Learning from John Perry Barlow’s Principles of Adult Behavior

When John Perry Barlow turned 30 in 1977 he wrote a set of 25 “Principles of Adult Behavior” that he asked his friends to hold him accountable to. Here are a few I want to incorporate into my life.

Learning from John Perry Barlow’s
Principles of Adult Behavior

Know What You Can Effect and How Long Success Takes

     1. Be patient.  No matter what.
     5. Don't trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
     7. Tolerate ambiguity.

                    John Perry Barlow "Principles of Adult Behavior"

I grouped these three together because they all relate to understanding how long it takes to really effect a change–whether it’s in yourself, a relationship, a project, a work of art or other creative endeavor, or an organization you are a member of.  The trick to improving the world is understanding what you can actually change and how long it takes. For me the ambiguity in planting the seeds of change is that you have to give them a chance to germinate and sprout,  early improvements are partial and intermittent: don’t take an action that will trigger certain failure just because you cannot stand the wait to find out if something is working. Principle #5 is a particularly important guide when you find yourself in trouble if it encourages you to focus on what’s under your control.

When Things Go Wrong

     2. Don't badmouth:
        Assign responsibility, never blame.
        Say nothing behind a person's back you'd be unwilling to say,
        in exactly the same tone and language, to their face.
     9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than whom is right.
    17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.

                    John Perry Barlow "Principles of Adult Behavior"

Principles of Adult Behavior: Remain Calm When Things Go WrongPrinciple #2 I interpret as avoiding righteous indignation: the feeling of justifiable anger at another person’s failure to perform, deliver, or meet their obligations. If your goal is to improve yourself and the performance of teams you are a member of, I think you have to praise two to three times as much–or more–than you disparage. Like cayenne pepper, a small amount of criticism goes a very long way.

From a peer coaching or management perspective, you are better to remind someone of  a correct approach so that when they recall your words they can focus on what do to instead of what they did wrong. You have to be gentle with yourself as well in any personal improvement projects–and bootstrapping a startup is always both a learning experience and self-improvement project.

I am not sure where I learned that the best thing to do when things go wrong is to get angry, certainly my parents modeled that behavior on many occasions, but there were many times when they didn’t and simply reacted to whatever had gone wrong or a mistake I had made with a quiet determination to help. I find meditation has helped me cultivate calm in a crisis. and raising children has also given me a useful perspective on the need to stay calm–as well as the many things my parents did right.

Cultivate Empathy

     14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
     22. Foster dignity.

                    John Perry Barlow "Principles of Adult Behavior"

I think team morale is the critical asset in any startup or other high performing team. And the key to strong morale is a shared appreciation for each other’s needs, strengths, and weaknesses. If a small team with complementary skills can learn how to leverage each other’s strengths instead of focusing on weaknesses, tremendous things are possible. On the flip side, demeaning someone has no real positive impact and can make for a long running animosity.

Self-Mastery: The Humble Improve

    20. Understand humility.
     8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
    10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
    18. Never let your errors pass without admission.

                    John Perry Barlow "Principles of Adult Behavior"

Humility is acknowledging that you are fallible and capable of further improvement. It’s precisely the attitude required if you want to continue to learn and improve. If you can acknowledge your errors you can work to avoid them next time. If you can treat yourself as you would a friend who made a mistake, and find a way to use humor to take some of the sting out of failure, so much the better.

Play a Long Game

    15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness.
        Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
    21. Forgive.
    25. Endure. 

                    John Perry Barlow "Principles of Adult Behavior"

I like Gordon Livingston’s definition of happiness in  “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart” as “…something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.” Livingston points out that happiness requires playing a long game:  “Virtually all the happiness-producing processes in our lives take time, usually a long time: learning new things, changing old behaviors, building satisfying relationships, raising children. This is why patience and determination are among life’s primary virtues. ” I think a long term view and a commitment to succeeding through perseverance immunizes you against using greedy and short-sighted tactics.

Barlow elaborated on his goal to “avoid the pursuit of happiness” in a 2001 essay “The Pursuit of Emptiness.” The title is inspired by a quote from Chuang-tzu (369-286 B.C.): “Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.” Barlow makes several interesting observations:

  • Contentment arises from a sense of family, community, and connection.
  • We need to rethink some of the basic assumptions of the industrial economy. Chief among these is the idea that there is a natural division between our lives and our livelihoods.
  • I was a cattle rancher for 17 years, during which there was no discernible division between my life and my work. It was cold, arduous, and involved constant contact with actual bullshit, but I loved it.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy at all. It is to be useful, to be honorable. It is to be compassionate. It is to matter, to have it make some difference that you lived.”
Leo Rosten

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See also Barlow’s collected essays at John Perry Barlow Library at EFF

“Boat Helm” image licensed; © Claudia Mora

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