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Principles
Aug 11, 2016
6 minutes read

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple stupid behavior.” - Dee Hock

First up, Dee Hock has made more money than God, so I feel like it might be a good idea to trust him when it comes to how we comport ourselves in the business place. Although maybe not. Wikipedia hillariously states: “Through a series of unlikely accidents, Hock helped invent and became chief executive of the credit system that became VISA International.” I leave unlikely accidents as an exercise to the reader.

At any rate, I like this quote a lot. This post is a pretty rambling one about why I like it so much. I believe that it touches on some deep ways that we work, and can help us reject cynicism and laziness that finds its way into organizations.

But First: Thought-Terminating Clichés

There’s a good book on propaganda by a Psychiatrist named Robert Lifton: Thought Reform, and the Psychology of Totalism. The book is pretty good in general, but Lifton invokes an interesting concept that I’d like to talk about: Thought-terminating Clichés.

From the book:

This refers to a cliché that is a commonly used phrase, or folk wisdom, sometimes used to quell cognitive dissonance. Though the clichéd phrase in and of itself may be valid in certain contexts, its application as a means of dismissing dissent or justifying fallacious logic is what makes it thought-terminating.

In the context of this book Lifton discusses them as a tool that states used to alter thought in predictable ways.

Freedom is universally accepted to mean… something. Propagandists can subtly occupy the phrase with their own ideology. If the state’s will is common sense, how would you ever argue with it? If the state’s will is self contradictory (democracy is good, but let’s put dictators in power if they’ll deal with us), this can entirely be hidden inside the cliché, and the mind never really has to experience the contradiction.

Thought-Termination and Principles

Suppose Romeo meets Juliet and wants to know what he feels. Wanting to know a good word to describe what he’s going through, he turns to Google and types “define love”

an intense feeling of deep affection.

“Ah! Okay, all sorted then.” thinks Romeo. His thought has terminated. He has a useful word for it. Why go further?

I argue that “Love” is a thought-terminating cliché. There is a very good reason why wizened elders will roll their eyes at puppy-dog love between star crossed lover types. In the play, Romeo and Juliet are experiencing a particular brand of adolescent “love,” that ultimately leads to the tragic ending of double suicides and happy daggers. It isn’t good, and people get a feel for how senseless it was, and how shallow their relationship was. They were just two kids who met at a party!

As much as we can talk about people having experience and learning what is meant by a word like Love, we can definitely see that the word doesn’t seem to be doing a good job in this case. Lots of young people hear about the concept of Love and go into relationships saying “I love you” basically ASAP. Talk to these same people years later, and they will laugh about how naive they were back then (Not romeo and Juliet thought because 🔪, obviously.) We write a lot of songs about Love and how crazy it makes you. And on and on.

Really, Love is always something more. It takes a lot of time. It isn’t quite happiness. It isn’t quite connection. It isn’t quite security. But it certainly is partly all of these things and others. Divorces happen. Sixth marriages do to. Nowhere in this soupy mess is the word or definition of “Love” very useful. In fact it could even be very destructive. People can fall out of Love, and never know it. They can say the word without being in love and never notice they weren’t. Just as “freedom” masked state hypocrisy in the previous section, “love” can do the same but between two people. Maybe if Juliet would have sat and thought about what she really meant by love, she’d have woken up in the church, and walked out alive.

We all say it, but I think nobody is quite positive what is really meant by it; but that doesn’t make the word unimportant. In fact, people will vigorously defend the idea that they Love their significant other, and they’ll say it back and forth all day long, and get warm fuzzies and feel certain that what they have is love. How can we be so sure that we have a thing if we can’t even explain it?

Because Love is a principle.

Those Who are Closest

I think a good principle, in the way that Dee Hock means it, is like Love or Freedom. We can never really define or understand them.

From Wikipedia.

[Tao] is a Chinese word signifying ‘way’, ‘path’, ‘route’, or sometimes more loosely, ‘doctrine’ or ‘principle’. Within the context of traditional Chinese philosophy and religion, the Tao is the intuitive knowing of “life” that cannot be grasped full-heartedly as just a concept but is known nonetheless through actual living experience of one’s everyday being.

Principles are like the Tao (ARE the Tao.) They are things which can only be understood through living them. You can’t completely ever define them. You can’t completely understand them. That’s the whole point. Their shifting nature is part of what makes them useful. Fixate solely on Love, and you end up like Romeo and Juliet. Focus on the life you want with the person you want to have it with, and you end up with love. You cannot fall in love by wanting to fall in Love. You just kind of have to go and be in Love.

The power of principles is not what they are as concepts. The power of a principle are their undefinability. A good principle will yield infinite action without becoming more clear to you. In fact, if you follow a principle, understanding it really doesn’t seem important any more. Don’t worry about it. Resist the urge to document or capture your principles. Just think about them, and act.

The difficulty with company principles is that they are formed outside of yourself. When they’re adopted and distributed to the teams, it is exceedingly difficult to express this intangibility in a way that clicks properly. At this point, principles will operate as thought-terminating clichés. They are reduced to a definition. The moment this happens they stop being principles, and start being words. It is a way, not a concept. The only value to be had in a principle is the value gained by thinking beyond it. When principles degrade, they actually prevent us from progessing. How does a company learn to naturally live with its principles? How do we work together as a team to embody undefinable concepts?

Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes. - Alan Watts


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