When to Break the Rules

Yesterday, a situation I’ve imagined came true. I was standing at a red light for pedestrians. Next to me, there was a young family with three children. Across the street, a man in his 50s was waiting too.

Suddenly, a young, tall man with a backpack zipped past on our right, despite the light not yet having turned green. The elder man on the other side reprimanded him: “There’s kids here man, what are you doing? Be a good example!”

The reason I “foresaw” this scenario is that I was trying to figure out when it makes sense to break the rules — and one of my conclusions was that other people should factor into the equation.

I jaywalk quite a lot. Fines in Germany are small and rarely levied, and I believe it’s every grown adult’s own responsibility to check for traffic before they’re crossing the street. If anything, the light makes us careless. There’s no reason a rogue driver can’t hit you just because you’re crossing on green.

That said, I never jaywalk when children are around. In doing so, I would set an example for them, and it’s not my job to educate someone else’s kids. If the parents want to teach their kids to jaywalk, then they can do so — but it shouldn’t be me making that decision for them. In this case, the only way to stay out of it is to stick with the default, and so, unlike the tall man with the backpack, that’s what I’m doing.

When we think about breaking the rules, we mostly consider whether it’ll be to our own benefit. But our rule-breaking has consequences beyond ourselves.

It’s not like we should never encourage others to break the rules either. When people in China — a country known for its high level of censorship and political containment activity — take to the streets rebuking the oppressive yet inefficient measures their government takes to “protect their health,” every additional person counts. One might inspire two more, and that’s how a small group of rebels turns into a loud choir of thousands, singing with the voice of the people. In that case, you’d hope others will follow your rule-breaking example.

The most important rules to break are your own. Those usually won’t affect others. But when your decision to upend the status quo has a direct impact on those around you, stop for a moment. Weigh your personal gain against the consequences for others. Will they benefit too? Will it be to their detriment?

It’s never easy to put yourself second so someone else can gain an advantage they might never even know about, but rules are for protection, and so protect is what we should do — regardless of the rules. Whether that means crossing on red or staying put, only you can decide, but with time and practice, I’m sure we can learn to make the right call again and again.