I mentioned in a comment that I run my life in part by “rules of thumb.” That’s an English term that means a rough guide used for judging an unknown situation. Someone said they’d like to see my list. Here, in no particular order, are the ones I’ve used. Many of them come from my experience as a businessman in businesses large and small, others from my time at sea, some from relatives, friends and lovers and just plain chance. These are the ones that stuck.
Perhaps the most important rule of thumb I have, the one that covers the most situations, is:
Do what you know, and let the rest go.
Like most people that I know, my response to a complex situation that will require lots of consideration and deliberate action is often quite simple, although less than useful—I freeze up completely in a welter of worrying about all of the decisions that I’m going to be called on to make, and I spend my time thinking about just how I’m going to attack the problem.
Applying the above rule of thumb lets me begin acting immediately. There are always parts of the complex job that can be done right now, and while I’m doing those parts I both have time to contemplate further and more far-reaching choices … AND with each perhaps trivial part I do of the complex overall task, I learn more about the unknowns I’m being called on to manage. And if there is no obvious first task in view, then my next rule of thumb comes into effect:
The floor always needs sweeping.
My rules of thumb are symbolic rather than literal. What this means is that if I or anyone in my organization can’t see what the next big step is, there are always the little steps, whatever they might be, the boring tasks that have to be done. So I pick up a broom and think about the larger issues while I sweep the floor.
Speaking of which, that reminds me of another rule of thumb I learn from a woman friend of mine, which is:
Men sweep round rooms.
What she meant of course is that we benighted victims of chronic testosterone poisoning don’t sweep in the corners, which is sad but far too often true … but I took it as an observation about life and the necessity to truly complete the tasks at hand. That leads to my next rule of thumb, which is that
Perfect is good enough.
Seems clear. What else? Well, there’s my rule of thumb about being offended, which states:
The fact that I am offended does NOT mean that your actions are offensive.
Being offended is becoming an art form these days, with “taking second-hand offense” being the mode du jour. Having written over six hundred posts for the web, I’ve learned that someone is always offended, and while I do need to find out why, I can’t trim my sails to avoid causing offense.
A rule from when I was responsible for planning, purchasing and stowing all provisions for a sailing trip from Hong Kong to California was:
Expect the best … but plan for the worst.
Let’s see. Family rules of thumb. When things got tough around the 280-acre cattle ranch that my mom ran by herself while raising four sons, she used to say:
If at first you don’t succeed, get a bigger hammer.
Us kids were raised in part under what was called “The Captain’s Code”. My great-grandfather was a Louisiana river and ocean-going boat captain, called “The Captain” with capital letters and all by everyone including his children. My grandmother was The Captain’s Daughter, and when she said “I wonder what The Captain would think of that”, we knew we were in trouble. One part of The Captain’s Code was:
If there is a man who can call you a liar, kill him. If you are one, kill yourself. There is no room for either of you.
Now, The Captain was born in 1848, a much rougher time … so despite my grandmother inculcating all of the Captain’s saying in us kids’ heads, and despite her treating lying as a mortal sin, I’ve never killed a man who called me a liar. But I’ve done my best to live up to the Captain in that regard. Here are some other parts of The Captain’s Code:
If you must ask yourself the question as to right or wrong, the answer is usually No.
It is better to live in a sixteen by sixteen foot cottage you own, than to live in a mansion owned by others.
When you go into a fight make sure the deck is clear behind you. You may need to step back.
If it is necessary to frame your diploma and hang it in the living room, there must be something wrong with your education.
Tread softly on slippery ground
Never write what you can’t rub out.
To that I’d add my rule of thumb about education:
Money spent on good tools and education is never wasted.
Then there are my rules of thumb for having kids:
Make few rules, make them to protect yourself and not the kids, and enforce them scrupulously.
That includes rules to protect yourself from needless worry. Then there’s
If I let a situation go to where I hit a kid, I’ve just been outsmarted by a six-year-old.
Those are no-brainers. The next one takes some explanation:
Never, ever call a bad kid a bad kid.
This was the best piece of kid advice anyone ever gave me, right after my daughter’s birth. They said in Japan (who knows) they never say “You bad child! You broke the window!” or whatever the crime was. Instead, they say “You good child! You broke the window! Why did you do that?”. As soon as my friend told me that, I realized what would happen if I were to repeatedly call my daughter “you bad girl!” … not pretty, a huge mistake averted.
