Author, Speaker, Comic, Mime: Breaking Rules with the Intriguing Rick Lewis

Author, Speaker, Comic, Mime: Breaking Rules with the Intriguing Rick Lewis

By Doug Kirkpatrick

The Morning Star Self-Management Institute recently talked with Rick Lewis, professional misbehaver, entertainer, speaker and author. He shares some serious and thoughtful observations about Intelligent Misbehavior, Self-Management, and the salience of full engagement.

SMI: Well, Rick, I wanted to ask you some questions.  We always love to do interviews like this with like-minded people because it’s fascinating to find out how people find us and interact with self-management and what their stories are.  So I appreciate very much your spending a little time this morning.

Rick Lewis: It’s my pleasure.  I’m as fascinated as you are by the diverse backgrounds of those I've met at SMI.

SMI: Absolutely.  Yeah, the diversity is quite amazing.  So, Rick, why don’t you just tell us your story in a nutshell and describe what you do and how you came to be doing it.

Rick Lewis: Wow!  Story in a nutshell!  There’s a challenge.  [Chuckle]

SMI: We love challenges here at SMI.

Rick Lewis: [Chuckle] Obviously, any person’s story could be told from many different angles. I've always had an interest in making some kind of significant impact on others.  And I remember as a kid my first experiences of that were just making people laugh, at first just with my own family and then doing public theatre and performance. Something was very compelling to me about being able to watch other people transform from one state to another; that is, from straight-faced and serious to feeling delight and feeling engaged and having fun. 

I don’t know where that impulse came from or why it was so interesting to me, but it's been there as far as I can remember.  So that's the root of everything significant that’s happened for me in terms of work — this desire and interest in seeing people move from one mood into another; one place to another; one perspective to another, and that the new place be characterized by a brighter energy and greater sense of possibility.

Whatever brings people to life and makes them curious and engaged with their present circumstances is what interests me. My work life is focused around the question, "What can I make up today that’s going to help this happen for people?"

SMI: Okay.

Rick Lewis: Do you want to ask more questions to guide me through process here?

SMI: Sure, sure, sure!

Rick Lewis: Otherwise I’m just going to ramble on and your audience will think, "How is a guy who is so self-involved going to help people?"

SMI: Of course, of course.  No problem!  So what rule have you broken today so far?

Rick Lewis: Oh, that’s a great question!  (Pause while thinking.) Instead of going right into work today I stayed and had breakfast with my son, he’s three years old, and I’m currently showing him how to get a spoon in his mouth without winding up getting cereal and milk completely down the front side of him. 

So in order to do that, in order to have leverage to be able to give a person you care about some information that’s going to be useful to them, you can’t just jump right in and say "Hey, that's not right – let me show you how to do this!" 

There’s a process of coming up alongside such a person first and getting the connection. I was actually just reviewing some of the past SMI newsletters.  One of the articles in there that really intrigued me was about this idea that self-management flourishes in a context of friendship.

One of the rules I name in my 7 Rules You Were Born to Break book is a rule called, “Stay in Control." This rule has conditioned us to basically manipulate or boss people around in order to get things to happen, versus building relationship as the foundation for what’s necessary for change. So if there’s any rule I’ve broken so far today it was taking the time to establish a connection with my child prior to providing direction.

And that translates across the board of course to leadership, whether someone is a CEO or a street performer like me. Unless you have the connection there first, to try to direct people in the absence of that connection can be pretty fruitless. 

So that’s about the only rule I think I’ve been grappling with so far today.  But with kids that’s a constant one.

SMI: Yeah, that’s a great story.  And actually I really wanted to get to that question of leadership – natural leadership based on relationship and how it relates to self-management.  And you took care of the segue for me, so I appreciate that.  You made my job easier. 

So part of self-management is about – one of the principles is about people should not use force against other people – should not force other people.  How does that play into your break a rule philosophy and how does it relate to leadership and organizations generally?

Rick Lewis: Wow, that’s a great question; of course, very complex.  And there are a lot of layers to that. Starting with the fact that what is perceived or felt to be coercion is an individual matter. 

