Rules to live by


“If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

If you feel like you’re drowning, read this instead. If you feel like you’re just drifting along like a log in the ocean then this essay is for you. Let’s talk about how to build a boat to navigate life with.


Emotions organize rational thinking. What you value is a reflection of how you feel about things. Find a list of values online and see how you feel about them.

Let whatever it is bubble up to the surface. It will take a few tries spread over a couple years. Do the work. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Values have the interesting property of being stable across decades. It’s solid ground. A place to take refuge in when life hurls you into an abyss.

Use mine as a template; three core values and an array of associated values.

  1. Love (health, play, sincerity, gratitude, trust, courage, temperance)

  2. Freedom (education, equality, autonomy, privacy, justice, moderation)

  3. Duty (generosity, integrity, empathy, kindness, loyalty, competence)


Life torments us with the need for purpose and I find it solely in fulfilling my duty to be good to others. I can’t do that without self-love or my freedom.

Your values give shape to your boat. What type of boat are you building? A sailboat? A yacht? Your values determine the type of boat you find yourself on.

The people you surround yourself with determine the size of your boat. Do you want a mega-yacht or a small sailboat? Choose your people wisely.

The strength of your relationships determine how likely your boat is to capsize when life’s waters get rough. Size isn’t everything; remember, the Titanic sank.

Pick the wrong friends and they’ll poison your true values, maybe even corrupt them permanently. You don’t want a boat full of holes.

How do you navigate the sea with your boat (i.e. thrive / find your purpose)?

By seeking perfection of character.

It’s a lifelong commitment to mastering yourself.


Even when you’ve constructed a good sized boat you don’t want to continue drifting on life’s currents; you want to steer. You need to insist on executing your values to perfection (i.e. learn how to steer). That’s what virtue is.

Values describe what is important to you; virtue, what is moral/good.

Use mine as a template.

Courage — life without courage is no life at all.

Moderation — he is free who has few desires.

Tenacity — stay the course under all circumstances.

Modesty — being modest eases relationship building.

Empathy — life is suffering, be kind to all.

Sincerity — living under perpetual pretense is tiring.

Silence — mind your tongue, it can wound another.

Cleanliness — don’t expect anyone to take you seriously looking like a slob.

What makes a value a virtue? Values live on a continuum. For instance, some mistake recklessness (vice) for courage (virtue). Monitor for extremes. Don’t rock the boat unnecessarily by taking on extreme views and ideals.

This is how you learn to pick your battles while navigating the sea. You will learn how to spot waves that might capsize you from afar and steer clear.

Even if you manage to build a strong boat and become a seafaring person you could still get unlucky and face waves no boat was built to handle.

Life is rife with tsunamis from which no man is safe.

Remember that.

The Titanic sank because it hit an iceberg. And there’s no guarantee you’ll survive the hit. Regardless, boats can be rebuild.

Once you’re done building your boat (i.e. determining what you value) you’re ready to take the seas (i.e. seek virtue). It’s only through living that you’ll learn how to live. Nobody becomes a virtuous person by accident.


Values inform principles. Principles govern action. They are “rules” that you follow that will help you steer your boat. I wrote these rules myself. They’re based on ideas that are very old but still ring true today. I try to re-read them as often as I can.

#1: Emulate the masters

Keep your ego in check or you will make an enemy of yourself. Self-control is the road to all mastery. Make it about the work, not accolades. Observe the masters of your craft closely. Seek their counsel wherever you can find it. The life you live is directly proportional to how much you’re willing to suffer for it.

#2: Live slowly, deliberately

If you want to be at peace, do less. You can not expect to master anything without deliberate and consistent practice. Rest in the presence of loved ones or nature. Take comfort in knowing that you will improve if you keep at it. Choose freely and justly and find yourself slowly becoming happy by not needing happiness.

#3: Build from first principles

Reduce complexity by eliminating whatever is unnecessary, to understand whatever lies underneath. Simplify. Transform the unfamiliar into what is familiar. Be verbose in your search for truth, but terse in your methods. Once you have mastered the basic building blocks, you are free to create anything you want.

#4: Seek intermittent solitude

Remove yourself from public view and return to your precious values whenever disaster strikes. Weigh them. Insist on their perfect execution. Destroy what is no longer prudent. Brace yourself for inevitable malady. Be poised, unwavering, patient. Master the art of self-control and let right action follow right reason.

#5: Audience of one is enough

The world’s attention is fickle. The ‘emptiness of applauding hands’ will not sustain you. Whatever you do, never stop creating just because you lack an audience. Do it to feel alive. Decide for yourself each day what activity brings you closer to achieving the greatest good and find joy in those moments of creation.

#6: Don’t solve problems you don’t have

When stuck, your first objective is to wander aimlessly. Embrace boredom and the quiet moments of your life. Learn how to be by yourself. That’s how you get unstuck. Your second objective is to eliminate the inessential. The struggle lies in what to say no to. Take care of the present and the present will take care of you.

#7: Don’t fear being wrong

Learn how to live well in a world you don’t understand, by prioritizing strength of character over everything else. You aren’t the ideas you cling to. Remember, ‘to accept correction is a free act too’, and worthy of respect. Your sole duty is to be a kind and gentle soul to those who are suffering, including yourself.


Life is like trying to traverse the open seas with a boat you have to build yourself, maintain, and steer.

You are the captain of your ship. Values give shape to your boat. Commit to perfecting their execution. This is how you learn how to steer. This is virtue.

Building relationships is what gives strength to your boat. Your boat will grow in the size the stronger your community is. Going out there by yourself means you can only command a small boat.

Don’t do that.

You can’t learn how to steer your boat or instruct others and set boundaries without understanding your principles that govern what you do and say all day.

The way forward is to do things of increasing difficulty that show you are worthy of your own trust while building healthy relationships.

Understand that very little in the world is under your control. Seek what is. Once you master yourself the oceans are for the taking.

“A man who is master of himself can end a sorrow as easily as he can invent a pleasure.”
– Oscar Wilde

Published on September 14, 2018