Guiding Precepts

March 8, 2011

Over the last several months I’ve been toying with thoughts about codifying some general principles I try to abide by in everyday life. It started out as an exercise in curiosity, but the fruits have evolved into a sort of pair of mantras that have formed a conscious, solid foundation from which I’m learning to ground all my actions. While the actions themselves don’t particularly differ from what they were without the rocks, I’m appreciating my enhanced awareness of where they’re coming from.

So again and again I return to the same two phrases. It’s sort of funny, as part of me wishes they weren’t exactly what they are. They ‘could’ be more ‘positive’ or more overtly focused on the importance of others… and gee, wouldn’t it be nice if they were more lighthearted? Ultimately I’ve come to realize though that, like so much else in life, it doesn’t particularly matter what I wish they were — it matters what they are.

And here is what they are:

1: I am entitled to very little in life.

This is what I come back to every time I feel myself sliding down that dangerous slope to frustration. The nudge off the edge comes in any of a million forms: my train may be late; the shower water might never heat up one morning; money in any of its many darker forms could have come knocking; hell… I’ve even gotten annoyed at unexpectedly windy days that make for a struggle on my bike. Very honestly, my natural inclination in these situations is often to get angry — inanimate objects or abstract ideas be damned.

But then I think to myself:

There is no rule that says the world is supposed to be laid out at my feet, rolling along and taking it easy on me.

Ultimately it’s just as simple as that. It’s nice when things are easy, and a moment can be quite beautiful when circumstances work out elegantly. But we’re really just recipients of a pleasant gift when this happens — it’s not to be expected. Why would it be? Who or what should be given the responsibility of making each of our little worlds ‘right,’ if not ourselves?

Once any sense of entitlement to an innately perfect life is abandoned, it’s possible to see adversity for the opportunity it actually offers. Windy days give me a chance to get a more intense workout and up my hardcore factor (I’m a big fan of the hardcore factor). Trains that never come are an opportunity to practice patience; people I find frustrating allow the chance to practice empathy and compassion; less-than-ideal circumstances of any sort are a lovely time to practice focus and to learn how to work really, really hard to modify those circumstances to my liking. Because while situations don’t have to be pre-formed to each of our individual expectations and desires, they almost all are modifiable so they can be whatever we want them to be — assuming we put the work it to make it so.

And it is work, I’ll give you that. But what real reward is to be had from an endeavor that took no real effort?

2: Don’t waste people’s time.

People’s time is the most valuable commodity they have to offer. Every interaction we have is a transaction, and while most of us are often quite willing to be on the giving end of an exchange with someone who can’t pay us back, when it happens there’s generally an understanding that someday that debt will be repaid, whether directly or indirectly (“paying it forward,” as it were).

Ideally you want your net contributions to these complex transactions to be positive — put in more than you receive. But when you are the recipient, as will inevitably be the case from time to time, you should do everything in your power to be deserving of that gift. Do not waste it. Bring something real to the table. Action works well, as potential only goes so far. Be as informed as you possibly can. Respect your benefactor, as they are giving you a valuable, powerful gift.

It comes down to the recognition of people’s time as precious, and the knowledge that you are not entitled to it. Use it well when you receive the honor.


So there are my two thoughts, my two underlying mantras. In a more significant gesture toward total simplification, my truly unifying core concept has been making itself clear to me only now that I’ve explored the two it precedes:

Be a giver, not a taker.

I’ll just let that one speak for itself.

What to do, what to do.

It’s a big step to step aside, especially when momentum’s got a hold of your journey. And as is often the case with big steps and complex changes, there are internal and external factors at play, and it’s usually a whole lot easier to deal with the outside stuff than it is to brave the much-scarier insides of our little brains.

So last time I talked about the external issues of what to do when you take this step — the physical act of turning off the television (or whatever other vice you’re attacking) and doing things you really care about. As is always true, there is certainly overlap between external and internal phenomena, but abandoning complacency and embracing activity is a transition you can generally muscle through with brute force, and the change can more or less occur from the outside in. Today’s take on ‘what to do’ is a bit more subtle, more confined to your mind, and must incite a shift from the inside out.

