Watch your thoughts for they become words,
watch your words for they become actions,
watch your actions for they become habits,
watch your habits for they become your character,
watch your character for it becomes your destiny.1

Everybody knows at a high level that life is path dependent2. Two humans subject to the same event will perceive & react differently based on their previous experiences. This is at least partially because the brain, and more specifically the neurons that form networks that we label the brain, exhibit hysteresis3. Simply, we are stateful beings. And from far enough away, this is obvious. “Of course an individual born in year 200 b.c. has different ideas, opinions, and norms than we do today!” But the more people zoom in, the more they seem to forget. “How on earth could person x possibly not have the same reaction as me to event y???” But these state differences still matter. And they build up steadily over time, much like a river carving a canyon. Every day sediment is moved, and it seems insignificant. But over millions of years mountains are carved, and the result is anything but insignificant.

We are not our thoughts. But we do, over time, become our thoughts. And our thoughts are heavily influenced by our environment—an idea that has been recognized time and time again in cliches4:

We are the average of our five closest friends.
We are what we repeatedly do.
How we spend our days is our we spend our lives.

Personally I’ve come to refer to the principle as: We are what we eat, but at a higher abstraction level. Who we are and what we produce (concretely & abstractly; thoughts, behaviors, relationships, systems, projects, etc; collectively, our outputs) are heavily influenced by what we think. What we think is heavily influenced by what inputs we receive. What inputs we receive at time t are heavily influenced by the outputs we produce at time t-1. Thus, the effect of repeated inputs in your life compound over time. Each human is like a snowball rolling downhill. We start small and are often given a direction (by our parents, by society); over time we gain mass and momentum, which makes it increasingly difficult to change direction. Habits that you’ve had for 10 years are harder to break than habits that you’ve had for 10 weeks. The narratives of your childhood reverberate in your head as the narratives of your adulthood. It is no surprise most of us become our parents, to varying extents. But we are not without hope. We do have the potential for change, and it begins simply with awareness of this feedback loop between your inputs and outputs. Once you appreciate the loop, you become empowered to make changes. First small, then large.

With this framework in mind, I would like to introduce what I believe is my most impactful daily practice5. There are two components:

  1. deliberately choosing your outputs, and
  2. reviewing & engaging with your outputs

I purposely refer to outputs abstractly, as this practice may be used to target concrete goals just as easily as less concrete habits, thought patterns, & character. Here I have chosen to focus on the latter. Re 1, in my first post I explored the importance of setting destinations:

Before beginning a journey, it is important to choose a destination. The destination may be concrete or abstract, but it must be well-defined. If it isn’t, how will you know if you’re off-track, or if you’ve arrived? “My destination is nowhere” is explicit, and so acceptable. But if your destination is somewhere, further definition is paramount. Even the wise men needed a north star. So it is with travel, so it is with work. A well-defined “why”, like a good north star, allows course correction and coordination, and serves to motivate & focus all involved parties. Fittingly then, my first blog post is about why I am starting a blog. This post is as much for me, the writer, as it is for you, the reader.

But destinations are not just for travel and work. They are for all adventures we embark on, which includes everyday life. Choosing a destination in life is about picking your own direction. It means living deliberately, proactively. It means choosing to actively write your own narratives, rather than accepting the narratives handed down to you.

How do you wish to live?
What do you believe is important?
What kind of person do you wish to be?
What kind of things do you wish to accomplish?

It is entirely up to you what you choose for your outputs, and even what categories those outputs relate to. This might sound daunting, but remember these outputs are not set in stone. This is not your one chance to get it right; they are not set and forget. They form a living document, and defining our destination is an iterative process.

This brings us to component 2: reviewing is how you turn your time t-1 outputs into time t inputs. The review process is critical: this is how you complete the feedback loop between your past, current, and future selves6. You should not speed through the review process as though you were wolfing down a doritos locos taco. Rather, you are tasting an exquisite wine. Swish it around a little bit, let the flavor engage all parts of the inside of your mouth (brain).

What does the phrase really mean?
Do I still believe it with my whole heart?
Have I been living in accordance with it?

If something in there feels wrong, or you change your mind, or it just isn’t serving you anymore—get rid of it. Test out different principles or truths or goals, see how they feel, and then decide whether you want to keep them, combine them, or discard them. The more you engage your brain in reflection, the quicker & more deeply the principles will be internalized in every day life. This reflection builds & strengthens various connections within your brain associated with these ideas. Much like high-performing athletes build muscle memory, you can think of this time as building ‘neuron memory.’ The stronger the connections in your head, the more likely these ideas are to trigger in the future. Not to belabor the point, but the repetition & reflection has second-order effects as well. The more the ideas are triggered in life, the stronger the connections become, the more likely they are to be triggered in the future7. Eventually the triggers happen so easily & often that it feels like you’re running your mind in debug mode. At that point, you won’t be able to get away from the error throwing when you violate one of them even if you wanted to.

