Every action has a cause. Whenever we act, by conscious decision or otherwise, there is some underlying reason to it. Viewed in isolation, it can be difficult to piece together a coherent story and provide an explanation as to why we do what we do. Viewed together, the string of choices we make every day gives us a wider context to understand our own motivations. The underlying motivations which drive our decisions can be called “principles”.
I recently finished a reading of Ray Dalio’s Principles. Ray Dalio was the founder and CEO of Bridgewater Associates for over 40 years, and in that time grew the firm from a one-person operation into one of the largest investment firms in the world. In his book, Dalio covers both his universally applicable life principles, and his work principles, which are well-established as the principles by which his firm operates. While much of his work principles appear more directed at managers, directors and those able to affect and design great change within a company, his life principles resonated strongly with me. It was not necessarily the content of his principles which evoked inspiration – though they were surely sound – but the entire concept of understanding and living by one’s principles. Whether we are aware of them or not, we each have a set of unique principles. These define what we see as good and bad, useful and useless, worthwhile and worthless. By knowing our principles, we should be able to design our lives in almost complete accordance with what we truly want. What is it you want to work for? How do you want to conduct yourself in your relationships, with family, and with friends? What is truly important to you?
To develop an understanding of our principles, we need to be aware of our actions, and rationally consider why it is we do what we do. When you make a decision, ask yourself – what led you to that decision? Have you done similar things in similar situations? If not, why? Each time, catalogue the situation and the response. As this catalogue grows, you can begin to see patterns, and compare similar situations to find a unified solution. From these resolutions comes principles, slowly but surely manifesting a picture of who you actually are. By understanding these pieces, you can determine what choices align with your aspired way of life. A true test of your understanding is to know exactly how you should respond to an imagined situation. This knowledge comes directly from knowledge of our principles, as it is our principles which guide us – even without being aware of them.
Ray Dalio has taken this idea to its extreme, codifying his principles in such a way that he can use computer algorithms to find decisions which align with his principles. This is a profound approach. There are many frequent, inconsequential things which affect our decision making. We can be primed by our environment, fatigued after a day of decision making, susceptible to a host of cognitive biases. Many decisions we make, while seeming right at the time, seem dissonant when viewed from afar. Having a catalogue of principles by which to judge all decisions is the antidote to this decision-making affliction.
Much of determining one’s principles come from introspection. That is, the act of considering one’s own thoughts, actions, feelings, and trying to understand oneself. At least for me, introspection is not a task regularly undertaken. I could provide a litany of excuses for this. There is far too much going on in the outside world, there is a glut of flashing lights and entertainment, tasks which require attention and goals which require outward direction. To take the time on something which has no palpable effect on the world around it seems to run contrary to my own principles. The irony, of course, being that introspection would reveal what my principles actually are – and help decide whether introspection is a task worth undertaking.
There is an Ancient Greek aphorism, inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (of “the Oracle of Delphi” fame), which reads:
In modern times, one is as likely to come across this phrase in a philosophical textbook as they are in a self-help guidebook. Not to say that’s a bad thing. Socrates famously expounded on the phrase with his own:
The unexamined life is not worth living.
The phrase was apparently uttered by the philosopher in the trial in which we was sentenced to death – consider it a 400 BC “such is life”. How often do we live our lives without reflection, merely moving from act to act without understanding what caused the last? This life of action without reflection and introspection is the unexamined life.
What does it actually mean to “know thyself”? For our purposes, it means to understand what our motivators are, what drives us – what our principles are. Without conscious knowledge of ourselves, we are driven by instinct. Instinct is a great and powerful force in our lives. It often leads us to act in accordance with our principles. However, our minds are easily swayed, and our instincts are far more concerned with being correct in the moment than coherent across our entire human experience. This coherence and internal alignment is the responsibility of our higher selves. Knowing thyself means knowing how to self-correct. It means understanding our motivations and aligning our decisions with them. It means not only knowing our goals, but knowing whether they are goals we should keep. For myself, and for many others, the paths we find ourselves on are not the paths we would choose, were we to look upon ourselves critically. I have both set and achieved goals which were not aligned with my truest intentions, merely because I found myself on that path. It is important for our to know our principles, to know the decisions we have made, and to know the paths we are on. Most importantly, we must reconcile these, to ensure that the lives we are living are the most worthwhile lives.
To live our own lives unexamined is to be at the mercy of the tides. We are endlessly presented with decisions to be made, and swayed by whatever whims we are caught up in. Without knowing what guides us, how can we know whether the decisions we have made are the right decisions? And how can we ensure that our futures decisions will be correct? The answers lie within our principles. By examining ourselves and our actions, we can begin to build our own catalogues of who we are as people. These catalogues come to serve as the foundation from which we consciously choose to live our lives. Principles give us clear references points to compare our decisions against. They act as anchors to come back to, when we struggle against the own murky waters of our mind. They are the lighthouses guiding us to shore, navigating us safely through the rocks.
If I knew my principles, I would have a better idea of whether nautical metaphors are really what I should be writing. If you don’t know your own principles, there’s no harm in finding them, and a lot to gain. The time to start knowing thyself is now.