My next rule of thumb about kids is:
Talk to infants like they were slightly retarded 20-year-olds.
I never talk baby talk talk to a child of any age. From the first I assumed my daughter could understand the import if not the words. So I’d tell her, “Hey, I gotta pick you up, we’re getting in the car” as though it meant something … and very quickly, it did. Final rule of kid-sized thumbs?
Kids understand everything.
Don’t kid yourself …
What else? Hmmm … these rules come to mind when I need them … but not so much when I need them for this. Oh, OK, a rule for business.
Make sure the employees take home more than they put in.
If someone feels like they are not getting adequate compensation and recognition it affects everyone. It leads to bitterness against the organization. And while we’re talking business, from the Bible (although I’m not a Christian, I take rules of thumb wherever I find them. My version of this one says:
Bind not the mouths of the kine that tread the grain.
Like the instructions say, “Some translation required” … in Biblical times, the “kine” are oxen. Back in the day, threshing the wheat (removing the wheat grains from the husks on the stalks) was done by putting the cut grain stalks on the floor, and having oxen walk round and round treading on the grain. The weight and grinding action of their hooves broke loose the “wheat berries” from the stalks.
And “bind not the mouths” means yes, if you let the oxen eat while they are working for you, you do end up with less wheat at the end of the day … but it’s a bad tradeoff. You want those that work for you to be well-fed and happy. So … let the oxen who tread the grain eat their fill.
I do have some rules of thumb that are specific to the seventeen years I spent living in the tropical South Pacific, in Fiji and the Solomon Islands. One has to do with how to understand South Pacific time, as in when something is going to be finished.
Double the number … and go up a unit.
So for example, in the South Pacific if someone says your items will be ready for pickup in two hours, you can confidently expect it will take four days. And if they say a week, expect two months.
The next rule was for stories about what happened on some other island:
Divide all numbers by the square root of the distance to the island.
That reminds me of how I determined the quality of reports and kept from being taken in by what is now called “fake news”. It goes like this:
First Quality: Happened to the person giving the report.
Second Quality: Happened to someone personally known to the person giving the report.
Another Tale of the South Pacific, now called “Fake News”: Everything else.
Speaking of squares and roots, here’s a couple more:
The quality of a scientific paper varies as the reciprocal of the square of the number of authors.
The same is generally true of boards and commissions and the like. The other one is:
The time it takes for everyone to get in their cars and leave goes up by the square of the number of people.
I am often comforted by the infinitely regressive rule of time and costs, which is that:
Everything takes longer and costs more, even when you take this rule into account.
Next is my rule of thumb for when people start attacking me personally rather than attacking my ideas:
When a man starts throwing mud, it’s a sure sign he’s out of real ammunition.
Finally, to keep this list from growing on and on, here is my number one rule for relationships:
Never discuss your relationship with someone unless you’re walking with them.
Crazy, huh? Here’s why. It has everything to do with framing and context. When you are both sitting down, the context is “We’re each in one fixed location. We can change our postures but not much more.”
But when you are walking the context is “We are journeying together and moving forwards into an uncertain future”. You don’t know what the road will bring. You don’t have either a fixed position for your self or a fixed distance or attitude between you. You can walk far apart and yell at your co-vivante the top of your lungs, been there, done that. The distance takes the force out of it, even makes it a bit ridiculous. Or you can walk together holding hands. One can lead, the other can lead, you can walk side by side, walking is the best of contexts.
And as a result of having the context being “we’re going somewhere unknown together” instead of “we’re sitting in fixed unchanging locations” , the relationship itself is free to move forwards into new, unexplored ground.
Anyhow, those are some of the rules of thumb I use. In closing let me say that one rule of thumb I don’t believe in is where people say “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”. Not true for me in the slightest. I say
All I really need to know I learned from my friends.
So my thanks to you all for your friendship and support, and I’m sure I’m gonna learn more useful rules of thumb for life from the comments.
[UPDATE 1] Gotta credit my grandmother, The Captain’s Daughter, with this one:
You can believe half of what you see,
A quarter of what you hear,
And an eighth of what you say