How to live a principled life.

You may immediately wonder if I can really cover this topic adequately in a single blog post. I assure you I can. You see, living a principled life is not hard to explain; it’s just hard to actually do it.

Next you may ask yourself what qualifications I have to speak about this. A fair question, and one I struggled with myself in preparing this. However, I think it comes down to this: I know what I want to believe is true about myself and I try to be sure my thoughts and behaviors reflect that belief every day. Really, I think that’s enough for credibility. I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to be engaged in my struggle and aware of when I fall short of my own expectations. In fact, I think the times when I’ve not lived up to my principles have been some of the times when I’ve made the most progress.

That being said, how does one live a principled life? As I said, it’s not terribly hard to explain. I think there are just two steps.

  1. Decide the values by which you want to make every decision in your life. I suggest picking only a few that apply to every kind of life decision you make, big or small.
  2. Step two is to conscientiously and with great intent, apply those values to everything you do, every decision you make and every interaction you have with others. Be serious about using these values to define your every thought, word and deed, and recognize when you fall short. Then try really hard not to fall short of your own standards again.

That’s really it. Now let me tell you about how I incorporate this into my own life. I have two principles that express my core life values:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.
Ian Maclaren

Now what does this even mean as a value statement? It means that everyone has their own pile of stuff they’re dealing with to get through the day and I don’t have any idea what that is. So I try to be kind whenever possible. I try to have empathy for others.

For example, are you someone who regularly gets upset in restaurants? The food is taking too long, there’s too much ice in the drink, there’s not enough ice in the drink, you ordered tater tots instead of french fries, whatever. We’ve all seen people like this, right? Someone who expects a teenager making $7/hour to treat him like the King of Norway. Well, I can tell you that I am not that guy. I never complain at restaurants. I almost never send food back and I make sure that if I do, I’m polite about it.

Why? Easy. I’ve worked in restaurants and I know how hard it is. I know what it’s like to work jobs where people are just trying to ruin your day all day long. I also know that those employees are people with lives outside of work, with sick children and overdue bills and relationships that aren’t going well.

Life is hard. It’s hard for everyone. Everyone has a set of troubles they’d like to trade for someone else’s but even that is based on projection. No one really knows what anyone else’s struggles are really like, so remember to be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle.

The second core value is derived from a question in the Baptismal Covenant, as expressed by the Episcopal Church:

Will you respect the dignity of every human being?

This question is closely related to the first value statement, which we’ve already discussed at length. For me, this question forces me to disagree with others respectfully, no matter how wrong-headed I find their views. This question forces me to see the homeless as individuals with dignity and value. The same with immigrants, with Patriots fans, and others who struggle for acceptance. It leads me more often than not to seek a place of forgiveness for those I’ve been hurt by and to ask forgiveness from those I’ve hurt.

Be kind. Respect the dignity of every human being.

Two simple statements that are easy to remember but serve as a powerful setting for my moral compass. Spend time discerning your own value statements. Then try to live up to them every minute of every day. That’s how you live a principled life.

My Advice for High School Graduates

High School Graduation: A time of accomplishment, yet an uncertain future can also be frightening. I have a few suggestions for high school graduates.

Going to College?

  1. Take care of business first. Go to class, do the work. Getting an education is your job now and people are investing a lot of time and money in you. Don’t screw it up.
  2. Try new things, especially groups, sports, dorm activities, etc.
  3. Choose new friends carefully and know that if you hang out with a bunch of kids that aren’t studying, you won’t either. Embrace diversity and talk with people different from you.
  4. Don’t get real drunk with strangers (new roommates, etc.) the first month or more. You don’t know anything about these people and they don’t have any obligation to you. You don’t want to be that freshman whose friends leave him/her wasted at a party with people you don’t know. Or worse.
  5. Don’t leave your new friends at a party by themselves.
  6. Don’t do anything this summer that will screw up your life before you get to campus.
  7. Minimize your student loan debt, etc. wherever possible. Don’t buy pizza with student loan money.

Not Going to College?

  1. Don’t worry about it. College isn’t for everyone.
  2. Keep learning. Read books and look for jobs/people you find that are interesting. Ask questions. Volunteer.
  3. Learn a trade. Personally, if I had just graduated and I didn’t have strong college plans, I’d figure out how to be a plumber. Plumbers are always in demand, can’t be outsourced, have an interesting job with different projects every day, and they make good money. [Update 6/9: Mike Bloomberg agrees with me.]

For Everyone:

  1. Approach your life with a purpose. How would you like to spend your time the next 50-60 years? What do you want out of life? You want to be married and have kids? Figure out how you will support them. Date people who would be a good parenting partner. You want to travel? Make a plan and do it. Whatever you do, do it because you want to, not because you just ended up somewhere and couldn’t figure out anything different.
  2. Make decisions that will allow you to live the life you identified above.
  3. Finance: Minimize debt. Invest in a Vanguard index fund, even if it’s just a small amount. Understand basic financial information. Maintain a good credit score.
  4. Say yes to positive experiences whenever possible at this stage in your life. Listen to adults who try to pass along information to you.
  5. Be accountable for your actions.
  6. Eat healthy. Exercise regularly. Shower every day.
  7. Most important: Always do the right thing. What is the right thing? You know what it is. Have the courage to listen to yourself.