Book Club: Ray Dalio’s Principles

What are the rules that consistently govern your actions? What do you turn to when faced with challenging circumstances or unique opportunities? How do you know if what you’re doing aligns with what you believe or with who you are? Though it seems elementary to one’s ability to function at a high level, so few people have actually taken the time to write out who they are and what they believe in.

Ray Dalio, founder of highly successful Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, spells out what makes him and his company tick in his book Principles. “To be principled,” Ray offers, “means to consistently operate with principles that can be clearly defined . . . Principles are fundamental truths that serve as the foundations for behavior that gets you want you want out of life.” In essence, your principles are your map and your compass. Regardless of what your goals are or where you fall on the “Savor Life – Make an Impact” continuum, Ray’s sage guidance is both thought-provoking and eye-opening. I was taking notes by the page, repeatedly asking myself, why I hadn’t thought through how to handle those type of
scenarios.

Though Ray himself admits that we should never blindly adopt someone else’s principles, his approach to addressing both difficulty and opportunity serves as a unique guide for us as we ourselves journey to define who we are and what we stand for. Ray’s book contains both a “Life Principles” section as well as a “Work Principles” section. What follows are my notes on the “Life Principles” half. As I always tell my athletes, take what you like and leave the rest. Accept
nothing blindly and maintain a healthy skepticism, but find a way to learn something from everyone.

Before we start, a short disclaimer: these notes are a collection of direct quotes (often not in actual quotes),
paraphrased quotes, and my own thoughts and notes. I didn’t distinguish between the three in any form or fashion. Quote all this at your own risk.

1 – Embrace reality and deal with it

  • What does a successful life look like? Some people want to change the world and others want to operate in simple harmony with it and savor life. Neither is better. There’s a scale here – on the far left is “Savor Life”, and on the far right is “Make An Impact.” It’s an oversimplified choice that we should consider. Where do I fall? What’s best for me?
  • Be Radically Open Minded and Radically Transparent. This exposes one to criticism, yet if you don’t put yourself out there with your radical transparency, you won’t learn.
  • Don’t let fears of what others think of you stand in your way. Being radically transparent is uncomfortable because we’re exposing personal things to the public, but once you get used to it, NOT being radically transparent will actually be UNcomfortable.
  • Don’t get hung up on your views of how things “should” be because you will miss out on learning how they really are.
  • Perfection doesn’t exist. It is a goal that fuels a never-ending process of adaptation. Rather than getting stuck hiding our mistakes and pretending we’re perfect, it makes sense to find our imperfections and deal with them.
  • Evolve or die. This evolutionary cycle is not just for people but for countries, companies, economies – for everything.
  • What you will be depends on the perspective you have. Where you go in life will depend on how you see things and who and what you feel connected to (your family, your community, your country, mankind, etc). You will have to decide to what extent you will put the interests of others above your own, and which others you will choose to do so for.
  • Once we get the things we are striving for, we rarely remain satisfied with them. The things are just the bait. Chasing after them forces us to evolve, and it is the evolution and not the rewards themselves that matters to us and those around us. This means that for most people success is struggling and evolving as effectively as possible.
  • Pain + reflection = progress. The challenges you face will test and strengthen you. If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits, and if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximizing your potential. Go to the pain rather than avoid it.
  • Get yourself hooked on:
    1. identifying, accepting, and learning how to deal with your weaknesses;
    2. Preferring that the people around you be honest with you rather than keep their negative thoughts about you to themselves; and
    3. Being yourself rather than having to pretend to be strong where you are weak.
  • Weigh second- and third-order consequences. First-order consequences often have opposite desirabilities from second-order and third-order consequences. The first-order consequence of exercise [pain and time spent] is commonly considered undesirable, while the second-order consequence of better health and a more attractive appearance is desirable. Similarly, food that tastes great is often bad for you, and vice versa.
  • Own your outcomes. Don’t worry about whether you like your situation or not. Life doesn’t give a damn about what you like. It’s up to you to connect what you want with what you need to do in order to get it and then find the courage to carry it through.
  • Don’t be upset when you discover you’re bad at something – you should be happy that you found out, because knowing this and dealing with it will improve your chances of getting what you want. If you are disappointed because you can’t be the best person to do everything yourself, you are terribly naïve. Nobody can do everything well. Would you want to have Einstein on your basketball team?
  • Most of life’s greatest opportunities come out of moments of struggle; it’s up to you to make the most of these tests of creativity and character.

