[Strategy] The 3 Axioms

Update 11.4.2012: After continuing to think this over since creating this post, I think I’ve done pretty well conveying some of the the thoughts and content–however I’ve realized there is a more elegant way to communicate these Axioms and their relationships with each other and the Mission. Following the rest of my posts discussing the elements of the strategy, I will write a post that further crystallizes these concepts.

the axioms generate a structure that leads to the completion of the Mission

In my last post, I mentioned the elements of strategy that I’m going to step through as I develop and articulate my strategy for completing my Mission. I haven’t fully described the Mission yet, but there’s something more important that comes first — what I call “Axioms.”

The Role of the Axioms

The hardest question I see individuals and organizations dealing with is what they should do. The reason this is so difficult is that there are an infinite number of options. Realistically, you can go do many things at any given time.

In my eyes, the only way to get to a good answer for “What should I do?” is to first answer “Why do anything?” For me as an individual, the answer to this question is my Axioms. Why do I live? Why do I work? Why? It all comes back to the Axioms.

The answer to “what should I do?” is what lies between the foundation created by the Axioms and the destination set by the Mission. Furthermore, the Axioms generate a structure that paves the way to the completion of the Mission.

Another perspective on Axioms

Imagine you have 1 quart of water. Your goal is to pour it on the table and try to get the water to reach as high of a level as possible. This water represents your energy and attention — you only have a limited amount in your life, and you have to continuously pour it for the next 50 years.

You could just start wildly pouring all over the table. The water goes everywhere, dries up, and never amounts to much of anything.

the geometry of livingNow imagine you draw 4 lines that make a rectangle, and you decide you’re going to pour all of your water in that rectangle. These lines guiding you where to pour are your Axioms.

Now, imagine you pick a point above this rectangle and decide you’re going to at least reach this height. That height is your Mission. You then build a beautiful, glass vessel with these dimensions–a square base with sides that point towards the point you’re trying to reach creating a pyramid shape.

By constraining the space where your energy and attention can go, you allow yourself to focus on living (not how to live) and are able to concentrate your energies such that they amount to something.

How I made this list

Often times I think when people set out to create a list of things they stand for and value such as my Axioms, they take a very outward-looking approach. Maybe they do a lot of reading and think up some really good ideals.  The problem is that this purely outward-looking approach leads to something very hollow — like the “values” lists that are made by big stupid corporations.

I think with something like my Axioms, their genesis should come from a resonance between a) an inner state (ideas, experiences, thoughts, feelings) and b) an epiphany driven by an insight or piece of wisdom we come across in our explorations.

This is why I often use the word “articulation” these days. I find that my intuition knows much more than I’m able to explain. But, only once I can explain it very clearly do I really know it well. So something like one of my Axioms was formed when a lightning bolt struck between my head–which had thoughts, ideas, and implicit knowledge bouncing around in it–and a piece of information I discovered out in the environment. Maybe it’s a phrase I found in a book. Maybe it’s watching a leaf fall to the earth.

Thoughts, ideas, internal knowledge. External knowledge. Lightning bolt. Synthesis. Articulation. Axiom.

This process trumps purely external searches — by using this process I’m strengthening what I already am, articulating it clearly to myself and others, and developing better frameworks of thought to navigate myself and reality.

Here are my 3 Axioms, the ultimate reasons why I do anything. I’ve wrestled with this post for probably 30+ hours, and I’ve tried to articulate them as best I can at this moment in time. I’m certain that they can be reduced to greater clarity, but it’s time they go out the door, and I take my first stab at their articulation:

The 3 Axioms (10.26.2012)

1) Personal Complexity

This particular phrase comes straight from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of my favorite authors. When I read this concept, my eyes lit up. It perfectly captured a mixture of concepts I had long thought about.

Think about a one-man band–one of those guys that plays the harmonica, drums, and makes other sounds all by himself. Then think about a full orchestra. Although a one-man band is kind of a funny and novel thing sometimes, when it comes to power, impressiveness, and intricacy, the sounds created by an orchestra take the cake.

What’s the best way to describe the evolutionary leap from one-man band to full-on orchestra? It’s what you would call an increase in “complexity.” The key insight lies in the articulation of what complexity is:

the simultaneous presence of integration and differentiation

The orchestra trumps the one-man band because it has many specialized contributors and is able to  work together to produce a wider range of sounds and textures in more intricate patterns. If differentiation were not present, they would just sound like a group of one-man bands, better than one, but not that impressive. If integration were not present in the orchestra, it would just be a cacophonous clump of disorganized sounds. All the different pieces working together is what makes it powerful.

This illustrates the concept of integration and differentiation in general. On to how this applies to one’s person:

Personal Integration

I need to constantly be moving towards becoming a more Integrated person.

Integration is our connection to other people — our community, culture, and all of humanity. At the lowest level of Integration is the isolated misanthrope who interacts with no one. At the highest level most people strive for (if they strive at all) is being immersed in the local community, deeply connected to their family and spouse, and a part of a greater cause that connects them with humanity.

It’s hard to say where the scale of Integration stops, and as we gain new tools, new levels of Integration begin to open up. I suppose at the highest thinkable level is if humans were to evolve into an information-based species such that humanity, those who came before us and those that will come after us, were able to truly become one consciousness.

The desire for Legacy is an outcome of Integration. Making a contribution that has an impact that lasts connects us with the future.

Radical honesty is an outcome of Integration. If we don’t learn to be communicative, open, and honest, we hurt our ability to be Integrated with others.

You might think Integration would exclude working in solitude. It doesn’t. There is much work to do to keep this world together, and without it society would fall apart. Making a contribution to society is one of the most important ways to become more integrated with the culture and its people.

