March 19, 2013

The Principles of Life


I have been a lifelong consumer of self-improvement (personal development) information. In an effort to continually improve myself I’ve read books, watched videos and DVD’s, participated in discussion groups and seminars, reflected on spiritual and philosophical teachings, attempted to practice what I have learned, researched the internet, and thought long and hard about how to have a better life. Many people have done the same.

Then one day I realized something. Woven throughout all of the self-improvement information were common threads in the form of basic principles. These principles formed the foundation of virtually all of the self-improvement philosophies and systems to which I have been exposed. This was an epiphany!

No longer did I feel held captive by any single self-improvement system. No longer did I feel I had to pick and choose from among specific ways of thinking about living a good life. Gone was the stress of having to abide by every rule and guideline a particular self-improvement approach dictated. I was finally free of the shackles imposed by years of thinking that each author, philosopher, teacher or fellow searcher had the better answer to the eternal questions of how to live a better life.

Upon further reflection I realized that these principles generally fell into what I call universal principles and others I refer to as topical principles. A principle is an important underlying and fundamental law or assumption required in a system of thought.

Universal Principles

Some of life’s principles are universal in nature. By that I mean that they apply to a broad spectrum of life’s situations and circumstances. There are often the principles that the great philosophical leaders and thinkers espouse because they are so basic to the proper guidance of the human condition.

Universal principles pervade all of life and it’s important to understand them so you can apply them to your own particular situation.

A good example of a universal principle is the concept of simplicity. Thoreau’s Walden is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it many times. Within that book Thoreau wrote the wise words “simplify, simplify, simplify.” It was a directive to pursue the simple life as a means to happiness. The advice to simplify couldn’t be more poignant if it had been written yesterday. The universal principle of simplicity applies to many of life’s situations and experiences: design, business processes, user interface, marketing messaging, and so much more. Generally, the more simple something is, the better it is.

Topical Principles

Topical principles are those that dive deeper into the specifics of a certain area of life. While universal principles apply to a wide cross section of life, topical principles apply to one or a few areas of life.

For example, in my Beware of Systems post, I describe some topical principles related to exercise, specifically building muscle. Countless articles, books, videos and other media have given us more advice than any of us can ever consume about building muscle when we exercise. It’s great to learn as much as we can, but it helps to understand the higher-level principles upon which most such advice rests. So while you might undertake any of a variety of muscle-building exercise approaches, that system might look something like this when dissected to its essential and most basic underlying (topical) principles:

  1. Apply resistance (weight) to your muscles using good form.
  2. Do this consistently over time.
  3. Slowly increase the resistance as your muscles adapt to the level of resistance.

That’s it! Virtually every system of muscle development will apply these same basic principles in order to attain muscle strength and size. By understanding such topical principles you can better understand the deeper specifics that each approach might offer. In the field of learning design, these types of high-level, overarching concepts and principles are generally accepted as being important to emphasize so that the student has them to hang the more detailed specifics on and therefore foster better understanding and retention.

More To Come

I plan to write a lot more about universal and topical principles in the future. What principles can you think of that would fall into one of these two categories?

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