“You can’t do that,” my parents told me. I had just gotten back from my 9 to 5 job. I was 17 and still a senior in high school. I had gotten a job as a telemarketer selling newspaper subscriptions. I had beaten out two African-American women who had a ton of experience for the job. Nobody asked me my age (17, senior in high school), qualifications (none), resume (what’s that), social security number (huh?), or how I would do this job while attending high school (I hadn’t thought ahead that far). Looking back on it there must’ve been some racism involved in me getting that job.
I skipped school that day by hiding in the backyard until I heard the garage door open and shut twice. A standard technique I had been using since I was 12 (I hope my 12 year old is not reading this). Then the public bus would either go to NYC or Princeton and my direction would be determined depending on what flavor of trouble I was getting into that year. (The year I was in a cult I would head to NYC. But most other times it was Princeton for pizza, video games, X-rated movies, and comic books).
Apparently that was the day the school decided to track me down. It was my 30th absence. That’s the legal limit in New Jersey. So my parents were frantic. “You can’t do that,” they said to me when I got home. I’m not good at listening but I went to school the next day and never returned to my job or returned the boss’s phone calls. I was horrible at cold calling and sold zero subscriptions on my first day at the job anyway.
“You can’t do that,” one of the VPs of Marketing at a major media company I worked at told me. I had just told her I had a company on the side and was hiring myself to do the job for the major company I worked for. “And you can’t just walk into the office of the CEO and tell him what to do.” But I have a hearing problem in my right ear where I can’t hear the letter “T” very well when it’s used in a contraction. Maybe I need a hearing device. She was beautiful but I still only listened to her with my right ear.
She was right. I couldn’t do that. So I quit my job to run my other company full-time. Then sold it. Then switched careers 9 other times since then. Some of those careers crushed the soul out of me, where you consistently google all the methods of suicide, where everyone that previously had your back now stabs your back.
The VP and I recently became Facebook friends. I see now, 15 years later, that she got a promotion. Good for her. She deserved it.
“You can’t do that,” the policeman told me. I didn’t want to leave my house. I was lying down pretending to be asleep but both policemen were in my room. They stood there. “Wake up,” one of them said. They ended up forcing me to go downstairs with them and sit in the back of their car. The back of a police car is small and uncomfortable. My knees were up against the back of their seat. I ended up staying the night in a motel. Sometimes when you disobey the rules, the consequences are unpleasant. But even then, five hours later, wakening in a room filled with cheap, blue colors, a post nuclear fake blue sky with irradiated flowers painted into the wall, all I could think of was not what I had done wrong but, “this is a new life.” New new new.
We are told from an early age to be “obedient”. There’s a lot of actors involved in that word. There’s “me” – “the obedient one”. Then there’s parents, teachers, siblings, bosses, wife, children, friends, employees, partners, investors, clients, customers, neighbors, citizens, the police, the law. We have to be obedient to all of them. Or else there are consequences. We get punished. Or people hate us. Or people get angry and want to argue. Or people think you’re crazy.
I feel like my chest is constricting even as I type this. So many people won’t speak to me anymore. So many people think I’ve broken some rule I didn’t even know about. And sometimes I screw up. A lot of times I screw up. I can think back to a thousand people I’ve disappointed. But I’m scared to death of slowly dying throughout life. Of living a life of complacency until death. The only way to not be handcuffed and jailed by all the rules set by the people around you is to fight for the disobedience that will set you free. Mediocrity follows the rules. Unfortunately, both success and failure disobey them.
– When Google started there were already 20 search engines in the process of going bankrupt. I even rejected investing in a search engine company (see, “The worst VC decision I ever made”) because I was obediently thinking, “the whole search engine thing is a done deal”. I was being too obedient. Google was disobedient. They won. I lost my home.
– Listen to a band like U2 or the Beatles or any band that withstands the test of time. Can you think of any bands that came before them that sounded like them? I’m not a music expert. But sometimes I can’t even figure out what instruments these groups are playing. They have their own styles unique to them. Although influenced by the past, in some important way they were disobedient towards their musical past and came up with something utterly new and astonishing.
– Kurt Vonnegut is a very disobedient writer. Sometimes he completely steps away from the story and characters and enters the book as the omniscient author. I never saw that done before. In the middle of a novel he might say, “ok, I’m the author so now I’m going to make these two characters which sprung straight out of my head meet each other in this imaginary bar.” (See his book, “Breakfast of Champions” as an example).
