You’re likely familiar with the “life rules” genre of non-fiction, or its cousin, prescriptive inspirational quotes. “Lean in.”Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In, 2013.
“Make friends with people who want the best for you.”Jordan Peterson, quoted here.
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”Mary Schmich (often misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt).
I’m not generally fond of life rulesLife rules aren’t to be confused with “laws” (and likewise, “insightful” quotes) that are more insight than advice. (Think Goodhart’s Law, or the Peter Principle. The 2004 Edge Annual Question is a particularly thorough showcase of these.) I don’t take issue with these, or at least not the same way. The question of “what makes for a good ontological claim?” has an extensive canon – see, e.g., metaphysics, analogy, science – that is firmly in the cultural consciousness. I’m less sure that our (presumed Western, 21st-century) culture has the same “bullshit radar” for pragmatic advice.
, for two reasons:
Firstly, one-size-fits-all advice is a dangerous game, and I suspect most life advice goes out to the people who need it the least: those already inclined to do things themselves hear warnings about “too many cooks”; those who are already predisposed to collaboration hear that “many hands make light work”.
Secondly, and closer to my heart, life rules are rules. They’re deontic by nature, and deontology vexes me. Anything pithy enough for a tweet or soundbite is going to elide a lot of nuance, and if you’re using it as a hard-and-fast rule, that lack of nuance is eventually going to bite you.
But, all the same, I can’t claim to be entirely against “life rules”.
Though my heart is consequentialist, my brain is not. In the heat of the moment, when there’s a decision before me, I may try to figure out my next move from first principles… but it’s slow, tedious, treads old ground, and really just looks like boring old decision paralysis. In the context of morality, frameworks like rule utilitarianism and virtue ethics present principledAhem.
tradeoffs between “goodness” and computational tractabilityI daresay the reproduction of (Abrahamic prophet) Moses’s “Ten Rules For Living a Wholesome Life” did a whole lot more in practice for people living under the various Abrahamic religions than any amount of detailed rules around cost-benefit analysis did.
. Aphorisms, mantras, and life rules fill a similar space when making decisions that are primarily about the self. There’s still an inherent danger in treating them as hard-and-fast rules, but it may be a danger worth accepting.
Or at least, that sounds plausible to me, and fuck overthinking.
In Make Your Own Rules, Venkatesh Rao proposes a rubric for “good” life rules. (In his words: “If there’s a gold rush [for life rules] on, I have to sell pickaxes.”) To grossly oversimplify: life rules pertain to the transitions between different modes of cognition: going from daydream-philosophising, to mind-like-water flow, to social butterflying, to carpe diem self-indulgence. Some of these modes of cognition are “mental states” in the sense that meditation and NLP practitioners refer to: task-negative and goal-oriented cognition are as day and night. Other times, they’re more like switching between different sets of salient values: instead of simultaneously juggling your drive for human connection and your desire for material wealth, your focus shifts from one to another, with a vague sense of wrongness tickling at the back of your head whenever you sacrifice an out-of-sight-out-of-mind value. (“Maybe I should be spending more time on work?” “Maybe I should be spending more time on that hobby?”)
In this interpretation, life rules dictate transitions between different modes of cognition. When do you switch from contemplation to getting-things-done? When do you switch gears from idea generation to idea evaluation, or vice versa? These decisions are difficult, in part because the judgements and values of your mind in each mode are incommensurable, however slightly. Life rules provide clear and fast rules for when to make these transitions. As with moral rules, the rules have to be carefully reasoned out in advance, but in the moment they serve as a form of “cached” decision making, allowing us to avoid re-thinking these questions from first principles every single time. And they’re most useful in these transitions, precisely because considered holistic judgements are difficult.
In addition to making it easier to leave a mode of cognition, they make it easier to stay. Having a clear exit plan frees youWell, me.
from stressing about when to exit.
Thus I’ve cribbed together a list of six “life rules” for myself. Rules 1 through 4 are chosen according to Rao’s “beginners”Prescribed, slightly cruelly, for anyone not even slightly world-famous, which I expect is most people, and certainly most of my generation right now.
framework: two rules for entering and leaving priceless-relationships thinking (lower-case ‘r’), and two rules for entering and leaving goal-oriented thinking. Rules 5 and 6 were tacked on to reflect a kind of transition I especially struggle with – switching from living for the future to living in the moment, and vice versa.
Needless to say, your mileage may vary. These rules were chosen to reflect the tradeoffs I struggle with the most right now, and they work jū-style to redirect my various neuroses and antipatternsIt’s probably quite revealing what assumptions these rules suggest about the person using them. Go nuts, Sigmund.
. They may well be meaningless – or useless, or even counterproductive – to someone else. Or they may be exactly what that someone else needs, too. Tread carefully, etc. (If you need something tailored, “make your own”?)
Even for myself, I expect this set of rules to quickly fall out of date depending on how I change and habituate them. Maybe they’ll last a year, maybe a month? The exercise isn’t about having a permanent supply of easy answers. Only <insert veiled jab at deontologists> expect the same things to keep working forever. But even a little bit of temporary easy is really damned useful.
Dear present-day me,
Some advice you know but keep forgetting:
A hearth in every port. Your most “intense” relationships may be with minds like your own, in milleus close to home, but still: find places further afield where you can drink tea on rainy days.
Friends make each other greater people. They grow together, whether as fellow travellers, as struggling and leant-on, as kindred souls from different worlds, as role model and reflection. Even just as two people strengthened by enjoying each other’s company, they grow. A relationship that cannot grow you both is not a meaningful relationship.
Better to miss 99 opportunities than 100. You don’t have enough lifetimes to do everything you want to do, but “everything” was never the goal.
Frequent, explicit checkpoints. Don’t drag yourself through unending “ten more minutes” of work that your heart’s not into. Set clear stopping points everywhere. When you bail, it will be clean, and (self-)forgiveable.
If you won’t relax now, then when? More often than not, dancing near your breaking point is bad for your future self, too. Life is a series of “near terms”: treat today with the respect you’d treat tomorrow.
Minimum viable hedonism. Know which forms of self-care and self-indulgence work for you; know which ones aren’t worth the time, or money, relationship capital, spoons, etc. Know which you need right now.
Yours wearily but fondly,