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Opening Arguments

Rules to live by

A few days ago, in a post called "Doubt and certainty," I wrote this:

I wrote a column for the editorial page a few years ago, and it's even truer now, that the older I get, the fewer things I am certain of. But I am more and more certain of those few things. That seems to me to be a normal progression, the way thinking people change. As we learn, we discard the certitude that comes from prejudice, our parent's views, "the way things have always been" and all sorts of other reflexive responses, and remain certain of only those things our experience tells us is true.

One of the comments was from Brian Stouder, who wrote:

I am not MORE certain 'of those few things'..I am lucky to hold the line - never mind INCREASING certainty!!

Which begs the question - what 'few things' are on your list of certainties?

My list would include things such as the intrinsic moral, psychological, emotional and practical VALUE of getting out of bed every morning and going to work (regardless what the job is); or the arbitrary burden of 'rightness' that every good parent must shoulder (and live up to) for their children; or that NOTHING good happens at 2 in the morning in parking lots....

I'm doing a new post on the subject instead of just answering Brian in the comments because I think it's a question whose answers would tell us a lot about people. It's the kind of question you always want to ask people you know but don't feel comfortable bringing up in casual conversation.

The few things on my list of core beliefs make up my world view and probably won't surprise anyone who has read my stuff with any regularity: 1. Freedom is the most important value; with it, all other things are possible, and without it, nothing is. 2. The goal of an individual should be to always live a more moral life, of an organized society to always become more civilized. 3. The most important invention of humankind is the rule of law, which is what protects us when people don't use No. 1 to do No. 2.

But, taking my cue from Brian, I will include a few of the rules I try to live by, based on how those core beliefs have played out in my experience. These are the kinds of principles I would like to hear about from other people. What are the rules of your life?

1. Most of the time, I act on what I believe to be my own best interests; it makes sense to believe that most of the people I encounter are acting in what they perceive to be their own best interests. If this seems like simple common sense, why do so few people actually seem to adhere to it? If so and so is a friend of mine or has similar views, he must have noble motives or a higher purpose. If he is an enemy or has different beliefs, he must have nefarious motives or be the devil incarnate. How else to explain people's refusal to acknowledge that leaders of big business, big labor, big government, the environmental movement and fundamentalist churches are the same kinds of people, prone to the same human weaknesses and equally capable of overcoming them ?

2. Actions have consequences. I read a slightly different version once, which I had tacked on my office wall for a number of years, the author unknown: In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences. Most of modern life, unfortunately, seems dedicated to the proposition that there are no consequences to anything. We can always get a second chance and never have to take responsibility.

3. Unless I'm causing you harm, leave me alone; if you aren't hurting me or mine, I'll leave you alone. This seems a little clearer to me than "live and let live."

4. Always try to be where you're supposed to be, doing what you're supposed to do. This will take care of about 90 percent of your life. And if you have to ask what it is you're supposed to do, you're not getting it.

5. Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig. I've seen variations on this in the last few years, but I first saw it on a sign that somebody painted in Nashville in Brown County. I bought it, and it has been on my office wall ever since. It means knowing when it is worth trying to change somebody's opinions or habits or actions and when it's not. We are all pigs about something, and it is part of learning about each other ("I can carry your baggage if you will try to carry mine") that we understand what to leave each other alone about.

6. Never go to bed with anyone crazier than you are. If you do the math, you will understand that 50 percent of the people violate this rule, which are not very good odds. I have found a foolproof way around it, but it limits my potential partners to those people who don't know the rule.


Jon Olinger
Tue, 01/02/2007 - 7:20am

Every morning I get up, get on my knees and praise God that my wife doesn't know the rule.

One last one for me...

No matter how bad it is, I am certain it will eventually get better... and it can ALWAYS get worse.

Bob G.
Tue, 01/02/2007 - 9:08am

Some damn fine "rules" of living....

#1 - well, you spend the MOST time with "you", right?

#2 - Truer words were never uttered.

#3 - Works for me....(pssst, tell the locals that on the SOUTH side)

#4 - Wherever you go...there you are!

#5 - The city could learn a LOT from that!

#6 - Crazier, no...AS crazy? Sure, why not?

Love the truth presented!



brian stouder
Tue, 01/02/2007 - 8:37pm

Well, Leo presented an interesting list of things he firmly believes, and the more comfortably arguable (and arbitrary) Rules to Live By.

I remember reading a saying similar to the ones he has posted in his office: When there is no alternative, there is no problem.

