You’ve probably heard that it’s unwise to break the rules until you know how to use them. You’ve probably also heard the opposite—there are no rules—it’s the job of innovators to disregard convention. Which of these is true?

Oddly, both. This is the Genius Paradox. You have to disobey the rules of creativity to obey the rules of creativity. And in obeying the rules of creativity, you automatically disobey the rules of creativity. That’s because the number one rule is to break the rules.

Creative rules are not rigid dictates but rough principles—patterns that a variety of artists, scientists, and thinkers have used for centuries as the scaffolding for their inventions. You shouldn’t be a slave to them. You don’t need to keep them in your conscious mind. But having considered them will broaden your repertoire for any creative challenge that calls for a rich response. The simplest way to resolve the Genius Paradox is this:

1) React to the rules by embracing them or breaking them.

2) Observe the results.

3) Rewrite the rules from your own experience.

You’ll find that there are rules for creativity—your rules. They may not be the ones that others follow, but they’ll be true and useful to you.

One caveat: Make sure your new principles are not just scars from a previous experience—it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusion from a single failure. Weigh your newly forged rules against the rules of the ages to make sure they have the heft and hardiness to do the job.

Pretty easy so far, right?


Next week: Wish for what you want.
Wishing is a warm-up sketch for problem solving.


The Rules of Genius is now a book with a bonus section called “How can I matter?” that includes 10 essential rules.  Buy here.



  1. alfredo Muccino

    Thanks for writing this, Marty.

    Personally, I think it’s good to know the rules before breaking them.

    But, perhaps, “rules” is too strong a word. I think it’s good to have some grasp of the past before trying to invent a new future. There is much to be learned from the accomplishments and failures that have occurred before us. Yet, I also think that just because something did not work a while back, perhaps it will work now. There is no black and white in the world that I see.

    I believe that we need to set aside conventional thinking in order to innovate – and push the boundaries of what is safe and acceptable. Challenging the status quo leads to fresh solutions.

    besides, as far as I am concerned, I think that it’s so much more fun to purposefully and deliberatively “break” the rules, once you actually know what the rules are. :)

    January 16, 2014
    • Heath Schweitzer

      Wow, this topic was tailor made for you Alf. It’s as if Marty took a page right out of your book. ;)

      Seriously though, this paradox is true of technology too and not limited to creativity. Often times, finding a solution to a particularly challenging technical issue requires parting ways with convention and forging a new path. While following programming principles and best practices is often a wise thing to do, it can also be an obstacle to doing something truly innovative and breaking through perceived barriers.

      January 16, 2014
  2. Joanne Hus

    Heath, you bring up a good point. I would add that creativity can be more broadly defined as making something out of nothing. So a programmer, an entrepreneur, a chef, an engineer, a mathematician, etc. could all be considered “creatives.” And if you take this a little further, you could say that every human being is creative in that we are creating/designing our lives and our life’s work.

    Marty, thanks for writing this. Opens up an interesting discussion. I’m looking forward to the whole series!

    January 17, 2014
  3. Marty Neumeier

    Joanne, I completely agree we’re all potentially creative, each in our own way. But it may be going too far to define creativity as making something out of nothing. Creative projects usually start with a bunch of “somethings”—materials, tools, subject matter, goals, skills, constraints, deadlines, budgets, and so on. But your definition does capture the magic of making. My goal with The Rules of Genius is to provide some structure for that magic, much like what The Elements of Style did for the magic of writing. BTW, I love the idea of designing your own life and work.

    January 17, 2014
    • Gil Chavez

      There is a vast and often ignored and “untapped” resource in the USA (and other nations). It is the creative “make do” inventiveness of many poor people. One example is in Appalachia where “ordinary” people often use cast off materials to create all sorts of things from moonshine stills to metal forges (old car brake drums)when manufactured things are unavailable (aka too costly).
      The so-called “Culture of Poverty” especially among ethnic and cultural minorities is not always based on nor functions from a deficit model.
      What they tend to lack is a broader appreciation of their ingenuity and advice, or a “helping hand” (not a handout)in organizing creative genius and “spreading the wealth” of that creativity.

      March 31, 2014
      • Marty Neumeier

        I found that the “make do” skill set was alive and well in the Czech Republic, too. After many years of Soviet deprivation, they learned to repurpose everything in sight. This has left them with a culture of resourcefulness.