– Andy Warhol is classic disobedience. He would take brand names and completely abuse them and then use his “factory” to mass produce his art. Disobedient to the art world and the commercial world (where he got his start) in every way.
– Albert Einstein. You can’t get more disobedient than Einstein. He’s almost a fractal of disobedience. Meaning, no matter how closely you examine his life, no matter how minute you take apart his history, those moments you look at will be examples of disobedience. For instance, he renounced his citizenship to Germany in 1895. Then he opposed the war in 1914 despite the fact that almost all his physicist friends supported Germany (!) in the war. Politically, scientifically, and even in his romantic relationships (see the excellent biography, “Einstein in Love”) Einstein blazed his own path, often against the straight path followed by colleagues, family, and the governments which desperately wanted him for their own insidious purposes (Germany, America, Switzerland, Israel were all eager for their own political purposes. But Einstein was a nation of one).
– Buddha, Jesus, Abraham, and so on, were all disobedient to their family, teachers, and peers. All three of them had to leave and fight the standards of proper behavior in their own communities. Buddha abandoned his father’s wishes that he be king, abandoned his wife and just-born son. Jesus went against the wishes of the ruling class of Jews at the time and Abraham left Ur and his father in order to follow his own religious path. (See my post, “Was Buddha a Bad Father”)
Disobedience has consequences, most of them not good. You have to fight for your life. You’ll end up a nomad. You have to fight the critics. You’re going to cry. People are going to abandon you. I just found out two people formerly very close to me are no longer speaking to me.
You have to fight the people who will laugh at your attempts. Thomas Edison had to try 1000 times before he figured out the lightbulb. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel was rejected by over 20 publishers. People hated it. Hated her. Her friends laughed at her attempts as a middle-aged single mom to become an author. Now she’s a zillionaire. Who’s laughing now?
Don’t you want to be like one of the people above? Or any of the other countless examples I can give? (please give more examples in the comments).
How To Be Disobedient:
If you google the phrase “How to Be Disobedient” there are ZERO results. The only results are things like “What to do about a disobedient teen” or pages on how God does not want “disobedience”. I personally searched about a trillion web pages using the most disobedient search engine of all, Google.
Nine Techniques to be disobedient. You can try them today. Please suggest additional ones in the comments. In our youth we are butterflies, flying everywhere and trying everything. But in the end, life and obedience eats our dying bodies like maggots unless we truly fly free.
– Do the opposite. Buddha, instead of being a king, became the most impoverished, malnourished beggar possible in his quest for happiness. His family had told him his entire life he would be happy if he was king and wealthy. He did the EXACT opposite and found his happiness.
Practice: Everything that you consider doing today, consider doing the exact opposite. You don’t have to do the opposite but at least practice considering it. Maybe don’t go to that meeting. Maybe it can be a phone call. Maybe don’t write that report. Draw it instead. Maybe don’t go to that wedding. Go the beach instead. This is similar to my suggestion in “The Other Day I Woke Up Afraid and Angry” – if you are afraid of X, ask youself how you would react if the opposite of X happens (which is the likely result). Start that practice today! Right now as you’re reading this article even! Arggh! It’s a contradiction. Maybe you need to do the opposite of this article! Here’s a modification: for every thing you are told to do today: flip a coin: heads you do it, tails you don’t.
– Surprise. A surprise is an act of civil disobedience. When they thought you were going to fight, you sat. When they thought you were going to sleep, you loved. When they thought you were going to be a good employee, you stole all of their clients and started your own company. When they thought you were angry, you made them laugh. When they thought you were going to create a website for charities, you created Groupon. Surprise!
– Change one thing. Larry Page, when he was figuring out the PageRank algorithm which launched Google, didn’t start from scratch. He modified a patent developed by Robin Li (who later started Baidu) when Li was working at Dow Jones. The Dow Jones patent for search is 95% of the PageRank algorithm. So why didn’t Dow Jones start Google? Or any search engine for that matter?
Answer: companies have a hard time being disobedient. 99.9999% of the people in a company are very obedient people, so its hard then for the combined entity to be disobedient. Page, living in his garage, had no problems “changing one thing” or maybe two to create his own new search algorithm that works better than anything before or since. (See my post, “Why are Larry Page and I so Different”). This is not a criticism of “obedience” but just a reality. Procter & Gamble, despite having billions of dollars, can’t start Facebook. Which cost a few hundred dollars to build. Companies should train their employees to be disobedient. But they don’t know how. A slug crawls slowly along it’s own secretions and is happy with that meager existence.
