Can't play the game anymore? Just change the rules!

Jeff Tobe
Keynote Speaker, Opening General Session
2002 APWA North American Snow Conference

Recently, I sat down to play a Chutes and Ladders-type game with my seven-year-old daughter. It was a lot of fun to see her little mind at work, but she had one annoying peculiarity: She was continually bending the rules, reshaping roles, changing the boundaries, reversing strategies. Everything I took for granted, she challenged. Cheating? I don't think so.

When we decide that we are in competition, we implicitly agree to play the game the way it has always been played, to abide by the formal and informal rules and roles, as well as the unspoken rituals. Although competing can be fun and exciting, it is not very creative and definitely limits the imagination. It is because of this experience that I have concluded that competition encourages conformity.

Kids are always changing the rules and the way the game is played. Research shows that kids spend more time creating and re-creating a game than actually playing it. So, why not ignore the competition—ignore what everyone else is doing and start to re-create the way life's "game" is played?

When you compete head-on, you are just agreeing to play by the old conform to the way it has always been stay in the lines. Innovation simply means to change the way we do things. I believe that there is no such thing as a new idea, only new ways of presenting old ones. This hits at the very core of our personas. Once you make the decision not to "compete," but to define your own style, you can find solace in the fact that you don't have to "re-invent the wheel" to be successful. Approach life with the mindset that you are simply going to find new ways to present what you already have. Maybe that means looking at what you do for a living differently, trying some non-traditional things with your family, or simply reading a publication that has nothing to do with your present situation.

When you begin to accept competition as a head-to-head battle, then there are no winners and you tend to lose any advantage you ever had. Look at what has happened in the airline business with frequent-flier programs. What was once a very unique, innovative idea now has been copied so many times that no airline has the advantage in this arena. As a matter of fact, I would venture to guess that there is many an airline executive who rues the day that the concept of frequent-flier bonuses was ever developed.

It would be naïve and foolish of me to say, "Don't compete." I realize that anything you can do nowadays to beat your competition to the punch can give you some small advantage in life. However, even though you will gain some small, often one-time "one-ups" on your competitors by facing them head-on, competing will never present the breakthroughs that you are going to need to move ahead of the pack or the staying power you need to really soar through life.

Remember, every new and innovative idea has always—always—broken with tradition. I love to repeat the advertising copy of one of the large automakers, "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." I have enjoyed challenging many people to "stop looking in the rearview mirror to see how things have happened in the past, and look through the windshield to see what lies down the road." If you spend your time considering the way things have always been done before, you are not prioritizing your energies. Start asking yourself, "How can I present my life 'experience' differently than anyone else or differently than what is expected of me?"

By changing the rules to the game, you get outside of your comfort zone and begin looking at your challenges from a whole new perspective. We are not going to be comfortable any longer and we can either accept the challenge or get left behind. Wayne Gretzky, one of the all-time greatest hockey players, was once asked by a reporter how it was that he always managed to be where the puck is. After some thought, Gretzky replied, "I'm not always where the puck is. I'm always where the puck is going to be." Are you where your life is, or are you where your life is going to be?

Helen Keller once said, "The most pathetic person in world is someone who has sight but has no vision." Rather than looking at the competition that is, why not start to create what isn't?

Jeff Tobe is the Primary Colorer at Coloring Outside The Lines in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is the author of the new book, Coloring Outside The Lines. Jeff will be this year's opening keynote at the 2002 North American Snow Conference in Columbus, Ohio, April 14-16. To contact Jeff, visit his website at or call 800-875-7106.