Norms and Rules

In his podcast, Akimbo [], Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

In this podcast, Seth discusses the difference between norms vs. rules and how they matter. Rules are explicit, often written down, and expected to be followed. Society enforces the Rules. Norms are what we believed should be followed but often not explicitly stated.

A key element of what it means to be an artist is to see the norms and then choose to change them. Some people, however, choose to do things that may carefully avoid the letter of the law but aggressively tweaking norms for their selfish benefits.

Many societies face a tremendous dilemma when trying to enforce certain laws. The dilemma and conflicts arise when there are significant gaps between the laws and the norms. The enforcement of the pot and drug regulation is just one typical example. Should society change the norm by enforcing the law, change the law to reflect the norm, or not strictly enforce the law.

Often the strict enforcement of certain laws/rules can cause a very negative feeling about the laws or rules. The bad feeling happens when the authorities are not doing the hard work to challenge and change the norms. The laws end up catching random outliers in ways that do not change the norms. Instead, we should be doing the hard work of marketing and practicing cultural understanding to promote eager compliance with the norm.

Taxing the cigarettes helps to create a norm that change the cigarette smoking habit of many people. Culturally it is no longer nearly as cool in most communities in the United States to smoke cigarettes because the authorities worked to change the norm by establishing a rule that led to a cascade effect. When the norm changes to reflect the more desirable state, the stricter rules often become less necessary.

Over time, norms combine and converge to become part of a culture. The norms are,  in essence, describes “People like us do things like this.” We figure out who the people like us are, and we look at what things like this are. That is the norm.

But rules are not useless. Sometimes we need established rules to help change the norms, for the better. We are all better off when the Health Department makes rules that protect the consumers when visiting restaurants. Rules exist when we cannot count on people to make good choices in evolving the norms around us. Rules also benefit us when it is too complicated or off-putting to keep the norms in sync.

Norms often get established by powerful and productive members of the culture, but just as often by the outliers. Our culture works because of the norms; it is not possible to make a rule for everything. Also, our culture works because the norms change over time due to brave, generous outliers who show up with something new, a technology or an idea that makes it better. When we want our work to matter to the culture, we should consider how our work can bring about change to the existing norm.

“We live in a culture where the norm is to change the norm, where we get to make things better.”