– Steal. The best example is the first act of humanity in the Bible. Eve, going against God’s orders, stole the apple of knowledge. The result of this disobedience: all of humanity according to the Bible. For the less biblically inclined, every musical cover is an example of stealing and then “change one thing” or more. I mentioned the other day “A Fifth of Beethoven” done by the Walter Murphy Band and featured in the movie Saturday Night Fever. I’m listening to it this second. He stole Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and “changed one thing” (added a disco beat basically) and had a hit. Or how about Roy Lichtenstein. He blatantly stole panels from pop comic books, added his own text to them, and called it art. BAM! Bad behavior, Roy!
– Combine. Take two things that are unrelated. How about DNA science and computing. And combine them. Now you have DNA Computing. Here’s the Wikipedia entry. Someone at some point must’ve said, “you can’t do that!”
Or how about Andy Warhol. He “Stole” the brands (I’m thinking the classic Campbell’s Soup can) and combined it with his pop art ideas. Good thing lawyers weren’t giving him advice.
– Question Everything. I’m disgusted with myself. I believed Colin Powell when he said Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” (itself a phrase I should’ve questioned. What does a “weapon of mass destruction” even mean? The newspaper is a weapon of mass destruction.) and then used that to justify a war. I was for the war in Iraq when it was first proposed. Now I’m disgusted with myself. I wish I had questioned it more. What a pompous ass I was. Little kids got their heads shot off.
Now whenever someone tells me anything: you must go to college, you must buy a home, of course the Revolutionary War was necessary, XYZ religion is the only path to true happiness, I always question it and consider the opposite and the real reasons people are telling me these things.
Very important to remember: There’s always a “good reason” and the “real reason” and in order to find the real reason you have to question and dig deeper. Colin Powell presented us a “good reason” to go to war with Iraq but the real reasons might have to do with oil, psychological issues Bush had about his father, and who knows what else (only Dick Cheney knows).
Everything that someone tells me today I’m going to question. It takes time at first but once you start practicing questioning everything, even if its silently, then it becomes a natural routine. It’s via questioning that we become disobedient to the brainwashing society has thrust on us.
Many get too complacent in the mechanisms of the Zombie Recruitment Machine (you MUST have a job, you MUST be angry at this person who wronged you, you HAVE to be scared about Europe defaulting, you WILL be scared about going broke, you WILL listen to the doctor, etc) so it becomes difficult to question, to avoid the death of a guinea pig. But it’s the only way to break out of the Machine. To remove the bandages. To see the sun for what it is, the source of all light in your life.
– Ignore CAN’T, DON’T, SHOULDN’T, MUSTN’T: The same people who are today telling you “you can’t” are usually the same ones who say “I should’ve” about yesterday. Don’t be one of them. One man’s lunacy is another man’s delight.
– Honesty. Believe it or not, “honesty” is disobedience. Most people can’t be honest. Their friends and family would reject them. Their peers would ostracize them. Their clients and investors might part with them. In order to be honest sometimes you have to transform yourself. You have to let the sun come down, survive the 12 hours of darkness in the middle of a hurricane, and then let the new day begin. I’m not a political guy at all. I don’t watch debates. I don’t vote. I don’t even think there should be a Presidency. But I like guys like Ron Paul. Why do people listen to a simple congressman whenever he speaks? Regardless of what you think of him I feel like he’s the only one not carefully scripted. He’s honest. So people hate him. The only way you can become truly wealthy and prosperous, inside and out, is through the disobedience of honesty.
– Persistence. There are consequences to disobedience. Jesus got crucified. Thomas Edison had to try 1000 times before he lit up his lab. Oscar Wilde got jailed. Mohammed Ali got sentenced to jail for draft evasion and had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Andy Warhol got shot. Bukowski worked thirty years of factory jobs before he was hit with literary financial success. Conrad Hilton went bankrupt on his first hotel chain. Mark Zuckerberg has everyone suing him. These are the guys who survived. Maybe you won’t survive if you’re disobedient. But…
Disobedience + Persistence = Enormous success.
If my parents, friends, colleagues, partners and others only knew the number of times I’ve disobeyed them (but always following the rule: do no harm). Maybe one day I can be totally honest without boundaries. That day the ambient stench of obedience will no longer be in my home. I’ll breathe deeply and know that I’m alive.