What are my principles?
A bunch of my colleagues were chatting about our company values and it was an interesting discussion – some of us have been around since before we sat down to articulate them, and others have joined later on and encountered them as though they were always there. It was interesting to talk about why we came up with them in the first place, and how we were hesitant to codify them at the start, and how they’ve since actually been useful in running the company because they help us evaluate decisions that have been made and so on.
(The important thing to making this work is to be able to evaluate past decisions according to the stated values, celebrate good examples, and evaluate bad examples. A company’s values are not what it says they are, but what it prioritizes, what it rewards. There is utility in having your actual values and stated values be aligned. If they are misaligned, then there are costs. There’s the minor cost of carrying around a bunch of meaningless phrases that don’t mean anything, and the more major cost of everyone now doubting the truth-value of everything else that is said in the organization.)
Which brings me to thinking about my own personal values and principles. I prefer the word ‘principles’ to ‘values’, because the latter is quite a loaded phrase with all these moral implications. Principles is an easier term to work with. They’re the fundamental, axiomatic assumptions we make about how to do things. Ask me what my values are, and honestly I have no idea where to begin. I’ll probably make something up based on whatever is recent in my memory. Ask me what my principles are, and I think my mind is naturally led to more rigorous territory. But still not nearly as rigorous as I think I’d like.
Everybody has principles whether they realise them or not, whether they articulate them or not. “I have no principles” is still a system – you’ll still almost always have more things to do than you can actually get done, so you’re always going to have to be making trade-offs. You might just not be aware that you’re making these trade-offs, maybe because you’re attending to whatever is most urgent, whatever is noisiest or scariest, or whatever is most fun or easy. Or maybe (this is highly improbable, in my opinion) you’re Truly Random about how you prioritise things.
If you examine a history of behaviour – whether a person’s behaviour, or an organization’s – you will almost definitely find patterns. (Your pattern-recognition system itself is likely biased, because humans are wired to recognise patterns even when they aren’t there, so you have to be self-reflexive and consider whether the patterns you observe are actually there, or cherry-picked, or imagined.) But you will almost definitely find real patterns, because it’s staggeringly difficult for any person or group of persons to be truly random. People are creatures of habit. Think of any old friend that you have, and how you may have had the same conversation with them dozens of times. Think of your own set of internal thoughts. Most people (myself included) have a surprisingly small number of thoughts. There’s a great quote by Christopher Alexander about how “If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a certain very small number of patterns of events which I take part in over and over again.”
Let’s recap what I’m trying to say here. Most people can reduce their lives into a surprisingly small number of little patterns. If you examine these patterns of events and behaviours, you should be able to identify trade-offs that are made repeatedly. These repeated tradeoffs are indicative of preferences, or principles. Now, the phrase ‘preference’ is a bit loaded. There are people who repeatedly do things that they say they hate. And they look like they’re suffering, like it’s very unpleasant, and they seem really tired, guilty, ashamed, all of those things. But if they do it over and over again, then they have a ‘preference’ for it. It could be that they are not aware of other options, or that they don’t believe that other options exist, or if they do exist, they seem impossible, or if they seem possible, it still seems too difficult or complicated. For example, for a long time I had an aversion to the kitchen. The kitchen was an ‘ugh field’ for me. If my wife was in the kitchen, and she called to me to help her, I would literally ignore her, or say something like “yup, coming” and then not move. You could say that I had a preference for not-cooking. An aversion to cooking. Or I preferred eating takeout, which is typically unhealthier.
As I write this, it occurs to me that language makes this a little more complicated than it has to be. Language is very loaded with meaning that isn’t always intended. I just spent a seemingly unnecessary amount of time trying to work around the word ‘preference’. But really all I’m trying to say is… when it comes to patterns of behaviour, people do behave in startlingly mechanical ways. I mean… animals can be incredibly mechanic. One of the things that often blows my mind is seeing my cats groom themselves aggressively after being startled. It’s self-soothing behaviour. Humans do the same thing too, with junk food or internet distractions and notifications and whatnot. I remember reading a passage in Lives of a Cell where Lewis Thomas described how some insect would perform some act with mathematical precision – and if you moved the object, it would then repeat the action indefinitely for as long as you could be bothered to do it.
