Break the rules or sharpen your pencil.

Growing up, my peers labelled me the ultimate nonconformist, the oddball who didn’t fit the mould, the “tomato potato.” I was like the Banksy of my elementary school, minus the actual talent. But, to be honest, I couldn’t have cared less about what they thought. Who were they to judge? The offspring of punctuality aficionados?

Punctuality and I were like Ross and Rachel in their “we were on a break” phase – never on the same page. So I strolled into every event fashionably late, including school, where being on time was a crime.

Now, it’s not like I was channelling my inner Che Guevara or Jimi Hendrix. I wasn’t some first-grade revolutionary. Instead, my defiance stemmed from a simple refusal to follow arbitrary rules. Did I question the fabric of our routines, like why on Earth did schools have to start at 7 a.m.? Yeah! What moonshine-sipping sadist decided that making children miserable was the best way to kick off the day?

So, since I was perpetually late, why not go all in? Why pay attention in class or even face the teacher? Classrooms were full of drab textbook knowledge to be replaced by ChatGPT (R.I.P. Google). So I chose to stand at the back, admiring the fascinating blank white wall and sharpening my pencil as if it were a sacred ritual.

Time flew by like a fleeting Coachella experience, and my parents seemed content. That is until report card season rolled around. Then, the storm clouds gathered, and my report cards read like a twisted fairytale with unexpected turns. Think Little Red Riding Hood meets Miley Cyrus’s rebellious phase, complete with a shaved head and a scandalous video.

As school progressed, I pursued my path of defiance. I was never on time, wore the wrong uniform, and skipped class. I was like Ferris Bueller sans the charm and elaborate schemes. My parents endured sleepless nights, but I did what I wanted, embracing my stubborn inner maverick.

My unruly behaviour continued, and I managed to fail every class the curriculum had to offer. My teachers, especially the one with an affinity for rote memorization, predicted I’d end up serving tea at a roadside stall. But, my ignorance shielded me from their comments like a suit of armour.

Ironically, my art teachers were the only people who saw potential in me. Maybe it was because I spent every spare moment drawing, even in the restroom. But, alas, I was no Picasso, and my couldn’t-care-less attitude eventually led me to abandon art altogether. How ironic, right? It’s my life, though (shoutout to Bon Jovi).

Miraculously, I made it to college, thanks to my well-connected father. College days zipped by like a fleeting TikTok video, but I made some lifelong friends I could trust with my life – or at least my pencil and sharpener.

But eventually, my hedonistic, directionless lifestyle reached its breaking point. My life’s narrative needed a twist, and the director – my father – stepped in. Fed up with my escapades, he packed my bags and shipped me to a faraway land. OK, maybe it was just a two-hour flight, but it felt like a world away.

In this distant realm, I entered the wacky, jargon-infested advertising world, where I discovered that even lunatics have a place on Earth. I’d stumbled into a Lewis Carroll-esque Wonderland, where the Mad Hatter held court in every boardroom. At that moment, I knew I’d finally found my tribe.

Embracing my newfound purpose, I dove headfirst into the chaotic, caffeine-fueled realm of advertising. Like Don Draper, without the suave demeanour and impeccable fashion sense, I navigated the highs and lows of creative pitches and endless revisions.

In retrospect, those “silly” report cards and my rebellious journey seem almost laughable now. But, like Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” My unorthodox path led me to a place where I could flourish, where my peculiarities became assets.

So, here I stand, a proud product of my refusal to conform, basking in the glow of late-night brainstorming sessions and the thrill of a well-executed campaign. My life may have been a rollercoaster of defiance and questionable choices, but I wouldn’t change a thing. After all, who wants to be just another cog in the machine, right?

In the immortal words of Robert Frost, “I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” So, if you ever find yourself questioning the status quo or feeling like the odd one out, remember that sometimes the road less travelled is the one that leads to the most extraordinary destinations.

And as for my fellow oddballs, keep defying expectations and challenging norms. You always need to find out where your nonconformity might take you. As for me, I’m off to another brainstorming session, armed with my trusty pencil and sharpener, ready to take on the world – one rebellious idea at a time.

Oh, and Brian, remember, we’ve got a Tetris showdown tonight!


By Paul Syng

Paul Syng is a multi-disciplinary designer based in Toronto. He focuses on a problem-seeking, systems thinking approach that can take any form or function.