Principles

Back in February, I answered a reader mailbag question about principles, in which I said I was working on an article that was simply a list of the guiding principles in my life, both financial and otherwise. I didn’t really know if I would publish it on The Simple Dollar or elsewhere – in all honestly, I didn’t really know if I’d ever complete it.

After that reader mailbag question was posted, several readers wrote in and strongly encouraged me to write the article anyway, so I started by writing down a big list of the principles I try to live by. I kept adding and editing and changing and cutting and combining … a process that I would probably keep doing for the rest of my life.

I have always admired John Perry Barlow’s list of 25 principles of adult behavior, and so I decided to use that as a model and try to trim my list down to the same number. I’ve finally reached a point where I’m reasonably happy with the list, so I’m sharing it with you now, on a Saturday, as I suggested that I would several months ago.

These are 25 principles of life I hold most dear. I don’t always follow them, but when I’m at my best, I do. I hope that my friends and family will always call me out when they see or hear me falling short.

1. Don’t publicly hold a viewpoint unless you understand and can explain the principles behind it, those principles are consistent with your other viewpoints, and you have supporting evidence for that viewpoint. If you cannot authentically say that you have all three elements in place, don’t share your viewpoints publicly. You can most certainly talk them through with friends who you trust to debate you and help you refine your views, but don’t share them publicly.

Why? Any viewpoint you share where you don’t fully understand the principles behind it is going to be eventually exposed as unprincipled and reflect on you as unprincipled and on the view you’re sharing as being unprincipled. Any viewpoint you share that doesn’t share consistent principles with your other viewpoints will show you to be hypocritical. Finally, any viewpoint you share that you can’t support with real evidence will make the viewpoint appear very weak and make it appear as though you’re sharing fiction and treating it as fact.

Most online discourse fails in at least one of these three regards. It’s often because of those failings that the discourse turns negative, because people assume that people sharing viewpoints without consistent principles and evidence behind them are bad actors. If you want to share your ideas but don’t want to be seen as a bad actor, understand the principles, stick to those principles across your viewpoints, and have evidence for your perspective. If you can’t or won’t do that, don’t say anything at all unless you’re perfectly fine with being mistrusted or being seen as a bad actor.

2. An examined life is a better life. Floating through life without any form of self-examination is actually easier for a while on a day-to-day basis, but you’re just like a boat floating on the river. You might be in pleasant waters for a while, but eventually you’re going to drift into rougher waters and be swept away.

Self-examination – figuring out what you value and where you want to go – is like being able to row into better waters and putting down an anchor when you get there. Sure, it’s a little more work, but you’ll end up firmly in a good place and won’t drift into trouble.

Spend some time each day in honest self-reflection. You’ll never regret it.

3. You are better off handling challenges now and saving resources for the future, because your future self is rather unreliable. The more you rely on your “future self” to take care of something, the less likely it is to ever take place. You are almost always better off bearing that burden now than later, because your later self is almost always going to be in a more difficult situation than you’re in right now.

Your “future self” is likely to have lower energy. Your “future self” is likely to have worse health. Your “future self” is at least somewhat likely to have worse employment opportunities. In other words, your “future self” is very unlikely to be able to handle additional burdens.

The solution? Take care of it now. Save for the future now, not later. Handle responsibilities now, not later. You know what your situation is now. You don’t know what it will be later, but the odds are that there will be more obstacles later. Carry the burden now while your shoulders are strong so that you’re not weighted down later on when your shoulders might not be quite as strong.

4. Love and trust by default until that love and trust is violated. It’s almost always a net benefit to extend love and trust to individual people in your life until they violate that love and trust. Most of the time, the violation of that love and trust actually costs you very little, but sharing love and trust tends to gain you quite a lot.

Lend out things and simply say, “Return it when you’re done with it.” Listen to someone’s problem with just your ears while keeping your mouth closed. Help someone you barely know in their true moment of need. These things will cost you little, even if they never are reciprocated or if the item is never returned. However, they gain much – they plant seeds for strong relationships throughout your life.

Going through life with your shields up and no trust or love in your heart makes it hard for others to love or trust you.

5. Block off time for the important things in your life. Don’t just assume you’ll have time for it. “Important” does not mean the same thing as “urgent.” A day spent fishing with your kid isn’t “urgent,” but it’s “important.” A few hours spent reading a powerful book isn’t “urgent,” but it’s “important.” An afternoon making an amazing surprise for your wife isn’t “urgent,” but it’s “important.”

