Seven Principles That Guide My Life

23 October 2012 · 29 comments

When I was younger, I made fun of self-help books. I thought they were cheesy. They didn’t seem to have any utility for my life. But now that I’m older, I’m also a little wiser. I’ve discovered that at the right time and place, certain self-help books can be valuable.

How I Found Freedom in an Unfree WorldMy favorite book of this type is Harry Browne’s How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, a 38-year-old treatise on personal responsibility. This book changed my life.

But last winter, as I was working through some of the heavier things from my divorce, I found solace in two other books: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. These are just the sorts of books I used to mock, but I’ll admit that I found they held profound truths for where I was in life. They still do.

These, for example, are the four agreements (with a bit of rephrasing by me):

  • Be Impeccable With Your Word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid speaking against yourself or gossiping about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
  • Don’t Take Anything Personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own experience. When you’re immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
  • Don’t Make Assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.
  • Always Do Your Best. Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you’ll avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

The fourth agreement wasn’t really a problem for me. I always try to do my best. And the first one wasn’t really an issue either. Yes, I fib now and then, and yes, I can gossip at times. But mostly I try to steer clear of these things, and I generally try to tell the truth (I’m a horrible liar).

But the second and third of Ruiz’s principles? Well, those are problems. I do have a tendency to take things personally, and I do often make assumptions. For all of 2012, though, I’ve been working hard to change both of these habits. In fact, I’ve noticed that if I’m feeling unhappy, it’s usually because I’m taking something personally or I’m making assumptions.

Or maybe I’m unhappy because I’m not present in the moment. I have a rich internal life, and at times I can get lost in the web of my own thoughts. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily. This rich internal life is the source of my imagination. It’s helped me succeed as a writer. But it becomes problematic when I’m stuck in my head instead of mentally present with my friends. (And being stuck in my head sometimes makes it tough for me to answer questions or to tell stories.)

That’s why I’ve also spent this year trying to remind myself of the “power of now”, as Eckhart Tolle calls it. Here’s my summary of his philosophy:

  • Be present in the moment. Accept life for what it is, without labels or judgment. Yield to events; don’t block them. Go with the flow. Nothing exists outside the present moment: Don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future. Improve the quality of the here and now.

I love that last bit: Improve the quality of the here and now. How can I make today better? How can I make this moment better? That’s what I need to focus on in my life. And I have been, for the most part. Sometimes I forget to do this, and that can lead to unhappiness — for myself and others. But I’m committed to making this a way of life.

Finally, here are a couple of other pieces from my personal philosophy. I call the first bit “Michelle’s Law” after the friend who helped me articulate the idea:

  • Create your own certainty. Don’t allow your well-being to be dependent on the choices of others. Be proactive.

Make your own way in the world, and choose happiness.There’s a lot contained in those few words. I’m instantly reminded of Harry Browne (whom I mentioned earlier) and of Ayn Rand. Both advocate living in such a way that your health and happiness aren’t dependent on the actions of others. Obviously, you can’t be completely disconnected (nor would you want to), but to the degree that you can act independently, you have greater control over your future happiness.

Speaking of happiness, that brings me to my own maxim, something I call “J.D.’s Law”. If you’ve read me for a while, you know that I consider personal happiness one of the highest ideals (and perhaps the highest ideal). In this way, I’m similar to Aristotle. In fact, I very much like Aristotle’s conception of happiness, which he called eudaimonia. To him (and to me), happiness wasn’t just about hedonistic pleasure. It was also about pursuing excellence and living in a way that is congruent with personal beliefs. (I think of his eudaimonia as being similar to Csíkszentmihályi’s flow.)

So, my fundamental law is this:

  • Choose happiness. Do work and play that brings fulfillment. Spend time with people that build you up, not those who bring you down. Strip from your life the things that take time, money, and energy, but which do not bring you joy. Focus on the essentials.

My personal philosophy is constantly developing. It is not fixed. As you all know, I’ve changed much in the past twenty or thirty years. I’m certain I’ll change more in the years I have left on this earth. Ultimately, however, my aim is to be the best person I can be — now and in the future.