You're asking me questions here and I could leave this call and say to my wife say, “Geez, Doug was twisting my arm behind my back trying to get me to say the things he wanted.”  Well, of course, anyone listening to this interview would go, “Huh?  That's not what it seemed like to me.”  How we perceive a circumstance all depends on the personality and state of the individual and how they perceive others in their environment.

This idea that self-management is characterized by the absence of coercion is nice in theory, and so you could write, "there shall be no coercion," into your code of conduct, but you can't legislate perception.  So the basis of a self-managed organization has to be self-managed individuals.  And one quality of a self-managed individual is that they’re taking full responsibility for their experiences and their perception.

That means if I have the experience where I am routinely feeling coerced by others, then there’s something for me to work on; something for me to look at and take responsibility for versus looking around out there and saying, “Hey, all these people are all pushy autocrats who are just trying to control me.” A self-managed individual is someone who can be relied upon to rise above the rules that I talk about, like Be Normal or Pretend You Don't Matter, and assume responsibility for their experience and the results they generate in their lives.

If we want to be a self-managed person we have to do the self-work and understand who we are and what we’re up to, even at an unconscious level. To break the rule Be Normal for example would involve my willingness to stand for and express my affections for life, meaning what I'm interested in, what I'm passionate about, what I feel compelled to support as a cause, or what I feel interested in championing as a change in the world. If I just hide out, Being Normal and fitting in, then I become a victim who isn't getting what they want and need from their life — or their participation at work — and I'll likely wind up blaming management for my unhappiness.

When I experience my life as a victim it’s going to look like everyone is trying to coerce me into something.  Every interaction I have—if I’m a really good victim—is going to look like some version of that, and so breaking these rules is essential to discovering who I am as an individual. And the more clarity there is about that and the more I’m willing to express that, the less that victim position is active in my life.

In the self-management material you all talk a lot about going for perfect, looking for the perfect situation or creating the perfect company.  And in a perfect world, the perfectly self-managed individual can accept anyone saying anything to them, or managing them in any way, because in relationship to that they know exactly where their boundaries are.  They know when to say yes and no, because they know what their personal vision is and goals are. 

Our actions and behavior become profitable when we know who we are, because then those actions have integrity since they are rooted in the self-knowledge we've earned through our practice. If someone says, “Hey, do this,” and it doesn’t fit with our self-understanding then we can say, “Well, gee, I’m sorry.  That doesn’t work for me.  You’re going to have to either find another task for me, another way to do it, or put me in another position.”

SMI: Good, very good.  Excellent.  Thank you.  Brilliant stuff.  Now you do some personal coaching, right?

Rick Lewis: A little so far.

SMI: So when you work with leaders how do you get them, or maybe that’s the wrong question.  Do you try to get them to understand that they need to build these relationships before they can expect people to follow their examples?

Rick Lewis: Well, sure but the prior step, when you talk about building relationships with others, goes back to what I was just talking about.  It’s building a relationship with one's self first.

SMI: Right.

Rick Lewis: We need to understand what’s operative as a default for us. What are the rules we gravitate towards? What are the rules that we’re stuck in?  What are the habits we have that have been given to us?  What are the stories that have been seeded within us that determine our cultural conditioning versus those that are authentic to us? Without that relationship being clarified we can't see others clearly, so how can we lead?

SMI: Right.

Rick Lewis: And if someone hasn’t done that self-work, the only option is to come from a place that is inauthentic, and that’s not going to be enrolling as a leader.  If you do this kind of work yourself and become able to champion a vision, or lead a cause that is deeply resonant with who you essentially are, then it will be difficult for others to ignore you. In fact they won't be able to. If you’re in an organization where someone is leading from that context those kinds of people are a magnet.  You want to help them.  You want to support them.  You want to do what they ask because they are connected to something that has passion and purpose and direction.

And when that’s not true of a leader everyone can smell it a thousand miles away.  So we may obey the boss in that case, but in terms of being led successfully, that only results when the leader has really done the work of connecting deeply with themselves.

SMI: Very good.  Thank you.  Well, it’s fascinating in your biography – you talked about five years of preparation doing corporate events and also doing some OD work with an organization.  And then the recession hit and you spent a year doing some really deep preparation for your subsequent career.

So was that year that you spent doing the very deep collection of stories and soul work that you were doing at that time, was that an extension of the previous five years or were you integrating on an entirely new level at that point?

