The Power of "Unwritten" Rules

What is it that holds us back? Are these limitations predominantly internal or external? What if "the path" is not serving us? Sometimes seeing what is possible is not as important as first seeing what we believe to be impossible.

As a parent, I see life lessons everywhere. In education, we call these occurrences teachable moments. I find many such moments in the books that I read with my son, as we explore stories that deal with social justice, courage, resilience, relationships and more.

Finding Life Lessons

Tonight’s lesson was taught in the form of a riddle. However, this conundrum was tied to a powerful truth that can hold us back, if we let it.

The book my son and I are currently reading is by the author, Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Her book is called Fish in a Tree. The story packs an emotional punch and deals with a young protagonist, named Ally, who believes there is something wrong with her and, as a result, feels she lives her life on the periphery. The young girl is differently abled and, as a result, has labeled herself dumb. A marker that couldn’t be further from the truth. I like the book and how it tackles social cruelty, friendship and acceptance.

Tonight’s lesson was taught in the form of a riddle. However, this conundrum was tied to a powerful truth that can hold us back, if we let it.

One of tonight’s chapters in Fish in a Tree described a riddle called Chicken, Fox, Grain. As I began to read the chapter Ally’s teacher, Mr. Daniels, gave his 6th grade class the riddle and as he described it I thought it would be a benefit for Caleb to try and solve it. I stopped reading, I didn't want any spoilers. Despite Caleb’s objection, I put the book to the side and quickly grabbed two Lego pieces and a Lego wolf. Placing the three pieces on my leg, I explained what each piece represented, repeated the objective, and invited my son to solve the riddle.

The Riddle

For those who may not know the riddle, I will share the instructions with you and ask that you pause here to solve the riddle yourself. After you’ve solved the riddle or curiosity has gotten the better of you, return to finish reading this story. Come on, you can do it!


You have a fox, a chicken and a sack of grain. You must cross a river with only one of them at a time. If you leave the fox with the chicken he will eat it; if you leave the chicken with the grain he will eat it. How can you get all three across safely?

Exploring Possibilities

He had the answer in him. He was just so stuck by the rules. Wait, what rules? Or should I say, whose rules?

It was interesting to see how my son approached the challenge. He started with the chicken, returned for the grain and then realized, when he’d returned to the other side with the grain, he was unable to leave the grain because the chicken would eat it. He then took the grain back and grabbed the fox, as he made his way back to the chicken, he realized, the fox could not be left with the chicken. I could see the wheels turning quickly in his 8-year-old mind. He stared at the 3 little pieces as he scratched his head. He returned all three pieces to the start and thought out loud, “If I move the grain first, the fox eats the chicken. If I move the fox first, the chicken eats the grain. I could see him go through the possible scenarios and the look of ‘this is impossible’ surfaced on his face.

I asked him, is there another way? He returned to his previous scenarios and was left still scratching his head. He seemed stumped. I enjoyed seeing my son struggle intellectually. I did not give him the answer, I wanted him to figure it out; however, I ask him questions to help shift his thinking in a way for him to see all the possibilities before him, not simply the possibilities he was limiting himself to.

What Do You Want?

I asked him, “What is possible?” I saw him sit in his thoughts as if they were stuck on repeat. He seemed to be fixed with his perspective so, after giving him time to tussle with his thoughts, I asked another question in hopes of helping him reflect on his purpose, “What do you want?” His response, “To get the chicken, fox and grain to the other side.” “Exactly,” I said, “And what is preventing you from achieving that?” He replied, “The fox wants to eat the chicken so they can’t be alone and the chicken wants to eat the grain so I can’t leave the grain with the chicken.” I could see his eyes moving as he attempted to work things out in his head.

After running scenarios, Caleb moved the chicken to the other side once more, he then returned with the boat and the sack of grain, his dilemma seemed to persist. The next thing he did was joke that the chicken needed to go away, that it needed to jump off a cliff. It is funny how, at this point, he knew that something needed to happen with the chicken. He had the answer in him. He was just so stuck by the rules. Wait, what rules? Or should I say, whose rules? What I found so interesting was that when my son was given instructions the only rule given was that just one item could travel in the boat at a time. He was not given any additional rules, so he, unbeknownst to him, created his own rule and it was blinding him from what was possible, keeping success at bay.

Answers Lay Within

As soon as my son mentioned that the chicken needed to go away I fed his meaning back to him. “So, you said that the chicken needs to be distanced from the grain? He agreed so I asked another question, “How can you do that?” I simply drew attention to his idea and asked him to articulate how he would do what he said needed to be done; separating the chicken and the sack of grain. He laughed, “Put it in the boat.” So, I put the chicken in the boat and moved the chicken to the opposite side. “Like this?” I asked. Caleb said, “You can’t do that,” and paused, “Wait, he said.” A smile grew on his face. The shift had happened, what he believed was a rule was just a limiting belief. He quickly removed the chicken, put the fox in the boat, ferried it to the other side and then returned for the chicken. He solved the riddle.

How many times have we found ourselves in a similar situation, believing something has to be done a certain way, creating rules that do not serve us or, even worse, hold us back? What Caleb needed to do was counter-intuitive, he needed to go back to go forward. He was so focused on his goal of getting every item to its final destination, he closed himself off to what was possible by focusing on what he couldn’t do (which was really just a figment of his imagination) instead of what he could.

Conscious Choices

In any given moment, we have choices; however, our choices are often limited by a lack of awareness to what is truly possible. The rules we create for ourselves, and others, often come from our lived experiences, like Caleb’s idea that we must always be moving forward to get where we need to go. The result, we can become byproducts of our past and, as a result, we do not choose how we want to show up. The things we are unaware of have great power over us and this applies to the rules we create. The rules we create for ourselves, we need to gain an awareness of them and ask ourselves, which of these rules serve us and which of them do not.

I'd like to leave you with a few questions to consider:

~In what ways are you limited in your life?

~Have you ever tried to write out the rules you live by?

~Have you ever asked yourself, what rule is at play for me in this moment?

~Are you willing to explore the rules at play in your life that you may be unaware of?

~What would it take to draw attention to your unconscious self-made rules that creates your reality?

Do you remember the movie Fight Club? What was the first rule of Fight Club ? It was, you don't talk about Fight Club. The second rule, you don't talk about Fight Club. Why? It was for protection - don't draw awareness to it and the fighting can continue. In life, we often find ourselves fighting for something and, when we do, we may be unsuccessful because you can't fight, successfully at least, with two hands tied behind your back. We call this an unfair fight and one way to even the odds is to get your hands from behind our back. To do this we need to realize our hands are behind our back. So, the first rule about success In life, talk about the rules in your life. The second rule about success in life, you got it, talk about the rules in your life.

~ Love Robert

I'm Robert

I am a father, a husband, a coach, an educator, and a life-long martial artist. I have inspired and motivated people throughout my life and, at times, I didn't even know it, until they told me. These are my stories, my thoughts, and my beliefs and I want to share them with you, my fellow traveler. 

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