Published on

May 21, 2020

My Principles

Inspired by Ray Dalio, I am recording my own life and work principles

Inspired by Ray Dalio, I am recording my own life and work principles. This is a work in progress - I intend to add and recategorise ideas as I develop - and I am sharing it publicly in order to prompt discussion. I'd love to hear your questions, suggestions or criticism.

1. Be the man in the arena ⚔️

This princple refers to the famous Theodore Rooseveldt quote, copied below in its entirety (emphasis my own):

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

I first read the quote in Brene Brown's book Daring Greatly. I had recently moved to the UK, was struggling in my role at HSBC, and looking out at my career wondering how to proceed. When I read it I felt an immediate recognition, and it helped to spur me on to start Moneycado.

It is far easier to observe than attempt. This is true in any pursuit - professional, physical, social or romantic - where the reality is often messy, far messier than it appears from the outside. It is true even in recording these principles. I am opening myself up to criticism; it is grandoise to record my principles when I have as yet achieved nothing significant. And yet I write.

To be the man in the arena takes courage. Courage is not acting fearlessly, it is acting despite fear. I don't believe the fear I feel will ever go away - it is a natural reaction to new and risky situations - but my relationship with fear can evolve. I can live with it, rather than skirting nervously around it.

1.1 Enter situation in which failure is a possible outcome ⚡

How do I know I am truly operating in the arena? I ask myself 'Is there a situation in which I could possibly fail here?' This is the best litmus test. If the possibility of failure is only remote or illusory, then I am not taking enough risk.

Let's take dating for example. I could meet a girl, whether on an app or in real life, and converse happily. It is then much easier to exist in the realm of 'she may be interested, she may not be' and continue chatting, rather than taking the courage to ask if she is single, or if she would like to go on a date. Stepping into the arena means facing the genuine possibility of failure.

This approach has the benefit of rapidly accelerating feedback loops. As I venture, fail or succeed, I get unambiguous feedback about my actions. With this feedback I can readily improve. Operating without the presence of real failure is to consign myself to tepid mediocrity.

1.2 Share the journey openly and honestly 🗣️

Many of the things which are truly important - purpose, community, safety and love - are universally desired. Despite this, people do not speak about them honestly. Either they are obtuse about what they really want or they spend all their energy trying to give the impression that they already have it!

I have certainly made this mistake. I've struggled with loneliness for a lot of my adult life. I've been single for some time, and having switched countries twice I lack close friends in the UK, and yet only recently have I admitted to myself and to others that I am trying to cultivate closer relationships.

In business, my initial success was built on honest disclosure. I wrote a blog each week to chart my progress with Moneycado. People found the blog far more compelling than the actual product! In documenting the difficulty of starting from scratch, I gave voice to problems that many others faced.

I've found three big benefits when sharing your journey openly and honestly:

  1. I attract solutions to the problems I state. I've often received messages from acquaintances or distant connections with ideas, suggestions or resources, when I have laid out a problem. It's an absolute joy to receive notes like this.
  2. I internalise the lessons of experience by articulating myself carefully. In recording my progress I often find principles (like the ones I record here) to be applied to similar situations.
  3. I find common ground with others. The things I am working towards, whether personally or professionally, are not unique. Sharing my progress helps me find others at a similar stage.

What does this look like in practice? It can be anything from a blog, broadcast to the world, to simply more open disclosure the next time you are asked 'How are you?' In sharing, you should feel a twinge of embarrassment in the rawness of the experience you relate. Then you're really reaching openness and honesty!

1.3 Stand up straight with your shoulders back 🙋‍♂️

I borrowed this principle from Jordan B Peterson's 12 Rules for Life. I think it's a wonderful physical reminder of how to greet the world, and every interaction in which you participate, with courage.

When I was younger I used to struggle with my speaking voice. It was husky and often indistinct. Even now when I get nervous I start to mutter and speak quickly. I realise now that this was a physical manifestation of insecurity. I lacked the confidence to state myself clearly and slowly, and this lack of confidence grew into a vocal issue.

I am now highly conscious of my speaking voice, my breathing patterns, and levels of eye contact. I am at my best when I speak clearly, when I breath deeply, and when I can meet peoples' eyes without turning away. It's difficult to override the learned behaviour of my childhood, but I am improving.

