I saw the so-called “Bill Gates’ 11 Rules of Life” again today. These 11 rules, based on an op-ed piece by Charles Sykes, are misattributed to Bill Gates in this urban legend that I’ll call the “11 Rules Myth.” There is a sentiment in those rules that really bothers me. When I see people saying, “I’ll make sure my child knows these rules,” I get concerned. Not because I am close-minded, but because many of them are beliefs I have held personally in the past that have been a destructive force in my life.
Here are my most important revisions to the rules, as I plan to teach them to my children.
Rule 1. There are parts of life that are inherently unfair, but that doesn’t make it okay to treat people unfairly.
There is quite a bit of randomness to things like disease and suffering. Sure, life is a stochastic process. There is something behind “life isn’t fair–get used to it,” especially when combined with the idea behind the serenity prayer. I would say life isn’t fair, and I hope to have the courage to do something about it when I can, the serenity to accept it when I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference. I would go even further and say that any unfairness that stems from my behavior is something I can change.
Rule 2: Self-esteem is completely unrelated to anything outside of you.
Unlike most of the other rules, my second rule is a complete 180 from ‘the world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.” Self-esteem is a relationship with yourself, and there is nothing outside of you that has power over how you feel about yourself.On the contrary, your self-esteem will be a big influence on whether or not you are able to go out into the world and accomplish something. The only real expectation the world might have is that they don’t need to play a role in your relationship with yourself–that you are psychologically healthy and won’t expect someone else to give you a sense of self-worth.
I will teach my children to be self-aware and to have a sense of self-worth that is based on being themselves, not one based on being something to someone else.
Rule 3: You are neither your job title nor your salary. Your life will be characterized by a constant growth, not by attaining some position.
I agree with the basic sentiment that you can’t expect to attain your goals immediately, but I would never put goals in terms of job title or compensation package goals. There is a sense that your value comes from your job title that is weaved throughout this “11 rules” myth. Rather than imagining that they want to reach some station in life where they have value, they will already know they have value and what their needs are. I think I would tell my children that it is better to set goals based on the things that really matter, possibly using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a starting point. Things such as salaries and job titles are empty and will not give them happiness.
Rule 8: Fail early. Fail often. And keep failing until you succeed.
Rule 8 is composed of multiple contentious parts. One part says that while schools may do away with winners and losers, life has not. Truthfully, the paradigm of winners and losers applies within zero-sum games. And viewing life in terms of zero-sum interaction is a viewpoint I find somewhat Malthusian. All of the most important games we play are nonzero-sum. You know what else, I think it is pretty easy to understand winners and losers, but we often need help to understand that are opportunities where we can cooperate and all win. This zero-sum perspective is also what I think feed the impulse to put others down. It feeds the false belief that all I need to do is be better than someone else and that I can elevate myself by putting others down.
The second contentious part of the rule says that schools that give students “as many times as you want to get the right answer” do not bear resemblance to ANYTHING in real life. Exactly, except that most of the time you do fail repeatedly until you finally stumble upon the right course of action. It is surprising how often the block to taking action and making progress is believing that there is some “right answer” to find. First, I will teach my kids that it is okay, even necessary, to fail on a regular basis. Second, I will teach my kids that they need to keep trying until they do finally get the right answer.
Rule 9: The only thing more beneficial than knowing and using your strengths is being aware of what you think and feel.
The last part that bothers me is the idea that “employers” don’t care if you find yourself and you should do that on your own time. My first trouble is with the abstract idea of an employer. Just to talk about your “employer” shows prima facie evidence of an attempt to dehumanize. I work with co-workers and teammates, who all are people with names, that benefit from me being self-aware and do in fact care about that. Now, I have often projected that thoughtlessness and callousness on people. I have dehumanized them, disconnected myself, and missed out on benefits that I could have gotten from being mentored. Some of my deepest regrets are centered around being too close-minded to accept help from “employers” who wanted to help me develop. However, I have come to believe that I should take every opportunity to find myself, and that a big part of “myself” is defined by my relationship with my work and the people I work with.
The other rules are generally from that same perspective, and I have some disagreement with them all. For example, I might change Rule 4 to “If you are having trouble seeing the value in what you learn at school, it’s because you don’t know enough to work on inspiring problems. One day, you’ll be able to do something important and inspiring.” For Rule 7, I might tell my children that I had big dreams and why my life is different than I dreamt it, but I would never tell them to stop dreaming.
I enjoyed these “Rules of Life” like I enjoy any good satire. And just like much of the other satire I read, the commenters who take it as great advice kind of worry me.