I recently learned the phrase “intelligent disobedience” and it’s become one of my favourites word pairings. It originated with service dogs. Think about it: a service dog’s job is to protect its human. They are thoroughly trained and trustworthy. When a service dog strays from its usual, the human should pay attention. Dog won’t leave the curb? Or get off the elevator? Chances are, the human shouldn’t either.
I’m told the phrase “intelligent disobedience” is now being applied in workplaces. If an employee questions their supervisor, or outright refuses to do something, perhaps the employer should listen up. Particularly if there’s usually trust at the heart of this relationship, a worker stepping out of line might be exactly what an organization needs as a wake-up call.
Of course, sounding this call is easier said than done. In moments where I’ve felt the need to be intelligently disobedient at work, it’s led to positive outcomes – but it’s also been terrifying. I can only imagine how much harder it must be for someone with dependents or larger debts. And beyond the obvious risk to one’s paycheque, there’s also the real or perceived risk of other losses: workplace friendships, status, confidence.
Similar loss also explains why it’s difficult to be intelligently disobedient when it comes to social norms. Whether it’s questioning a political party you were raised to vote for, or exiting a relationship your family thinks you should remain in, or leaving your Christmas lights up longer than your neighbours prefer, there are lots of opportunities to be disobedient. And they’re often scary.
When I left a good job to travel overseas (twice), some people thought I was crazy. But I’ve always been glad that I went against the grain on that one – especially after the last 11 months of restricted or outlawed travel.
Maybe it could have turned out differently. Maybe there’s some reality where I would be sitting here in 2021, kicking myself for not having more of my mortgage paid off. That’s possible, I suppose (and yes, I realize I’m talking about two highly-privileged options).
But my gut feeling when I made those decisions said I’d live to be grateful for them. The same has typically been true when I’ve been intelligently disobedient in other moments – suggesting there’s more to being intelligent than using your brain.
I was once close to someone who claimed not to believe in gut feelings because he’d never felt one. I thought it was a curious comment; in hindsight it was a piercing alarm.
Speaking of hindsight, I recently read that the “excited” feeling of chemistry upon meeting someone is actually your body’s way of warning that you’re at risk of repeating a mistake. That idea resonates. In meeting men for the first time who I went on to have healthy relationships with, I always felt drawn to the person, but also stable and grounded. In the first moments of what later became drastically unhealthy relationships, I felt nervous and untethered – feelings I mistook for the thing all the movies said I should be looking for.
All these rambling thoughts come down to one thing: it’s important to know my core. (I’m not talking about ab muscles; I lost those months ago in a pizza-fuelled pandemic.) What’s important? What little signals do I get from inside when I’m about to deviate from my values?
Or, perhaps even more importantly, what does it feel like to stay in a situation that’s misaligned? Addressing those conditions can be even more difficult.
Think of the pipe cleaners from kids’ crafts. I’ve known people like that. There’s a core inside, but it’s slim. And bendy. It gives and takes with pressure. Have you ever tried to rely on a pipe cleaner person? No matter how soft, fuzzy or colourful they are on the outside, you can’t lean on them because they can’t even lean on themselves.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and – thankfully – I’ve also taken difficult steps that I knew were the right ones for me. Even when things were seriously hard, I knew what was in step with my core. That’s what knowing your gut gives you: a greater chance of being intelligently disobedient.
When have you been intelligently disobedient?