Rick Lewis: Yeah, it really was a new level.  And I’m really grateful for that circumstance. I had been working for 10 or 15 years as a corporate entertainer, just getting business by word of mouth. Making a living – nothing spectacular, but a comfortable living.  I didn't have to do any marketing. All I had to do was basically let the phone ring and go out and do my show, my comedy shows, and come home.  I was comfortable.

And I had had the thought for years of expanding my offering into content and training, because I had this parallel interest in personal growth, organizational work, and had dabbled in that, and it had really been a passion of mine.  But it was a separate and parallel interest.

When the economy crashed in 2009 the entire meeting industry experienced a grave set of circumstances. Meetings came to a grinding halt.  No company wanted to be caught spending "inappropriately" as so the result was, no meetings.

SMI: Yeah.  Sure. 

Rick Lewis: Plans for who knows how many conventions and conferences were cancelled.

SMI: Yeah.

Rick Lewis: So the meeting industry basically went under attack.  The whole economy, of course, was severely challenged — the meeting industry even more so. Many of my colleagues, people I had been working with for a decade, speaker bureaus, entertainment bureaus, event planners, other presenters, just went out of business.

SMI: Um hmm.

Rick Lewis: So after about a month of this, I mean literally I kept picking up the phone wondering if it was broken, I thought, "Wow, what am I going to do here?”  And then I realized it was my chance to marry these two passions – personal growth and entertainment. 

My dream had always been to create a hybrid of these two things; to use entertainment and theatre as a launching point and a way to convey and communicate something about these ideas that I’m passionate about in a way that would really help people and help organizations.  So it was purely out of necessity that I finally put my butt in a chair and started writing 12 hours a day to create the vehicle for delivering this.

SMI: Okay.  Yeah.

Rick Lewis: I really don't know if I would have done it otherwise. The whole experience reconnected me to the value of circumstances of adversity, where we’re challenged in some way, which is what the rule Stay Comfortable is all about. If we're constantly just buffering ourselves from all challenges then we're stripped of the necessity that create extraordinary results.

We've created an environment in North America where comfort abounds. It's a thick, wide, deep river we're floating in. The kind of dynamic advancement that’s possible, both on a personal or professional level, is being drastically undermined by our cultural habits. 

Outside of a few rare individuals we just don't see the same kind of innovation and productivity. There's a small subset of our culture that is still compelled to do really fine work and push beyond the boundaries of comfort in order to get there. But it's not easy to find that kind of excellence in businesses any more.

SMI: Right. Very good.

Rick Lewis: I'm wondering if I answered your question? You were asking about this period of time and the necessity to have to do something. It was like a catapult, and responding to that by digging deep and spending the time to define what I'm about and what I want to offer was by far the best business investment I have ever made. Not to mention the personal payoff.

SMI: Right.  No, that’s a perfect answer.  I appreciate it and it really adds a lot of depth to your bio, so thank you for that.  And also, you talked about intelligent misbehavior.  And I wonder if you could just define it, what intelligent misbehavior is as contrasted with unintelligent misbehavior?

Rick Lewis: Well, intelligent misbehavior is the willingness to challenge the hidden rules in our culture that undermine personal or organizational excellence. It’s the extent to which we’re willing to challenge rules that are unnecessary, perhaps arbitrary, and unconscious. 

Intelligent misbehavior involves confronting methods that we use to protect ourselves from the unknown, to stop ourselves from taking risks. It's breaking rules that revolve around trying to look good, not being vulnerable to others in relationship, rules that protect us in a way that preserve the status quo and bolster a false sense of self are the rules that we want to break. That's Intelligent Misbehavior.

SMI: Okay.

Rick Lewis: Anyone who understands basic psychology understands how we grow up and how we put together a life script that suits our surroundings and keeps us safe and allows us to survive. We follow rules to protect ourselves in our environment and then we grow up still obeying those rules, even if they don't lead us into a life which is fulfilling and meaningful.

SMI: Right.  So do you see parallels between unnecessary rules and unnecessary bureaucracy that impedes self-management?

