Metal sign on a wall that says "Please don't sleep here"

My 12 Rules to Live By

Anybody worth learning from has plenty they stand for.

I love hearing the rules of thumb, the standards, the conventional wisdom and the accrued learnings of these people. Similarly I try to capture tightly-phrased aphorisms and holding myself accountable with plenty of direct and specific lists and resolutions.

So of course I was a sucker for the concept of ‘12 Rules for Life.’ It’s a book published early this year by Jordan Peterson that spiraled from popular to, fitting for today’s era, being engulfed in a strangely hyper-gendered debate. The book’s over-simplified approach of ordering one’s life with structure did gain positive feedback, including a podcast episode from Malcolm Gladwell. But because Peterson is aflame in lots of identity politics, I walked away from the the book less interested in adding to that debate than with something else.

I spent the last several months taking notes of the many universal truths I held myself to, and recommended for others. It became a fun game for parties among friends and family: what are your 12 Rules to Live By?

Let me share. (I collected ones from friends and family here)

I was downtheshore for a weekend in July and created a first draft. In discussing mine with others, I dissected what I thought made for effective and powerful rules. My favorites are specific and mundane, universal enough to be familiar to anyone but not necessarily something everyone would agree with: they’re personal and symbolic of something far bigger.

Here are mine:

  1. Make a list and keep it. I believe in resolutions and deadlines and goals. I think they drive me forward more than anything else I do. It’s also how to develop habits. This also became another way for me to approach the idea that I personally learn so much by writing ideas down, forcing specificity.
  2. The solution is in the problem. When feeling stuck or confronted with a challenge, I often over-complicate the situation. I try to focus on what my very central problem is, and I find often if that problem is differently approached or positioned, it unveils a solution.
  3. Always pack a bathing suit. You never can be clear when an opportunity for fun will come up. A slightly related idea I herald but have not fully maintained myself: Never own a swimming pool but always have a friend with one. In the spirit of preparedness, I also almost included “Never pass up the chance to travel with a local or someone who speaks the language.”
  4. Never make a cocktail with a bottle of whiskey that cost more than $40. This came from a beloved of uncle of mine and has deeply shaped my relationship to whiskey (and alcohol). A related goal of mine has been to always know how to make a drink with each of the five primary liquors.
  5. Ask the waitress what she would have. It’s a great approach to finding house recommendations, and a related pledge of mine is to always try the local street food.
  6. Never have an opinion before you could argue the opposite. Push yourself. If you’re angry about an issue, can you fully describe why someone might think the opposite? This was my way of addressing my obsessive approach to learning, which I alternately was going to approach with this cheeky rule: “Never go to the bathroom without something to learn.”
  7. Give the street musician a dollar. Well, at least if you like the music. I think a lot about the ‘Tragedy of the Commons.’ Each vote and act we do is contributing to our neighborhood, workplace and any community. If you want something to exist, buy it, visit it, contribute to it. Often something new isn’t as necessary as contributing something to what is there already.
  8. Remember you are a data set of one. I try to think of the law of small numbers, and the trap it represents. Your experience is just that, a single experience. To truly learn, you need to go beyond it. Put another way: Make the experiment smaller; test often. I try to always remind myself that if we’re trying to learn something, there might be a smaller way to learn a lesson. It’s a question of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and constantly shipping product.
  9. Never talk about a meeting until you’re outside the building. It’s a long story but let me say I’ve learned to be more smart about when and how I share news.
  10. There’s no judging in brainstorming. This version of “yes and” has been a staple of my approach to collaborative work for as long as I can remember. A different way I approached this rule was to say: Always use the white board. Forget the hesitation, and develop an idea together in as fast-moving and flexible an environment as possible.
  11. Not making a decision is making a decision. I see it all the time: people who push back or avoid making a final call in the name of of delay. Those delays are themselves decisions whether or not they realize.
  12. Always fill the ice tray. Leadership and good teamwork takes place with small and quiet acts. Be part of the solution. More explicitly: Demand only as much credit for a success as you would accept blame for its failure. It’s easy to speak up for the praise but hide away when the criticism comes. You have to lean into both equally — if not more for the blame first. Great leaders can be blamed for something.

(Photo from Unsplash)

Leave a Reply