This rule also applies to physical appearance. My clothes, grooming and physical fitness all make a statement to the world, whether I want it to or not. After leaving banking I rebelled by dressing down unnecessarily, wearing plain shorts and t-shirts to meetings. I now realise that  dressing more formally can improve my manners, my deportment, and my disposition. I try  hard to greet the world presentably; to dress with the same care that I think.

It is also a simple reminder for posture. Yoga has taught me the value of being comfortable and mindful within my body. Deep, restorate breathing and a body in alignment are the foundation of physical ease.

2. We are all works in progress pretending to be finished 🎓

It is so easy to impose a static identity on yourself or on others. I am a banker. He is a singer. She is an account manager. It's also impossibly reductive. Our interests and fascinations are fluid. In the last ten years I've identified as a law student, banker, product manager and founder. In the next ten years I hope I had an equally varied list.

I always subscribed to the idea of a growth mindset in theory, but still found myself muttering things like 'Oh, that's not the sort of thing I'm good at'. It takes an axiomatic shift to believe that effort is the only thing standing between you and skill in any field. It was only when I started Moneycado, and needed to become competent at many new things quickly, that the concept really crystalised.

This rule applies twofold. One, I should never seek to say 'I am a...'. My professional focus will inevitably shift, as it should in a 50-year career, and in defining myself too narrowly I restrict my future range of options. Two, I should never make the same assumption of others. I may meet someone when they are a lawyer, but they too may be dreaming of other things.

We have enough restrictions on our time and energy without those which we apply upon eachother.

2.1 Explore without ego 🧭

The biggest inhibitor to learning and progressing is ego. It hurts to be a beginner, to admit that you do not know.

The first application of this rule is in starting new things. It's scary to learn a new skill and become an absolute beginner in a field. We are used to a base level of competence, so it requires real courage to step outside of that comfort. In the past year I've delighted in learning design and engineering principles, of which I had no prior background, but the first step was to humble myself as an absolute beginner.

The second application of this rule is in continuing to learn. Once we have that base level of competence, the trap of 'this is just how I do it' can appear. It is an enormous obstacle, and one wrought by ego. Seeking to understand, to say 'why is someone else doing this differently, what do they know which I do not' without imposing your prior knowledge on a situation, is a super-power.

I saw this a lot at HSBC. Managers of ten years' experience would give blustery, long answers to questions, or try to make decisions based on mental frameworks they were already familiar with. The result was inertia. At the time I thought that I didn't understand these answers because I lacked the experience. I now see that I didn't understand because nor did they!

2.2 Principles over tactics 📜

Principles and tactics are very different structures of knowledge, and they are often confused.

Principles are underlying, immutable relationships between things. For example within product management, the principle of customer development is to understand your customers' desires, needs and struggles deeply so that you can make a product to help them progress.

Tactics are the actionable means of utilising principles. To extend the example, running surveys, interviews, or conducting ethnographic research are tactics to achieve good customer development.

I've found that people often speak about tactics as if they were principles. This blocks us from understanding the prime movers and the key leverage points in situations. When I'm learning something new I try to ask myself if this is a principle or a tactic. If the latter, then what is the deeper lesson to be learned and applied?

2.3 Intellectual curiosity is rocket fuel 🚀

In the future, autodidacts will thrive.

Broadly, the requirements for jobs are shifting quickly, and those who are good at learning new fields quickly will rise fast. For example the field of service design has emerged only in the last ten years.

Narrowly, new tools and practices will emerge for existing jobs. Few fields are immune. For example most science PhDs now require a reasonable level of computer science and data analysis in order to dervice results.

How does one keep up? Intellectual curiosity is a wonderful guiding light.

There are too many new things to take a systematic approach to learning. Instead, I believe that we should be guided by intellectual curiosity. In doing so, we will organically carve out a body of knowledge with a common thread running through.

Personally, I am fascinated by economics, history, behavioural psychology and design. These may seem like disparate fields, but at their core they are all studies of human incentives. All of them seek to answer a fundamental question: what motivates people to act in the way that they do?