        March 31, 2014
  4. Andrew Mueller

    Marty, Alfredo,

    Thanks for getting me thinking. I love breaking rules. One things about “rules” is that they are often generalities and context driven. They also change with time and unless people have success breaking them, they are blindly followed even though they may no longer hold the relevance they once had.

    It seems to me that it is not “knowing” the rules before you break them that is important, but deep understanding of reasons for the rule — why it became a rule in the first place — is. Then when you choose to break the rule you are doing so with intent and in such a way that maximizes the likelihood that you will get the outcome you are looking for.

    January 17, 2014
  5. Marty Neumeier

    Andrew, you’re so right that deep understanding of the reasons for a rule is helpful. Yet, in thinking about this series over the months, I realized that a deep understanding is not always necessary. in fact, it may actually keep us from breaking the rules.

    A lot of innovation grows out of naïvete and “beginner’s mind” rather than deep experience. We go in NOT knowing so we can come out knowing. Have you ever had the experience of getting so good at something that it loses its freshness? You see that a lot in music, art, writing, e.g., Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, J.D. Salinger. Their best work was their early work.

    January 17, 2014
  6. Andrew Mueller

    Marty, Boy I wish I could go back and reword that first paragraph in my comment.

    Yes, the most important part is to break the rule. If knowledge gets in the way — or lack of knowledge for that matter — then creative blocks or stagnation is likely to surface.

    So yes, break them regardless of your level of experience or understanding of the rule itself. But be prepared to honestly learn and iterate. The feedback you get by breaking the rule informs if and how you might break it — or other — rules in the future.

    January 18, 2014
  7. Alex Smailes

    Kinda like Haitian art!
    Born from inspiration of the 15th,16th century classical painters of the time, yet taken to a very different conscious level through innocence, creativity and struggle. Often storytelling in a (info-graphical) way, full of real and unreal people or objects, messages or instructions from the living and spiritual plane.
    Very inspirational and unique stuff.

    January 20, 2014
  8. David Kervinen

    I think classically trained musicians that create breakout, boundary-breaking music have used this concept for a very long time. My opinion is; understanding what the rules are at least provides context. Otherwise how do you know you’ve even broken “the rules”? And when we do “break the rules”, perhaps we’ve just rewritten them.

    January 23, 2014
  9. Marty Neumeier

    Music (of all kinds) is a great example. I would say that if you break the rules SUCCESSFULLY, you’ve rewritten the rules. Otherwise you’ve only made a mess. But even a mess can teach you something new and useful. In my experience, getting your hands dirty is the surest way to learn.

    January 23, 2014
    • David Kervinen

      You took the next sentence I decided not to write, right out of my head. Love the part of just making a mess! A subjective question but what defines “successfully”? Are they your own rules (as an artist) or the rules of convention? Mainstream has a way of making that definition for us it seems.

      January 23, 2014
  10. Marty Neumeier

    In my view, creative success has to be measured against your goals. If your only goal is to please yourself, then only you can decide whether or not you’ve been successful. But most of us have clients, users, audience members, or customers to please. In this case success has to be measured by effects and outcomes in the world “out there.” I find this kind of success much more difficult, and also much more rewarding.

    January 23, 2014
  11. Rikki Leigh

    Everything we do requires creativity. The first rule of creativity is to expand your definition of creativity to include everything. People tend to think it means . You create your style when you choose what to wear, your image when you choose what you say, your health when you choose what to cook, etc.

    The secret to creativity is to know a little bit about a whole lot. Throw it all in the pot and stir. Let knowing how to make perfect scrambled eggs produce the solution to more efficient lighting. It can, if you’ll allow it to happen. Because someone figured out how to make tofu taste like eggs, these days you CAN make an omelet without breaking a lot of eggs…

    Great post. Thank you.

    January 25, 2014
    • Marty Neumeier

      Rikki, I like your notion that experience in one kind of creative area can lead to a solution in another area. I wrote a chapter about this in Metaskills, called “Climbing the Bridge.” By acquiring deep expertise in one skill, you can move across more easily to another skill, rather than starting over from the bottom.

      What I would add to “knowing a little about a lot,” is that you also need to know a lot about a little. Until you’ve had the experience of mastering a skill deeply, you can’t expect to do genius-level work. What do you think?

      April 27, 2014

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