use their instrument to make music.

The greatest athletes don’t win through cheating or sheer talent but a combination of talent and preparation. 

In order to conduct academic research that pushes humanity’s collective knowledge, you have to first know what research has already been done and how to effectively conduct research. 

Our society seems to overemphasize the quick wins and underestimate the work that goes into success.  There seems to be an emphasis on the realty TV stars quick rise to fame without much preparation or skillset.  This attitude seems to point to the use of shortcuts. 

If we want to reach our goals we have to shift away from the shortcut mindset.  We have to start by learning the rules.  Only by learning the rules can you obtain the insight in order to successfully break them.