Having intellectual breadth is an important advantage. We can apply principles from one field to more quickly and deeply understand another. I believe the trend of hyper-specalisation, wrought by the 10,000 hour theory, is an illusory advantage. Being a generalist is severely underrated.

3. Cultivate strength to help those who are not yet strong 💪

I spent a lot of my time on routines and in practice. I work to improve myself:

  • Physically, though exercise and diet;
  • Emotionally, through meditation and reflection;
  • Professionally, through risk-taking and entrepreneurship; and
  • Intellectually, through reading and researching.

Recently I stopped to ask myself why I spent so much time engaged in these activities. There was a selfish component to my answer - I want to be the best version of myself I can be - but also an altruistic answer. A lot of my satisfaction comes from being able to help my peers and friends who are at an earlier stage in one of these disciplines. In other words, I cultivate strength to help those who are not yet strong.

In yoga there is a concept of devoting your practice to someone else, which I really like. We are built to struggle and strive, but an essential component of this is to struggle in service of something larger than yourself. This principles reminds me that, while I spend a lot of my effort improving myself, I do so for others.

I deliberately referred to 'those who are not yet strong' versus 'those who are weak'. Everyone has the opportunity and the ability to cultivate their own strength, and I hope I can encourage them to do so by setting an example.

3.1 Help others find their own path 🗺️

Giving advice is relatively easy. It's also fun! It stokes the ego as you sit back and relate to the advice-seeker, relating anecdotes from your own experience.

Giving advice is also very dangerous.

There's an enormous temptation to assume that your own path is the correct one, and that you should be helping others find it. For example, if someone asks me how to get started as an entrepreneur I could happily describe how I did it, but this implicitly says that how I did it was correct or worthy to be copied. I'm not sure it was.

This principle reminds me that the purpose of giving advice is not to pull others onto your own path, but to help them find their own more reliably. Most of the time, others need active listening and perceptive questions far more than prescriptive advice.

3.2 Help those who want to be helped 🎁

People don't change unless they genuinely, desperately want to. Often, it's easier to talk about change rather than do the hard work of comitting to it.

This principle reminds me to help people only when they've taken the first steps themselves. Actions speak louder than words!

3.3 Recover as deliberately as you work 💤

I've always struggled with recovery.

When I was at university I used to get the flu at least once a year and be out of action for 3-4 weeks at a time. I was rushing between jiu-jitsu, work, musicals and study and leaving very little time to recover.

When I started to work full-time I had the same problem. I was unable to sit still. I'd spend every evening out at a different hobby, flitting between acting class, the gym, or singing lessons. I found myself consistently operating at only 60% of my ability, too tired to focus deeply at work or really enjoy my leisure.

Earlier this year I did a workshop on rest and recovery with Tom Farrand. It finally clicked. Rest and recovery wasn't something to be patiently endured, it was a necessary component of high performance. The best athletes, entrepreneurs and practitioners understand that they consolidate gains in their performance when they rest.

Recovery is also essential for diffuse thinking. Entrepreneurship involves a lot of 'wicked' problems - scenarios in which there are no clear answers. There is a lot of reasoning by first principles for situations that I have not come across before. Diffuse thinking, or allowing your mind to wander and make connections of its own volition, is essential to working through this.

I now try to spend as much effort on my recovery as I do my work. This doesn't mean sitting in the couch for six hours scrolling through Instagram, rather I try to find enjoyable, low-energy activities (like learning guitar, reading and walking without my phone) that make recovery a pleasure.

3.4 Mental and physical health are continual practices 🧘

It's tempting to view health as a quick-fix. If only I eat this super-food, or do this kind of training, or take this supplement, then I'll achieve health.

Instead, I've found that mental and physical health are life-long disciplines. There is never a point at which you sit up and think 'I've now acheived great health!', rather it's a question of whether you are healthier than you were the day before.

Correspondingly, mental and physical health will ebb and flow. There are times when I am at a low-point for either or both. This is a necessary, natural part of the process (as much as I tend to forget), and maintaining the right practices for both is essential.

I cannot help others, achieve monumental things, or even savour the sweetness of life without enjoying relatively good mental and physical health. These take precedence over everything else.

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© Copyright Oliver Mitchell 2019