Block off time for these things. Literally go to your calendar and clear space for them. If you “can’t,” then it’s time to jettison some of the relatively unimportant but somehow very urgent things that are filling up your schedule. Figure out what’s least important and step back from it a little to make room for more important things that merely happen to be a little less urgent.

6. Wake up thinking about how you’re going to be a great person today and how today’s going to be a great day. Don’t wake up dreading the day, because if you do, today will be drudgery. Instead, wake up thinking about how today is an opportunity to move forward on the things you want in life. Today is a day where you’re going to do something deeply fulfilling. Today is a day where you’re going to be able to sharpen your skills or put them to work. Today is a day where you’re going to be the best person you can be. Tell yourself these things with great sincerity and force. Believe them, and then make them happen.

Those thoughts won’t suddenly transform your day into something amazing, but what they will do is raise your own behavior and interaction with the world a notch or two, and that will often raise everything else a notch or two. Doing that consistently changes the trajectory of your whole life.

7. You can always make more money. You can’t make more time for important things. Don’t let your efforts to make more money stand in the way of the reasons why you’re making that money. You might want to make money to make a great childhood for your child, but that child will only be young once and that child needs you more than they need stuff. An opportunity at work might seem like a financial risk – big upside but also big chance for failure and loss of income. Take that risk. Even if it fails, you’ll learn way more that way than just playing it safe, and you can use that knowledge to make more money.

Make time for your loved ones, for your friends, for making yourself a better person. Find that time by getting rid of the wasteful time use in your life. Nothing worthwhile in life was gained by watching SportsCenter or Real Housewives.

8. Don’t regret your mistakes or feel bad about them or assume they make you a bad person. Just learn from them so that you don’t repeat them. You’re going to mess up. It’s part of being human. Don’t dwell on how badly you failed. That won’t help you avoid repeating those mistakes going forward. It won’t help you become better.

Instead, use your past mistakes solely as a lesson on how to avoid repeating them. What did that mistake show you about your behavior? How did you make that mistake? What can you do differently going forward so that it doesn’t recur? That’s the sole value of a mistake, to forge yourself into something stronger, today and forever.

9. Don’t badmouth people. It’s never worth it. If you wouldn’t say it directly to their face, don’t say it. Don’t waste your time speaking negatively of someone else. If you’re in a situation where you must criticize someone, then do it in a way that you wouldn’t hesitate to do to their face. If you would even hesitate to do that at all, don’t do it.

In general, the only situation where harsh criticism has any value at all is when given in private, one on one, to someone that you value. If you’re offering up criticism or badmouthing outside of that, do it with extreme caution, because it’s very likely you’re making a bad move that will reflect much worse on you than on the person you’re criticizing.

10. When you screw up, apologize sincerely and admit your fault. We all make mistakes. We all mess up. It doesn’t feel good, though, especially when we show those mistakes and flaws to others. We don’t want to show that we have flaws. The easy way out, then, is to just find someone to blame for it, or else to walk away from a mistake and not take responsibility for it or claim it in any way.

Just because that seems like the easy way out to you, however, doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do, nor does it mean that others don’t see right through it and see you turning one mistake into two. Not only do you make mistakes, but you don’t have the courage of conviction to own up to them and try to fix them.

The best solution when you make a mistake is to apologize for it, own up to it, and admit your own fault. You are imperfect. It is okay. We all are. The difference is that you’re aware of it and don’t wish to turn one mistake into two. The difference is that you’re not a person who tries to put the cost of your mistake on someone else’s shoulders while others watch.

11. Your life doesn’t just belong to you. It belongs to all of the people in your life. Treat it accordingly. It’s easy to think of my life as being just mine, but it’s not. My life belongs in part to Sarah. It belongs in part to my children. It belongs in smaller parts to my close friends. Small bits belong to all sorts of people, including my readers. We all lift each other up and carry each other through hard moments and share in the good ones.

Part of that bargain is that I have a responsibility to take care of my life, to keep myself reasonably healthy, to keep myself out of trouble, so that I can continue to be a part of their life and they can continue to be a part of mine. My life doesn’t just belong to me, and to treat it as such denies the wondrous value of the parts of their lives that others share with me.