This next layer to dissect shows itself when people start contemplating what they are able to contribute. How to function as a valuable member of the world. How to make money on their own. How to establish relationships with a new group of peers — why to establish relationships with a new group of peers. What value they bring to the table. What can they do or say or produce that will be of any interest to anyone else, and not just add to the deafening noise we’re all already inundated by. What to do.

It really comes down to a question of what makes a person different, and it’s particularly difficult because we all know we’re different, but in a very abstract way. We feel our individuality in every moment of our lives, and relish in our own personal experience, which is inherently distinct from that of anyone else in the world. But our innate knowledge of this difference is ignored in our education system and the majority of workplaces (the two most significant breeding grounds for acceptable behavior in our culture), and is never given a voice — there is no time for it. We’re too busy preparing for tests and taking tests and churning out TPS Reports.

The big (enormous) problem here is that our differences are where our ideas come from. Ideas are a bridge from the way things are to the way we would like them to be, and ultimately they are where we find what we alone are able to contribute to the world. But since so few people are ever taught to pay attention to what makes them different, since there is so much else to do and consume in order to be ‘prepared’ for that fabled ‘real world,’ the skills that enable a person to follow even one idea to its fruition (to ‘ship it,’ as the brilliant Seth Godin says) are abandoned, and left to chance for the lucky to learn.

So we find ourselves with a vague certainty that we are unique, but eventually we stop noticing the thoughts and ideas that concretely enforce this truth because we never follow them through — we learn to be functioning adults, but have no idea how to extract an idea from the ether and give it life. Inevitably the muscles involved atrophy and fall away from awareness. “Use it or lose it,” as they say.

The moment a person starts to pay attention to their existence is, for many, the first time they consciously recognize this lack. What then, though? How do you find your ideas after you’ve packed them away in the cellar or attic of your brain for so long?

David Foster Wallace made a speech in 2004 that opened with an parable: two young fish are swimming along, doing their thing, when they pass an older fish heading in the direction they’d just come from.

“Morning, Boys,” this third fish says with a nod, “How’s the water?”

Everyone continues on their way, until a few minutes later when one of the first fish says to the other, “What the hell is water?”

I just love this story.

What the bit is pointing out is how extraordinarily easy it is to take the most basic and consistent truths of our existence for granted. To forget that there is an alternative. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the legs we walk on, the television shows we watch, the websites we frequent, the money we earn — most of us pay so little attention to so many of these constants that we forget they’re there at all.

But these are the facets of our lives, and they make up the niches each of us exist in. These are the things we are most capable of being knowledgeable about. Participation is a convenient, effective way to develop expertise; the problem is most of us are completely oblivious to what we are experts on. We each exist in an oasis of inspiration, and hardly anyone recognizes it.

The oasis is where your ideas, your contribution, your message will come from.

Find your water; identify your constants. Are they unique and good? Share them. Bring them to other people, or help others attain them. Simply tell people of their existence. Are they awful and embarrassing? Get rid of them and help others do the same — share the journey. Dig what you take for granted out from the piles of junk in your brain (don’t worry, we’ve all got ‘em), and set it all on a pedestal. Pay attention, and ideas will emerge.

The particularly excellent thing about this is that it’s an in — you’re exercising brain muscles and making them stronger. So even if what you find in your water isn’t the most Earth-shattering innovation to strike in generations, it is a start, and you’ll be more capable of noticing the next one. And once you follow through on your first, likely small idea, you’ll know the process. You’ll understand it. You’ll live it. And you’ll be ready to do it bigger and better next time.

related thoughts:

(It’s worth pointing out that people with ideas tend to have lots of ideas. They are not ‘gifted’ with the ability to have all these strokes of genius though, they have just exercised and strengthened the muscles required to bring them to consciousness and then, more importantly, to do what it takes to follow through on them. For some reason the idea itself has been idolized and deemed rare, not the significantly-less-glamorous work that goes into bringing them to life.)

