Know Your Rules to Be Successful



One of our greatest sources of pain in life is when our expectations aren’t met.  Surprisingly, we can control this if we know how to figure out our expectations and the expectations of others.

We all have rules for things, whether we know them or not.  If you know your rules, you can find ways to speed up your success or change what’s not working for you.

When You Don’t Know the Rules, You Can’t Win

When you don’t know your rules, you might be doing all the right things, but then feel unsuccessful inside because you have unrealistic expectations.  When you don’t know other people’s rules you might create conflict because you violate their rules.

Let’s figure out how to find out our own rules and other people’s rules to improve our effectiveness.

Figuring Out Your Rules

The simplest way I know to dump your rules out on the table is to ask a question.  For example, to figure out our rules for success, we would ask ourselves, “In order to be successful at XYZ, I need to …?”  To figure out our rules for what we need to feel loved, we would ask ourselves, “In order to feel loved, I need to …?

Here is an example of me exploring my rules of what it takes to be successful at Microsoft:

  • I can’t fail at the basics (administration, email, etc.)
  • I need to deliver amazing value (patents, game changing ideas, etc.)
  • I need to make world-class impact – internally and externally (books that change the world, etc.)
  • I need to live the MS values at work: integrity, honesty, openness, personal excellence, constructive self-criticism, continual self-improvement, and mutual respect.
  • I need to know the system and leverage it.
  • I need to know the network and have the right people.
  • I need to have the reputation for getting results and making things happen.
  • I need to go up a level at least every two years .

Don’t critique your rules.  Just dump them.  You first need to get your list of rules down on paper so you can explore what’s working for you and what’s not.  Once you have your rules listed out, then you can start to analyze and evaluate them.  Using this simple technique, you can dump your rules for any area of your life.

Your Rules Can Make or Break Your Personal Satisfaction

Some of your rules might surprise you.  It’s very likely that you have some rules that make it impossible to be successful.  You could be the prettiest girl in the world, but feel unattractive because you don’t match your own rules.

If you define your success based on external things beyond your control or if you set unrealistic expectations, this is where you can create your own pain, instead of creating your own pleasure or satisfaction.


This is a distinction that separates bad, good, and great results.  As you dump rules, get clarity on whether they are “MUST” or just “SHOULD.”  For example, if you ask yourself, in order to be healthy, ….,” and you respond with ….

  • I SHOULD exercise.
  • I SHOULD eat right.

Well, that’s pretty lame and it’s not going to change your life.  To show you the difference, let’s contrast with what we might see  if we ask an athlete.  They might respond with …

  • I MUST workout 4 days a week with suffucient rest between workouts.
  • I MUST eat the proper ratio of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates for my current condition.
  • I MUST limit my starchy carbohydrates to XYZ per day.
  • I MUST eat 5 small meals per day to maintain my blood sugar levels.
  • I MUST eat foods that are high in nutritional density.
    … etc.

To get great results in areas of our life usually means getting more specific rules and turning SHOULDs into MUSTs.

Rules Conflicts

You can have rules conflicts with yourself or others.  For example, to feel loved, maybe you need to be told, and maybe you need to be told everyday, but your partner thinks actions speak louder than words.  You can imagine the disconnect.  In another example, let’s say you think that to do a good job you need to work 12 hours a day, but your boss doesn’t care how much time you spend, just the results.  When you know the rules, you can better match them or change them, and improve your effectiveness.

Explore your own rules … Ask yourself, “In order for you to be successful, I need to …?”  Explore your boss’s rules … Ask your boss, “In order for you to be successful, I need to …?”  Explore your kid’s rules … Ask your kid, “In order to be a great Mom, a great Mom needs to ….?” … “In order to be a great Dad, a great Dad needs to …”   Expect yourself to be surprised by yourself and others.

Photo by austinevan.


  1. Nice one. We all have our own subjective definition of success and I think it’s important to aim for what we see as success, not what people conventionally see. It’s the only way to have lasting fulfillment in our lives.


  2. This is interesting, thanks for posting it. As I’m starting to move away from judgments, this is well-timed to fit into that theme of things. Rather than see everything as good or bad, let me just be and later reflect to see what I got out of it.

    The underlying idea of “What is success?” does have some appeal to me. For example, getting things done is a trait of successful people, IMO. To know what is useful is another trait. I may end up with a bit of a list in the end. Then I could possibly get feedback on whether or not that is a reasonable list to have.

    The musts vs shoulds is something that may take me a little while to digest, but I do see a difference in that the musts are a kind of non-negotiable, required, necessary conditions compared to the shoulds that may or may not work and aren’t necessarily backed the same way. Also, being specific and quantifying helps give more perspective on things,e.g. the differences between just exercise and spending 20 minutes doing aerobic activity.

    “In order to rock the world, I must…” is my parting thought as that is how I’d like to go and grow. 🙂

  3. I like the way you explore rules and expand them in reference to love, success etc. One could get to know oneself pretty well trying out this exercise.