For concreteness, I will walk you through my own chosen outputs, which are largely truth-seeking or character-related in nature. I label my own set of outputs my “Personal Constitution,” to appropriately recognize it as a formal agreement with myself, and I try to review it first thing every morning. My document serves two main purposes:

  1. it is a single location where I collect my thoughts about what I believe to be true, what kind of person I wish to be, and what kind of life I wish to live; and
  2. it is a source of feedback when I review it, both to question how closely I have lived up to my ideals in the past, and to plant seeds for the future.

It is a deeply personal document, and while some elements I believe are timeless, others may only relate to specific, temporary circumstances I am fixated on or struggling with today. You may not agree with everything I’ve chosen to include, and that’s ok; these are beliefs and ideas that resonant with me. You also may not fully understand everything I’ve included, as each line now holds rich contextual history in my own brain far beyond what words on a page represent. That said, I am publishing it to serve as a potential source of inspiration for others, and also as a filter for inbound communication8. Unlike Franklin, Covey, Dalio, Peterson, et al, I am not here to espouse any particular set of principles. Rather, the point I am trying to make is at a slightly higher abstraction level: it is the daily practice of choosing, reviewing, reflecting, and editing one’s principles that is powerful. Not necessarily any particular principles in and of themselves (though for each person, over time, I expect some convergence to a set they find resonant.) My own personal philosophy with respect to finding principles that work for you is similar to how I treat twitter: quick to follow, and quick to unfollow. One piece of concrete advice I will give: try not to make it too long. I have experimented with all different lengths, and ~1 page is about as long as I’m willing to make it. Any longer, and I begin to falter on component 2.

Final note: some of the below are my own quotes, but many are from others. I chose not to attribute them because the focus is on the words and knowledge, not the author.

Updated 2018-03-27

Be present. Accept. Surrender.
Meaning and reality are not fixed; continually reassess. Nebulous-yet-patterned.
Life has asked of you, ‘what is your meaning?’ How will you choose to answer?
Be impeccable with the Word.
Love is the Mother of all Virtues. Pride is the Father of all Vices.
The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren.
Trust is the most valuable asset in the world.
Seek understanding; don’t criticize, don’t assume.
Be emphatic. Listen. Observe. Beginner’s mind.
The greatest fool of all is the man who fools himself, and you are the easiest person to fool.
Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded.
I don’t know what I don’t know. Embrace uncertainty and humility.
Be deliberate with your time and focus. Before every task ask, “is this worth my attention?”
Produce. Finding work you love is difficult.
Act => observe => learn => act => …
Feedback loops enable sums greater than parts.
Teaching is the best way to learn.
Defeating The Struggle is where greatness comes from.
Everything looks like a failure in the middle.
Have self-compassion. I am enough.
We, not I.
Appreciate those around you; be grateful.
Diversity is the basis for collective intelligence.
A man is revealed by how he treats the powerless.
Reputation comes from consistency.
You must be willing in your heart to begin again every day. Commit willingly.
Perfect is the enemy of done.
Patience. There are always more opportunities.
All in moderation.
Power with brevity.
Habits over choices. Reduce friction.
What am I afraid of today? Be honest with yourself. Be vulnerable.
Recognize the importance of the next task. Make today a positive feedback loop.

Watch your thoughts for they become words,
watch your words for they become actions,
watch your actions for they become habits,
watch your habits for they become your character,
watch your character for it becomes your destiny.

  1. Attribution is murky; I will post later on knowledge, creativity, and why I don’t really care who said it. 

  2. At least, everybody who’s developed theory of mind

  3. All cells exhibit hysteresis at the mol bio level (epigenetics, etc). 

  4. Cliches are arguably the all-time most successful memes. I believe they often hold incredible power and significant wisdom, yet are inaccessible to many due to their lossy compression. Understanding the words in a sentence is not sufficient to understand the idea behind the sentence. The map is not the territory. To be expanded on in a future post, but suffice to say I believe phrases that become cliches are not by accident. 

  5. Yes, I have several daily practices. Don’t worry, I have no intention of turning this into a productivity blog, despite being a personal sucker for productivity porn. Perhaps one day I will write up my full system, but today is not that day. 

  6. As I will discuss in a later blog post, I believe feedback loops are the most important known forces/structures in the universe. 

  7. Another feedback loop! 

  8. If you think my principles or practice is stupid, we probably wouldn’t have gotten along very well anyway.