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My earliest experience making my own rules came when I entered high school. In the first weeks of my freshman year, I tried to do everything right. I did exactly what I was told to do—and this included my homework. After lacrosse practice and my after-school job as a box boy at a local supermarket, I got home around 8:00 p.m. At this point, I was expected to eat dinner, do homework, and go to sleep so I could wake up and do it all over again.
I quickly discovered that trying to complete all the homework assigned to me meant staying up almost all night long every night. I couldn’t quit lacrosse—I’d created the team! And I needed my job in order to contribute to the family income. My mother’s jobs, when she could get them, were not enough to pay the bills. By high school, the house we lived in had an actual dirt floor downstairs and walls without plaster. Now I could honestly say that we were “dirt poor.” My mom and I did our best to improve the house on the weekends, but we always needed more money.
This whole homework thing clearly wasn’t going to work. I decided to take matters into my own hands and implement a “No‑Homework Policy.” My plan was simple. I would work as hard as possible to pay attention and be completely focused in each class, but I would not bring my books home, and I would not do any of the homework assigned to me. If the homework was intended to reinforce what was taught in class, I would be fine—because I would make sure to absorb it all during the school day.
The next day, one by one, I walked each of my teachers through my plan. The conversation went pretty much the same with all of them: First, I said hello and reintroduced myself. Then I explained that I’d been attempting to do all my homework for the past two weeks. (I may also have hinted that perhaps the teachers might communicate with one another more about how much work they were assigning to students.) I told them that doing the work took me until approximately 4:00 a.m. Regrettably, I was unable to sustain this. Then I introduced my No‑Homework Policy.
Some of the teachers laughed, but ultimately all of them told me in their own ways that if I really wanted to go ahead with this, I could, but it would affect my overall grade. I was willing to live with that.
From that point on, I didn’t do homework. I paid attention in class and strived to absorb the material. Ultimately, perhaps because I had been so up front and clear in my communication of the policy, my teachers did not end up penalizing me. In other words, my No‑Homework Policy didn’t have an impact on my overall grades. It was, for all intents and purposes, a rousing success.
The point of this story isn’t “cocky kid blows off homework and gets away with it,” though on the surface that’s exactly what happened. Homework is generally regarded as useful, and far be it from me to mount a one-man campaign against it. (Not right now, anyway. Talk to me when my kid is twelve.) But I had an idea for a different way to do things, one that worked better for me. There was no harm in proposing this to the school administration. The point of school, after all, isn’t to do homework. The point of school is to learn. As high school progressed, I focused on learning what inspired me, so I might get an A+ in genetics and a C in something easy. It was a mistake to assume that teachers—or anyone else, for that matter—automatically knew what was best for me.
If anything, opportunities like this are easier to recognize and implement in the workplace. Do you work best in a dimly lit room? Would you like to work on a side project that is more interesting to you? Rules are there to help us—to create a culture, to streamline productivity, and to promote success. But we’re not computers that need to be programmed. If you approach your bosses or colleagues with respect, and your goals are in alignment, there’s often room for a little customization and flexibility. And on the other side, those in positions of power shouldn’t force people to adhere to a plan for the sake of protocol. The solution, always, is to listen carefully—to your own needs and to those of the people around you.
Biz Stone is one of Twitter’s co-founders. He also was instrumental in the launches of Xanga, Blogger, Odeo, and Medium. His current startup is Jelly, a Q&A platform using images.
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