Rick Lewis: Well, sure. Unnecessary rules are the foundation of unnecessary activity. And unnecessary bureaucracy is just a type of unnecessary activity. Bureaucracy is just a way of distracting ourselves from the fact that we're unclear about our purpose, either as an individual or as an organization. The global entertainment industry is a product in part of our unconscious desire to keep ourselves distracted, because existing without a connection to purpose is painful and we'd rather not deal with that. Doing the work of self-definition and self-discovery is uncomfortable. It’s a challenge. In some cases we don't even know where to start. Bureaucracy, to me, is a symptom of the fact that an organization is not willing to do, or has not yet done the work of true vision and purpose.

SMI: Okay.  Excellent.  You have a very powerful vision, Rick.  You talk about a world of people who love what they do.  Was that vision just popped into your head while you were doing this deep thinking?  Or did it evolve over time or how did you come up with that?

Rick Lewis: Well, it definitely evolved over time.  It didn’t actually come until recently.  That was just maybe four or five months ago that I had been looking for a way to language what the vision is for Break a Rule. 

I believe in careful language, the precision of it and the power that comes from using it intentionally. A core interest in seeing others do what they love has always been something I've felt, but it's amazing how difficult it is to find simple language to communicate an internal truth to an external listener.

Using words effectively is a real challenge. So to answer your question – no, it just didn’t come to me.  I spent months actually, working on the question, "What is my vision? How do I say it?" Playing with ideas, playing with language and concepts until I found something that encapsulated the mood and the quality of what it is that gets me up in the morning. When I see people doing what they love or loving what they do I feel a sense of relief. In fact I think it's a service to others to love what you do, because it creates an experience of delight and relief in others. You don’t have to quit your current job. There are ways to love what you do.  And perhaps sometimes you do have to give up a position to do what you love. It depends on the circumstance. But to see people resonating to their activity in such a way that they are clearly brought to life in pursuit of that activity, the world needs that. Whether you’re pouring coffee at a diner or if you’re leading 5,000 people in a multi-national corporation, we need to see people who are doing that, modeling that.

SMI: Yeah.

Rick Lewis: If you’re not in any way engaged with your primary work activity, that's a problem. Full engagement to me is the definition of right livelihood.

SMI: Thank you.  Excellent.  You’ve got seven rules to break.  Is it possible that there are more rules out there yet to be discovered?  Or are you quite confident these are the seven that we need to break, right here?

Rick Lewis: [Chuckle] When I first started this whole model there were nine rules. I got rid of two just because, well, even seven is too many, but nine is over the top.

SMI: Right.

Rick Lewis: Another person might come up with an alternate list of rules.  But what I tried to do in working with this over a period of many years is really look at what the core issues are in our culture. What are the places that we really get stuck? I wanted to name the things that others would resonate with as core challenges and bring the background rule conversation into the foreground. There are other versions of those kinds of conversations — highlighting what's normally hidden— yet for me these rules are at the heart of where excellence comes from or why it goes missing.

SMI: Great.  Well, Rick, you’ve got a very complex and colorful shirt that you perform in.  How did you come up with that and what does it mean?

Rick Lewis: It's a bike shirt that was put together by a company who used a local artist here in Vancouver, B.C. His name is Joe Average and he was quite a well-known artist who was suffering from AIDS at that time. They produced this shirt and I just loved the mood of it.

In the center of the shirt there’s a big eye with a tear and a heart encompasses the eye. That particular part of the image on the shirt is meaningful because it represents a quality of broken-heartedness, which I believe is where a vision comes from. If you have a vision it’s because you want something to be different in the world. Real broken-heartedness is powerful motivator to action and change.

SMI: Okay.  Well, on your website you have a dichotomy between a picture of your – a color picture of you in your performance shirt, and the black and white photo of you in a suit and tie.  So does that kind of represent two sides of Rick Lewis or what’s the reason for the two different types of pictures?

Rick Lewis: My background is as a street performer. It’s where I really learned about people, how people operate, what they’re like from all walks of life, all different types of ages, genders, races, cultures.  I’ve street performed all over the world, and in many parts of North America. I see my role to serve as a bridge between the basic reality of who people are at a street level and how we show up in a corporate environment, because I think the corporate environment needs are reminder about what's true and real of people at a basic level.