This brings me to another outcome of Integration — service, something that needs to be mentioned explicitly. I was raised Catholic and service to others is something that is emphasized in the Catholic faith. I’m happy to have had this religious education so that I could better understand the idea. Life would not be worth living without the opportunity to serve others, and a culture of “coming up big” for each other is extremely powerful and enjoyable.

If I could bottle up Integration and turn it into a feeling, it would be the feeling of solidarity and one-ness.

Personal Differentiation

While I need to be integrated with others, I also need to become differentiated. I need to be moving towards becoming a  stronger individual with my own genuine uniqueness.

Differentiation and Integration processes are simultaneously present in Complexity, and the two are connected. Consequently, I think the process of personal Differentiation actually begins with an integration process — an internal integration process where you begin to first become a cohesive individual. You cannot be differentiated if you have no definition. Differentiation is then the extension and blooming of this initial internal integration.

An example of someone with no internal integration, someone at the very beginning of the Differentiation process, is myself prior to the summer of 2008. During that summer, I decided I was going to do whatever I wanted with the rationale that by doing this, I would start to latch on to things I liked doing. I was doing all kinds of stuff at a superficial level — teaching middle school students, messing around in machine shops, drawing, looking into ways to better utilize geographic information systems, learning how to do Flash animation, and so on. I was all over the place. But after that summer, I started to show a few glimmers of internal integration. I had things I wanted to pursue, and the idea that I could start my own company.

On the other end of the spectrum is a person that expresses a high level of Differentiation. These people are those that are consumed by their mission, full of purpose, and make wild love to their role every day. These people are energizing, they ground us, and they become near symbolic in others’ eyes. I have never met any of these people personally, but I know this is where I want to go. I know I’ve come a long way with this over the last few years. And I think this blog signals another giant leap in the Differentiation process.

Differentiation is also very important to me because I believe very strongly in the power of the individual. The individual does not need the Universe to bestow a special purpose upon her.  We as individuals can draw on the help from others and create our own path and our own purpose. We can make meaning, we can choose who we want to be, and we can write our legend. We must also develop our own skills and style. Everything flows from the individual — even if often times the task requires involving the help of others.

If I could bottle up Differentiation and turn it into a feeling, it would be confidence, strength, poise, and certainty — you know who you are, what you are doing, why, and are progressing the skills you need.

2) Enjoyment

Do what you enjoy. That’s obvious enough right? However, it’s a very hard Axiom to be consistent with. Thankfully, I have a low threshold for pain caused by non-Enjoyment, and this was the first Axiom I unknowingly started trying to figure out.Figuring out what kinds of things you like to do isn’t easy. It’s largely a brute force process of trying things and reflecting on them. I’m probably trivializing this issue because, in hindsight, I feel I was able to tackle and crush this “what do I enjoy doing” fairly quickly from an activities stand point. The doing is the smaller portion of the problem in my eyes. Enjoyment isn’t just about boundaries for what I do. To a far greater extent, it’s about boundaries for how I perceive.Consider this, if this is one of my Axioms, it means I should always be doing what I enjoy. But, you don’t have to live long to notice that there is unavoidable pain, sadness, things you just don’t want to do, and curses. So how can I expect the entirety of my life to fall within a structure based on Enjoyment?Enjoyment is something that is created by how we structure and interpret our experience. This is why the desire to live consistently with Enjoyment lead me to think a lot about how I live and structure my life. For me, sustained Enjoyment goes back to personal journey. If we are on a journey we are in love with, every challenge, obstacle, and boring task can become one more step in that journey that only makes the legend more complete, more compelling, and more powerful. Life has no meaning without challenge.

For instance, in school, I was so frustrated by my lack of attention, my hatred for homework, and my general lack of engagement. When I would get myself to class, I would often feel like it was all a big joke, or I would feel like I was going to explode and would walk out. Here I was at this great institution, and I wasn’t using it how “I was supposed to.”At the time I wasn’t capable of interpreting these experiences in a way that aligned with Enjoyment–I was left only asking, “How do I fix this? How can I survive this?” when I should have also been asking “what does this mean for my journey? is this an opportunity for a defining moment? is this information that can be used to guide me? is this a chance for growth?”

Enjoyment is putting things in a context such that you can meet it head on and deal with it in an intelligent way. Everything is just one more glorious step to the finish line.If I were to bottle up Enjoyment and turn it into a feeling, it would be many feelings depending on the context: it would be deep fulfillment from a job well done, sense of adventure when setting out on a long road, the rush of looking the enemy in the eye, the confidence of resolving to only come out of this stronger than ever, and the feeling you’d get if you took a walk through the Cave of Wonders, seeing everything as if it was new.A friend once told me I look at the world as if it’s a comic book. Maybe that’s not such a bad description. When I look at the world, I see a narrative, heroes, epic events, and meaning….

3) Meaning

The Meaning Axiom demands that there be meaning in everything that I do, which ultimately means that the other Axioms are present. It makes it sound very robotic (which isn’t how I operate at all), but the best way I can articulate it is that every action requires a “yes” to 2 questions–”Does that actions contribute to my Integration, Differentiation, and Enjoyment? And is the action Meaningful?” One or both of the other Axioms could be present in some way, but this doesn’t mean they are at a Meaningful level. For instance, meaningless sex could be construed to increase personal complexity and deliver enjoyment. However, this doesn’t mean it’s worth doing. I suppose Meaning sets the bar for what passes.Luckily, one affliction I’m now quite happy to have suffered is the compulsion of constantly asking, “why am I doing this?” When I had less experience, this often turned into cynicism and a lot of “I don’t give a fuck about any of this.” But eventually I learned what to avoid, as well as how to find meaning and and how to create it. