Rules of Thumb For Life

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 good 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

44 thoughts on “Rules of Thumb For Life

  1. Here’s another one: If the best reason for believing something is “everyone knows that”, it’s almost certainly wrong.
    Another: Left wingers, “liberals” in the US, can be nice if you agree with them, but they’re almost always wrong about everything.
    One more: Always take the high way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good post, Willis. A favorite of mine; “The quality of a scientific paper varies as the reciprocal of the square of the number of authors.”

    We’ve seen your rule of thumb used as a staple by commenters at WUWT and no doubt, it has since been transported to other regions of the internet. It’s one of those funny, but fairly accurate observations. I believe that one will be part of your legacy. So long as a man is remembered, he will live on.

    One truism I learned very early – 13 or 14 years old when I was entering my “know-it-all” teen years: Education does NOT equal intelligence. IMO it shows a lack of intelligence in yourself if you dismiss someone’s ideas just because your ‘degree’ is bigger than theirs. And it is really hard to beat someone who has direct experience. So one of my rules of thumb on the shop floor as a Manufacturing Engineer was; Step 1: Ask questions. Step 2: Shut up and listen.

    That one has paid off for me many a time. For example, when chasing root causes of product failure, even the dimmest bulb on the shop floor would light up from time to time and provide a key to an answer. And here and there throughout the shop there were some extremely sharp ones who either knew the answer or could get you within a step or two of the right answer. Unless it involves explosives or high voltage and someone you already know is dumb as dirt, it never hurts to respect someone’s intelligence or experience and hear them out. (Hmmm… longish, but that’s not a bad rule of thumb right there.)

    Oh. One from my father to me when I was about 17. All a degree does is prove to a prospective employer that you are probably teachable. (He said the rest was up to you and how fast you could prove your worth on the job.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The bigger they are, the stronger they hit.

    You may be fully happy being an idiot with no ideas. You may also be happy being a clever guy wit ideas. The worst thing you may be is an idiota with ideas.


  4. Never employ the same rabbit catcher for more than two years (he won’t kill all the rabbits otherwise – business is all about aligning interests.)

    And despite what some sites say it is the width of a thumb that is an inch not the knuckle length. just press your thumb down on a ruler to see.

    And talking of trusting the web, no one knows you are a dog on the net.


  5. Reality is everything that does not go away when you stop believing in it.

    In a 50:50 proposition between getting it right and getting it wrong, there is a 95% chance the government will get it wrong.

    Small teams get great results.

    The only thing needed to bring any species to the brink of extinction is one great recipe.

    Anything is possible when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    The path to continuous improvement is a circle.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I can’t stop!

    For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong (H.L. Mencken)

    There is no elevator to success… you’ll have to take the stairs.

    If you tell someone about your act of kindness or charity, it doesn’t count.


  7. Willis, my grandmother taught me a “rule of thumb” at a very early age. “If you always tell the truth you never have to remember what you said”. That has never failed me.


  8. Here are two that I’ve heard and learned to pay attention to:

    Manage by facts and data, not opinions. Opinions are like a$$h0les, everyone has one and most of them stink.

    When managing a group trying to solve a problem, honestly ask yourself if the right person is even in the meeting who can ask the right questions. Few people are humble enough to admit to you that they don’t have sufficient experience to offer an opinion . . . see the first quote about opinions.


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  11. not phrased as a rule, but it was the best piece of wisdom i got from my years in the Army, and it came early in basic Training at Harmony Church, Ft Benning, back in 1983.

    our DS gave us a task to do the next morning, and, of course, we didn’t get it done to spec, so we half assed it.

    he went in, inspected, then came out and asked me why we hadn’t done it as directed.

    “Drill Sargent, we didn’t have time.” was my response….

    it got very quiet, and he leaned down, putting the brim of his hat under mine, and i was sure i was going to die…

    all i could see was the whites of his eyes and his teeth, as it was about 0400 in January, and he was a rather dark man.

    instead of an epic butt chewing, all he said was, in a very calm voice, “Son, if you don’t have time to do the j*b right the first time, when the hell are you every going to find time to do it over?”

    that approach has driven my cow*rkers crazy ever since. i should see if i can find him, and thank him for that lesson.


  12. Thanks Willis they gave me a giggle and pause for thought.
    A few of mine which I have picked up on life’s journey are,
    “If you can’t think of something good to say don’t say anything”.

    This are from a friend and is used with a smile.,
    “I always tell the truth…. As I see it”

    People at work seem to see me as some sort of repository of information, when asked how I know things I tell them.
    “If I don’t know I just make stuff up”.

    James Bull


  13. “It is not thy duty to complete the work, but neither art thou free to desist from it.” [from Jewish mourners prayer]

    “The best customers are those who came back with a complaint” [my father, a delicatessen shopkeeper]. It creates an opportunity to instantly correct it. They tell their friends you’re a trustworthy dealer.

    “Don’t use force. Get a bigger hammer”.


  14. One of my brothers in laws description of one of his brothers (who is very clever ) is “His common sense finishes at his elbows”


  15. Willis, I have a rule of thumb which is, so far, approaching perfection; that is, adjectives are generally used when data is lacking.


  16. Three of my father’s, learned over 30 years serving Her Majesty (and her father) starting in Burma in 1944

    1. Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted. (Army training)
    2. No battle plan survies contact with the enemy. (Helmuth Graf von Moltke, the Elder)
    3. All battles are fought on the junction of four maps. (His own and my personal favourite)


  17. “Talk to infants like they were slightly retarded 20-year-olds.”
    “Kids understand everything.”

    Take out “retarded”, and these rules apply when talking to cats as well.


  18. The problem with false news is that we are selective, sometimes we are more susceptible to false news that supports our own preconceived ideas than those that oppose them. I tend to be a bit obsessive regarding false news ( ten years posting on WUWT tends to hone the skill) but I have fallen for a few, especially during the Presidential and Brexit campaigns. I think we can all be vulnerable, but the trick is to keep the number as low as possible.
    There are tips, such as anything by Alex Jones should obviously be treated with extreme caution and anything which sounds to good to be true, probably is. My motto is “Never ask a Barber if you need a haircut”


  19. I can personally attest to the value of the rules on raising kids.

    I deduced them myself by whatever good fortune, and lived by them, while I was raised by people who most certainly did not.

    The contrast is stark: I’ve been a lifelong sufferer of depression, anxiety and social phobia and never succeeded at much of anything.

    My daughter graduated college Summa Cum Laude and went on to graduate from a top veterinary school Cum Laude. She has just started her career and is doing spectacularly: not only is she technically insightful and skilled, but she also does a great job managing her clients and her relationships with her boss and coworkers.

    The only other rule I would add — a slight modification of one you have above — is this: With children, it’s much more effective to lead them toward good than to chase them away from “bad”. Children have an innate sense of good, but “bad” (which frequently is little more than “inconvenient to the parent”) is not something they readily comprehend.


    • Johnny, congratulations on the success of your daughter. It is a testament to two things—your rules of thumb … and your heart.



  20. Congratulations on the new blog, Willis. Now, per your last Rule, I guess I should really believe only one in eight. Pease pick them out for me and re-post !


  21. Mr. Eschebach,

    That’s a nice list. I shall append several of your rules to those appearing in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” in Robert A. Heinlein’s masterful “Time Enough For Love.”

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Dad’s rule of thumb:-
    Son, when your 16 you are gob smacked how little your father knows.
    By the time you are 30 you’ll be surprised how much he his learnt.


  23. The two worst reasons for doing something are:

    1. We’ve always done it that way.

    2. It’s the law.

    The only really good reason: It makes more sense than the other options – and do nothing often makes more sense the more you learn.


  24. Research in cognitive psychology that was led by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his partner in research, the late Amos Tversky, leads to the conclusion that when a person must infer the outcome of an event in a hurry, e.g., a hardball is travelling toward this person’s skull at 99 miles per hour, this person tends to select this inference by an intuitive rule of thumb. The alternative to conformity to an intuitive rule of thumb is conformity to the logical “principles of reasoning.” The principles of reasoning work better, if one has enough time to employ them, as selection of the inference that will be made is optimal. Kahneman’s recent book entitled “Thinking fast and slow” is instructive.


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  26. I’m impressed you could remember so many Rules of Thumb.
    The South Pacific rule: “Double the number … and go up a unit”, was very funny.

    Thanks to a poor memory, I only have a dozen, and still have to read them every week to remember them:

    (1) Golden Rule

    (2) Who said life was fair?

    (3) Don’t talk with a full mouth, or empty head.

    (4) When in doubt, tell the truth.

    (5) If you wouldn’t write it and sign it, then don’t say it.

    (6) Character is what you do when no one is watching.

    (7) A wise man changes his mind; a fool, never.

    (8) Don’t believe predictions of the future.

    (9) Perfection is the enemy of getting the job done on time.

    (10) Think twice, act once — measure twice, cut once.

    (11) Without data, it’s just an opinion.

    (12) If it was fun, they wouldn’t have to pay you.


  27. “A good rule-of-thumb – a rule that should almost never be violated – is this one: Ignore anyone who proposes a course of action that forces others to bear costs, yet who refuses himself or herself to take a substantial personal financial stake in that course of action. Or more generally, as Mencken observed, “The kind of man who demands that government enforce his ideas is always the kind whose ideas are idiotic.””



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