How do human beings operate?  How do they find value?  How do they find meaning?  What is beneficial to them?  Bringing that into the corporate environment is part of my passion for my business.  I want corporate to understand the street, but I'd also like street to understand the potential in corporate. A lot of people at the street level will look at a successful corporation and judge it. There’s a lot of corporation bashing – like companies are the root of all evil in terms of what’s going on environmentally or financially in the planet. Yet it’s what people do in an organization that matters. Corporations have the potential for actually making a very substantial difference in people’s lives, but only as a collection of responsive individuals, operating above rule-based behavior.

SMI: Thank you.  So what do you find attractive about the philosophy of self-management, and how does it integrate with what you do?

Rick Lewis: It seems to me that self-management is a collective agreement on the part of an organization's members to be responsible for oneself.  I'm attracted to any model or organization that's interested in gathering a group of individuals like that. There's a certain type of work that's possible under those conditions that isn't possible anywhere else.

I also like that self-management is concerned with promoting freedoms, because it forces a deeper thinking into what freedom actually is. In relationship to my 7 Rule model freedom is the opportunity to choose an alternative set of obligations and commitments other than our cultural defaults. It's not freedom in the sense of having a lack of obligations and responsibility, which is the usual fantasy. If we're interested in excellence we have the freedom to re-design and become conscious about what motivates us, what inspires us, and what we'll practice. We liberate ourselves from mediocrity by exercising freely chosen values, but in some ways, that means we are actually more bound to a specific code of conduct. It's only freedom because we're choosing it. That to me is an important understanding to have if you're a member of a self-managed organization. Then, rather than freedom being about a way that I avoid my potential and myself it becomes the way I actualize that potential.

Self-management forces us to confront this idea that freedom is a way to avoid responsibility for self, which is the default conversation in our culture.

SMI: Right.

Rick Lewis: Freedom is the possibility of serving something other than myself. It's the freedom to pursue something that has so much life and meaning for me that I lose the reference points to the ordinary limitations I hold for myself. Freedom is the opportunity to adopt a vision that becomes so compelling and so magnetic in our attention that we're freed from our conditioned obedience to these unspoken rules. I'm drawn to self-management because it has the potential to liberate people from an inferior version of freedom and to introduce individuals to the freedom to serve something worthwhile, over above the freedom to pursue their unexamined conditioning.

SMI: Great.  Great answer.  Thank you.  We just have like about a minute left, Rick.  And why don’t you tell us about your new book Sounding the Alarm?

Rick Lewis: Well, that’s meant just to be an easy-to-digest overview of this idea of Intelligent Misbehavior; what it is, what it would look like practically for someone to engage a path of Intelligent Misbehavior in their own organization or life.  And a lot of the material we’ve discussed today, a lot of these ideas that I’m most passionate about are addressed there.  So it’s a launch point for just getting an overview of these ideas. 

And what I’m experimenting with right now is what might be called self-managed training.  Putting together a collaborative change model where a team of colleagues can work together with principles of rule breaking that allow them to self-direct development in accordance with their own understanding, goals, and insights. If the root context of change is clearly understood then the "what" to do doesn't need to be prescribed by a "trainer" or any other figurehead in the organization. It becomes intrinsically motivated and self-evident. Intelligent Misbehavior is that context, so that's what the book is about, is introducing and clarifying the basics of that.

SMI: Great.  Super answer.  Well, I’m going to hit the brakes there, Rick, if that’s okay with you.  And we got 40 minutes and just worked perfectly.

We’ve been talking today with Rick Lewis, professional misbehavior and author of 7 Rules you were Born to Break and Sounding the Alarm on Business as Usual.  Any final thoughts, Rick, before you go out and break some more rules and get back to your 3-year-old son?

Rick Lewis: [Chuckle] No, I hope never to have final thoughts. I really like being a work in progress.

SMI: Well, thank you.  Thank you very much.  I hope you enjoyed this little interview time together, and you have a great rest of the day and rest of the week.  And I hope we meet again someday.

Rick Lewis: Thank you very much, Doug.

SMI: All right.  Take care, Rick.

Rick Lewis: Bye.

SMI: Bye.

[End of Audio]

Rick Lewis has performed his routines at over 2,500 events and gatherings over 30 years. He can be contacted at his website: www.breakarule.com.

 

primary: recommended reading secondary: philosophy