I’m now thinking of something else, about how humans are blessed and cursed with fuzzy minds and fuzzy thoughts – evolutionary ‘mistakes’ that turned out to have some seeming biological advantage. (This is still yet to be seen, we may destroy ourselves yet. Or we may spread life beyond Earth. Which, in turn, is not obviously a good thing either. We’ll see. Or not.) The point is – pre-humans are incredibly mechanical and methodical and precise. This leads to moths burning themselves in flames. Humans like to flatter ourselves by thinking that we’re better than that. But we all get drawn to flames of our own. We systematically fall into traps designed to exploit our biases – fake news, clickbait, boobs on video thumbnails, cute cats… they’re all the same sort of thing.
We might differ on some finer points about determinism and free will, and about precisely how mechanical or predictable humans are. I think humans have the capacity to surprise themselves and each other, and that’s where art and laughter comes from. But these surprises often tend to be rather ‘localised’, or discrete. Sometimes if we’re lucky, it inspires or challenges a person to make a big change to their lives and to then restructure themselves to contribute to humanity in some cool way. But most of the time I think most people tend to be quite comfortably circling around a simple-ish life that they find fulfilling. Not that simple is bad or anything, just that people are different.
I’m having an unusual amount of trouble sticking to the matter at hand in this vomit here, lol.
Where I think we can find common ground is this: people are instinctively familiarity seeking, routine-seeking. I remember when I was a teenager there were some who liked to put on this persona of “oh I’m so random haha”, which was never quite as random as they’d have liked to think. There’s a predictability to ‘i’m so random’ randomness – for some it’s quirky stuff, for some its gore, for some it’s sex, whatever – it’s about looking for things that are tangential or taboo, and people actually have almost depressingly few things to choose from.
I mean, it’s just challenging to be creative in general. Complete gibberish doesn’t mean anything. So you have to pick something that’s different in the right amounts, in the right way. I think /r/askreddit is quite a good place to hang out on to get a sense of people’s originality and predictability. Music and fashion changes, but in a sort of cyclic, I refute my predecessor way. Yeah, let’s talk about music. What was the last really original piece of music to come around? What was the last really novel pop song? Everything is a remix. People fundamentally want the same things. Creativity works within some anthropocentric constraints.
So I think I’ve established that people are generally quite predictable most of the time, generally want the same things, generally fear and avoid the same things, and so on. Most people don’t change that drastically (although we’re all one hard, well-placed knock to the head away from becoming a completely different person). Some people change… and come to think of it I’d really like to read a study that really dug deep into people who’ve changed dramatically. I think Charles Duhigg referenced something like that in Power of Habit.
But what I’m getting at with all of this is… if people have patterns of behaviour, then those patterns of behaviour reveal their principles. If you’re a striving sort of person, there’s almost definitely a gap between your desired principles and your revealed principles. This is definitely the case for me. I was ‘hoping’ to be asleep at midnight, and it’s now 230am. So what does this mean? Am I not really serious about wanting to sleep early? In this case I let myself frame it as “oh, I want to write, too. I want to publish 3 word vomits a day. And I’d rather sleep late than not publish.” Is this always true? Not always. This is just the second day that I’m making sure to publish 3 vomits in a day. Can I continue to keep the chain going? If so, then I can say that “my highest known, articulated principle is that I should publish 3 vomits every day. My 2nd strongest principle would be that I should sleep early.”
How do I achieve both? Wanting to publish 3,000 words a day and sleep before midnight sounds like a very achievable thing to me. So what’s stopping me? I’m starting too late. Why don’t I start earlier? And I’m working with distractions. A friend had texted me and I was enjoying myself texting back. So the question I have to ask myself is – is it acceptable to me to allow my friends’ texting me to interrupt my writing, which then interrupts my sleep? It’s okay if the answer is yes, but then I need to know why exactly that is okay.
So this is where we get to an interesting place. I get to decide now what is okay and what is not. And I’m tempted to argue in defence of my immediate past behaviour, so I don’t feel like I”m betraying myself. I could rationalise it as “well, it was an interesting conversation, and interesting conversations are a part of being a good writer”. It would be true. But I don’t like this. The 3rd principle doesn’t fit with the other two. Sleeping early leads to improved overall cognition and well being. Writing every day makes me a better writer. If I anticipated having a conversation at night, I should have gotten my writing done out of the way. Perhaps it would be prudent then to get my writing done first thing in the morning every day, so that I can then go about the rest of my day without worrying about whether or not something interesting is going to crop up and put me in a mess.
That makes sense, right? Makes sense to me. So. Sleep early. Write 3 word vomits first thing in the morning. Let’s try that tomorrow. Time for bed.