Principles first, methods second
Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.
By Sean Jacobs
What I’ve found over the years, from a career bouncing across sectors and countries, is the importance of core principles. What do I mean by principles? I simply mean a set of beliefs, values and, in a good old fashioned way, actually standing up for something.
I feel that young people today have the idea that principles are only for the rigid self-righteous types or aren’t useful for an innovating, modern world. But, looking at things more closely, principles are actually essential in two areas – navigating complexity and responding to change.
After a few years of working across a number of policy areas I soon discovered the importance of teasing out my own set of instinctive beliefs. In government, in particular, I found myself bombarded with complexity – facts, figures, tables, opinions and other information was placed at my feet, which was all designed to help me arrive at the best decision on what path to take. I found that, on any complex issue, it’s easy to be overwhelmed.
But principles can help. It was said of former Prime Minister John Howard, for example, that he broadly approached new policy ideas with the following three principles: does it strengthen the family, expand the scope for private enterprise and encourage individual choice?
Clearly this approach didn’t turn out too badly – Howard’s reign led to record economic growth and unemployment, no government debt (a surplus in fact), productivity growth, tax reform, gun control, the liberation of East Timor and a virtual end to illegal maritime arrivals.
Not all issues, of course, can be examined this way. And opposing sides of politics might suggest that ‘social justice’ or ‘fairness’ are better measures of new policy ideas and lead to even better outcomes. But, largely because of his principles, you knew where Howard stood on matters of public interest.
And it’s not just in running a country that principles are important but in our everyday lives. Values like hard work, persistence and personal responsibility can also be considered principles. And, as any successful person can attest, they’re clearly standards that can carry you a long way.
But even when you combine all of these factors you’ll still come up against failure and other problems simply beyond your reach, which raises another area where principles are important – understanding and responding to change.
Some principles, at least those I subscribe to, recognise that some parts of human nature are very difficult to change. Thomas Sowell’s maxim that ‘there are no solutions, there are only trade-offs’ tends to capture how I think the world works. ‘Whatever you do to deal with one of man’s flaws,’ Sowell adds, ‘it creates another problem. But that you try to get the best trade-off that you can get. And that’s all you can hope for.’
Without wondering too much off topic, any look at human history validates Sowell’s conservative beliefs and values. The point here, especially when it comes to our everyday lives, is that we need a healthy appreciation of what’s likely to work and what isn’t in trying to get better, work on ourselves and pursue our goals.
This means staying true to your aptitude, skills and passions. Ever try to start something new but quickly lose hope? This is because your value system isn’t entirely aligning with what your objective is. From diets to training regimes we see this occurring all the time.
Therefore, it’s important knowing when to change tactics but, at the same time, staying with your principles. Steve Jobs, in building Apple into what it has become, was forced to constantly make trade-offs but stay true to what he was trying to achieve. ‘I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done,’ he said, ‘as the things we have done.’
Should you compromise your principles? ‘Never,’ said the US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to a group of high school students. ‘Unless, of course, your principles are Adolf Hitler’s. In which case, you would be well advised to compromise your principles, as much as you can.’ His point, although flippant, suggests that it’s more about the quality of your principles versus the voracity of your beliefs. This is a good final piece of advice.
‘The man who grasps principles,’ wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.’ Young Australians can read up on any of their heroes. They’ll find that, deep down, they’re all guided by a strong set of beliefs. This not only helps them navigate complexity and respond to change but also weather the inevitable storms that come from generating progress. The sooner this can be grasped in life the better.