Principles | Glenn Gillen


What kind of self-indulgent narcissist publishes a list of principles to live by?

These are not a list of my best habits. Quite the opposite. They're a slowly growing collection of attributes and behaviours I've observed over the years that exist when I am at my best, but they rarely come naturally. They require regular attention and nuturing. Publishing them is a small attempt to have me thinking critically about them regularly, and give others the opportunity and permission to hold me accountable to them.

Say no, explicitly

If you're not, or just unlikely, to be able to do something say no clearly, early, and explicitly. Give other people the opportunity to explore alternatives. When you opt in to something be clear about what you're also now going to have to say no to. Never let a no remain implicit. When the no is implicit it creates a vacuum that becomes filled with assumption, cynicism, or conspiracy. All of this only leads to disappointment

Own outcomes, not ideas

Don't project a new idea as the solution to all problems. Don't become irrationally invested in specific solutions. Clearly state the problem, then commit to solving _the problem_. Not to building a specific idea. Committing to an outcome rather than an idea frees you to embracing other approaches, or other people, that may better solve it. It helps avoid the subconscious desire to continue down a fruitless path for the sake of external consistency.

Rules are easier than descretion

Having a system, any system, is better than nothing at all. Mechanisms are better than best intentions. For anything important that you want to actually ensure happens, design your decisions and workflow to make achieving it the path of least resistance. Embrace poka-yoke where possible. Reduce decision fatigue by setting constraints.

The standard you walk by is the standard you accept

When thinking about how people will subjectively perceive the quality of a product, many people responsible for building a product will think it's the average experience of all of the parts. That's not what happens. People remember the low point, the rough edge, the thing thing that stuck out as not being as good as the rest. This is true of many experiences in life, not just building products. The lowest bar you're willing to accept is what people will remember. Make sure that bar is consistently at a level that represents your values and priorities.

Make others successful

Understand what others need to be successful, and help them as much as possible. That also means admitting my experience and skills are not a good fit. Sometimes it means postponing your immediate priorities to help someone else. The relationships we build will always be more valuable than the immediate material gains.

Luck doesn't happen by accident

Sometimes you'll get lucky and things will fall your way. Sometimes they won't. In either case it starts from being in a position to get lucky in the first place. Don't let that be an accident. Maintain optionality, don't close off doors that could stay open. Be intentional about putting yourself into positions that have positive potential.

Look for lessons, create teachable moments

Each day is made up of a near infinite number of decisions and tasks. Many of them completely new experiences. Look for things that catch you by surprise. Things that would have been easier had you known a simple piece of additional information a day earlier. With 7 billion people on this planet, there's quite feasibly 1 million people who would also benefit from that information. Share it with them.

Turn liabilities into superpowers

Whether a personal trait is a liability or an asset is often a matter of perspective and intention. Founders that don't code have the advantage of validating ideas at lower relative cost and effort by being forced to engage with potential customers earlier. People who have had difficulty speaking can bring more clarity and brevity to their message by not over-estimating their ability to "wing-it". Learn from martial arts. When an obstacle presents itself look for an opportunity to pivot the power from its threat into an advantage.

Do more with less

Focus on the core problem you're trying to solve, and then shun additional complexity. For any given task ask, "Is this essential to solving the problem?" No? Then avoid doing it. If it's essential: "Will I be able to do it in a way that is obviously better than everyone else?" No? Then avoid doing it. Ignore this completely for anything where the act itself is part of the joy.

Considered, but contestable

No decision is obviously perfect or right. Everything has a trade-off. Be aware of these and ask the same of those you work with. Don't go with something simply because it's the most popular or the status quo. Understand what we're compromising with each decision.

Believe in magic

Those who don't believe in magic will never find it. Keep dreaming and seeing wonder in the world. Imagine what might be possible _if only_. Above all, don't let cynicism shatter the dreams of others who still see the magic.

Be present

Listen actively. Give others your full attention. Enjoy the moments you're in and make the most of them while you can. Close the laptop, put away the phone, remove as many external distractions from your life as possible. The temptation to document every moment and turn into something performative to share with others both trivializes and fantasises the moment we live in.

Be curious

Ask why. A lot. Don't assume someone else made a poor judgement. Ask them, without an inference of blame, what happened? What were they trying to do? What else did they consider? Why did they make this decision? What do they hope would happen in the future? It builds empathy, it builds understanding, and it takes the heat out of difficult situations.

Appreciate the craft

Poorly designed products stand out because of how jarring they are. Everything else requires a level of consideration and attention to detail that is easily overlooked. The flavour, balance, and plating of a well executed meal in a restaurant. The typesetting, binding, and production of a good book. The bench seat that is perfectly positioned to let you take in the beauty of your surroundings as the sun sets. Regularly take pause and appreciate the care others have put into their work.