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  • Reverend James Squire

Overt and Covert Rules: What Makes You Tick




There are two kinds of rules, overt, or those stated as mandated guidelines that must be followed, and covert rules which are the unstated rules that guide one’s life. Covert rules are important in relationships, happen without fanfare, and perhaps are more important in the game of life than the overt rules. Overt rules are easy to understand. They are a given, but covert rules result as a process of understanding what is really important in life, and its power is that they are unspoken. The goal is to know both with friends, colleagues, students if you are a teacher as I was, in the family, or I dare say, with those with whom you disagree.


Admiral William H. McRaven is the author of the best seller that I have just finished, The Wisdom of the Bullfrog: Leadership Made Simple but Not Easy. The bullfrog is the title given to the longest serving officer in the Navy Seals. I have read one of his other books, again a best seller, Make Your Bed…Little Things That Can Change Your Life…and Maybe the World.


The Seals have overt rules. It is clear that they are a given whereas the real success is doing what you are not told to do, the covert rules, that can make your life more successful and meaningful. A few chapter headings in The Wisdom of the Bullfrog will give you a feel for a covert rule: The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday; Hope Is Not a Strategy; A Shepherd Should Smell Like His Sheep; and Sua Sponte…Of Your Own Accord…No One Else Was Doing It, So I Did.


Covert rules are rules that everyone knows in your relationships with others such as family, friends, et al but nobody talks about them.


Last Night I watched Oprah’s Interview of Michelle Obama as the final leg of Obama’s book tour for The Light We Carry. Oprah, said to Ms. Obama, “You say what other people are thinking but don’t say it.” Watch it! It is profound and hilarious. It was a book and evening interview regarding covert rules in Michelle Obama’s family growing up, in her friendships, and in her marriage to a former president. People love to hear the story behind the person. What makes the person tick?


I am not a best-selling author, but a few weeks ago I had a former student who has a PH.D. in Islamic Studies and a law degree from Harvard and his wife who is a political author set up a zoom call with me. I thought it was going to be for help with a problem. It wasn’t. They were calling, in part, to tell me that my memoir, The Times of My Life, was a very important book for them both to read. They talked about it together and thought that it made them better people and better parents. They enjoyed seeing what made me tick! The book is loaded with the 37 covert rules of my life and included many of the same as Michelle Obama’s book such as: We will know our hot buttons and won’t push them in others; We will seek to understand more and evaluate less; We will acknowledge that our parents play an enormous role in determining who we are (in Michelle Obama’s case it was her father who had MS); We will understand that independence is essential to interdependence; We will strive to assist one another in achieving self-acceptance.


When I taught ethics, we certainly covered overt rules, but what really was important and eye opening for my students was to identify the covert rules that informed their lives. All of this drove the course for the students to answer the question, that we should all address, “Why do I do what I do? What makes me tick?” In ethics we call that question a Doctrine of Self. That question is what is the common denominator in The Wisdom of the Bullfrog, The Light We Carry, The Times of My Life, and a central theme of my ethics course. That is what was intriguing for the general population as well as my former student and his wife.


One of the important components of counseling is to identify as quickly as possible the overt and covert rules of an individual, couple or a family. People seeking help move forward when they understand how those rules direct their behavior and relationships with others.


Overt and Covert Rules…Why do we do what we do? What makes me tick?” What are yours, the reader?

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