Early in my career, someone told me that “not being an idiot is a sustainable competitive advantage.” Unbelievably, it’s the truth. It’s easy to jump past the basics and focus on the challenging, and often confusing, topics that seemingly lead to success.
But the longer I live, the more I’m convinced that understanding and consistently practicing a handful of basic principles, like the 16 below, is the surest path to success. As Shane Parrish said, “Spend less time trying to be brilliant and more time trying to avoid obvious stupidity.”
1. Follow Through: Just do what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it. If you quoted a price, stick with it. If you promised something, deliver.
2. Say “Thank You”: The world doesn’t owe you anything, so don’t act like it does. When someone acts in your best interest, thank him. If you’re given a gift, thank the person who thought of you. If you’re particularly pleased with someone’s performance…you get the idea.
3. Be On Time: Circumstances occasionally cause a justified aberration. But most of the time, tardiness signals self-importance, a lack of respect, and disorganization. As the saying goes, “Five minutes early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.”
4. Use Impeccable Grammar: This is the clearest canary in the mine. If someone can’t properly spell, punctuate, or structure a sentence, chances are he a) is not well-educated, b) lacks attention to detail, and c) doesn’t care. Any way you slice it, bad grammar is bad news.
5. Say “Sorry”: Being wrong is being human. Just own up to it, and everyone will move on. Apologizing conveys that you a) care, b) are humble, and c) are self-aware. It’s incredible how much a genuine “sorry” can make up for.
6. Be Intentional: We all have the same amount of time. You can choose to randomly stumble around, hoping to bump into money, meaning, love, friendships, and opportunities. Or you can be intentional. It’s your choice, every single day.
7. Question Why: The smartest people in the world know what they don’t know, and they aren’t scared to look ignorant. If you don’t understand, ask “Why?” until you get it. This simple technique is the greatest antidote for the illogical and inexplicable.
8. Default to Silence: There’s a reason you have two ears and only one mouth. If you don’t have something meaningful to say, keep your trap shut. This ensures that when a significant thought does arise, people might actually listen.
9. Set Expectations: The formula is simple: Happiness = Reality — Expectations. Changing reality is hard. Setting expectations is easy. Under-promise and fill reality with happiness.
10. Take Responsibility: We love to rationalize blame. While it feels good to play the victim, it’s incredibly destructive, leading to a cynical and jaded life. The far better approach is to say, “It’s all my fault.” It gives you control to change yourself and your circumstances.
11. Say “No”: Life is a game of opportunity costs. If you say “yes,” you’re saying “no” to something else. Have clear priorities, pursue opportunities that align, and say “no” to everything else.
12. Continuously Learn: If you wake up each day trying to get a little better, before long, you’ll find yourself ahead. Read, ask, and listen. If something conflicts with your worldview, dig deeper and determine whether you should embrace it or discard it.
13. Embrace Simplicity: Small bits of complexity add up quickly and exponentially. A little white lie can get you fired. A little gossip can ruin a friendship. A little kiss can end a marriage. Enough small splurges can lead to bankruptcy. Given a choice, always choose simplicity.
14. Gain Perspective: We measure ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions. But you’re not a special snowflake. Everyone else, regardless of how convinced you are that they’re “doing fine,” is struggling with something. Remember that to have some perspective.
15. Check Yourself: As Warren Buffett says, “Negotiating with one’s self seldom produces a barroom brawl.” Surround yourself with people who will a) call you on your BS, b) thoughtfully help you reason, and c) genuinely understand your weaknesses.
16. Avoid Eating Crap: You were given exactly one container for this life, and the quickest way to damage it is by consistently eating lab-concocted, food-like substances pumped full of chemicals, hormones, and fake nutrition. Simply eat real food that came from something previously living in a recognizable form.
The truth is that 100 percent consistency is impossible, and I’m certainly no exception. In the past two weeks, I’ve been late to a meeting, parroted some gossip, and failed to say “sorry” to two people who deserved to hear it — and that’s just what I can recall. But I’m constantly striving to walk the talk, and I encourage you to do the same. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”