On Defiance

Defiance has an oddly negative connotation, and though it may be warranted, it may also be wrong. To school administrators, a defiant kid is one that gets in trouble constantly for no reason other than to cause trouble. To parents, it is the rebel teenager who decides to contradict their parents’ will at every twist and turn, again, for the sake of causing trouble. In these contexts, defiance is largely negative, and leads to no positive outcomes for anybody, yet here you stand, reading an article about why you need to be defiant. It’s arguably the most defining characteristic of us as dropouts. Of all of the students frustrated with an educational institution that either took our money or our time (usually both), we’re the students who decided to forge our own path and go against what everyone else says to be correct. No doubt, we can and will make the path work, but it won’t come without an ounce of defiance and a propensity to continue to be unconventional.

Even among your friends and family, you will face situations where it is absolutely necessary to be defiant. Some will try to tell you not to work hard, or to do something that you know is wrong, or to follow them on their path to nowhere. The only thing standing between your fate and theirs is your ability to defy those orders and continue humbly on your own path, constantly learning and seeking to improve your chances of succeeding and fulfilling your purpose.

Martin Luther King refused to be put down by the opposition to his dream by millions of people who aggressively and sometimes violently disagreed with him. Steve Jobs went against the notions of “realistic” and pushed product design to its limits to create innovation. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and started a movement towards equality. Coco Chanel challenged the idea of women simply dressing for men and not for themselves. The American Patriots rebelled against a monarchy and created the most successful form of government ever created. Mahatma Gandhi led a march that changed the course of an entire nation. Nelson Mandela served jail time for his defiance, yet also ended up becoming one of the most respected revolutionaries in history because of it.

That is real defiance. We have the ability and judgment to be reasonably defiant, and when it is absolutely necessary, we will not hesitate to be defiant for the right thing. This defiance that led us to develop a dropout mentality in the first place is the same defiance that will bring meaningful and positive change to the world as a whole. Remember that we are not aiming for mere security in life, we’re aiming to change the world in meaningful, positive ways. Defiance will be necessary in our path to do so: we’ll have to think different in order to make things different.

Notice however, that none of the previous examples were performed simply for the sake of being defiant. In order to make it reasonable, there has to be a reason. There’s no excuse for breaking the rules if you’re just wrong. You don’t have to have everybody agree with you, but you must be justified. In fact, there’s a whole lot of thinking that goes into being effectively and reasonably defiant, and not one portion of it can be overlooked or ignored.

There are three components of defiance that have to be addressed before any of us go out into the world to violently shatter the status quo (we’ll get there!). These three components are necessary to ensure that during every moment of our defiance, we are adequately justified. There’s plenty of defiance in the world, but not all defiance is made equal. In essence, the model begins with knowledge of a situation, rule, or convention that is harmful or wrong, transitions to principle in which we begin to articulate why change is necessary and what the best way to accomplish it is, and finally action, which drives the change itself with tangible, actionable items.

Knowledge

In the case of Martin Luther King, the knowledge is fairly simple: segregation and inequality weren’t morally correct. Despite the fact that plenty of Americans still disagreed with what he believed and we now know to be fact, by starting with knowledge and fully understanding why the racial situation in the United States was wrong, in the end King would win out against his detractors. He brought together historical knowledge and wisdom to prove that there was something amiss.

Similarly, if you asked Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or Ben Franklin what was wrong with the British rule of America, they would have been able to explain it you succinctly and effectively. They knew what they were talking about, and explained themselves well, which helped rally support for what they knew to be right. It all starts with a strong knowledge base, and if we can’t really explain why we are correct, then we're not correct.