(I am not even hinting at claiming to be exempt from this dilemma — or any I tend to discuss, for that matter. To sit down and write a piece like this, to lay my thoughts out and pick them apart and cull the useful bits from the mush and reorganize it all into something coherent is a long, arduous slog. I imagine it will get at least marginally easier as I do it more and hone my skills, but I won’t get there unless I put in the hours now and allow myself to be accountable for my words. My participation is indeed a form of expertise, but it’s the on-the-ground sort — I’m fighting these battles, too.)


One of the larger dilemmas that seems to waylay people as they start on the journey to actively existing in their world is that they find themselves stymied by the thought, “What now?”

It’s a deceptively simple issue that actually has several layers and attacks on multiple fronts, and after a rather unsuccessful attempt at brevity, I am tackling it in two parts.

Today: The Abyss.

Stepping off the passive path can feel like stepping off a ledge. Into an abyss. Down a proverbial rabbit hole… nothing is quite as it was, and it’s difficult to discern the best way to move forward. You instinctually scramble for footing, for familiarity, for stability — all these things that make life comfortable — and often the easiest path to these qualities is behind you: it goes right back to where you came from.

Take an average day. Perhaps you’re used to working for nine hours, retreating to the television for another five, then bed for eight. Add another couple of hours for commuting, personal hygiene, eating, perhaps some web surfing or reading, and that’s really about all we’ve got. Minimal thought required, rinse and repeat.

So what happens if we just give up the TV? Cut it completely out of the arsenal. Those five hours that were so conveniently filled before are sitting out in the open now, just empty. Taunting you. What the heck do you do now? Sure, you probably had some grand ideas that prompted you to give up the box in the first place (start a business, read War and Peace), but now that you’re here, in the thick of it, finding yourself acutely accountable for what you spend your hours on… it’s overwhelming, and those ideas seem to be either too big to take on or just plain gone.

Whether it’s five hours or twenty minutes, the enormity of time relative to what we’re used to shocks the system, and the infinitely large number of activities that could replace the habit you’re abandoning is just too big to comprehend. So it feels like nothing. Like a void. The silence is uncomfortable, the accountability of the moment unbearable. This is the abyss.

It’s tempting to look at that huge chunk of time, that significant portion of our day, and say, “Well, I can’t really think of anything else to do… May as well flip the dang set back on. At least the time will pass that way.”

And pass it does, as you scramble back up the hill. We don’t know what to do, so we retreat to something familiar — even if it’s what we’re actually trying to escape.

So the question is how to muscle through this initial barrier.

First, accept it. Acknowledge it for what it is. We can’t change anything until we know the lay of the land as it exists right now. Recognize that turning the TV back on is easy, but remind yourself that you aren’t in it for easy. It’s okay to be uncomfortable.

Then be quiet. Exist in the quiet. Explore the quiet. See what thoughts come out. It’s a little like coaxing wildlife to come out after you’ve scared them away — just quit moving around for a few minutes and something will emerge. Our senses readjust and fine-tune themselves, and the thoughts that were too timid to shout over the din we’re usually immersed in begin to step forward.

Personally, I find it helpful to write things down. If something crosses your mind during the nine hours at work that is well-suited to be tackled during the five new free hours, make a note to yourself and then — this is important — return to it at the appropriate time. Write down thoughts and ideas, so you don’t have to find them in the crevices of your brain when you throw yourself into the abyss. Set goals: if you want to write, write 500 words; if you want to take pictures, take ten photos; if you want to play guitar, learn two chords. And on and on… not everything will be pristine and perfect and without struggle, but you’ll be exploring your world beyond that ledge of familiarity and giving it life. Eventually you’ll eliminate the ledge entirely and the barrier will be gone.

related thoughts:

(I’m going big and simple here with the ‘five hours of TV,’ but the ideas apply to any attempt to eliminate activities with little long-term bang for the buck. Television is the low-hanging fruit, but maybe it’s computer games, books you’re not actually interested in reading, or activities you don’t really find meaningful. All of us fill our days somehow, and most of us are spending decent-sized chunks of those days on things we ultimately don’t care about.)