Rules of Life

January 5, 2013

Corrected and clarified, 1 March 2017.

Lately, postings of “7 Cardinal Rules of Life” seem to engender responses of general agreement.

That attention invited me to examine the seven statements and their propositions. I always wonder where these quotations come from and how their context or background might illuminate the intended meaning and potential use of such grand guiding statements. As a matter of course in this blog, I question them for how they fit with my own thinking and priorities in life, especially as they relate to my personality type.

My clue here was the attribution: Dr. Stephen R. Covey, born in 1932, founded and chaired Covey Leadership Center described as “an organization devoted to the development of principle-centered leadership.” That practice relates directly to his best-selling and highly influential  book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). Covey died July 16, 2012 and the Facebook page began shortly after. As far as I can figure after scrolling through multiple screens in Pinterest-style posts of inspirational sayings, I found the presumed original cardinal 7. Catherina Chia posted them August 22, 2012, “To our profitable growth in happiness, health & success.” I did not find them on her own page. The tribute posting has the same punctuation style and wording as the secondary postings of it. In the following quotes, I have followed my own punctuation and corrected the spelling of all right. The originals are numbered as they appeared; my responses follow each numbered entry.

1. Make peace with your past so it does not spoil your present. Your past does not define your future – your actions and beliefs do.

Naturally, if something bothersome intrudes into an ongoing life, the sufferer needs to find some way of dealing with it. Often when I think about the day just past as I begin to quiet myself for wanted sleep, I regret things that I did or said that day, often also the way I said them, and vow not to make the same errors again. Obligations not yet fulfilled that have a longer or greater nagging power than the momentary or daily mistakes may also trouble me. They remain the most anxiety producing regrets of my life until I resolve them. Often these bedtime reviews become a simple  “to do” list of immediate tasks; otherwise, I try to buckle down and preclude my desire to mull and procrastinate, removing the obstacles to decision and action.

I have a highly developed historical consciousness, not just as an academic matter. I actively consider that the long past as well as our personal past shapes us in major and significant ways. I do not say that the past defines us; rather it contributes mightily to our being. Since college I have pursued the expression “history is our nature,” likely an idea I formed from reading Christopher Dawson and Ortega y Gasset. The more we recognize the historical aspect of life and the more we take advantage of an understood inheritance, the more we recognize the spheres open to our strength and potential. Accordingly, we  make choices in what to think and believe and do. As far as I am concerned, we inextricably relate to the past, one we cannot set aside but need to ascertain and utilize. So understood, the past does not determine us but equips us. We take charge rather than let the past dominate us. Besides, much of the critical past comprises our own developmental progress toward what we want out life. When not self-directive, we live stuck in a world we never made. Why would we allow that?

2. What others think of you is none of your business. It is how much you value yourself and how important you think you are.

What does “your business” mean? People can think what they want; we have little influence upon other’s thinking and almost no control, perhaps none. Nevertheless, we want to be well thought of, chiefly by ourselves and correspondingly by others. Realistically, not everyone will mean as much to us as do those who are closest – family, friends, colleagues and other associates. Our lives mingle in all kinds of ways and we want to be on good and productive terms with one another. Those we closely associate with give us clues, advice, or tell their expectations. We want to share with them as long as we want the same things or we want to please them out of a sense of mutuality and togetherness.

Self-esteem is a value to be highly prized by each person and a major contribution to our overall health and productivity. We are mainly responsible for ourselves in the long run and need to acknowledge both our achievements and where we can do better. An honest and penetrating self-examination is the key to evaluating, comprehending and improving the self. Our own self-importance is vital to our continuance throughout the life we have to live. However, in reality, it also exists relative to how we find ourselves in the run of history and the domain we have chosen to fill with our own life.

3. Time heals almost everything; give time, time. Pain will be less hurting. Scars make us who we are; they explain our life and who we are; they challenge us and force us to be strong.

As stated this “rule” contends with #1 by which we are to step aside from the past and the passage of time. Does #3 mean that some happenstance of the past is too determinative, that it scars and mars us? Are we to submissively accept such a rule as working automatically or do we have to do something to wrest control for our more positive and beneficial lives? Doubtless terrible things can happen to us; sometimes we suffer horrific events or cause undue harm ourselves, and we have to pay costs or penalties. The mere passage of time may be palliative, but is passive waiting enough?

At basis, this “rule” is a bromide, a matter of sentiment and without actual guidance especially regarding what I have said above about the necessity of self-direction in our being human and further becoming a human being to the  full of potentiality.

4. No one is the reason for your own happiness, except you yourself. Waste no time and effort searching for peace and contentment and joy in the world outside.

I wonder at the word “reason” here. Perhaps use of “reason” intends something foundational – the essence, the cause, the condition, or perhaps the focus. In close relationships, one factor of our own happiness is the happiness of the other in our lives. We are not or never fully happy unless the others we value are also happy; correlatively, we have a lot to do with their happiness in these connected relationships.

Yes, happiness is an internal matter in what we find that gives us happiness, and that is not always the same thing for all people. I am happy with solitude; many require company. Intellectual and artistic pursuits delight me; they bore others. Games, sports, and violence bore me: I do not understand their attraction. We live in such a loud and noisy civilization; silence heals just as sleep does and makes us fit for another day of happiness. Still, no human being gains from total and everlasting isolation.

5. Don’t compare your life with others’; you have no idea what their journey is about. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we would grab ours back as fast as we could.