Though plenty may have disagreed with the movement that Dr. King stood for, nobody could say that they didn’t know what he stood for. This is why identifying purpose and being able to communicate are so imperative - we must in order to be reasonably and effectively defiant. What good is it to know that something is wrong if we’re not actively communicating to others that there is a problem? In reality, it wasn’t the knowledge that Dr. King had that was special, but his ability to articulate the knowledge that everyone else already had. Nonetheless, if you take away his ability to speak and communicate with others, the movement may have never been successful, and if you take away the substance and content of what he was saying, it similarly would have gone nowhere because nobody would have agreed with him. Moral of the story: have the knowledge, and communicate it: you won’t succeed with one without the other.

Principle

Principle and knowledge are tightly intertwined, as are experience and wisdom. Many people have experience, but what makes the difference is the wisdom gained from that experience. It’s where the true learning shows up! We have to use self-reflection to develop our knowledge into principle, and again articulate it for others to understand and rally around when we want to create change.

Acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step in solving it, yet you won’t get anywhere if that’s where the story ends. If the way things are currently is wrong, then what would be considered right? This is where we transition into solving problems. Principles create frameworks to help us solve these problems and allow us to be reasonable when we do move to solidify change. These ideas are usually broad and overarching, and can apply to many walks of life and situations: in essence, mental models to deal with the situation at hand.

Apple’s product design principles time and time again have been called radical and/or ridiculous by critics of the company. Steve Jobs and Jony Ive in the late 1990s and early 2000s paired up to design some of the most different, industry changing products of all time by having knowledge that all the other products were subpar, and then turning that into principles to create better ones. In the keynote announcement of the original iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs stuck to principle: the iPhone would be as simple as possible, have few buttons and a highly adaptable touchscreen interface. At one point in the presentation, Jobs even displays a quote by Alan Kay from 30 years prior that says, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

The quote from Alan Kay, the simplicity of the design, and the interplay between hardware and software are all principles. Through intense and scrutinous learning that Apple had done prior to releasing the iPhone, they didn't just come out with a bunch of focus group statistics and numbers, they came out with principles. They could answer the question, “what does this look like when done right?” and understand it enough to then take action with these principles in mind.

If you cannot answer these questions for yourself and for others, then your defiance or desired change is not yet warranted. Again, defiance as it applies to us is not stirring up trouble for trouble’s sake. It’s about creating principles that allow you and others to make meaningful change. This is not to say that you should cease your questioning of the status quo, or even resign yourself to acceptance of the reality that you face simply because you don’t fully understand it yet. You should continue to ask the questions that need to be asked, and continue to gather these answers in your search for the right and just truth.

Action

What’s your remedy? This is easily one of the most useful questions to ask yourself in any situation, and should be applied to just about everything. Going back to Dr. King, he knew what he wanted to change, and had people to support him in finding the remedies that would bring his brighter vision of the future to life. If you think that something is wrong in any context, proceed to outline exactly what actions need to be taken in order to improve it. This applies to everything, from product development, to personal development, and even to changing a nation.

Knowledge and principle can only go so far. Knowledge and principle make defiance reasonable, but it’s the action that makes it defiant. As we transition into action, we have to consider whether or not our remedy is effective both to create a change but also to not cause trouble for trouble’s sake. Despite the fact that you may be in the right, your actions must be continually reconsidered to make sure that you have the desired effect on others in order to make your change.

This is why the 25-day fast by Cesar Chavez was so effective and now famous: his defiant action had very little to do with causing trouble at all. His action was to make a statement that brought people together under the banner of one unifying cause. Dr. King made sure that the protests that he led during the Civil Rights Movement remained entirely peaceful, because he recognized that if the protests turned violent that there would be no change. The rest of the nation would look down upon the violence and thus not sympathize with the cause. That’s problematic, but with calculated, peaceful action it was overcome.

Always return to your actions and evaluate them. We may not figure out the most effective way to create change immediately, but at one point we will by reflecting on it and ensuring that it truly will have the desired first, second, and third order consequences that we want to see.

Knowledge, principle, then action. This is reasonable defiance that serves a positive purpose and helps us achieve the important change that we want to make.