I was reading Ray Dalio’s Principles recently – to be honest, I did not have a high expectation for this book before I read it, as I assumed it to be some generic principles that you could see everywhere. However, I suddenly realized that I had different understandings of the same generic principles after I had experienced more in my life.
As part of my own reflection, I think it makes more sense to share some examples in my life about where people failed. It is always easy to understand how to succeed – you can find thousands of books telling you how to do that – but it is difficult to know which is the most difficult part/where most people fail along the way to a successful life (you can define success by yourself).
To be frank, I am not feeling positive about people’s potentials as most writers do. The best-seller writers usually believe everyone has the potential to overcome any challenge, while I tend to believe many people simply cannot do something even if they know that’s the right thing to do. Most people simply lack the self-disciplines, which I do not know how to build without changing the underlying genes. Based on what I’ve seen, there are three critical points where people often failed.
1. Not knowing what you want
As the first step of Ray’s “5-Step Process to Getting What You Want Out of Life”, knowing the goal of your life cannot be more important. However, it is also the most difficult for many people. Ray encourages everyone to think big and assume they can virtually achieve everything that they want. However, what if I even do not know what’s there?
As someone who grew up in the underdeveloped part of China and in a working class family, I really did not know what I wanted to do for a long time (more than 25 years). No one around me could tell me what I could potentially do, no one could share with me their diverse life experiences (as most people simply did one job around their hometown), and no one knew how to explore different options.
Knowing what one really wants for his/her life is absolutely the biggest challenge for most people, especially for people who do not have the resources to explore different options. Once being in a situation where I was doing something that I really hated, I know clearly how important it is to figure out one’s goal as early as possible. However, the real case for many people is: even if people have the resources to explore, many people never do that because of fear, and instead, they continue doing things that they dislike and complaining about that or simply accept it as “life” or simply lose their hope/feelings about life.
The aforementioned situation is also true to many smart people that I met in the top business school.
What would I recommend? Think about the cost/value of time in your life – the value is going higher when you get older. When you’re young (before 35 or 40), the cost to experiment is so low that you should definitely take the advantage to try, explore, experiment, and figure out your life “mission”, “goal”, “way to happiness” as early as possible. Do not worry about execution (how you can achieve the goal) yet but focus on what you believe would make you feel happy. Once you find it, many people are here to help you get there – you are never alone. People really cannot help if you yourself do not know where you want to go.
Trust me, making high-quality decisions and choosing the right way for yourself is 100X more important than spending efforts on execution (particularly on wrong directions). 99% of the people I met are smart enough on execution, but only a handful of them know what they want. Choosing the right way early will also help you to have a much easier rest part of your life – simply because you are being yourself and maximizing all your potentials.
The best ways to explore include (1) travel to see different life styles and compare to understand what you would prefer, (2) talk to people from different background – schedule 1:1 coffee chats with your college alumni, join networking events for professionals, ask life/career advises from widely-respected people, and (3) intern (work) with different companies/industries/job functions – to experiment and verify if you really like it.
2. Not sticking to the principles/values that you set
Everyone has his/her own values – what preferred and what not preferred. Those values are what leads you to your goal in the last point, while principles are the rules that you set to help you stick to your values – you will feel happy if you can stick to your values, while you will feel unhappy if you compromise your principles and values.
There is not a “right” set of values for all people. But you should feel “right” about your own values.
For example, my values are quite simple – I feel happy when I am being honest, when I feel my life is meaningful because I have helped other people, and when I am being critical because I’ve identified to-be-solved problems to improve our lives and societies. Therefore, I feel extremely uncomfortable when I am lying, when I realize I am doing meaningless things or things that will hurt other people, and when people ignore the problems that I identified or even try to hide those problems – which will hurt many other people. Overall, I want to be a honest/transparent and meaningful person.
In order to be honest/transparent, I also suffered sometimes – because people just do not like the truths that I am telling.
