I used to have a newsletter1 with the pitch, “3 Ideas That Can Change Your Life.” For years, I sent out emails in that format: three ideas—one, two, three—thank you, drive through.
So consider this a throwback article. Except instead of three ideas that could change your life, these are three principles for a better life.
I like principles because unlike rules or specific ideas, principles are designed to be applied loosely and broadly. Principles are things that are usually true, but sometimes don’t apply—usually helpful, but sometimes dumb as fuck.
And unlike a rule or a piece of actionable advice, principles sit in the background, quietly informing your decisions and perspectives. In that way, when good, principles can be far more effective than any sort of “do this, do that” imperative. These are three of the most helpful principles I’ve come across to steer my life. I hope you find them helpful as well.
So without further ado…
Principle #1: You Are Perfect Just as You Are… But You Can Always Be Better
I first heard this statement muttered by a zen master at a meditation retreat in my early twenties and it’s stubbornly stuck with me ever since. In fact, the older I get, the more wisdom I see in it. You are already good enough as you are… but you can also always be better.
There is an inherent tension between self-acceptance and self-improvement. This tension is within each of us. On the one hand, we want to feel at peace with ourselves, to understand that we are good, valuable, worthy human beings and we deserve love and respect and occasional backrubs.
On the other hand, unless you’re comatose, it’s abundantly clear that we have no fucking clue what we’re doing most of the time. We mess up all the damn time. There are so many ways we could be better—that we could learn more, achieve more, grow more, etc.
I love this principle because it bluntly acknowledges that this internal tension will never go away. It doesn’t matter how productive, competent, and awesome you become, there will always be something that you kinda suck at. That gnawing sense of inadequacy will never be conquered. There is no perfection, only progress.
But, at the same time, you are still a worthy and valuable human being, regardless of how screwed up you are, regardless of how many mistakes you’ve made, regardless of how much room for growth you may have.
The beauty of this principle is that it shows that self-acceptance and self-improvement need each other—that having one without the other inevitably leads to dysfunction. If you’re all self-acceptance without self-improvement, then you become a lazy, indulgent, selfish twat. If you are all self-improvement with no self-acceptance, then you become a neurotic, hyper-critical, over-anxious mess.
Self-acceptance doesn’t work without self-improvement. Self-improvement doesn’t work without self-acceptance. You are perfect just as you are… but you can always be better.
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Principle #2: Most People Aren’t Evil, They’re Just Stupid. This Includes Ourselves
A lot has been made about social media and how it affects our mental health and politics. But I believe that the most under-discussed effect of a social media-driven world is that it subtly promotes moralizing. This mass moralization has grown to such an extent that I now believe something I never would have imagined possible ten years ago: that we probably need a little less moralizing in the world, not more.
This moralizing is a problem because of how absolutely clueless and ignorant pretty much all of us are about almost every topic. When there’s a post online that is optimized to piss you off as much as possible, combined with the ease with which we demonize and judge anonymous people on the other side of the screen, combined with how easy it is to post harsh judgments and harassments, the result is a population of self-righteous, overly-moralizing fucknuts with Twitter accounts.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that everything and everyone will, at some point, be wrong about something very significant. It doesn’t matter where your politics are, what your country is, what your personal beliefs or risk tolerances are—at some point in the last three years, you and I were wrong about something. And, in many cases, horribly wrong. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that you and I will be horribly wrong about something again.
You would think this would humble people a little bit and encourage them to withhold judgment about things. But it appears to have done the opposite instead.
Principle number two is similar to a philosophical concept known as Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
But I’d like to add to Hanlon’s Razor something I’ll call Manson’s Addendum: “…and pretty much everything you see or read is some degree of stupidity.”
In the past ten years, I’ve written a lot about the need to manage our attention. To me, this was perhaps the most important skill that people needed to adopt in response to an always-online world.
But as the world becomes highly polarized and angrier and disinformation spreads in every direction, I think the ability to reserve moral judgment and be slow to draw conclusions may become the next critical new skill necessary to survive in the Twitter-driven world.
Principle #3: A Little Bit of Truth Exists in Everything; But the Whole Truth in Nothing
I discovered this principle from reading Ken Wilber when I was younger and it’s served me well intellectually throughout my life. Wilber used to quip: “No one is smart enough to be wrong about everything.” Therefore, even if we disagree with someone horribly, there is always an opportunity to at least understand what may be true or useful about their views.
For example, I believe astrology is almost certainly wrong. But it’s based upon some assumptions that are probably true. People’s innate personalities do differ. These innate differences are largely predictable and measurable. And there’s even research that has shown that personalities can differ a tiny amount based on which season of the year someone is born in.
Now, that’s quite different than believing the hour, day, and month you are born can affect your whole life. But it’s something.
This ability to seek the pieces of truth in a larger, erroneous whole is an important skill to develop. For one, it makes you learn much faster. But it also makes you more sympathetic to people who believe differently than you. Most importantly, it will help you develop the ability to change your mind, when warranted—a skill that is horribly underrated these days.
Because the flipside of this principle is that while nothing is completely wrong, nothing is completely correct either. No religion, ideology, or belief system has a monopoly on the truth. And understanding that is necessary to, again, keep us learning, sympathizing, and being willing to change our minds and grow.
Because we humans derive a lot of psychological comfort in feeling as though we have found the Capital-T truth, our own little personal Final Answer. But the reminder that there is no such thing as the Final Answer of life—that life is merely an endless process of slightly less wrong answers to each of our questions—is not only necessary for a strong mind, it is, itself, an incomplete truth.