Find your principles

Table of Contents

A funny lie of adulthood is pretending we’ll act on the life advice we save.

We don't revisit bookmarks. We don’t re-read Kindle highlights. We rarely re-open Google docs.

I recently overcame this self-sabotage. If I have a superpower, it’s that I now turn advice into action. This post breaks down how, and it shares the best advice I've been given.

Why we don't act on advice

The first cause of advice laziness is misclassifying what life advice is. We treat life advice the same way we learn someone’s name: briefly acknowledge it then assume we’ll remember it.

But a name is trivia—a single factoid. That's not what life advice is. Instead, it's a framework of instructions for how to behave—not unlike the instructions learned in school textbooks. To implement them, you had to drill them until they became second nature. You also defaulted to forgetting them unless you'd be tested on them. Similarly, you can contextualize advice by thinking through why it's important to an upcoming problem.

The second cause of advice laziness is not knowing how to navigate advice overload.

My solution is to treat life advice like I can only remember a few pieces at a time. Meaning, whenever I encounter valuable wisdom, I distill it into a decision-making principle and ask myself: Is this more useful than one of my existing memorized principles? If so, I swap it in for one of them. I keep doing this until I curate the ultimate list of decision-making principles.

I call these my Starting Principles. They’re shortcodes for making decisions and setting priorities. In other words, they're rules for navigating life. Here's an example of one by Sahil Lavingia: "You can be twice as rich by deciding you need half as much."

This concept comes from sports: In tennis, your Starting Principles might include gripping the racket correctly and repositioning yourself on the court after a swing. When you mess up these foundational principles—when you learn a bad grip—all your other moves are compromised.

I believe the same concept applies to your mind.

After playing around with this idea, my friends and I found a limit to the number of principles we could easily memorize and recall throughout the day: six. This aligns with Miller's Law: "The average person can only keep 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their working memory."

By committing six Starting Principles to memory, something critical happened. We removed most of the friction that made advice unlikely to be acted on: we no longer had to look at our notes.

That left one more obstacle for acting on advice: building the self-control to pause when facing important decisions. We should run decisions through our memorized Starting Principles to identify what they suggest.

Before we continue exploring this framework, let's take a look at the types of principles I'm referring to.

List of principles

Borrow whichever of these you like. You'll find yourself becoming the average of the six Starting Principles you adhere to.

Principles from others

Popular adages

Principles from me

Implementing Starting Principles

The most profound realization I had from this exercise is that adding a new Starting Principle refines your identity. Consider the implications: these principles become your intuitions for what the right thing to do is. They influence how you treat others. What you work on. What you value.

And, therefore, they determine who you become.

To begin the process, there are three steps:

What makes advice a "Starting Principle?"

Advice becomes a Starting Principle when it helps you behave strategically across domains. In contrast, context-specific advice like “Don't take it personally when someone cuts you off in traffic” is more of rule of thumb or best practice than a Starting Principle. A Starting Principle should be high-level enough to make other decisions with it.

For example, the Starting Principle behind “Don't take it personally when someone cuts you off in traffic” could be "Start by assuming good intent." This applies to everything: Did someone bump into you on the sidewalk? Assume good intent. Did a friend forget to invite you to an event? Assume good intent. This makes for healthier relationships.

Principles versus values: I consider values to be a subtype of principle imbued with a sense of how one ought to behave in order to be virtuous or emotionally fulfilled. For example, "Always be good to your neighbor." Why? It's strategically beneficial, yes, but it's also"the right thing to do." So it's a value instead of just a principle like "Luck is a function of surface area."

What makes a principle good?

How do you know when to swap a new principle in for one of your six?

When it meaningfully changes your behavior.

The more that a principle changes how you feel or behave (for the better), the more valuable it is. If it fails to do this, it was advice you were already following or it's not that relevant to you. Don’t let it take one of your precious six slots.

The question arises, Why do we act on some advice more reliably than others? Where do our principles actually come from?

Well, for advice to truly change your behavior, I’ve found that it must resonate both emotionally and intellectually:

As an example, let’s use the Starting Principle of “Honor your word. People remember.” This rings true logically because you can easily explain why it’s true: when you’re repeatedly reliable, you stand out because most people aren’t. Do this enough times, and it’s only rational for people to trust you more than others. This principle also rings true emotionally because you intuitively recall when being reliable for friends strengthened friendships and came full circle for you.

In other words, advice takes root in your past experiences. When we pursue relationships, adventures, and passions, they form a body of experience that principles are cemented within.

This is empowering. It means we can influence who we become by collecting experiences deliberately—because we’re drawn to principles that map onto past experiences.

You can deliberately collect experiences in two ways:

If you spend all day watching Netflix, fewer principles have an opportunity to emotionally resonate with you. Because you lack a foundation of experiences.

Perhaps this explains why children have a hard time following advice: they don’t have life experiences to map advice onto yet. Your advice can only resonate logically and not yet emotionally. So it rarely sticks.

To avoid a childlike relationship with advice—and to be more disciplined—the Starting Principles framework suggests you live a bit more in order to accrue failures and successes. These are necessary because conviction emerges from exposure: the high-stakes experiences you live through or that you witness loved ones live through.

Conviction is the difference between intellectually knowing what you should do and actually doing it because there's no way in hell you're going to let that happen again.

What to do now

There are many implications of being a Starting Principles thinker. These are two of my favorite:

Ultimately, the Starting Principles process looks like this:

If this feels like too much work, start with just three principles and add to them over time.

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