Ground Yourself with Personal Heuristics

5 minute read

Years ago I found John Maeda’s Four Rules and I thought it was an excellent idea to communicate one’s own values, as well as having explicit principles to live by. Over the years I tried multiple times to write down something similar, but I always came short. It didn’t have the right depth.

More recently I got to know Christina Wodtke and her Heuristic for Living. I appreciated her approach because:

  1. Heuristics aren’t hard rules, but tools to make better decisions.
  2. The list isn’t fixed, but live – as you can see from all the updates over the years.

That gave me a hint on a different approach: what if I started collecting “heuristics” and then reviewed them, maybe later shaping them as “rules” once the proved themselves?

Why?

Before proceeding I want to make a step back. Why having rules and heuristics? Isn’t this an over-intellectual approach to something that in practice is simple?

In a way, yes, I agree. I don’t think it’s necessary to work on something like this. Yet, I also believe it’s important to reflect on who we are and why we do things. Self reflection is important in so many ways.

Having given enough thought in advance to hard problems is a way to have a reference ready when we have to face these problems. Also, communicating your values is a powerful way to get in touch with others, and find your own people.

My approach to heuristics

I’m sure everyone can come up with their own approach, as I’ve seen this done in many different ways. Christina and John’s approaches above are two. Or you can have a notebook with you where you write them down. Or taking notes in your personal diary. Or having conversations with others and reflecting back.

I’ve tried a few times, and I didn’t manage to come up with something that I considered deep enough. There are so many levels of complexity and situations that it’s hard to abstract things enough to be useful, but not too much to become generic.

Then inspired by Christina’s live approach here’s what I did:

  1. I created an empty text note and I started collecting heuristics and rules every time I found one.
  2. This collection period lasted about two years. I didn’t do any review in this time, just collecting.
  3. I collected anything relevant, not just rules: a nice quote, a paragraph from a book that resonated with me, something I thought myself, advice and reflections I got from friends and colleagues. Truly anything, as long as it felt “me”.
  4. I took an afternoon and I went through the list and grouped them. Some of these things didn’t resonate anymore, some did, but weren’t precise enough. Some were useful bits or good ways to phrase things.
  5. I rewrote the ones that resonated the most, and I tried to be as precise as possible — these are mine, not anyone’s else.

Revising these drafts something felt off. Some of these were things I didn’t feel I was good at, so how could I say these were “mine”? Yet, these were also things at the top of my mind, things I valued important, as I really strived to improve on them.

That’s where I realized that there were two categories inside these rules, and I thus split the list into two:

  1. Principles: rules that I embodied — “this is me”
  2. Aspirations: rules that I strived for — “this is who I want to be”

They are very close, and in some ways aspirations are already part of who I am, otherwise I wouldn’t have resonated with them. The criteria I use to differentiate them is that principles are the ones that I feel I can be an example or inspiration for others, I’m really good at these. Aspirations instead are things that even if I might be already quite good at, I’m still working on actively. Another way to say it is that principles are something that I don’t have to think about, they are automatic, while aspirations I’ve to catch myself and correct.

My Heuristics

Principles:

  • See far, do near.
    Holistic & Pragmatic. Maker & Philosopher. Long term + Short term at the same time.
  • Value the person, their agency, their connections: everything will follow.
    Agency is important. Community is important.
  • The universe is a complex system: organize what’s necessary, but no more than that.
    Embodied explicit rules trump formal rules.
  • Shared clarity around an explicit goal brings focus.
    Everything is relative, but firm perspectives has to be taken to move forward.
  • Travel to the edges to find balance.
    Gaze into the abyss. Seek extremes. Learn their whys. Come back. Find common ground.
  • Be transparent: break the walls that separate people.
    Maya veil. Everything is connected.
  • Be curious: keep learning outside what you know.
    Cross-pollination. Polymath. Hybrid. Transcend discipline boundaries.

Aspirations:

  • Acknowledge positives.
  • If you don’t ask, you won’t get.
  • Don’t be reactive, take control.
  • Don’t win the argument: win the person.
  • Check assumptions.
  • Avoid absolutes.
  • Be compassionate: toward yourself, toward others.

Finding the right words sometimes was challenging, partially because of how hard it is to write who we are, partially because sometimes I focused on the outcome instead of the driving force behind it. For example “Travel to the edges to find balance” in a way is better expressed by “Finding common ground”, but when I really ask myself what’s true for me finding a common ground is somehow a consequence, and I’m far more rooted in this tension between edges and balance. Common ground is thus important, but somehow a consequence.

Similarly, as much as “Everything is connected” is a strong, rational thought in my mind all the time, I can’t say that’s my focus. Transparency and openness is, which is strongly related.

I also acknowledge these have all a sort of “dark side”. I tried to phrase them as positives, but some of them still contain a negative note. This is totally fine for me, as there are always two sides of the coin.

What next?

As you can expect, these are heuristics, as such they are meant to evolve and change overtime. Hopefully, I’ll also be moving things from aspirations to principles, and add more aspirations over time.

It’s also worth noting that the goal isn’t in itself writing these heuristics, but the level of self-awareness that this kind of works brings, and also the added perspective of updating the list over the years. It’s not about the rules, it’s about you.

I hope also that the outline above will give you some ideas if you want to try to write your own. If so, let me know how it goes!

 

Thanks to Delilah, Tammie Lister, Lance Willett for their feedback.