2 – Use the 5-Step process to get what you want out of life

  • The Process:
    1. Have clear goals.
    2. Identify and don’t tolerate the problems that stand in the way of achieving those goals.
    3. Accurately diagnose the problems to get at their root causes.
    4. Design plans that will get you around them.
    5. Do what’s necessary to push these designs through to results.
  • Some of the problems you identify will bring you up against your own weaknesses. How you react to the pain that causes is up to you. If you want to reach your goals, you must be calm and analytical so that you can accurately diagnose your problems, design a plan to get around them, and do what’s necessary to push through to results. If your emotions are getting the better of you, step back and take time out until you can reflect clearly. If necessary, seek guidance from calm, thoughtful people.
  • With goals, prioritize! While you can have virtually anything you want, you can’t have everything you want. Life is like a giant smorgasbord with more delicious alternatives than you can ever hope to taste. Choosing a goal often means rejecting some things you want in order to get other things that you want or need even more.
  • Don’t mistake the trappings of success for success itself. Achievement orientation is important, but people who obsess over a $1,200 pair of shoes or a fancy car are very rarely happy because they don’t know what it is that they really want and hence what will satisfy them.
  • Never rule out a goal because you think it’s unattainable. Be audacious. There is always a best possible path. Your job is to find it and have the courage to follow it. What you think is attainable is just a function of what you know at the moment.
  • Remember that great expectations create great capabilities. If you limit your goals to what you KNOW you can achieve, you are setting the bar way too low.
  • Don’t avoid confronting problems because they are rooted in harsh realities that are unpleasant to look at. Thinking about problems that are difficult to solve may make you anxious, but NOT thinking about them [and hence not dealing with them] should make you more anxious still.
  • Acknowledging your weaknesses is not the same as surrendering them. It’s the first step toward overcoming them.
  • Distinguish big problems from small ones. You only have so much time and energy; make sure you are investing them in exploring the problems that, if fixed, will yield you the biggest returns.
  • Once you identify a problem, don’t tolerate it. You need to develop a fierce intolerance of badness of any kind, regardless of its severity.
  • Distinguish proximate causes from root causes. Proximate causes are typically the actions (or lack of actions) that lead to problems, so they are described with verbs. I missed the train because I didn’t check the train schedule. Root causes run much deeper and they are typically described with adjectives. I didn’t check the train schedule because I am forgetful. You can only truly solve your problems by removing their root cause, and to do that, you must distinguish the symptoms from the disease.
  • More than anything else, what differentiates people who live up to their potential from those who don’t is their willingness to look at themselves and others objectively and understand the root causes standing in their way.
  • Have humility so you can get what you need from others! Everyone has weaknesses. They are generally revealed in the patterns of mistakes they make. Knowing what your weaknesses are and staring hard at them is the first step on the path to success.

