First make your rules

“I knew it! I knew it!”

The club pro, an Australian, had been giving me some starter golf lessons, chosen by me during a spa holiday in Cyprus where the deal included an option of one free activity each day. I didn’t fancy the other options, to be honest, but I did enjoy the lessons, which unravelled a few unexplained mysteries. I can still remember the rules I was taught: stance, grip, routine … hitting the ball forwards rather than back … learning not say rude words …

Before we go any further, let me reassure you. This was seven years ago and I didn’t keep up the golf: I’ve never lived close enough to a golf course to get on and improve. Comforting I hope to know that, whatever else you read in this blog, you won’t have to endure a laborious stream of unlikely stories from what they call the Nineteenth Hole.

So what was he so sure about, this Aussie? Well, a couple of days in he asked me to tell him what I did for a living. I gave the usual, conversation-killing reply: “Professional regulation”. This confirmed his suspicions: “I knew – you’ve followed every instruction I’ve given you, to the letter, remembered all the rules, played it by the book”. He didn’t, of course, go on to say that I was also playing the game brilliantly and had a multi-million future ahead of me. Which already says something about the difference between obeying the rules and actually doing things well. As doctors are inclined to remark, from time to time, “The operation was successful but the patient died.”

If anyone I meet gives me an opportunity to go beyond the opening line of a conversation about my work, chances are it’s because they’re thinking “What on earth is professional regulation?” At that point it’s easy: regulation is about ensuring professional people (doctors, lawyers, accountants .. my tally is over 80 groups since I started in 1983) are properly qualified and trained, know how to behave in their daily work, stay up to date and don’t need to be disciplined. There it is in a nutshell.

It’s less about rules, actually, than principles: be honest, put your patient/client/customer first, keep secrets, stay within your competence, and so on. Not so far from everyday life, in fact: in most situations it’s enough to follow one’s personal principles: be honest, put others first, keep secrets, etc. Alongside that are some rules that everyone has to follow: minor ones like not killing each other, more significant ones like not standing on the wrong side of the escalator or putting the tea in before the milk.

You know what I mean. Stay with me, because here’s the important bit. Rules, like religions, must be homes rather than prisons. No aspiring young artist ever wants to be constrained by rules made by previous generations – they want to be free. And so they should be … except … except … no art or craft, whether of the ‘artistic’ kind or the kind that underpins a profession, works as well if not supported (I use that word deliberately) by a framework, often expressed in certain rules: harmony, rhythm, science, language and the rest. Young artists, writers, engineers, architects, doctors may not like it, but the paradox is that creativity is diminished without discipline.

So do I mean nothing can ever be changed? Of course not. Good regulators do not stifle innovation. I can make the point for myself but as usual I prefer to let a great musician do it for me. In The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, his great hymn to art, life and love, Richard Wagner makes a number of points which are central both to high art and – bear with me – to good professional regulation. Using the historical poet Hans Sachs as his mouthpiece, he outmanoeuvres the Mastersingers’ Guild whose natural instinct is to cling for comfort to rules and practices handed down from the past. Confronted by the arrival of a talented, radical young musician, Walther von Stolzing – what the BBC would call a ‘new generation artist’ – they fail utterly to understand his art so turn their backs on him.

Arguing for his acceptance, Sachs points out that where Walther learnt his art (what regulators call an ‘input measure’) is irrelevant by comparison with the quality of the art itself (an ‘output measure’). Later, in what I venture to call one of the greatest scenes in all opera, he coaches Walther in how to turn an inspirational dream into a ‘Master Song’. He advises the young man to follow the rules. Walther asks what the rules are. Sachs replies with the simplest of statements:

First make your rules, then follow them.

In those few words Wagner encapsulates the solution to the discipline/innovation problem. If a framework is evident – albeit one constructed by the artist/doctor/architect/engineer/singer in question – then art and craft can flourish within it, people will see the value of the work, and it can be appreciated.

Fanciful? Old fashioned? He would say that, wouldn’t he? Well if you know a better way through the dilemma, let me know.

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