“Every Time You Break the Law You Pay, and Every Time You Obey the Law You Pay.”

Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.

— John Gardner, interview, The Paris Review

I’m haunted by this line; I think about it all the time. It’s even the epigraph to my new book on habit-formation, Before and After— along with a quotation by William James (of course; you can’t talk about habits without quoting William James).

It’s a line with many, many meanings. In the context of habit-formation, I think about it whenever I ponder the Four Tendencies. Because, whether you’re an Upholder like me, or a Rebel, or a Questioner or an Obliger, there’s no evading it: every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.

Agree, disagree?

(In the course of writing my book about habit-formation, Before and After, I’ve come up with a character framework, the “Four Tendencies.To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    John Gardner–a man with a haunted life. I loved Nickel Mountain and The Sunlight Dialogues, and felt saddened by his early death.
    This saying of his weighs heavily, since the ‘haunting’ in his life was about the death of a brother in an accident with farm machinery. I don’t remember if Gardner felt directly responsible, but that terrible, violent loss recurs in his work.
    I know myself the disproportionately heavy consequence that can fall due after a small error, or a choice that might not have been made. Either way, we can pay, or suffer, as a result of nature’s laws, or fate, or whoever happens to be passing by.
    For myself, I think that the right thing to do is ‘my best’ and to forgive myself the unintended results of obeying whatever laws govern the circumstance in which I am acting with human imperfection.
    A person should not feel obliged to accept guilt about things that never were intended, even if an intentional action set a disaster in motion.
    Paralysis can be the only result of deliberating too much about choices, and I would far rather keep acting and making choices than ‘pay’ by sitting still and doing nothing.

  • debbiedarline

    So interesting! It makes my mind go around in circles just thinking about it!
    As a Questioner;
    I pay each time I break a law because I am not only flouting the wisdom of the group or person who created it, but also paying the social cost that comes from breaking a law.
    I pay each time I obey a law because I am losing a little bit of my individuality in the process. I lose by complying with laws that were established for a generic “me”. They might be beneficial for a larger group – but are they beneficial for me?

  • lisa_mcelroy

    Most of the law school classes I teach revolve pretty explicitly around the intersection (or divergence) of law and justice. Gretchen, for a year, you walked into a building every day under the motto “Equal Justice Under Law” (and you could still walk in under it every day back then). To me, that phrase is one of most fascinating in the law, and the quote you post makes me think of it again. Of course, the irony is that the phrase was suggested by the architect, not by the Nine who worked in the building, and it was suggested because it fit the space.

  • s_ifat

    of course I agree, but I think the “pay” is good for you. It’s an integral part of what you want (i’m rebel maybe border questioner btw)

  • Penelope Schmitt

    p.s. isn’t this sort of like ‘everything counts’ and ‘nothing stays in Vegas?’ Nothing is entirely without consequence. But still, don’t overthink your life! Live it!

  • Lynn

    I only really see this statement as frequently true with the people in my life who are rebels. They pay externally if they break the laws, or internally if they follow them.

    As for me, I’m not sure that I agree. I find that I pay not when what I do breaks or upholds a law (or rule), but if it’s not the right thing to do according to my own compos. If what I do hurts me or another. Or if it causes me to be false about who I am. If a law or rule aligns with my morals, I don’t feel I’ve paid any price to uphold it. If it doesn’t and I still follow it, then I am quite hurt and pay a very heavy price.

    Maybe I just read too many super hero comic books when I was a kid. 😉

    • phoenix1920

      I see this for all of the tendencies. For Upholders, it gets to easy to define your life by rules and you are paying by confining yourself to a small box–and can even get almost addicted to keeping the rules and stressing when rules have to be broken.

      I see this with obligers, who too often will follow rules others impose on them, which can lead them to not living their own life. While we want to make others happy, often those don’t know the cost and would not want us to undertake something that imposes a cost on others (i.e., agreeing to help out when you don’t have time). Or you’re going thru a rough time financially, but don’t want to talk to others because you’re afraid it will dump on others and talking about finances isn’t proper.

      As for questions who question all rules, following their own rule to question means that often they may not decide and act quickly enough because they take so long making each decision because it has to be vetted through their own decision-making process

      • gretchenrubin


      • Lynn

        I’m an obliger through and through. What you describe is true when I follow a rule set by someone else that doesn’t fit with me – it’s true that I pay a price. My point is that I don’t ever personally experience the feeling of paying a price when I follow a law or rule that I am in agreement with. Instead, I actually feel like I get a gift.

        My interpretation of the quote that Gretchen posted above is that no matter the outcome, no matter your alignment, each time we make a decision or follow a course, we pay a price. In my life, what I have experienced is that hasn’t proved true at all. If I follow a rule that I am in alignment with, I get paid instead of paying. I feel energized and happy, and good things happen in response to that action.

        There are certainly struggles, like what you describe about not wanting to burden others. I do face conflicting right answers – having recently having to weigh my ‘fear of burdening others’ versus my desire to have honest relationships with my friends. Taking a moment to think about it, I realized that I don’t want my fears to define me, and I shared a problem with a close friend. That paid me greatly in that I was then free to share my burden, and got some great support and advise. I came away far richer in the end, full of gratitude and joy.

  • LF, NYC

    Maybe paying-either way- is a privilege…it means we’re human. I don’t think it has to mean something punitive or restrictive but rather me that there’s always a price in life. It’s precious and short. So why not embrace that? I love the last line in the writer Peter
    Matthiessen’s obituary in the Times. ( He died Saturday.) A quote from him ” We are beset by both the future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”

  • Jeanne

    So every choice has its consequences. Just the way it is. Dr. Chopra says that every time you make a choice, you rule out all the other choices you could have made. That is a price. But to not choose is to just sit there, or more likely to let someone else or circumstances choose for you. That is definitely worse.

  • Felicity

    Mm… enigmatic.

  • This idea goes through my head when I have a pang of jealousy (I think Gretchen calls it “the funny feeling”) about a fellow academic’s rise to the top. I remind myself that I have to accept the choices I have made along the way, and that the super stars of my field have made sacrifices that I didn’t want to make. Yep, you pay either way. And life is long — there is still time to make different choices in the future.

  • AnnaKate

    I do not like the negative impact of the word pay, but I do think what you do and how you act sticks with you. This is why it is important to think before you act. To try to figure out what outcome, how you want your life to be before you act, and creat that outcome. I think this is how you creat a happy life.

  • Laura Jenkins

    I just finished reading The Happiness Project and my first splendid truth occurred to me… “Life is a happiness project”.. I think you have revealed to me the true encompassing meaning of life. Paradoxes included (be content/grow to improve etc). Thank you!!!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that my work resonates with you —

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