    One major advantage of this is that when you have conflicting rules, they come out in open. For instance, if you need approval and independence, things would be pretty difficult.

  4. “If you define your success based on external things beyond your control or if you set unrealistic expectations, this is where you can create your own pain, instead of creating your own pleasure or satisfaction.”



  5. Understanding what we need and how to meet those needs is key. It starts with our rules. If I want to try to be a vegetarian I probably won’t be able to accomplish this unless I tell the people in my life why I’m making the decision, so they can help me accomplish this lifestyle.

    I also agree that we need to create definitive rules, so we don’t waiver. I can’t just say I want to eat healthy. I must know that I want to go veggie because I’ve noticed my energy level staying at a higher level when I eat a plant based diet.

  6. Hm, I’m struck by the idea that our actions don’t match our rules. Actually, to be more specific, that idea has me pondering whether our beliefs (philosophies) match our behavior. For example, I have always believed music is the highest art form, but for years I strayed from learning and playing music. Recently, it caught up with me and I started relearning the guitar. This might be a big leap from the ideas in your article, but there’s something to be said for living your own ideals. Thanks, J.D.

  7. Musts vs shoulds is very good, yes. And recently a book I read suggested “I want to” is also a positive affirmation in stead of “I should” or “I need to”.

    Hmnn, re-exploring my rules for success with a hobby of mine might bear taking a new peek at. I’ll think about that, thanks.

  8. Very thoughtful words today…I think there are many folks who followed the rules and played the game the way they thought it must be played and made big choices based on those rules for their kind of success – only to have the rug pulled out from under them…

    Having to invent a new game with new rules is sometimes just overwhelming.

    here’s a little example: paying for health ins. all my life, then the economic crash and the ins. co. changes rules…and ups the fees, So now one can not go to the DR. because deductible and co-pays are too big…Trying to figure out dropping health ins. all together? Can’t afford to get health care, can’t retire, lost retirement funds will they go back up in time? Can not sell real estate….pay cuts to hold on, and now the State redefines certification/lic. requirements and there it no money to get re-certified…now folks in Washington DC want to get rid of Medicare….
    For me the rules are now how do I want to die, my way, and not by others rules?
    I am creative and quite a risk taker….and if this is overwhelming game change for me…just think of all the folks who are not creative and rule changers….

  9. The distinction between must and should is what made a big impact in reaching certain goals of mine. I’ll definitely ask myself those questions, I can totally see what a huge difference they can make.

  10. Great post, my friend. The rules and the game itself can change quickly, yet not everyone realizes how profound the changes were until it’s late in the day. Then they have to scramble.

    Making your own rules is the surest path to never being surprise, unless you surprise yourself in a good way.

    Keep doing what you do! I’m always glad when I stop by over here:)


  11. @ Ed

    I think Microsoft culture and Bill Gates taught us to be better at checking our assumptions.

    @ Eduard

    Thank you. “Aim for what we see as success” is well put.

    @ JB

    Judgments aren’t good or bad either, just thinking makes them so. What’s helped me with judgments is measuring against effectiveness … basically, is this moving me towards or away from what I want to accomplish.

    @ Positively Present

    Thank you.

    @ Avani

    You’re right, it’s a great approach for digging deeper into self-awareness.

  12. @ Kevin

    Thank you — Mint is my new bar!

    @ Karl

    Great sythesis and reflection — yes, it starts with our rules and we need to know what we need to meet our needs.

    @ Melissa

    Incongruence is actually an antipattern in NLP. Getting your actions to meet your rules, or getting your beliefs to match your behaviors is a key to success.

    @ Jannie

    I like the “I want to” addition … it fits perfectly well.

  13. @ Patricia

    Thank you.

    Sometimes just by stating your problem or challenge a new way opens up new doors and new possibilities. Play with your language until you find the key that works for you. That’s your ultimate power.

    @ Lana

    Whenever I need to make a meaningful change in my life, it’s always been about turning SHOULDs into MUSTs. It’s such a simple, but powerful lens.

    @ Josh

    Thank you. I’m glad your visits are always worth it!

    @ Mama Zen

    Thank you. Once you know this lens, you’ll see it show up time and again.

  14. Extraordinary! Two pieces of this post strike me as significant.

    First, your exploration of success at Microsoft. You walk the walk, J.D. Your body of work *is* game-changing. You have indeed been changing the world. And as far as I can tell you are going to continue to do so.

    Second, I realized all-too-painfully that the rules required for success in my role weren’t compatible with my own goals. I recognized that I could continue to beat my head against the wall. Or adopt the strategem, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. Instead, I changed the changing roles. The new rules in the new role will allow me to thrive.

  15. @ Jimmy

    Thank you!

    Finding containers and roles that unleash our best is one of those continuous journeys in life. I think it’s also one of the most important ones, since it’s the people we spend our time with and the problems we work on.

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