It's Your Principles That Matter

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We need to talk about your principles.

Appreciating the foundations of choice takes us to another not talked about aspect of decision-making. It is the bedrock you should be building your decisions on. I am, of course talking about principles.

These virtues can deliver consistency, attention, and soften the pain of difficult choices. They keep us on the ‘straight and narrow’, which can be incredibly helpful when faced with frequent, high-risk decisions. They are like a rudder that steers us in the right direction regardless of the speed the propellers turn.

I’m curious though, what are your principles?

It is a question which may force you to pause and dwell for a minute. You see, our view of principles has changed. Once upon a time, principles reflected your religious views. The ten commandments were rules explained in the Bible. They explain our framing of right and wrong, single out one God, and even establish a day of rest and worship. Today, as religion fades from popularity, our awareness of the commandments and the principles they embody is far less than it once was.

In contrast to our faith setting commandments, Stephen Hawking once said: “Work gives you meaning, and purpose and life is empty without it.” It is productivity and our choices surrounding work that has taken on the importance religion once held from us. So, it is of little wonder that today we turn to those who can guide us to be more productive in general and more effective in our decision-making.

Two people spring to mind, Stephen Covey and Shane Parrish.

Stephen Covey’s Principles: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Covey’s book is a modern-day masterpiece. Published in 1989, sales have exceeded 40 million which makes it one of the best-selling books in the self-help sector. The book takes the habits of the successful and breaks them down into principles.

What Stephen realised, just as our religious leaders discovered many centuries ago is that we need a higher level of understanding. Whether it be God or productivity, we need the bedrock to support the foundations. And so, that is what the 7 habits book does. It gives us a set of empirical principles to drive productivity and efficiency in what we do. Each of the seven habits creates a flow of effectiveness not just for work, but in life too.

The 7 habits—or principles are:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put First things first
  4. Think win/win
  5. Seek first to understand, then be understood
  6. Synergise
  7. Sharpen the saw

The great misrepresentation in the book comes in the title.

These are not seven habits. No, they are principles. Jim Collins correctly noted in his forward to the 25th-anniversary edition.

“Covey found a similar pattern in personal effectiveness: first build upon a strong core of principles that are not open for continuous change; at the same time, be relentless in the quest for improvement and continuous self-renewal. This dialectic enables an individual to retain a rock-solid foundation and attain sustained growth for a lifetime.”

It is here the truth stands out. “First build upon a strong core of principles…” This is what Covey has created; 7 Principles to Become a Highly Effective Person. I’m sure his title worked better because we are fixated on habits and examples from others that have gone before.

What shouldn’t be in doubt is the value of having principles like these.

Shane Parrish’s Principles: An Operating System for Life

Eleven hundred-and sixty-six-words concise words are all it takes Shane Parrish to explain his principles for living.

Within these few words—certainly far fewer than Covey’s book—rest five simple virtues that help Shane live an effective life. They inform everything that he writes about, thinks about, and strives to achieve in life.

They are:

  1. Direction Over Speed
  2. Live Deliberately
  3. Thoughtful Opinions Held Loosely
  4. Principles Outlive Tactics
  5. Own Your Actions

You’ll notice how succinct they are, but also how broad they are in the aspects they cover. This isn’t a list of proscribed actions. No, these are deeper and stronger, like the bedrock I’ve been talking about. These are principles—both in name and function.

Each one offers constraints, not in rules, but in clarity of thoughts and actions. In Shane’s desire to build his latticework of mental models he took insight from Stephen Covey. So much so, that Stephen is cited within the footnotes to the article on fs.blog.

Your Principles Really Matter

“A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” ―Dwight D. Eisenhower

A decision without principle is a nod to chaos. And yet, as we move further away from the influence religion has, we find more and more people living without principles. If challenged, they couldn't write them down. The paradox is that as we evolve, we’ve never been more aware of this simple truth so concisely delivered by Jean-Paul Sartre, he said: “We are our choices.” Every decision you make shapes the person you become.  Explicitly, this means making decisions in isolation of what your future will be. No one can see their future, so they have to second-guess how a decision today fits the unknown.

This is where your principles matter.

Principles offer us guidance to make decisions with a sense of safety towards the future. Of course, no one can predicate what fate belies us. But we can prepare ourselves to play long-term games. We can understand our ‘why’—and grasp its importance over the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. We can open up ourselves to learn from others rather than force our views on them, and so the list goes on.

When it comes to making decisions, we will need the guidance of principles.

Without them, every decision will only focus on now. You will be a classic first-order thinker, with no consideration for the future and the consequences that always follow. It is a nod to chaos.

What Should Your Principles be?

Everybody has a different view of the world and how they fit into it. So, your principles should be different to mine. Or maybe not. The point here is to not seek consensus but to rather understand your view of the world. Covey himself admits he didn’t come up with these 7 habits. He told Jim Collins, “Yes, I wrote the book, but the principles were known long before me.” He continued, “They are more like natural laws. All I did was put them together, to synthesize them for people.”

In other words, Covey verbalised what those natural laws meant to him.

Think of Shane’s concise direction over speed. How is that different to ‘begin with the end in mind’? The underlying point is this; play long-term games to exploit the opportunity of compounding. Naval makes the same point in one of his tweets; “Play long-term games with long-term people. All returns in life, whether in wealth, relationships, or knowledge, come from compound interest.” Compounding is a law of nature. What has happened is that Stephen, Shane, and Naval have taken the same point and re-worded it to suit them.

You should be looking to do the same.

It seems simple, but in reality, few take the trouble to sit, think—and then write down what those laws mean to them. Just think about the difference it could make to your choices. Especially, when you have a grasp of the three foundations of choice. Being able to make those choices with the empowerment of principles is liberating.

Start working on your principles today.

Photo by Hüseyin Topcuon Unsplash

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