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First Principles First

"Since the foundation of all happiness is thinking rightly, and since correct action is dependent on correct opinion, we cannot be too careful in choosing the value system we allow to govern our thoughts and actions." - Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin had a lifelong practice for personal improvement that centered on his 13 core principles. He called them his 13 virtues and you can do a quick google to find his list. He evaluated himself against these personal ideals systematically, seeking not overnight successes but incremental improvement. His practice was to score himself every day in each of the 13 areas and also have an area of emphasis each week. By focusing individually for brief periods he was able to see gradual improvement across each of his values over many years.
I read this story in my teens, my twenties, and again in my thirties but it wasn’t until I became a father that I took articulating my own set of principles seriously. If I was going to be responsible for raising kids the right way I needed to understand what I stood for myself. If I was going to help my own kids succeed, I needed to understand what had made me successful and what I needed to focus on to help me be more successful in the future. The result of my drafting became my own list of 7 principles, they are listed at the end of this post. These seven principles speak to different parts of myself and took me months of drafting, journaling, and revision. They are the voice of wisdom that I turn to first when confronted with difficult choices.

So how do you find your principles? Set the conditions to allow you to think and write about it over time. Schedule recurring quiet time with a pen, a pad, and a carrot. The quiet time is a necessity to do good work. Author Neil Gaiman has a rule about writing that I have adopted. “When I am in writing time I have the open of either writing or not writing but nothing else. No distractions. After five minutes of staring out the window, it loses a bit of its charm and I get to work.” The pen and the pad have the advantage of being screen free and a bit slow. It helps me to focus and the speed, or lack thereof, of the writing pace, helps me to think and be more deliberate. The carrot actually isn’t a carrot but is something to look forward to that makes the experience of writing pleasurable. My carrot is espresso or tea and French pastries from my favorite coffee shop in the world. Even on the days that I don’t really want to work on the important stuff, I can always get out the door and to my work spot at the coffee shop knowing that a latte and raspberry-rhubarb croissant await. Those are my carrots and they really do help.

So set the time, eliminate the distractions, and make sure you have a carrot. The rest is up to you and some deep thought about what makes you tick, what seems like it applies to any situation you have or ever found yourself in, and those things that represent the very best of you.

So you have you appointment, your tools, and your carrot handy.
What makes you tick? If you had to pick one thing that is always true about you, no matter how you feel or what you are doing what is it? Pick something you are proud of, what is the trait you wish everyone in the world knew about you? Would you be Bob the Brave, Helen the Honest, Jose the Joyful, Whitney the Wise? What should the world know you as? If you feel that strongly about something it should be on your Principles list in some way. Use your own words, qualify statements, whatever it means for you to embrace the idea with every fiber of your being.

There may be more than one of these things that feel powerful to your core, write them down. Flesh them out. Rewrite them until they feel like a battle cry. Your declaration to the world. My guess is that this will get you about 2/3 there.

Now ask yourself, what behaviors cause you the most shame? What causes you to criticize yourself for hours or days after the actual event? We all have these moments of loathing, negative self-talk, nausea-inducing memories. What are yours? Write them down, all of them. Now, what is the opposite? If you talk when you should listen and hate yourself for it, the inverse is probably something like “be a good listener” or “honor other people by truly hearing them”. Collect these little anti-nausea ideas, some of them may be aspirational principles. Little bits of the future-best-version-of-yourself. Even if you truly struggle with these now, they may be a core principle. Write them down.

This may take several appointments and you might have a list of 10-20 things that feel like principles. Write them all down, numbered, in a neat hand. Read them back to yourself. You will trip over one or two or six of them, note which ones and why. My guess is that you will find several that are less powerful or don’t always apply. Can several of them be folded together into another statement to make it more powerful? Keep rewriting, rewording, and reordering until you have a list of 13 or less. Why 13 or less? Because if that was enough for Franklin it should be enough for you. If I need to get into why none of us are close to his class send me a note and I will drown you in the depth of his awesomeness. But seriously, if you list runs too long it loses power. Each of your principles should resonate deep in your chest and feel like you are stating a part of you.

Your principles are your path toward the best version of yourself.

Here are my seven personal principles help that guide me throughout life and in my business.

  1. Enjoy life, it is the only one you get
  2. Value connection to close friends and family
  3. Make sure what you do for a living is worth doing
  4. Make promises sparingly and always keep them
  5. Maintain health, you only get one body
  6. Kindness and courtesy always
  7. Help others who deserve it

Jarrod Musick


Posted: 04/17/2019

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