3– Be Radically Open-Minded

  • Color-blind people eventually find out that they are color-blind, whereas most people never see or understand the ways in which their ways of thinking make them blind. To make it even harder, we don’t like to see ourselves or others as having blind spots, even though we all have them. When you point out someone’s psychological weakness, it’s generally about as well received as if you pointed out a physical weakness.
  • If you’re like most people, you have no clue how other people see things and aren’t good at seeking to understand what they are thinking, because you’re too preoccupied with telling them what you yourself think is correct. In other words, you are closed-minded; you presume too much. This closed-mindedness blocks criticism that could be constructive and even lifesaving.
  • The end result of these two barriers is that parties in disagreements typically remain convinced they’re right – and often end up angry at each other. When two people reach opposite conclusions, someone must be wrong. Should you want to make sure that someone isn’t you?
  • When trying to figure things out, most people spin in their own heads instead of taking in all the wonderful thinking available to them. As a result, they continually run toward what they see and keep crashing into what they are blind to until the crashing leads them to adapt.
  • If you know that you are blind, you can figure out a way to see, whereas if you don’t know that you’re blind, you will continue to bump into your problems. In other words, if you can recognize that you have blind spots and open-mindedly consider that the possibility that others might see something better than you – and that the threats and opportunities that they are trying to point out really exist – you are more likely to make good decisions.
  • To be radically open minded, you must sincerely believe that you might not know the best possible path and recognize that your ability to deal well with “not knowing” is more important than whatever it is you do know. You can’t make a great decision without swimming for a while in a state of “not knowing”. That is because what exists within the area of “not knowing” is so much greater and more exciting than anything any one of us knows.
  • Don’t worry about looking good; worry about achieving your goal. People typically try to prove that they have the answer even when they don’t. Why do they behave in this unproductive way? It’s generally because they believe the senseless but common view that great people have all the answers and don’t have any weaknesses.
  • To be radically open-minded, you need to be so open to the possibility that you could be wrong that you encourage others to tell you so.
  • Be clear on whether you are arguing or seeking to understand, and think about which is most appropriate based on your and others’ believability. If both parties are peers, it’s appropriate to argue. But if one person is clearly more knowledgeable than the other, it is preferable for the less knowledgeable person to approach the more knowledgeable one as a student.
  • In thoughtful disagreement, your goal is not to convince the other party that you are right – it is to find out which view is true and decide what to do about it.
  • To me, it’s pointless when people get angry with each other when they disagree because most disagreements aren’t threats as much as opportunities for learning. People who change their minds because they learned something are the winners, whereas those who stubbornly refuse to learn are the losers.
  • I recommend that both parties observe a “two-minute rule” in which neither interrupts the other, so they both have time to get all their thoughts out.
  • You need to teach yourself the art of having exchanges in ways that don’t trigger such reactions in yourself or others.
  • Regularly use pain as your guide toward quality reflection. Mental pain often comes from being too attached to an idea when a person or an event comes along to challenge it. This is especially true when what is being pointed out to you involves a weakness on your part. This kind of mental pain is a clue that you are potentially wrong and that you need to think about the question in a quality way. To do this, first calm yourself down.
  • Get to know your blind spots. When you are closed-minded and form an opinion in an area where you have a blind spot, it can be deadly. So take some time to record the circumstances in which you’ve consistently made bad decisions because you failed to see what others saw.
  • If a number of different believable people say you are doing something wrong and you are the only one who doesn’t see it that way, assume that you are probably biased.
  • Be evidence-based and encourage others to do the same. When you’re approaching a decision, ask yourself: Can you point to clear facts leading to your view?
  • If you continue doing what you think is best when all the evidence and believable people are against you, you’re being dangerously arrogant.

