We’ve all been there.
You feel your willpower giving way as you’re being pressured to do something by your friends or family (or sometimes complete strangers – I’m looking at you, salesmen!). How do you know what’s right? What can you measure your decision against to know whether it’s a good one?
Think about it this way – you have to bake a huge cake, but you have no measuring cups. You could guess how much oil, water, flour, sugar, and milk seems to be enough, but you really don’t know if you’re getting it right! And wouldn’t that not knowing make you feel a little uneasy?
Just like you needing measuring cups to measure the amounts of ingredients against, principles give you something to measure your decisions against. Principles are ideas or values that you find to be true and choose to live by. They resonate with who you are and what your really believe inside.
If the decision matches your principles, it’s a good one. If it doesn’t fit with your principles, it’s a bad one. And if it isn’t something your principles cover – it probably doesn’t matter too much and you don’t need to worry so much about it.
Principles give you the assurance that what you’re doing is right.
Principles Help You Reach Your Goals
Crazy science fiction and quantum physics aside, the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line.
That means that the shortest distance between where you are now, and where you want to be (whether that’s being wealthy, a CEO, a professional artist, having a healthy marriage, or even all of these things) is a straight line. Yet we make so many detours and side-trips that it takes us so much longer than it needs to in order to reach our goals.
For example, let’s say I’m someone who really wants to save a lot of money so that I can retire early. Then an amazing deal on a car comes up. I’ve recently talked to a friend about their new car, and now I feel social pressure to get one too. Finally, in a momentary lapse of judgement I buy the car.
Why was I pushed off my path so easily?
Like a boat without a sail, it’s because I had nothing steering me in the right direction! Good intentions are not enough to steer a boat, and they are not enough to steer your life.
I think that there’s a big emphasis today on having good habits. And while I agree that habits help lead to results, I think that this can over-shadow the importance of having solid principles to live by. Use your principles as your guides and form good habits by consistently following those principles.
Make Your Principles Yours
Make sure your principles are things you actually believe in. Too often I see people simply living out the “principles” that their parents believed in. Or principles that society says they should live by. That really doesn’t help you!
Principles at Amazon
First of all, I in no way represent Amazon here – their “leadership principles” are publicly available, so this is just my take on them.
When I was interviewing for jobs, the thing that stood out most about Amazon was their leadership principles. From the way they spoke, I could tell that these weren’t just some “talk about at new hire orientation because we’re supposed to and then never speak of again” principles that most companies seem to have. The principles were actually something they lived by and they weren’t afraid to be different.
For example, one of their leadership principles is “frugality.” Really, frugality? Sure most companies worry about cost efficiencies, but it’s not something many companies teach to all of their employees.
Amazon employees know the difference between frugal and “frupid” (stupid frugal – cutting costs in the short term only to have to pay for it later), but if there’s a decision to be made, oftentimes frugality will be one of the principles that pushes a team to choose one decision over another.
It’s Ok If Your Principles Seem a Little Strange to Others!
It’s so easy to just go along with the crowd, but what is right for you may not be what’s right for everyone else!
I don’t drink alcohol. Everyone else can do what they want, but I choose not to – it’s one of the principles I live by. In high school and college, this seemed strange to a lot of people (even now, but people seem more accepting). Was it hard not to go along with the crowd? Definitely. Would I have felt worse going against my principle? You betcha.
It doesn’t matter to me if other people drink – they have their own principles. But that’s what I’m saying – we all have different principles that we feel is right to live by. We have to live our principles and not somebody else’s.
Another one of Amazon’s guiding principles is that leaders “are right, a lot”. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a company where being right a lot was a principle. However, at Amazon, leaders are encouraged to have confidence in themselves and be willing to disagree with others so that the best solution can be found.
It’s kind of a strange principle, but it leads to better results.
My Guiding Principles
It was actually Amazon’s principles that got me thinking about my own. If they helped keep a huge business on track, why not a single person? So this last week I came up with 10 principles that will keep me grounded when the big decisions roll around.
The lower number keeps things simple, but I do hope these principles evolve over time to be even more in sync with who I am. A few of these I took from Amazon:
- Earn Trust: Be honest with people, even if it costs me temporarily in how much people like me. Never try to hide the truth for profit.
- Insist On the Highest Standards: Hold others accountable for things they said they’d do. Hold myself accountable for what I’ve committed to doing.
- Bias For Action: If a decision is reversible and failure won’t lead to anything terrible happening, lean toward doing.
- Focus on the Long-Term: Take short term losses if it means longer term gains. Be patient in my endeavors. Be willing to go some time without results in hopes of something better. Use time wisely.
- Frugality, Not Frupidity: Never spend where I don’t need to, but remember to think long-term. Be cautious of lifestyle inflation, and always keep expenses low.
- Avoid Any Type of Addiction: Anything at all like alcohol, smoking, or even TV. If I’m beginning to form bad habits which could turn into an addiction, take immediate actions to stop.
- Keep Health In Mind: Choose to go to bed on time rather than staying up to work. Choose to bike rather than drive when appropriate. Choose healthy foods rather than junk food.
- Attack Fear: If the only reason I’m not doing something is because I’m afraid, figure out how I can start overcoming the fear.
- Keep Things As Simple As Possible: Don’t drive an hour to save $2. Automate and delegate often.
- Put Loved Ones First: Spend time with family. Show people how much I care and show loved ones the best side of me instead of the worst.
A lot of these principles go together, and some of them may clash at times, but the overall structure is there. Knowing what you stand for and sticking to that makes life much more fulfilling.
Sticking to Your Principles Even When It Means Sticking Out
I’m under no illusion that sticking to your principles will always be “easy”. They may clash with your family, friends, or society as a whole.
What do you do when your parents or siblings want you to help pay for some big expensive item or vacation, but you’ve committed to being frugal? What do you do if telling the complete truth to customers may mean a few less sales, but you’ve committed to earning trust?
Here’s where things get personal and you really have to choose for yourself and prioritize your principles, but overall I’d say that your principles define who you are. And principles are worthless unless you commit to following them. They can be changed over time, but what you feel is right probably won’t change too much.
If you’re married, it may be helpful to sit down with your spouse. Go over what’s important to the two of you! You can make some guiding principles for family decisions. I know this has prevented many arguments in my own relationship.
When we think of George Washington, we usually think of freedom and independence. When we think of Abraham Lincoln, honesty comes to mind. With Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks – bravery and equality. These were all people of principle.
Each of these individuals had principles that clashed with a large portion of the world, but they were willing to be misunderstood in the short-term to have a better long-term.
So think about what you want to be known for, be ok with having “strange” principles, and begin to steer your own life rather than having it steered for you.