12. Happiness isn’t a goal to attain. It’s an outgrowth of being a good person and working toward something worthwhile. I view happiness as being much like beautiful flowers and vegetables in the garden of life. You can’t will them to grow – they don’t grow by wishes alone. If you don’t tend to the garden, a few flowers and vegetables might grow, but you’ll mostly have weeds.

If you want a life that sprouts a great deal of happiness, you need to tend to that life like a garden. You need to turn the soil, remove the weeds, and add compost. You do those things by trying to be a good principled person in all aspects of life, trying to build good relationships with people, and spending your time on meaningful things. Those form the healthy soil of a good life, and from that healthy soil will spring a great deal of happiness.

13. Money can’t buy happiness beyond a bare minimum level to meet one’s basic needs. That thing you’re thinking about buying won’t bring you happiness. The things that actually bring happiness can’t be bought on a store shelf. Happiness bubbles up from within and isn’t drawn out in any lasting fashion by the physical possessions of life.

Rather, it is drawn out by good relationships, by time spent on meaningful projects and tasks, by pushing yourself to achieve things that really stretch you. If you’re thinking of buying something because it will make you happy, don’t; at best, it’ll provide a quick, short-term burst of pleasure, and then you’re right back where you started — except in worse shape, because you don’t have that money any more. You’re not any happier, and you have fewer resources with which to build a free future.

14. Don’t worry about things you cannot change. Instead, worry about what you can change. Our lives are full of tons of things that we cannot change. We can’t change how other people behave. We can’t change national politics. We can’t change the weather. Getting upset about those things isn’t very useful at all.

Rather, look at what you can change and focus your energy there. You can’t change how people behave, but you can nudge the people in your life gently toward better choices. You can’t change national politics, but you can be an eloquent and principled example of your stances and maybe shift someone’s thinking just a little. You can’t change the weather, but you can be prepared for weather’s changes. Control what you can control and don’t waste emotional energy on what you can’t.

15. Build as many strong friendships as you can. A strong friendship is one where you can speak openly, explore ideas, and criticize each other without retribution and that you can reasonably rely on them for help when it’s needed. It is hard today to build that kind of friendship, but the benefits are incredibly worth it. Having a lifelong friend who you can trust in your moments of need and who you can speak openly to without fear of retribution or of lost reputation is almost beyond value, and the time spent building and cultivating those kinds of relationships is never time ill spent.

If you see the potential for this type of friendship, don’t hesitate to try to build it. It won’t always work out – in fact, it often won’t work quite how you want – but the sheer value of having that kind of friendship makes it worth the effort.

16. When you feel your emotions surging, particularly if they’re negative in any way at all, stop yourself. If you don’t you’ll almost always regret what you do next. Just stop. Check out of the situation for a while if you possibly can. If you can’t, simply count to ten slowly before saying anything and, if anyone asks, say that you’re thinking it through.

Speaking and acting when you’re feeling a surge of emotion – particularly a negative one – is almost always going to get you in trouble. Often, it’s a situation where you’re going to violate your other principles simply due to emotion, not to reason. You should avoid that type of situation at all costs.

17. When someone goes out of their way to help you, thank them sincerely. You can never go wrong with a handwritten note. Doing this serves two distinct purposes at once.

First of all, thanking someone provides positive social encouragement for that person to actually go the extra mile to help others, including yourself, again in the future. It encourages an economy of giving and trusting and helping, which we all benefit from.

Second, it forces you to consider and appreciate the effort that someone else has put down for you. Often, this is an extremely valuable gift – someone has helped you and benefited you at a cost to themselves with no direct benefit. The least you can do in return is appreciate that gift.

Furthermore, when you reflect on and appreciate help, you begin to realize the true secret behind helping others – it’s usually a huge benefit multiplier. Almost always, when you’re extending help to someone, you’re turning something very difficult for them into something rather easy for you.

18. Shut your mouth, listen, and don’t just think about the next thing you’re going to say. When someone is speaking to you, don’t spend the time that they’re speaking simply thinking of the next thing you want to say. Instead, listen to what they’re saying. Intentionally try to follow their thoughts and their line of reasoning.

Doing so is not only supremely respectful, it’s also clear to the person speaking that you’re offering them that respect. Furthermore, focusing on listening to someone else often clarifies what’s being said and provides far more useful information to you than simply jumping ahead of them with your own thoughts. You almost never lose by simply focusing on listening rather than planning your next statement in the conversation.

