What are your rules?

This summer, at the Dark Knight shooting in Aurora, Colorado, there were a number of media stories about Jamie Rohrs who went to see the movie with his girlfriend and their two children.

When the shooting started, he tried to retrieve his son but eventually jumped over the balcony and fled. “It just felt like the worst thing ever because my son’s still in there,” he told ABC News. “My girlfriend is still in there. I’m out here. Who leaves their child there?”

Rohrs got a lot of flack in the press and from bloggers for being a coward, especially since another man, 19-year-old Jarrell Brooks, stepped in and helped his girlfriend and children to safety (getting shot in the leg in the process).

Obviously, this was a surreal and unusual crisis, and it’s not really fair to conjecture – sitting safe at home — whether we would have behaved more courageously in the same circumstances.

In the heat of the moment, rational thinking goes out the window, unless you’ve prepared in advance. That’s why the US military has a six-article code of conduct providing soldiers with guidelines on how to behave during times of war, in case of capture and interrogation, for example. And the Navy SEALs have long had an unwritten code: “leave no man behind,” dead or alive. That means, even under hot pursuit by the enemy, if any of their men fall, they waste no time in waffling or debate, they go back. Pretty unambiguous.


Most of us will likely never face such extreme life-or-death circumstances. Still, having a prescribed set of rules – a personal code of conduct – even for the more mundane aspects of life, can have a powerful effect on how you carry yourself on a daily basis and in your interactions with others.

Streamlining the number of decisions you make helps you focus on the ones that will have the most impact. Rules, if you create them as a conscious reflection of your values can reduce the number of decisions you have to make, which means less redundant thinking, stress and regret, and quicker action and clarity. And because they’re your own, not imposed on you by someone else, you’re more likely to pay attention.

George Washington had a list of 110 rules called “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” to govern his behavior. (They were actually penned by French Jesuits sometime around 1595 but he did copy the entire list by hand, and follow them as closely as possible for most of his life.)

If you want a more practical and relevant example, check out the 12 rules that Craig Ballantyne, a strength and conditioning coach and successful Internet entrepreneur abides by.

My personal rules are a work in progress: here are 10 that I have currently. I review them every day during my morning practice and, at a glance, I’m reminded of how I want to live my life.

  1. If it feels scary, gotta do it.
  2. Make decisions from where you want to be. Most people think if they get what they want, then they’ll do things differently. That’s backwards. In order to get what you want, you first have to become the kind of person who would have/do that. It starts by making different decisions.
  3. Be provocative. That’s right: no more “good girl” trying to please everyone. As Tim Ferriss says, “Doing anything remotely interesting will bring criticism. Attempting to do anything large-scale and interesting will bring armies of detractors and saboteurs.” Or, if you prefer your wisdom from Colin Powell: Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted.”
  4. Always be learning. The main criteria I use when evaluating opportunities– for work and fun – is: will I learn something new?
  5. Err on the side of “over-connection.” Too often my default setting is not to greet or reach out to someone because I don’t want to “bother” them. That’s just dumb. You don’t see dogs apologizing for being too friendly.
  6. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Whether it seems like it or not, people are doing their best. If you hold fast to your belief in them, they might just live up to it. (p.s. It also helps avoid premature accusations and back-pedaling.)
  7. Committed but not attached. This phrase is my go-to mantra whenever there’s something I really want. It means I give 100% enthusiasm and effort but I don’t get attached to the outcome. (I used this a lot when I was in sales and it helped me stay calm and neutral – and, paradoxically, get better outcomes.).
  8. Question your assumptions. Just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. Just because I’ve always thought something doesn’t mean it’s true. I’m reading Grace to Race, the story of Sister Madonna Buder, the 80-year old nun who started running at age 48 and has since run 325 triathlons including 45 Ironman distances. My assumptions about age and human potential — out the window.
  9. Make self-care a priority. This one is so ingrained, I don’t even have to think about it. No matter how chaotic life gets, I make sure to eat healthily, exercise and get enough sleep.
  10. No family left behind. In Jamie’s case, he was lucky – how awful would he have felt if his family hadn’t gotten out of the theatre safely? I’m learning a lesson from him.

Your turn — what are your rules?