4 – Understand that people are wired very differently

  • I discovered that though it is obvious that we are born with different strengths and weaknesses in areas such as common sense, creativity, memory, synthesis, attention to detail, and so forth, examining these differences objectively makes even most scientists uncomfortable.
  • I’m sure you’ve been in contentious disagreements before – ones where people have different points of view and can’t agree on what’s right. Good people with good intentions get angry and emotional; it is frustrating and often becomes personal. Most companies avoid this by suppressing open debate and having those with the most authority simply make the calls. I didn’t want that kind of company. I knew we needed to dig more deeply into what was preventing us from working together more effectively, bring those things to the surface, and explore them.
  • Organizing people to complement their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses is like conducting an orchestra. It can be magnificent if done well and terrible if done poorly.
  • Our differences weren’t a product of poor communication; it was the other way around. Our different ways of thinking lead to our poor communications.
  • Just as our physical attributes determined the limits of what we are able to do physically – some people are tall and others are short, some muscular and others weak – our brains are innately different in ways that set the parameters of what we are able to do mentally. As with our bodies, some parts of our brains cannot be materially affected by external experience (in the same way that your skeleton isn’t change much through working out), while other parts can be strengthened through exercise.
  • While I used to get angry and frustrated at people because of the choices they made, I came to realize that they weren’t intentionally acting in a way that seems counterproductive; they were just living out things as They saw them, based on how their brains work. I also realize that as off-base as they seem to me, they saw me the same way.
  • Having expectations for people (including yourself) without knowing what they are like is a sure way to get into trouble. Over time, I realized that I needed a systematic approach to capturing and recording our differences so that we could actively take them into consideration when putting people into different roles at Bridgewater.
  • Lots of data show that relationships are the greatest reward—that they’re more important to your health and happiness than anything else. For example, as Robert Waldinger, director of Harvard’s seventy-five year Grant and Glueck study of adult males from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, puts it, “You could have all the money you’ve ever wanted, a successful career, and be in good physical health, but without loving relationships, you won’t be happy…The good life is built with good relationships.”
  • Many people only see the conscious mind in aren’t aware of the benefits of connecting it to the subconscious. They believe that the way to accomplish more is to cram more into the conscious mind and make it work harder, this is often counterproductive. While that may seem counterintuitive, clearing your head to the best way to make progress.
  • A brain-imaging study by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found physical changes in the brain after an eight-week meditation course. Researchers identified increased activity in parts of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection, as well as decreased activity in the amygdala.
  • Because of the biases with which we are wired, our self-assessments (and our assessments of others) tend to be highly inaccurate.
  • Introversion and extroversion are also linked to differences in communication styles. If you have a friend who loves to “talk out” ideas (and even has trouble thinking through something if there isn’t someone around to work it through with), he or she is likely an extrovert. Introverts will usually find such conversations painful, preferring to think privately and share only after they’ve worked things out on their own. I’ve found that it’s important to help each communicate in the way that they feel most comfortable.
  • Planners and perceivers have trouble appreciating each other. Perceivers see new things and change direction often. This is discomforting to planners, who weigh precedent much more heavily in their decision making, and assume if it was done in a certain way before, it should be done in the same way again.
  • Some people are focused on daily tasks while others are focused on their goals and how to achieve them. Those who tend to focus on goals and “visualize” best can see the big pictures over time and are also more likely to make meaningful changes and anticipate future events. These goal-oriented people can step back from the day-to-day and reflect on what and how they’re doing. They are the most suitable for creating new things (organizations, projects, etc) and managing organizations that have lots of change. They typically make the most visionary leaders because of their ability to take a broad view and see the whole picture.
  • Another assessment we use is the Workplace Personality Inventory, a test based on data from the U.S. Department of Labor. It anticipates behavior and predicts job fit and satisfaction, singling out certain key characteristics/qualities, including persistence, independence, stress tolerance, and analytical thinking.
  • Having spent time with some of the richest, most powerful, most admired people in the world, as well as some of the poorest, most disadvantaged people in the most obscure corners of the globe, I can assure you that, beyond a basic level, there is no correlation between happiness levels and conventional markers of success. A carpenter who derives his deepest satisfaction from working with would easily have a life as good or better the president of United States. If you’ve learned anything from this book I hope it’s that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and everyone has an important role to play in life.
  • Getting the right people in the right roles in support of your goal is the key to succeeding at whatever you choose to accomplish.

5 – Learn how to make decisions effectively

  • Failing to consider second- and third-order consequences is the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions, and it is especially deadly when the first inferior option confirms your own biases. Never seize on the first available option, no matter how good it seems, before you’ve asked questions and explored.
  • Everything looks bigger up close. In all aspects of life, what’s happening today seems like a much bigger deal than it will appear in retrospect. That’s why it helps to step back to gain perspective and sometimes defer a decision until some time passes.
  • New is overvalued relative to great. For example, when choosing which movie to watch or what book to read, are you drawn to proven classics or the newest big thing? In my opinion, it is smarter to choose the great over the new.
  • “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung
  • Simplify! Get rid of irrelevant details so that the essential things and the relationships between them stand out. As the saying goes, “Any damn fool can make it complex. It takes a genius to make it simple.”
  • In order to have the best life possible, you have to: 1) know what the best decisions are and 2) have the courage to make them.