19. When in doubt, ask a question. Even if you sound foolish. It’s almost never a bad idea to ask a question when there’s a lull in a conversation or you don’t know what to say next. Not only does it relieve you from having to come up with something worthwhile to say, it prompts the other person to start talking about a particular topic. Even better, the other person usually feels good about it, because it indicates an expression of interest in them or in their thoughts.

Not only that, you can use questions to get information that you want to know and things that are valuable to you. If you’re at a new place, ask questions about the venue or the other people there. If you’re learning something new, ask about the topic at hand. If you want to get to know the person better, ask questions about the person. Asking questions is an incredibly valuable tool.

20. When in doubt about buying something, leave it on the shelf. Unless you are dead certain that something is a worthwhile idea and you’ve given it some thought in advance, you should just leave items on the shelf and not buy them. If you really, really think it is worthwhile, give that purchase some genuine thought as you go elsewhere in the store and circle back to it later.

That genuine thought should include consideration of whether you’d actually use the item enough to make it worth the cost (in terms of both money and space), whether or not you already have things that basically fulfill the same or similar use cases, and how often you would really use the item. If you can’t make a strong honest case for the purchase, keep your money. You’ll end up feeling glad that you did.

21. Put aside time each day for play. Play simply means something you’re doing for the genuine joy of doing it. It does not mean filling time. By “play,” I mean consciously and actively engaging in something that you’re doing solely for enjoyment. I don’t mean passive engagement, either; flopping on the couch and turning on a random channel is passive, as is flipping absently through a magazine or through social media or through a website.

In fact, it’s a good idea to set aside at least a little time every single day for some sort of hobby or activity you’re choosing to do solely because you enjoy doing it (and not just as a “time fill” or “veg-out time”). Block off that time and make it sacrosanct. If you simply can’t find time for a brief block of uninterrupted avocation time in your life, you need to cut back a little on your other commitments (or else get your ability to focus under control) or you’re heading for a brick wall.

22. Learn something every day. Laugh every day. Cry every day. Sweat every day. This was originally borrowed from a well known speech by Jim Valvano, in which he encouraged people to learn something every day, laugh every day, and cry every day, because that makes for a truly full day. I added “sweat every day” to that list.

Simply doing those four things each and every day constantly exposes you to the variety of human experience, as well as a variety of things that encourage mental and physical health. You’re going to simply have a better life if you do those four things every single day.

23. Be as patient and kind with the people in your life as you would like them to be with you when you’re struggling. This is just an extension of the “golden rule,” which is a central tenet of my life, but I’m extending it to the two areas that are often really hard for people to do. Being patient and kind to others can be quite hard, yet we always want others to be patient and kind to us.

Work at it. It’s not always easy, and it’s often much easier to simply not be patient and to not be kind. Remember, always, that in your difficult moments, you want patience and kindness from others, so extend it yourself as often as you can.

24. Everyone you see is struggling with something you probably don’t see. Remember that and act accordingly. This overlaps with the previous principle, and it’s a conscious tool to use to remind yourself to extend things like patience and kindness to everyone. The people around you are almost always struggling with something, even if you don’t see it. They have worries and aches and pains and distractions, just as you do, even if everything seems great from the outside.

Remember the pain you don’t see, and act accordingly. Extend patience and kindness, not to the exterior shell, but to the interior person that’s worried and distracted and hurting, the side that they’re working not to show to the world.

25. Spend some time each day planting trees that won’t blossom for 20 years or more. Buy a cup of lemonade from a child’s lemonade stand. Donate some food to the food pantry. Write a letter to the adult version of your newborn son. Put some money away for retirement. Literally plant a tree.

Do things today that won’t pay off for years and years, and likely won’t pay off in ways that you see. What you’ll find is that way down the road, there are all kinds of little things that blossom up in life that make things so much more wonderful, not just for you, but for the people in your life and, often, in the lives of people you’ve lost contact with or will never meet. Not only does the planting feel good, so does the daydreaming about what will blossom down the road, and then it feels incredible when it actually does happen.

As I said at the start of this article, I try my best to live by these principles, but I’m far from perfect at them. My goal is to continually try to live up to them, and I hope my friends call me out when I fall short.

Good luck.

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