I love a good online personality test. I often sit for far too long, devoting careful consideration to each and every question.
Which statement best describes you? A: I work best in a neat and tidy space. B: My desk is often messy or cluttered.
I can answer questions like this all day. My favorite part is the payoff at the end, where some computer algorithm spits out a veritable novel about who I am and how my mind operates. Some of these tests are nonsense, of course. And I don't know about you, but my answers to the questions of even the most research-based quiz will change based on whether I'm at home or at work, well-rested or under-caffeinated, how crazy my kids are being that day, and a whole host of other factors. But I love them, all the same.
The first time I took an online personality test, nearly 20 years ago, I was entranced. My then-boyfriend (and now-husband) found the quiz, asked me all the questions, and then read out a four-page summary of the inner-workings of my mind.
"Oh, this describes you exactly," he said, pointing at one heading: Rule-follower. I hadn't thought about it before, but reading the description I saw myself clear as if looking in a mirror. Apparently I believe in a sense of order and authority, and I expect everyone else to respect that authority, as well. Also, I get very angry when they don't.
"Oh, yeah," I said. "That is me."
Maybe life has gotten more complex since then, or maybe my Gemini traits have begun peeking through more (because, of course, I identify with my astrological sign, too; there's no shortage of quizzes for that). Or maybe, like other online quizzes, the answers are situational and subject to change over time. Because, as I sit here today, I can tell you one thing with certainty: I am most certainly not a rule-follower. Not always.
Certain rules, I will follow to the letter with unrivaled righteous indignation. I stand where I'm supposed to be in line. I keep my distance from others as necessary. I put my signal on when I'm turning in my car. I respond to emails from my team by the deadline. I pay my bills on time.
But I'm also happy to use the "wrong" bathroom when it's empty and the line to the other one is out the door and I have to pee so bad I'm about to explode from all the coffee or beer or lemonade slushies. When the streets are deserted, I don't always come to a complete stop at intersections.
I remember one time when I was a kid, we had some soda left over from a party. It was flat and useless, and my mother asked me to dump it in the basement bathroom. "In the toilet," she said. "Not the sink."
I didn't ask why, and she didn't offer a reason. So I just went ahead and dumped the soda into the sink.
Days later, my mother emerged from the downstairs bathroom after a battle with the colony of ants that had taken up residence in the sink. "Did you pour the soda out in the toilet like I asked?" she said.
I always think about baking when I think about my resistance to rules. I’ve always delighted in making tasty cookies, cakes and muffins for myself and my family. From the earliest age, I would set out all the ingredients, eyeball them (who needs actual measuring devices?), throw them all together, and toss them in an oven I hadn’t bothered to preheat.
Unsurprisingly, nothing ever came out quite as it was supposed to.
And then, one day, I watched a show that I’ll never forget. It was an episode of Good Eats on the Food Network, one where Alton Brown shows how to make perfect pancakes. During the episode, he shows how to create a shelf-stable dry mix to have on hand for whenever you want pancakes. He also explains why wet and dry ingredients need to be mixed separately [spoiler: it’s because baking powder is double-action and begins bubbling (rising) when it touches liquid; it further rises when heated], why fat + fat and lean + lean is important, and why preheating is an essential step to making the perfect batch of pancakes.
That day I realized something I hadn’t been able to put my finger on for my entire life, the pattern to my apparent whimsy relating to rules. And here it is: I follow rules that make sense to me. If I don’t see a reason to follow a rule, or if I don’t understand it, I give myself a bit of...shall we say, flexibility.
How unexpectedly enlightening.
If I'd known Mom had been attempting to guard against a visit from unwelcome houseguests, I would have followed her instructions, no problem. But until I saw the rationale, I reasoned that one drain was just as good as another. And, yes - I should have listened because my mother told me to do it in a certain way. But, as we learned last week, I am a concrete thinker. My brain always works better when it understands the why. Sure, you preheat the griddle because Alton Brown says to. But you also preheat the griddle because it helps the pancake cook evenly and keeps it from sticking.
I now make pancakes so frequently that I have the recipe and technique memorized. And it's been years since I had to waste a single one. It's amazing what you can learn about yourself from a single sentence uttered by someone you've never met before.
My Alton-Brown-inspired epiphany begs the question, which comes up in The Other Women as well:
What is the subtext behind the rules by which we live? Should we just accept society's rules with the assumption that, like my mother's instructions, there's good and well-thought-out reasoning behind them? Are there rules we disagree with, that we would be more likely to follow if the rationale were transparent?
And conversely, are we obligated to follow rules that make sense on the surface, but which are rooted in a history that goes against our morals or values?
I'm thinking it's a little of each, but I'd love to know what you think. See you in the comments.