This I Believe — Principles And Values That Guide Me

Inspired by the NPR program This I Believe, Avinash Kaushik published a post similarly titled, This I Believe: A Manifesto for a Magnificent Career, in which he shares some of the personal philosophies and core values that guide him.


Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.

It’s an interesting read and it’s something I often think about myself. While I’ve never tried to write out all my beliefs and codify them, I know there are a handful of principles that guide my way through life. I decided to scan through the archives here and pull out some of the themes that I continue to come back to.

What’s below isn’t by any means a cohesive manifesto. Perhaps one day I’ll think through some of this in greater depth. For now consider what’s below a few things that guide me in work, design, and life

Improve Your Position — Make Better Decisions

Like most people my life has never been perfect. At times it’s been better than others, but perfect it ain’t. During some of the less than better times I would try to get from wherever I was to my vision of the ideal in a single step.

That usually doesn’t work well. For one it’s a lot or pressure to make one decision that solves every problem in your life. At the very least it would take many steps to get to some version of ideal and it’s hard to see that last step when you haven’t yet taken the first. The pressure to make the right decision would leave me feeling paralyzed to make any decision for fear of making the wrong one.

A few years ago I was teaching myself to be a better chess player. I’m by no means good, but I wanted to learn more about the game. I came across the idea of positional chess, which I won’t claim to entirely understand. I took the general concept though, and applied it to life in general.

When you think about it, life is an endless series of decisions and you’re usually better off making a wrong decision than no decision at all. You can at least learn something from an incorrect decision to make a better one the next time.

The positional chess idea is to take stock of where you are. Understand your current position in life. When it comes time to make a major decision, don’t worry about the long term ramifications. Just make a decision that improves your current position. Don’t try to reach the ideal with each decision you make or each thing you do. Don’t be afraid of making a poor decision. Simply take a small step in a direction that makes things a little better than they are now.

Consistently repeat that and you’ll eventually get where you want to go.

Understand Context

Where you are now (your current position), is the context of your entire life. Every moment that has come before has led you to the moment you’re at now. It’s the same for everyone, though all our moments haven’t been the same. We each live in our own context.

What might work for someone else, might not work for you and vice versa. We all have different strengths and different weaknesses and ultimately only you can make the best decision for you, since only you can know and understand the entirety of your context.

We receive advice from people all the time, whether in person or through an article read online. Understand that all that advice is given based on the context of the person offering it. There are few, if any, absolute rules. Rather there are lots of general guidelines that appear as absolute rules in specific contexts.

When you receive advice spend some time trying to understand the context in which it’s given. Some things will apply only to a specific set of circumstances, which you may or may not share and some will apply to a much broader set of circumstances. Spend the time to understand the context in which the advice is offered in order to modify it and apply it to your own context.

Balance

Most choices involve tradeoffs. Few, if any, choices are perfect. There’s good and bad in everything. Every choice has its own set of pros and cons.

It’s unlikely that any decision you make will get you everything you want. The universe doesn’t work that way. How often has “it depends” been your response to a question. Most problems don’t have binary solutions in black and white. We live in a world that’s made up of shades of gray.

Seek balance in life. Don’t worry about trying to make every choice, every action perfect. Seek an overall net positive instead of worrying about making every micro thing a positive.

Keep Things Simple

More often than not when our lives seem complicated, the complication is of our own making. If you can learn to get out of your own way life simplifies itself quickly. Most problems are nowhere near as important as they seem.

I think we often complicate our lives by trying to solve edge cases that only have complicated solutions. We’re too focused on what might go wrong that we fail to implement the simpler solution that covers most cases.

Sometimes you’re better off forgetting the edge cases for a moment and just go with the simple solution that covers 80% or 90% of the issue. It’s what leads me to design led by minimalism and mobile first. Build the simple base that works for most. Then feel free to add on complexity for different edge cases.

Strive for Perfection, but be Practical

This may sound like a contradiction given the above about simplicity, but do strive for perfection always, while always understanding you won’t ever get there.

Balance comes into play. Sweat the details because they do matter and they help you stand out from the rest. At the same time don’t sweat all of the details, because you’ll be fine even if you don’t get every last one of them right.

Somewhere between total garbage and perfection is the best you can practically do. Seek to do better, but don’t chastise yourself if you don’t. Meet a minimum standards you set before releasing anything and then iterate to improve it.

Follow Your Passion, but Remember the Money

I’ve watched a lot of people work jobs they find miserable solely for the money. A long time ago I was doing the same and realized my life was to get up every day to go to a job that made me miserable in order to earn enough money so I could wake up the next day and go back to that same miserable job.

Most of your adult life is going to be spent working. Doesn’t it make sense to work at something you enjoy? I think happiness is much more likely found in the things we feel passionate about than in chasing after the money.

That’s not to say you should ignore the money. We live in a system where money is a necessity. The bank isn’t excusing my mortgage and the grocery store isn’t letting me walk in and take what I want off the shelves. We need money to live.

Again it’s a balance. You probably don’t want to follow any old whim that makes you happy, however you shouldn’t ignore the things that make you happy. Find the balance that works for you. I find it in a place that leans toward the passion side and I do what I can to earn a living doing things that I enjoy. It sometimes means I don’t make as much money as I could, but it generally makes me happy.

Both Theory and Practice are Important

Practice is learning from your own experience. Theory is learning from the experience of others. What you learn through practice and doing for yourself will sink in deeper than what you learn from others. What you learn from others will cut across a much wider set of problems and give you a broader perspective.

Both are important. If you could only choose one, practice is the way to go, but you’re much better offer adding theory to your practical routine. The people who go furthest usually have a mix of both.

Be Open to Possibilities

Never get locked into a single train of thought or convince yourself you have all the answers. None of us does. We’re all doing our best to make it through a life long journey. None of us is walking down the absolute right and perfect path. We’re all winging it each and every day of our lives.

Whatever solution you’ve come up with be open to the possibility that a better one exists. It does. No matter how good you think you are, be open to the possibility that someone out there is more talented than you. That person does exist.

If you can accept that other and better possibilities exist you give yourself something to strive for. You gives yourself an ability to grow. If you’re closed to these possibilities what’s the point of life?

he not busy being born is busy dying
— Bob Dylan “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”

Summary

As I said at the start what’s here isn’t anything I’d call a manifesto. It’s more some general philosophies and values that help guide me through life and work. Give me a few minutes and I’ll come up with a few more. Give me a few years and some of the above might change.

Even as I write now I can think of a few things I’ve left out and a few things in the above that aren’t as clear to me as I thought they were when I started typing.

Maybe one day I’ll spend more time codifying the things I believe and offer it as some kind of manifesto for how I live my life. Until then just know what’s above are some principles that help me make decisions and ideally help me grow to be a better me. Hopefully something in there will lead to an aha moment for you and help you better understand the values and philosophies that guide you.

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