In what has become a famous speech1, Neil Gaiman addressed the University of the Arts class of 2012. He had this piece of advice for students:
“When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.
“This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not.
“The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.
“If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.”
When Ludwig van Beethoven was writing music, there was an established form that concertos and symphonies had followed for centuries. Three movements, fast, slow, fast. Concertos started with the orchestra before the solo instrument was introduced.
Composers had abided by these rules, even as they were exploring new harmonies or writing longer and more complex works.
Then Beethoven introduced his fourth piano concerto. It starts with the piano before the orchestra joins in. It starts slowly, quietly. That’s 2 rules broken in the first thirty seconds of one composition.
He added non-traditional instruments to the orchestra for his fifth symphony. (He described this work as ‘Fate, knocking on the door’ and when you hear those famous first 4 notes, it does sound like knuckles rapping on a door.)
He added a choir to his 9th symphony. Nobody had added voices to a symphony before him.
“The barriers are not erected which can say to aspiring talents and industry, ‘Thus far and no farther.’” Beethoven was intent on pushing boundaries.
Claude Debussy’s music sounds unlike other classical compositions of his time. Debussy started a musical trend that itself was inspired by rule breakers in another field – the impressionist painters.
Debussy used unusual chord combinations, adding up to 3 notes to the established 4. He muted brass instruments. He added triangles and glockenspiels to the orchestra. His music often lacked distinctive rhythms. He incorporated scales borrowed from eastern music or ancient folk songs.
Debussy wrote, “Works of art make rules: rules do not make works of art.”
Every breakthrough in every field is achieved by people who break the rules.
Neil Gaiman was talking about the arts, but his advice holds true for any endeavour and any business sector.
Most of us will never break rules. Not the important ones. Parking in a non-parking space doesn’t count.
Most of us accept accepted wisdom. Accepted wisdom says you must own a hotel to offer accommodation. Airbnb broke that rule. Accepted wisdom says that a taxi company must first own taxis. Hello, Uber.
What are the rules, traditions and best practices that govern your industry? How can you break them?
1 Watch Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art speech in full. Or read it in Chip Kidd’s exquisitely designed book published by William Morrow.