The Rules of Work by Richard Templar – Book Review

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The Rules of Work hit a nerve for me.

In 2018 I read several books on the general theme of ‘Make Your Work Life Great Again’. Some of these were written in an accessible, friendly manner, tending to veer away from perhaps more traditional hard-line forms of ‘This is The Answer’, instead opting for ‘This Worked for Me… Who Knows, Maybe You Too…

The subtitle for The Rules of Work: A definitive code for personal success, provides a subtle clue as to which camp this one sits in.

It’s delivered in a semi-biblical manner, a carved stone offering of solid guaranteed wisdom. However, I felt the book read as a series of 100 ways to get ahead of those around you. It didn’t read, ‘treat others as you’d like to be treated’, but more like, ‘watch your neighbour and pounce on their weaknesses. And make sure you don’t get caught.’ This is a book about getting ahead.

There are a few reasons that this doesn’t sit well with me. It’s not that I’m not competitive. But I have managed to stay out of the corporate world of work for the longest time, and as such, I’ve thankfully been mostly sheltered from an extremely competitive environment — the industry I sit in (digital/creative) tends to reward quality of work over appearances and talk, though that’s not to say I never feel envious of someone’s talents or achievements!

Don’t be a Suit

I used to watch the show Suits with fascination, all the time thinking how fictional it all seemed. I watched it for a couple of seasons until I noticed the episodic formula:

  1. Dramatic opening scene, tension
  2. Opening titles, upbeat music
  3. Mike saves the day with his super brain but not before making a terrible moral judgement, usually prompted by Harvey
  4. Argument won by somebody walking away (cue music)
  5. Closing titles, moody music.

Seriously, how is that show so popular? Probably all the beautiful people…

But the truth is, some industries do facilitate aggressively competitive environments: I’m thinking mainly of law or finance. It’s ‘eat or be eaten’. In law (in the UK at least), the aim has commonly been to try and make Partner, getting a share of the firm’s profit, making those years of hundred-hour weeks seem worthwhile. This book was, I believe, written for people who live in those worlds.

I think perhaps my irritation at this book is somewhat unfair. It may be a little at the mercy of being one of the only books I’ve read all year that I actually dislike. My reading list is generally composed of highly recommended books, plus, I’m quite easy to please really.

The author doesn’t need, nor care about, my praise or criticism though. His book is a bestseller, which I guess is a self-fulfilling return as I bought it for that very reason.

Rules of Work content breakdown

I’ll break down some of the areas covered in The Rules of Work:

  1. Be good at your work (duh)
  2. Be cool (people are judging you)
  3. Think about the future (plan)
  4. Listen more than you speak (good advice)
  5. Watch your back (be ethical and keep records)
  6. Play the game (be whatever the company tells you to be)
  7. Set the trends (look for genuine change and ways to make it happen)
  8. Be a diplomat (aka please everyone)
  9. Milk the system (erm…)
  10. Manipulate and beat your opposition (now we’re talking)
  11. Bonus: how to be powerful (for all those budding dictators)

Within each of these broad areas, there are many commandments. For example, as part of the ‘you’re being judged’ section, there’s a commandment to look after your personal hygiene. Who knew that cleaning your teeth every day would get you to the top? Or even that it would be included in a book about getting ahead in life? If you haven’t figured out that cleaning your teeth is worthwhile…

Anyway, some of the commands seem to make perfect sense. There’s dress one step ahead, make your boss look good, don’t gossip. But others jar with me: develop a style that gets you noticed, be cool (yuck), develop the perfect handshake. (There’s a whole chapter on this. Okay, don’t let your hand turn into a limp fish but that’s about it surely?)

What are your own rules?

The thing that struck me in reviewing this book was the thought, what rules do you work to? We all have rules that we live by, consciously or otherwise. Some of our rules could be relayed with clarity, but some go much deeper — from our upbringing or our faith. We may not be able to articulate everything, but I do agree with the author that it’s worth setting yourself some rules, to help you stay on track when life throws a curveball at you. Remembering one hundred rules can be difficult, so here’s an old school one from Jesus I’d recommend perhaps starting with:

Do for others what you’d like them to do for you.

It’s a backwards upside down rule for living by. Stick to that one, and I think you’ll be amazed – you’ll win people over (for the right reasons, and not to manipulate them.) You’ll even start to like people you didn’t get on with that well before. Benjamin Franklin documented this effect – to summarise; if you want someone to like you, ask them to lend you a book. Who knows, you might even end up cleaning your teeth occasionally.

The world is complicated enough without us each trying to step on each other on the way up to ‘the top’ — a fictional, or at least unsatisfactory end-point to our working lives.

I’ll give The Rules of Work a ‘meh’, not because Templar is a lousy author but because I don’t particularly agree with the approach to working life. Too harsh?

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