What Are 3 Rules You Live Your Life By?

Update: A friend wrote to me to say this article has too many links to explore. They are optional. Feel free to explore them after reading. Or not!

The other day I received this text. 

"I'm trying to figure out some rules to set for myself (they're kinda personal so I'm not gonna share) and I got curious: if you boiled down alllll the thinking and research and living you've done into three "rules for life" that you always follow, what would they be? In other words, what are 3 rules you live your life by?"

I happened to be at a museum with my family so thankfully I could buy myself some time! I wandered around an exhibit of cat pictures by Mitsuaki Iwagō and thought to myself: Do I have three rules I live by? What if I have ten? What if I don't always follow them? Should I focus on happiness, or finance, or personal development? Why didn't I ever write my "Jordan Peterson 12 Rules for Life" article back when that was all the rage so I could just send her a link?

I thought of many rules I should live by but maybe don't, like "set a budget and live off of it." I thought of smart rules I've read about other people using, like Malcolm Gladwell's rule to "pull the goalie" and Jeff Bezos's rule to "disagree and commit." (which I do try to follow). And I've honestly always tried to live my life according to the Golden Rule, but isn't that a bit too...obvious? 

Since I've written a book about how to think better about training, I considered picking a rule about engagement and effort--Green's Razor?--which are the two central concepts that tie the Optimal Training Principles together. I also considered rules about building a skills network and how to evaluate opportunities, two ideas I'm very interested in.

And I of course considered classics like "never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line." (The land war in Asia rule also seemed, well, you know.)

In the end I decided on the following three rules. Not because they are the best, and not because I think you should follow them, but because A) I truly do use them to guide my life and B) if they work for me, maybe they'll work for you, too.

Rule #1: Don't get offended by other people's choices or actions. Understand them.

I was going to call this rule something provocative like, "Only fools get offended," or "Every time you take offense you are being taken advantage of." But let's keep it more positive.  

The world is full of impotent outrage and people being offended by all manner of things. It's my single biggest issue with being on social media. Wading through the world's outrage is exhausting. I can't imagine what it's like to personally feel that way all the time.

Of course, a choice or action can be offensive. But you don't have to feel personally offended in order to know that something is offensive.

There are two situations in particular where too many people take too much offense. The first is in conversation or personal interactions. You feel slighted. Someone embarrassed you. Someone bosses you around more than is appropriate.

The second is when someone makes lifestyle choices that don't align with our personal morality. They spend money on frivolous nonsense. They have a hobby--maybe hunting--that we find inhumane. They got an abortion. Or maybe they just keep making bad decisions that get them into trouble.

Here's the thing. Getting offended is taking the easy way out. It's giving yourself an excuse to not deal with the complexity of the situation at hand. It's giving up unproductively and wasting precious emotional energy.

Understanding the world and making good decisions requires mental clarity. Just as neutral thinking can help us navigate stressful situations, not taking offense can help us clarify complex, messy situations.

Communication is messy. Working together is messy. Making decisions is messy. Morality is messy. Navigating your life is messy.

People's choices and actions are a product of the environment they are in and the options they see before them. They are messy. We need to seek to understand the complexity rather than brush it aside as a moral outrage.

And lastly, you don't need to be offended on behalf of other people. I guarantee you it is clouding your judgment about their situations. Remember that "context is that which is scarce." Seek out context, save your moral outrage until you're ready to take action, and then put your positive energy into making a difference.

Text message asking about 3 rules for life

Rule #2: Leave things better than you found them.

This is probably one of the earliest "rules" I can remember and it's one that has permeated my entire perspective on the world. For ten years as a kid I was in Camp Fire. We went camping, sold candies, earned badges, and sang songs that still get stuck in my head to this day.

Whenever we packed up our camp site or cleaned up after a meeting there was one simple rule: leave it cleaner than you found it. I can't tell you how much of other people's trash I picked up as a kid. 

Over time I expanded this rule to apply to every situation I'm in. I don't just want to leave places cleaner, I want to leave them better.

When I leave a team, I want it to be stronger than when I joined. When I leave a job, I want the company or department to have better tools, processes, and relationships than when I joined. When I say goodbye to friends, I want them to be in a better mood than when we met. When you finish reading this article, I want you to be a better person (in the tiniest of ways).

The key point is that this isn't a rule about making it better for you. It's about making it better for everyone.

If I'm honest, this is the one rule I don't always follow. I don't always pick up the trash I see in the parking lot these days. But for the most part, if you and I have a relationship, it will always be important to me that it leads to something positive.

Rule #3: When in doubt, trust in yourself that you can figure it out.

I'm not the most confident person by nature. I don't like conflict. I don't like making decisions. I don't even really want to take on a lot of responsibility.

But that doesn't limit my life because I believe confidence can be cultivated, conflicts can be navigated, decisions are rarely final, and responsibility is a burden that gets easier to bear with practice.  

In short, I have lots of doubts, but I also trust in my ability to figure it out.

This rule has helped me to live the life I want to live. It made it easier for me to decide to move to Japan after graduating college, to go to grad school, to take a job I was probably unqualified for, to quit that job and go live in Italy for a couple years, to start a company, to write a book, to have kids...

I believe our lives are defined by the big decisions we make, and the small strategies we employ to make the most of them. Big, tough decisions determine not just the path our lives take but the very priorities we live by. A strategy of fully engaging and giving purposeful effort will set us up for success.

Staying in a job for financial security or quitting your job to have an adventure is a big decision. Neither is right or wrong. Either can lead to enormous success and fulfillment, assuming you engage and apply yourself purposefully.

But so many people delay or refuse to make the risky decision because they don't have a clear plan or they don't see how to make it work. They are afraid of the conflicts, the decisions, the responsibilities, and that there's on guarantee.

I feel that way, too!

And then I do it anyway, and trust that I can figure it out.

Why these three rules?

As I wrote this I came to realize these rules cover some aspect of how I think about the world intellectually, socially, and emotionally. I think it's important that they do. 

You can't understand the world if you're invalidating it with moral outrage. You're likely to miss opportunities, misunderstand cause and effect, and make worse predictions. The world is messy and we should strive to understand that mess better.

Nobody wants to live in a world that's consistently getting worse. Nobody wants to have interactions with people who take from them, physically or energetically. Nobody wants to have a bad day or show up to a dirty camp site. Let's all try to make it better.

Life is hard and I am constantly full of doubts. But somehow, I've managed to do pretty well. I have a great family, I've made great friends, I have had incredible experiences, and I still have no idea what the future holds for me. As scary as that can be, I truly feel deep down that I'll figure it out. I bet you will, too.

Do you have three rules you live your life by? What are they?