I believe that innovation happens at the intersection of rules and reality, and for the record—so does conformity. The defining factor is the choice we make to see things as they are or as they could be; the decision to accept the reality and rules we are given or see the reality and rules we choose to create.

I am a rule follower, mostly because when I was seven, I stole a keychain. Obviously, I denied knowing anything about it, and my possession of the keychain was clearly the product of magic. My parents felt otherwise, and drove me straight to the police station. I was then ushered inside, fighting back tears as I thought I was going to jail. I sat down in a room, complete with swinging light. OK, maybe not the light, but it was scary. The officer asked me if there was anything I wanted to tell him. “It was just in my bag, I don’t know how it got there.” Deny, deny, deny.

He said he was going to give me some time to think it over while he showed me around. He showed me right into a jail cell, and not one of those with the bars that you see in the movies, one with a solid steel door painted an off-white color to make you feel more at home. He asked me to take a seat inside and then said he would be back soon. The door shut behind me and there was no use in holding back the tears any more.

He returned what seemed like hours later (not even five minutes), opened the door and said he had some news. The officer said he received a tape from the owner of the shop that the keychain was taken from and that we could take a look at it together. I rejoined my parents in his office where there was a television and VCR. He then proceeded to tell me that I had two choices. First, we could watch the tape and he could read me my rights, which included an attorney, and I could wait in jail till the trial. My parents told me that I had to pay for an attorney myself, which clearly I couldn’t afford because if I had that kind of money I would have just bought the keychain. The second choice was to apologize, return the keychain, and promise not to do it again. I took the second choice and learned the greatest lesson my parents would ever teach me: integrity matters. I could have anything I wanted, do anything I wanted, and be anyone I wanted, but if I didn’t work for it, then I didn’t earn it, and that was more important than compromising who I was for what I wanted.

From a very young age we are taught to play within the rules, color inside the lines, and be just like everyone else. This is reality for most of us, full of rules and consequences if we break them. It looks something like this:

Reality + Rules = What’s Allowed

We all learn the rules so that we can play the game, do what we see everyone else doing, so we can become what everyone else is becoming. For most people, we do the same thing over and over again hoping that one day the process will get better, the outcomes will be greater; the work will become more rewarding up the ladder. We can spend a lot of time climbing a ladder that only gets taller as we wait for those at the top to build it and move up so we can fall in line. I stopped doing this a long time ago and it made a real difference in the quality of my life, the quality of the people in my life, and the quality of innovation I was a part of.

I have a love hate relationship with rules. I hate them because I don’t like being told what to do, and I don’t like having a predefined path. I love them because they show me exactly what everyone else is going to do.

Don’t get me wrong I play by the rules. I learn the rules. I make sure I understand the rules better than anyone else. The reason is that I look for the rules I don’t see, what is unwritten, what was unimagined, and what represents an outdated reality. I believe you must know the rules before you can subtract them from reality and innovate in what is left, which is what is possible when you take away all boundaries. It is in that undefined space where I like to play. Most of it is a mind game, anyway. Look for what you don’t see and begin your work there.

Reality ± Rules = What’s Possible

When I was a student at the University of Colorado, I looked around and saw rising tuition costs and many of my friends who were unable to meet the financial demands anymore. A majority of these students were from out-of-state and were either unaware of, didn’t understand, or failing at the process of earning in-state residency. The complicated rules affirmed a reality that made many of them choose other schools to complete their degree. When we began building Tuition Specialists, I joined a team of longtime friends who all believed the same thing: quality education sits at the core of progress for all and that finances should not be a barrier for anyone to achieve their potential through education.

Tuition Specialists is a for-purpose organization that helps out-of-state students earn in-state tuition. “For-purpose” means that we have the mission of a non-profit and the structure and fundamentals of a for-profit. We believe that you can do good and do well at the same time. All of us are CU graduates, but we were students when we began this endeavor working in the quiet of the night, between classes and on weekends to build a company that could carry the vigor of our vision. We looked at the rules, the laws, and the processes in place all designed in a manner that would discourage anyone from seeking in-state tuition, and we simplified it. We each filled roles that aligned with our most natural strengths, I was our Chief Recruitment Officer among other roles, as many startups require. Fancy made up titles aren’t new in the startup world, what matters is your ability to execute a vision. I was responsible for building out replicable streams to attract students and their families to our services.

I could open just about any door that I wanted; the problem was when they were slammed in my face because parents, students, administrators, and counselors thought I was there to sell a scam. I had parents tell me our business model wasn’t sustainable, universities escort us off campus, and many tell us we were operating outside the law. For the record, what we do is legal; we were just the first to do it. These types of attitudes required a shift in how I began to target our clients, focusing more on finding students and organizations who believed what we believed and letting our idea be carried forward in their voice. There were quarters where I obliterated our recruitment targets and then there were the ones where they made me wonder if I was the right person for the job. There were also times when I dreaded phone calls with parents and students who were angry with me for things I had done wrong and times when I looked forward to calling students with great news. Our team went through transitions, tensions and triumphs. We learned, we adjusted, and we got stronger. Through it all, we all remain committed to the cause. We now serve a growing number of states, universities, and families and are on track to save students $50 million in the cost of education by 2015. I am proud of what the team continues to accomplish and more importantly, the real impact we are making on the lives of our students

It might seem easy for me to tell a quick story that has a nice ending but don’t get me wrong here; this was not an easy process. I learned the hard way. When you step out on your own and say “This, I believe” people are going to take shots at you. But, people will also stand with you and take the hits. When you put yourself on a big stage, you are going to get big lessons. I have found myself in that situation more times than I like to remember, but each one of those people who stepped up for what they believed in and took a shot at the reality I was creating is someone I have a great respect for. Why? Because they were doing what they believe should be done, as well.

The true measure of your ability to innovate from that point is to create a space where you and your colleague can engage and use that tension to build strength. There are times where I have failed at this and times where I have succeeded. My failures were often very public, and my wins, very private. When you fail, take responsibility for it, apologize to those you have hurt and show them you have made a change. When you win, recognize that you didn’t do it alone and give the triumph away in gratitude. Talk to people who care about you and talk to them about what they believe, and then ask how they discovered that. Ask about their process. No one will give you the same answer. But if you pay attention over time to how they behave, what they do, what they say, and what they accomplish and fail at, you will see a pattern. Every person who has ever “figured it out” is always working at it. The process never ends. You have to keep asking yourself what you believe and why you believe it.

I will say that there is a context to risk and reward. You have to be comfortable with the lonely work. No one can do your pushups for you. You have to do them for yourself or you will never build the muscles. Whether you need to be clearer on your vision for the world, your ability to pitch an idea, build a relationship, or execute an idea, you have to just do it. You have to fail. You have to learn from that failure, adjust your approach and fail again. You will learn to fail better over time. You will also learn to win better and win bigger. Don’t give in, don’t conform, just learn, be coachable, be open to adjustments and keep building. It’s easy for me to say this because I have done it before, right? Of course, right. But let me be honest with you for a second, sometimes I forget what I learned and don’t worry you will too.

I had to figure out what I believed about myself, about the world, about reality, and about what was possible. I was lucky enough to have parents, coaches, teachers, and friends who cared enough about me to tell me they believed in me and coach me through my discovery of self.

After years with Tuition Specialists, my opportunity came to transition and focus on new passions in my life - I took it. I anticipate the same challenges, the same rises and falls, and the same barriers to defining a new reality. But the best part is, I know what I believe, I know the rules I am going to play by and I know the rules I am going to ignore to make the world what I believe it should be.

Won’t you join me?