Footnote: For an extended look at the principles that guide my life, check out my list of 43 lessons from 43 years, which I published at my personal finance blog last March.

1 Julie @ The Family CEO October 23, 2012 at 11:29

I’ve read The Four Agreements – I think I may have even owned it at one time – but I don’t think I was ready for its message. Your post has prompted me to check it out again as your description of the four agreements really resonates with me now. Thanks.

2 Tyler Karaszewski October 23, 2012 at 11:54

“Don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future. Improve the quality of the here and now.”

Doesn’t this sort of thinking lead directly to this sort of thing: “Fuck it, I’ll order the bacon cheeseburger and get back to my diet tomorrow”?

Is that actually beneficial?

3 Anne October 23, 2012 at 12:05

I have to see things the same way as Tyler. A lot of this *sounds* good, especially about not taking the world personally. But it also seems incredibly narcissistic. And sort of like, …….”where ever I am it’s cool, dude, because that’s where I supposed to be.”

When we’re responsible for jobs and families, spouses and children, we do need to dwell on the future, and sometimes we need to put up with a certain amount of unhappiness for awhile.

How do we know our “personal philosophies” aren’t just rules for “personal self indulgence”?

But perhaps I’m just too much of a Puritan.

4 jdroth October 23, 2012 at 13:44

I don’t disagree with you, Anne, but I think many people worry too much about the future. And I also think that many people put up with too much unhappiness — and for too long. It’s not wrong to want to be happy. And it’s not wrong to pursue your own happiness even if it’s not what other people want. Why is it good for you to be unhappy for the sake of others’ happiness, but not good for them to be unhappy for the sake of yours? Ultimately, we’re each responsible for our own happiness.

5 Elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 14:03

I think philosophies/beliefs can be used for help or harm. I’ve seen people use the “I’m not going to care what other people think” line as a rational to do things they know will hurt other people, but I’ve also seen it used to overcome incredible odds and face down bullying or peer pressure.

I think it all boils down to how we apply philosophies/principles/beliefs to our lives.

6 Beth October 24, 2012 at 06:33

You make a good point, Anne. As someone who is married with two elementary-age children, I do often have to delay my own happiness in any given moment for the immediate needs of my family.

However, what I think J.D. is getting at is not necessarily the moment-to-moment, “I can do whatever I want”, selfish kind of happiness, but more of a life-happiness in the broader sense. It seems to come down to how we define happiness. If, as J.D. says above, it’s about living and making choices in a way that aligns with our values (and those values, of course, are specific to each of us), then I absolutely agree that personal happiness has to come first. When my life is no longer in line with my values, I become unhappy and at that point, I’m no longer the wife and mother and friend that I can be/want to be.

For me, being present in the here and now is about trying to make sure that the choices I’m making reflect what is important to me and how I want to live. My family is very important to me, so I’m willing to forego some self-serving immediate gratification so that I can put my family first. For some, health & well-being may be an important value. If so, then skipping the bacon-cheeseburger that Tyler mentions could actually make you “happy” in the present moment.

This topic fascinates me and the comments here are terrific.

7 jdroth October 23, 2012 at 13:41

Ah, Tyler, my friend. You are always the absolutist. :)

First, these are gust guidelines, not rules. They’re meant to help me (and you, I hope) improve quality of life. They’re not ironclad. You need to pick and choose and then do what works for you. (“Do what works for you”? Where have you heard that before?)

You’re right, though, that if you focus only on today, that could lead to problems. And as a personal finance writer, I obviously believe that you need to consider the future. That said, this principle is meant to keep me from worrying about the future, from dwelling on things that I cannot change in this moment (and may never come to pass). It’s not meant to keep me from planning for the future. Does that distinction make sense?

Planning for the future means setting aside money for retirement or to buy a house or to buy a car. Worrying about the future means fretting over what might happen.

As an example, Kim is currently saving for a car. This is planning. She still very much lives in the here and now, but she’s aware that her current car (a 1997 Honda Accord) will not last forever — even though somedays it seems like it might. Planning is good. But if Kim were always fretting about the condition of her car or about whether she’ll be able to afford a new car when the time comes to replace the Accord, that’s not productive.

Make sense?

