"The value of a principle is the number of things it will explain."
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am a relatively new dad. My son is just shy of 18 months old and he is one of the main reasons that I started this newsletter. You see, becoming a new dad does a lot of things to you but one of the most remarkable is the sheer dread that starts to smoulder under the cool, calm “I have this” exterior. Suddenly risk is a thing—a very real thing—and my mortality was no longer just mine. So I sat down and came up with a plan as to how I could share everything I have learned in the event something happened to me before he was old enough to understand that trying to eat a television is a bad idea.
The next step was figuring out where to start. It actually ended up being a relatively simple choice. When building a house, one starts with the foundation; when building character, one starts with principles. Principles are what we use to make decisions; how good those decisions are will depend on how good the principles are. Either way, these decisions end up creating our realities.
They’re a heuristic that helps us to navigate a capricious world, filled with far too many variables to make a handbook any good. And they can be used to ease the angst when assessing difficult situations. They can even, if crafted well, cut through the self-inflicted dross that typically surrounds those situations.
They serve as a framework for improvement. We can only improve what we measure, and we can only measure something when we have a reference. Principles are that reference; they can be used to assess the actions of both ourselves and others.
It is also much easier to resist peer pressure when you have decent principles, similar to how it's easier to resist eating junk food when you're training for something specific. They move your locus of control from external to internal, putting influence right where it should be. Bad decisions become blatantly obvious when you contrast them with guiding principles.
More than just character, they serve as a foundation for trust. If you have principles and one of those principles is keeping your word, people are more likely to trust you when you give it.
What's more, having principles makes teaching decent behaviour to your kids much easier. They form a basis for lessons and are useful examples.
Essentially, principles are how you govern who you are.
So, crafting the right principles is ultra important. But how?
"Alice: Which way should I go? Cat: That depends on where you are going. Alice: I don't know. Cat: Then it doesn't matter which way you go.”
— Lewis Carroll
You need to understand what kind of person you want to be. It's often helpful to start with people that you admire. Why do you admire them? What specific characteristics are attractive? What is it about them that draws you to them? Write those traits down. You need to be able to clearly describe the person you want to be, with as much detail as possible, so that you can form principles around those descriptions.
"Think lightly about yourself and deeply about the world."
— Miyamoto Musashi
Put time into thinking about the issues that you care about. Opinions are like dough, they only come together when you work through them properly. It's not an easy thing to do, but that is exactly why you should do it. Too many people have strong opinions about important topics without having put much effort into thinking about them.
A great exercise is blocking out two hours of your time in a week, going somewhere where you will not be disturbed or distracted—that means no devices, just a pen and a notebook–then, writing. Write about whatever comes to your mind without holding back. Run with the ideas that come up and explore them thoroughly, writing everything down as you go. Do this until you have nothing left to write. Then just sit and let your mind prove. The goal is to get to a place of boredom, which is precisely where the magic happens. Ideas and connections will start to come out of seemingly nowhere. Rinse and repeat weekly—it's a life-transforming habit.
"Strong opinions, weakly held."
— Bob Johansen
Opinions are closely tied to principles. But opinions should not be static. Rather, they should be dynamic, almost alive. They should grow and evolve based on new information and experiences. Thinking deeply about things you care about is not a once-off thing because you are not a once-off person. Things change, you change, and that's fine.
Principles should be less prone to change, but that is not to say they shouldn't ever be changed. Only, with care and a lot of consideration.
"What gets measured gets managed."
— Peter Drucker
Write down your principles. Record them somewhere so that you can revisit them and improve them if necessary.
A good time to revisit principles is whenever you do something that doesn't make you proud of yourself. Then, the question is: did you violate one of your principles, or is a principle bad? If your decision was bad, try harder. If your principle was bad, work through the corresponding principle again.
Part of being an effective person is having and maintaining principles. It is about taking the time to actively control the person you are and ensure that you are developing into someone that you're proud of. It’s a prerequisite for true confidence. When you combine principles and discipline, there is very little you won’t be able to achieve without compromising your integrity.