Our journeys do differ even among colleagues and close couples. These differences do not preclude comparison with one another, even with anyone. The lives of others broaden, correct, and inspire us. They shower us with reality checks. Parents, teachers, mentors, a host of professionals and other contacts made and make numerous differences in our lives. We are in the debt of so many who have gone before and contributed to our own path. To be human is to share in community; this is why we have language. We communicate, we research, we learn – all in comparison with what others do, know, think, and achieve.

By coincidence, I am currently reading Penelope Lively’s How It All Happened (2011). Her novel unravels how a incident to one person has a rippling effect on the lives of others, many of whom do not know one another. We need to realize the first sentence of the acknowledgements in Covey’s 7 Habits – “Interdependence is a higher value than independence.”

Although among close connections we may know some few as intimately as possible, we will never know them completely. So? That is not to say others have no effect upon us. Saying we might exchange problems with one another is a situation contrary to reality (though thanks for the speculative idea). How true that we have our own problems and must deal with them! Thanks be that we have the experience and ambitions of others to help us apprize ourselves and enlighten us as to our requirements and choices.

6. Stop thinking too much; it’s all right not to know all the answers.  Sometimes there is no answer, not going to be any answer, never has been an answer. That’s the answer! Just accept it, move on. Next!

Thinking – I am proud to affirm – is our chief method of living a fulfilled life, that and learning which to a large measure involves thinking of a critical manner. I doubt it is possible to think “too much.” Thinking instead is the most useful path to a productive decision unless we cannot readily reach a decision and require more thinking until we do. If “too much” means that thinking is going over the same ground again and again, then the advice to get out of a rut that is less of thinking and more of ruminating becomes helpful.  Of course, knowing “all the answers” is ipso facto impossible, but knowing, however related, remains distinct from thinking. Thinking productively in all likelihood requires reviewing what we know and if our own fund of knowledge is not sufficient, thereby seeking new information. We never have too much knowledge; rather being comfortable with only what we know or think we know is a major problem in human existence, leading to ideology, prejudice, and divisive contrariness.

True, not everything is answerable: I learn that truth as I age and have medical problems for which no answer is discovered or conclusive. We live with inexactness and uncertainties; many of our issues are dilemmas if not otherwise complex. The importance of any problem relative to an individual’s priorities causes each person to either persist in searching for an answer or quitting. As an information professional, I find too many quit too soon and persist instead in ignorance or error. Giving up on answers is nevertheless often required in the face of new concerns and the ongoing attentions demanded of us in living a fuller life. I think I am better able to accept uncertainty and ambiguity than many other people can. In my case, I retain the thought that I have knowingly made my acceptance but may return to the quest some time later. In the meantime I remain bound to keep thinking.

7. Smile; you don’t own all the problems in the world. A smile can brighten the darkest day and make life more beautiful. It is a potential curve to turn a life around and set everything straight.

Smiling or not smiling hardly relates to all the problems of the world. Rather I regard it as a personality difference. I knew someone who I found to be a continuous optimist. His profession required him to deal daily with a host of complex issues, problems, and competitive factors. Yet, he was always buoyant and wanted others to feel the same. Even when he sat alone at his desk working on the stack of papers before him, he had a smile on his face. I am not like that, primarily serious, stoical, burdened by philosophical and social issues, and retaining a low opinion of fun and all other distractions from what is important and gives meaning to our human existence.

I would like to smile more: I am even flattered that I look more attractive when I am smiling. Unfortunately, it does not come automatically to me. When I smile on demand, I have the idea that I am faking it. In pictures of me, even from childhood, I look solemn. Consequently, the advice to smile seems completely simplistic and second-hand to me. Smiling does not so much brighten the dark day or turn life beautiful. Rather it results from what is bright and beautiful: good conversation, excellent entertainment, personal achievement amid the successes of others, the promise of early morning, flowers in bloom, peanut butter cookies, and all other wonderful things, ways, people and their creativity.

These seven rules as offered appear to me to have a common hub of self-centeredness that borders on exclusion of or distancing from others, contrary to Covey’s acknowledgement of interdependence even while concerns move us to recognize our global propinquity. While it is common to be self-absorbed focused on me/my/mine, our contemporary and historic challenge is to live amicably and profitably with one another in association.

If I were to list seven essential guides to a fuller life, they would be something like this.

1. Learn all you can. Learning is our fundamental vocation as human beings and the foundation of all that we are and can become. Some learning comes autonomously by being alive; depth of learning depends upon the desire to learn and the committed drive to keep learning.

2. Practice self-examination. Develop a healthy respect for your strengths as well as needs in order to develop, improve and be open to the promises of being alive. Self-examination is a prerequisite to authentic change.

3. Think for yourself. Couple a desire to know what is true with a critical approach to pertinent evidence. Be skeptical of received “truths;” keep up a curious questioning.

4. Exercise your will. Will achieves its effectiveness through intention and attention; that is, deliberately wanting to do something and focusing on achieving it. We may be free to choose, but will entails work.

5. Make choices in your best interest as a human being. Effective choices are the best guarantee of a productive, fulfilling, and happy life. Recognize the choices for self that intrude on others.

6. Test yourself against experience living with others. Ask yourself assessment questions. Is this situation what I really want? Is this choice working for me? What life-skill could I do better?

7. Continuously relate 1-6, each to the others.  Ultimately, each practice is a deliberative aspect of pursuing life in full and of integrated consciousness.

Such is the kind of basic advice you get from an INTJ developed over a lifetime (now age 72).


© Copyright 2013 by Roger Sween

I welcome comments on this post. Personal comments to me may be made directly by email.