8 stellamarina October 23, 2012 at 14:09

A quote that I read recently….sorry have no idea who from… but good when you get over anxious about the what-ifs.

“If it happens, I’ll handle it. I always land on my feet. But right now there IS no problem except the worry of the mind.”

9 Anthony October 23, 2012 at 20:18

“There have been many horrible events in my life, but most of them never happened.”
-Variously attributed

10 Tyler Karaszewski October 24, 2012 at 19:06

I ordered a new surfboard today. It goes against my current savings goals. But I’ve had a hectic year and barely gotten in the water at all. There’s nothing like a new board to encourage you to get up at dawn and go surf. It sets me back about $700, but right now I need to be standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean at dawn more than I need $700. This board is a jumping-off point back into a world that I’ve been missing. Could I have so e the same with one if the boards I already have? Sure. But it’s not as much fun that way. The great thing about a new surfboard (or bicycle, fishing pole, etc) is that it’s an excuse to think about all the stories that you’ll be able to build with it. A new surfboard is like an empty passport, and I could use that right now.

11 Bella October 25, 2012 at 09:00

This comment made me smile. I’m reminded of a time in my life when I was fearless to try new things (like taking surfing lessons), or move to new places. I hope you get lots of use out of your new surfboard!

12 bethh October 23, 2012 at 11:58

It’s so amazing and terrific when a message gets heard by someone searching for it! I’m familiar with the Four Agreements (it fell into a friend’s life at the right moment for her) and I feel like the summary resonates with me. I am grateful that I got into self-help-type books in high school, before my skepticism was developed. I don’t remember most of what I read but I do know I devoured the Richard Bach stuff, which may be unbearably cheesy but I haven’t revisited it so I can’t say for sure.

When I was about 24 I read The Alchemist and its core motto (“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”) confirmed my wild plan to move cross-country from Boston to Portland: after making the decision to make the move, I won a voucher for a plane ticket that I decided to use as my escape from Portland if the move wasn’t working out (but it did and I’m still happy here many years later).

Please keep up the reviews if you find other inspiring books!

13 jdroth October 23, 2012 at 13:46

I read the Alchemist last winter, too, Beth. It was also influential in my thinking. Thanks for reminding me about it.

14 Marie at FamilyMoneyValues October 23, 2012 at 12:12

Like you, I generally pooh-pooh self help books. Last year, however, my mother-in-law gave me a book of poetry called “I Wish for You – Gentle Reminders to Follow Your Heart” by Lance Wubbles. It came to me at a time in my life when I have started reviewing my path and seeking understanding of where I have been and where I should go next.

An example: “May you take time when needed, to quiet your soul, silence the noise in your head and your heart, and remind yourself, of what you really want out of life.””

15 Elizabeth October 23, 2012 at 14:14

I’ve always enjoyed hearing about what you’re reading, J.D. I’ve picked up some good books from your posts and guest posts at GRS. Hope you’ll continue the trend here :)

16 Owen Marcus October 23, 2012 at 15:11


Yes – Be present in the moment. It all seems to come down to that. I’m continue to practice that, some days better than others.

Congratulations on you new blog. I’m sure it will be a huge success.

17 Lisa October 24, 2012 at 14:53

How do you get out of your head to be mentally present in the moment? I struggle with that. Have you found something that works for you to break out of the web of your own thoughts?

18 Vangile Makwakwa October 28, 2012 at 14:02

Hi Lisa, meditation has really and truly helped me. The ability to sit and observe myself and my behavioral patterns is powerful because I can see just when I am about to make assumptions about situations and drag myself into my past drama. Being able to observe this has helped me break the cycle and just focus on the here and now and also stop taking things personally.

19 Tom October 23, 2012 at 17:38

If you appreciate Ayn Rand, and enjoy fantasy books, there is an excellent series by Terry Goodkind called “The Sword of Truth” – don’t judge the series by the TV adaptation, as that was truly poor. The books, on the other hand, were some of the most engaging I’ve ever read, and had themes that made it clear Terry was appreciative of Rand. I gifted the first book to several friends, all of whom have purchased and read the entire series.