In order to be meaningful, I suffered a lot to quit my previous job, explore options that I believe to be meaningful, and take huge risks to experiment. Moreover, helping other people can be challenging since it’s a self-sacrifice in some cases. To help people in China see truths, I need to take the risks of being arrested and spend my time to build/maintain the VPNs. To support people in Hong Kong to protect their basic human rights, I need to stand out no matter how much risks of being arrested there could be. To make my life meaningful, I did not choose to do the jobs that most of my classmates chose and that paid most but chose the one that makes most impact.
Think about how you will choose in the following scenarios. What would you do, as an entrepreneur, if the Chinese government offers you a $10B contract to build an AI tracking system to monitor every Chinese citizen? What would you do, as a consultant, if your client only wants to hear the positive facts while your performance review is based on how happy your client is? What would you do, as a university vice chancellor who values the judicial independence or freedom of speech, if the government funding the university rejects judicial independence or freedom of speech?
You do not have to do anything – you can quit if you do not like something that violates your values/principles, and you are not going to die. You will find another job that makes you happier. However, if you find some excuses to compromise once, it is very likely that you will find more excuses and compromise for more times, and eventually you will lose yourself, feel guilty, and find yourself unhappy.
As someone who values transparency (truth), I never perceive critics as a negative thing, while most people never want to hear critics – as the society has taught us, it is bad to have weakness. Why can’t we have weaknesses as human beings? I asked myself. Without admitting my weaknesses, faults and mistakes, how could I improve myself and achieve a better self – if that’s the final goal?
However, here is what I usually see: people intentionally ignore and hide the mistakes, hate critics, find tons of excuses to justify their mistakes, and reject values/perspectives/or even facts that are not aligned with their own values/expectations. When I criticized the Chinese government, was I thinking about taking it over and becoming the king by myself? Was I also sponsored by a foreign anti-China force to do so? Absolutely not. However, that is what people perceive – they never reflect about the mistakes and try to solve and improve but just challenge why you want to criticize.
I totally understand it is difficult to accept one’s weaknesses/mistakes internally and externally. However, as human beings, we have the right to be weak and wrong, and only by accepting our weaknesses and people’s critics towards our weaknesses can we prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes and become better selves.
However, not everyone can do this eventually – sticking to their values/principles and challenging themselves bravely. Most people fail because they compromised their values and principles. They do the things that they internally dislike/believe to be wrong and justify it with excuses to feel better, and they do not do the things that they need to do according to their values/principles just because of their fear of risks.
3. Not having a strong desire to be perfect/successful/a better self
Sometimes, I asked why many people compromised and found tons of excuses to justify their compromises. The answer seems to be quite obvious: it is so easy to give up your value/principle when you feel difficult to stick to it, and it is also so easy to find excuses for doing so. However, I think there can be a root reason for choosing the easiest resolution.
To my understanding, I think the root reason for people fail and people succeed is whether people have the strong desire to be perfect/successful/a better self. It is absolutely true that you do not need to be perfect/successful/better. If you wish, you can easily enjoy what you are today. But in that case, please also do keep in mind why you cannot be a better person, become more respected by the society/history, or have a better life – it is all because you did not choose to, you did not have a strong desire to, and you gave up early.
What does it mean to have a strong desire to be perfect/successful/a better self? That means you are willing to take the risks to try and experiment to figure out what you want (to be happy) instead of settling down early to avoid risks. That means you stick to your values/principles and never compromise. That means you accept that you are imperfect, you have a lot of weaknesses, and you need other people’s help. That means you want more critics since you believe only critics/finding out problems will help you grow and improve.
In the end, what you are today is mostly what you chose to be. If you choose to compromise and give up, you do not deserve a better life/happy life/meaningful life. No secret sauce. Sometimes, it is true that people do not have the resource/luck that I had to explore. But for most cases that I’ve seen, most people have more resources than what I had, while they simply chose the easiest way to live – ignoring/hiding problems and compromising values/principles.
Apparently, this article is not prepared for all people. It is not valid for people who really do not have choices – those who are still looking for sufficient food, clean water, or good health. However, how many of us are really in that situation? Be honest to yourself: is it that you really did not have a choice or you chose the easiest way – to compromise values and tolerate problems – as you were afraid of risks?