Why Tim Cook’s Business Rule Is to Not Follow the Rules and Write Your Own

Seven years ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook was at his alma mater Duke, when a student asked him for advice on whether students should listen to their professors. Cook’s answer provides key insight into how he thinks — and how business owners should think, as well.

“I think you should rarely follow the rules,” Cook said to the student after collecting his thoughts. “I think you should write rules.”

But he didn’t stop there. Cook noted that oftentimes, people who follow the rules will “wind up at best being the same as everybody else.” Ultimately, he said, the only way to excel– as an individual or a company–is “to write your own rules.”

It’s a concept Steve Jobs, his former boss Apple co-founder, often talked about. In a famous commencement speech at Stanford, Jobs, who died in 2011, told graduates to take chances and not “live with the results of other people’s thinking.”

In a world where rules are meant to be followed, breaking the rules (or creating new ones) can create your success. In the business world, where most companies are often complacent, being willing to write your own rules and chart a new path can lead to outsize growth.

Alas, it’s difficult to actually know how to write your own rules sometimes. Some companies and industries have operated in the same way for a long time for a reason: It work. But it takes real guts to try something new. It also takes an awareness that failure may happen. In fact, it’s the most likely outcome.

Failure, especially now, shouldn’t be your ultimate concern. The fact is, with a pandemic sweeping the globe, now’s the time to take chances and see what happens. It may sound counterintuitive, but many great companies were built at times of great turmoil. There may never be another opportunity to try and build something and see where it goes.

So next time you think about following the rules in your business, think again. As Apple has proven time and again, writing your own rules can be the best path to success.

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