20 Martin October 23, 2012 at 21:25

You’re right. You have to choose happiness. I see friends that are my age (24) and could be on top of the world. Yet they aren’t. They’re worried about ex-gfs that left them or about friends that don’t like them.

Happiness is always #1. There’s no time to be sad.

21 Lisa October 24, 2012 at 15:05

Sadness is a natural and inevitable part of life. We wouldn’t be human if we did not experience some amount of sadness. But I do agree that we get bogged down in sadness too often and that proactively choosing the things that bring fulfillment and happiness is a good move (and a heck of a lot more fun than choosing the emotional energy sinks that bring us down).

22 kathyglo October 24, 2012 at 22:55

I also have been on a journey to discover what makes me feel happy and fulfilled. Living my life to others’ expectations and being unhappy because of their actions was not cutting it. The advice that helped me the most was that you cannot control other people, you can only control the way you deal with them. I don’t consider myself selfish but am trying to learn not to be a people-pleasing doormat while still being kind to others. It is a continual learning process and balancing act. Best wishes on your journey, you are a good person and writer.

23 Holly@ClubThrifty October 25, 2012 at 05:10

I think these are great! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with living by a set of principles that promote happiness. As long as someone isn’t using them as an excuse to be a slacker, I think these are awesome.

I especially like:

Don’t Take Anything Personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own experience. When you’re immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

I used to have a lot of unneeded stress in my life because I would constantly think people were mad at me. Life is a lot easier when I don’t make up things to stress out about.

Have a great day!!!

24 Lisa October 25, 2012 at 05:43

Your 43 lessons from 43 years ought to be mandatory reading. Every time I read I read it something else jumps out at me.

25 Kevin October 26, 2012 at 15:58

I’ve read my share of self-help books. While reading, I tend to be enthusiastic and engaged. But I never seem to be able to carry it over to real life when the book is done. This is most likely a lack of discipline on my part, but I’m wondering if anybody else has this problem. If so, how do you overcome it? I think reading is a great means of self-improvement, if you can keep from falling right back into bad habits.

26 Lisa October 30, 2012 at 10:28

I have the same problem – whether reading self-help books or reading a blog like this one. I’m enthusiastic in the reading, but then seem to fizzle in the implementation in my own life. If I manage to get started, the momentum keeps me going for awhile. I’d like to hear how others have overcome the same thing. Maybe the precommitment JD mentioned in his New York post earlier this month?

27 Vangile Makwakwa October 28, 2012 at 13:57

I love the 4 agreements but they are not easy to practice. I struggle a lot with being impeccable with my wors and not taking things personally. I was recently introduced to the concept of being my word (not just keeping word) and being authentic in every aspect of my life. This has been my challenge for 2012 but so far I can only say it’s been powerful because it has forced me to see where I lack integrity and to tackle it. I have had to think deeply before committing to things, because it’s so easy to say yes to something just to look good and then not be able to follow through at a future date. This actually makes you look bad and makes you lose credibility, which is something I wasn’t aware of. Not gossiping about people has forced me to confront people in my life and tell them what I truly feel and think, even if it makes me look bad, which has changed and deepened my relationships. After all how much more would you accomplish in life if you did exactly what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it?

28 jlcollinsnh December 7, 2012 at 18:01

When I first started my blog I wrote this post to my daughter:

In it I told her: “Plan and dream your future, but spend not a single moment worrying about it. Few things are a greater waste than worry.
Focus on the Now. Live each day for itself. Most of all, enjoy the journey.”

I try to do the same, but it is a work in progress….

29 LongTimeReader January 10, 2013 at 09:09

Hello JD,
I have been a long time reade (2008 GRS days) and am a big fan of yours. This is my 1st comment. I felt I had to share this with you, as it might help you. The 2nd and 4th point of Four agreements directly relate to Hindu philosophy of Karma Yoga. Lot of people look at main definition of Karma yoga as action == result, but it has a more profound meaning. Action is definied as the “best” you can at that moment, based on all the facts, knowledge you have and all the energy you have. Result is what happens to you, and is NOT because of you, even though it has its roots in your actions, it is given to you by GOD (or higher power, or something you have no control over). So, implication is do not frett about it, just accept it, as if it is a gift given to you.

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