This compilation of guiding principles started as a Whatsapp conversation with a friend who asked me (1) what my ideal day looks like and (2) what I value above all else. Two dynamite questions.
I sent her a long list of things. Here’s an edited and cleaned-up version of that message.
1. Control the controllables
You can't control many things but you can control your reaction to anything.
It depends on the lens through which you view things.
I love this line in “If” by Rudyard Kipling:
"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same… you’ll be a Man, my son!"
2. Kindness is magic
Leave someone better off than you found them.
Genuinely try to make that person’s day. Be as present as possible. You never know when (or if) you'll ever see them again.
Dale Carnegie (How To Win Friends and Influence People) captures it well:
I shall pass this way but once; any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
3. Doing great work is only half the job
If you want to increase your luck, you must tell people about your work as well. This is something I learned the hard way.
I was adding value at work (doing) but not making enough noise (telling).
Don't make the same schoolboy error.
4. Vulnerability signals strength
For a long time, I believed showing emotion indicated weakness.
But it's the exact opposite.
Being prepared to be vulnerable and open indicates a massive amount of strength. It's like saying, throw your biggest punch, I'll still be standing afterwards.
5. Everyone’s winging it
You can also change the world. Life is much more malleable than you think it is.
By stepping into the arena and creating your own things you can also take part in shaping the world.
“Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” — Tim Ferriss
6. The world owes you nothing
After school, I thought I had arrived. I was top of my class. I thought life was a procession of win after win.
Work and real life humbled me. Things got harder. Nobody cared about my past wins, they only cared about what I could do for them now.
You're not such a big deal. And that’s ok. Use this to motivate you.
7. Build a habit of meditation
This is something I wish I started sooner.
Just like you need to take care of your body, you need to practice your mind.
Don't wait any longer. The impact of improved mindfulness can be profound.
As Sam Harris says:
“But it is your mind, rather than circumstances themselves, that determines the quality of your life. Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it.”
8. Stop comparing yourself to others
This is a massive distraction. You have imperfect information about other people's lives, their advantages and disadvantages.
Just be better than you were yesterday.
9. Saying yes to others = saying no to yourself
I like to please people, but it comes at a cost. When I’m feeling closest to burnout, I know it’s because I’m not saying no enough.
If you're always satisfying other people's needs, when do you give yourself a chance? When do you work on your own dreams and ambitions?
10. Build your mental immune system
Challenging endurance events, minor discomforts, camping in nature -- all of these activities improve your mental immune system while the stakes are low.
So when life really gets difficult, you are strong enough to overcome the hardest challenges.
11. It’s all relative
No matter how well things are going for you, someone else is doing better. Be humble.
No matter how badly things are going in your life, someone else is worse off. Be grateful.
12. Raise aspirations
Take every opportunity you can get to mentor and motivate others.
People often underestimate what they're capable of. A genuine compliment or word of encouragement can help someone dream bigger.
13. Get lost
My favourite way to get to know a new city is by going for a run without a pre-planned route.
Turn off your phone. Back your instincts. Find your way without GPS. Explore. Become untethered for a moment. Live a little.
14. Prioritize ruthlessly
You can do many things, but you can't do everything.
By trying to do too much I have spread myself too thin in the past. I did many things but only with 80% effort.
Rather focus on a few core things (your 3 As) and do them at 100%.
15. Don't bad mouth others
This signals low trust to the person you're speaking to. You may also talk negatively about them behind their back.
Seek high-level conversations. Discuss ideas, not people.
16. Mind the gap
The gap between the things you have (reality) and the things you want (expectations) leads to unhappiness.
Instead of falling into the trap of desiring things you don't have, learn to appreciate the things you already have, but take for granted (family, health, relationships).
17. Talk to children like they are your equals
Kids are incredibly smart. They just don't know how to express themselves yet.
Nothing is worse than an adult talking to a kid and using baby words. Who’s the grown-up in that situation?
18. Want to learn faster? Read more.
It's good to learn from your own mistakes. But you can only make a limited number of mistakes.
If you want to increase your rate of learning, read books so you can learn from other people's mistakes as well.
Books give you access to hundreds of different worlds from the comfort of your palm. Don't limit yourself to this one world.
19. Change your mind often
You're going to be wrong. A lot.
Admit your mistakes.
This took me a long time to learn.
I loved being right. But that also showed a level of inflexibility to changing circumstances, which can be super dangerous when combined with ego (not having sufficient self-awareness).
As Marcus Aurelius said:
“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”
20. Respect others
Say thanks to the guy collecting the garbage. Be kind to your waiter.
The way you treat others (especially those serving you or reporting to you) says more about you than it says about them.
Be open to speaking to others. You can always learn something from someone else.
21. Don’t stay up to date with the news
The important things will find you.
The rest is just noise aimed at keeping you on your phone for longer and glued to the TV for longer.
Instead, read the classics, focus on the great works of art, study history. Focus on the underlying current instead of the individual waves stirred up by the wind.
22. Walk during phone calls
Actually just walk a lot. Period.
Your best ideas appear when you un-busy yourself. Creativity arises in quiet moments.
Plus you get some exercise. Not a bad deal.
23. Leave little artefacts
What will people remember you for? The fact that you slaved away in an office all day with nothing to show?
Or the impact you had on people's lives?
Write things. Build things. Leave a legacy.
"Do not go gentle into that good night" - Dylan Thomas
That’s a wrap. Thanks for reading! I’d love to know which rules resonated with you.
And, to pay it forward, I’d like to ask you the two questions my friend asked me:
- What does your ideal day look like?
- What do you value above all else?
Write it down in your journal. Text it to a friend. Capture the rules that guide you.
Thanks to Rik van den Berge for reading drafts of this essay.
Originally published at https://johnnic.substack.com/p/my-rules-for-life-50 on July 12, 2023.