Compliance Is Optional

James May once had a funny conversation with a Californian and a German about losing your license. The Californian asked, “What happens if you drive anyway?” and the German said, “Oh no, you can’t do that.” The Californian went, “Sure, I know, but, you know, what if you did?” and the German replied, “No, it’s not possible. You have no license.” Trying it one last time, the Californian said, “Yeah, but let’s say it’s late one night and, hell, you go for a…” “IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DRIVE WITHOUT A LICENSE!!!”

Of course, there is an answer to the Californian’s question: Depending on the circumstances, you might have to pay five to 365 daily rates based on your salary, so up to one year’s worth of pay. As a prominent example, soccer player Marco Reus once had to pay more than half a million euros for this exact transgression. The worst case scenario? You go to prison for a year. That’s a broad spectrum of consequences, but one that’s severe enough to probably warrant following that particular rule.

Others, however? Not so much. I’m always shocked at how much leeway the German tax system offers for paying your taxes late. It’s something to the tune of 1% of the owed sum per month that you’re overdue. There’s a limit to how many months you can be late, but if you owe 10,000 €, paying 100 € for another month of time to organize the money, should you not have it (you really should, by the way), feels like the bargain of the century.

The point we often forget – especially in Germany – is that compliance is optional. Every rule can be broken. There will be consequences, but it is those consequences we should weigh when choosing our behavior, not what the rule is. With the exception of physics, rules are not the boundaries of reality. They are dotted lines others have painted, and at some point, most dotted lines will – and some must be – crossed.

There’s something more important in here than what could be seen as encouragement to jaywalk, and it’s something Elon Musk has not only always practiced but that he started feeling particularly strongly about when dealing with the Federal Avionics Association at SpaceX: “If the rules are such that you can’t make progress, then you have to fight the rules.”

If a feature (or lack thereof), rule, or process doesn’t make sense, don’t sit there in quiet suffering. Call it out! Say, “This process is dumb. It should be changed.” Sometimes, it’ll be up to you to spearhead the change. Most of the time, it won’t. Often, it won’t happen at all, or at least not for a long time. But you’ll have done your part.

Don’t just tolerate the system. Shape it! Remember compliance is optional, and be mindful of reason and consequences. Those are the forces that matter, especially when something feels impossible. Like, you know, driving without a license.