That one used to appeal to me, until I concluded that you can never really know that there is NO alternative; there is almost always LOTS of alternatives - although maybe none that are appealing...so that 'problems' remain problems, and cannot be tossed off with a blithe "There was no alternative"

Singing pigs reminded me of an old Johnnie Carson line - You can lead a horse to water, but if you can get him to float on his back - you really have something there!!

But the closest thing I have ever seen to "the secrest of life" is #4.

"Always try to be where you're supposed to be, doing what you're supposed to do. This will take care of about 90 percent of your life."

A footnote: one of things I say most often to our young folks is an echo of a phrase my dad often said to me - "Go easy"

Steve Towsley
Tue, 01/02/2007 - 10:52pm

Please excuse any typos as it is getting late to re-visit this for the kind of edit one does for formal publication. Blogs is blogs.

1. "In my daily life, the truth will just have to do."
This is my own deal with myself and it is virtually unbreakable. In other words, it means, Tell the truth always -- always -- always -- regardless of any predicted results or consequences for oneself (unless you're in a foreign prison camp under torture or something similar).

This is absolutely not any license to gossip about others -- people of no character at all can tell unpleasant truthes about someone else. I mean speak the truth in all matters regarding yourself whether it's comfortable or convenient or not. It's the only way to live a sane and moral life in the long run. Only the minority of people can be counted on to either tell the truth or say nothing, because this principle is not generally revered as I revere it. But there is likely no more powerful way for an individual to live life.

2. "To thine own self be true."
This is a venerable old saying which is also about truth. It does NOT MEAN to be "loyal" to yourself, or to be selfish, or to look out for number one at the expense of others. None of those things are virtuous in this context. On the contrary. It simply means, tell yourself the honest truth about yourself -- and reject any tendency to lapse into denial and self-ignorance. In modern lingo this saying can be more clearly and accurately phrased this way: "To thine own self be truthful."

3. "Comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable."
This saying, which I first heard from a recovering addict, fits my situation as someone who has spent a lot of time in social work and also has a decided artistic bent. Compassion is excellent; equally important is the ability to express concepts provocatively -- in ways which hopefully will shake a closed mind or bemuse the arrogant or the misguided.

4. "Speak your mind -- as needed -- and always mean what you say. Never bluff. Never apologize for not repeating yourself for the slow to learn, since no one should expect you to go out of your way for them in order to communicate a message. If they don't hear or won't listen the first time you cover the subject, their consequences in the predicted outcome are not your fault."

These related ideas all pertain to one basic value of mine -- saying what one means and meaning what one says, and not feeling obligated to repeat yourself. When you know your mind on a matter, you can guarantee your own position in that matter's outcome with a high degree of precision, certainly without any need to threaten or bluff. This ability should allow others the opportunity to make decisions in which you are a factor with an accurate gauge of your reaction -- if they have the good sense to take you seriously. People who don't have that common sense with me have obviously mistaken me for somebody else. No means no, yes means yes, my word can be trusted for good or ill, so never count on me to acquiesce after I've once expressed my perspective.

5. "In most relationships, the red flags, big or small, that pop up on the first date with be the very things that eventually break up the relationship. It is worth noting and considering those early red flags. In the best fit, there may well be no red flags at all."

This rule, which is also a warning, is self-explanatory, and I find, universally true, no matter the duration of the hook-up.

A corollary: Never expect me to lower my standards to fit your situation. I always do my best work in my areas of responsibility and this should not be a liability to you if you yourself are healthy.

Never expect me to become accustomed to institutionalized shortcomings in your enterprise rather than to fix them once I get organized. My department will be organized to run well, not to keep pulling your Baby Jessicas out of the well you keep throwing her into. I'll be your hero once, but I won't keep performing Herculean efforts just because you won't do your own problem solving.

(I include this value because I've been laid off at least twice for fixing endemic problems in somebody's organization and holding the line on responsibility and accountability (and I can quote expensive national seminars I've attended which support this common sense action). I won't become a slob to keep a job.

These are just a few of the rules I use, and which I could have put into this post. They are a lightly skimmed sampling of the values I've learned to live by in work, relationships and routine living, and to a large degree in Fortune 100, workaholic, Harvard-Georgetown-Oxford business settings, as well as in close relationships with very fine people.

Bob G.
Wed, 01/03/2007 - 7:48am

Ok Steve...where can I grab a copy of your softbound edition...I'm sold!