'Don’t get hung up on your views of how things “should” be because you will miss out on learning how they really are.' —Ray Dalio
I’m also on a quest for the greats. My greats, anyway. The shelves of my home office (partially pictured above) are packed with amazing books that inspire and nurture me. Whatever earthly success I may have had so far, I largely credit them for it.
Reading far and wide into many disciplines and domains helps. You start realizing that everything comes back to a relatively small number of principles, universally applicable. Distilling these is the hard work of reading. Luckily, it feels like play to me (with the corresponding hit on my bank account).
I haven’t (yet) distilled my method the way Matt did. Over the years, though, what I did distill was a list of principles. I didn’t make any of this stuff up, obviously. But they have been invaluable in helping me navigate life and work. And now, as a coach, they also help me help others navigate their own life and work.
Let’s say that if I hit my head, lost all my knowledge and had to start from scratch on this leadership and management thing, the following principles are what I’d really like to have with me.
Don’t fool yourself. Richard Feynman said that "the first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool." Self-awareness is the foundation without which nothing else works.
Lead yourself first. Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. You must be a selfish altruist. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. On emotions: manage them, don’t supress them.
Focus on what you can control. The Stoics, the Buddhists, the Taoists, they all figured out an essential truth: that some things you can control, and some you can’t. Attempting to control the uncontrollable is foolish, and a waste of time and energy.
Pareto is your friend. Perfection doesn’t exist but leverage does. Almost everything in the world roughly follows a pattern of 20% of the inputs accounting for 80% of the outputs2. Think and act accordingly.
Think using first principles. For any non-trivial topic X, Google will give you evidence for X and not(X). What’s true? First principles are the basic assumptions that cannot be deduced from any other assumptions—the core. For whatever you’re trying to do, find those, and build up from there.
Avoid stupidity before seeking excellence. Nail the basics first. No use trying to be brilliant if you haven’t mastered the fundamentals. Charlie Munger once said, “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
Learn to enjoy being wrong. Your ego helps you survive but doesn’t do much for you to thrive. Only when the ego takes a beating can true growth happen. Might as well try and enjoy the process.
Pay attention to what has your attention. You can’t control your thoughts but you can observe them. Run your mind in debugging mode. Journal. Socrates supposedly said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. He was a right a lot.
Pain plus reflection equals progress. Failure is but the successful discovery of that which doesn’t work. Even so, it’s often damn painful. But coupled with reflection, it leads to progress and to better mistakes to be made.3
Manage process, lead people (and be led by them). Processes are inanimate, to be controlled, tweaked, optimized, manipulated. People are animated, with thougths, feelings, hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties. Treat each accordingly, and never confuse the two.
Be compassionate. Listen not to form an opinion, but to understand. The ability to truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is priceless. Absolutely nothing in this world, and particularly at work, is accomplished alone.
What you do is who you are. Words are easy, actions are (much) harder. Say what you do and do what you say. Related: what you repeateadly do is who you become.
Giving control depends on clarity and competence. Scale can only be achieved with a large degree of decentralization of control. Giving that up is hard for most, but it hinges of the recipients having clarity (of goals, of purpose, of direction) and competence.4
Think in (and act on) systems. Most of what you deal with is complex—not merely complicated. Cause and effect seem to be but often aren’t closely related in time and space. Also: attempt to change not people but the system in which they exist.
Address problems at the right level. Einstein said “we can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. Similarly, we cannot solve people problems with process or other tricks. Good/bad news: everything is a people problem (and every people problem is a communication problem).5
Seek and show what good looks like. No one will perform at a level they don’t know exists, regardless. Always hunt for what greatness is, and share it with others so they can equally aim high.
Be impatient with actions, but patient with results. All truly good things take time. In the short term, it’s about intensity. In the long term, it’s about consistency. The power of compounding only rewards the patient who manage to stay in the game.
Consistency over time equals trust. Only by acting with integrity and authenticity over time, all the time, do you gain trust. There are no shortcuts.
Nothing is as good or as bad as it seems. Nothing is inherently good or bad, but our minds make it so. Whatever happens, remind yourself that blessings often come in disguise, that every tide has its ebb, and that bad luck often brings good luck with it.6
Stay humble. No matter how much “karate” you know, someone else will always know more.7
Looking at this list, I’m curious how it’ll evolve in a year or two… or twenty. I suspect it won’t change much, even if I will.
What about you? What are your principles to live and work by? I’d love to hear it in the comments.
With a hat tip to Stephen Wyatt Bush’s excellent blog post Dad and the Ten Commandments of Egoless Programming