Seven Principles That Guide My Life

by J.D. Roth

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):

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:

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:

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:

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.

Updated: 23 October 2012

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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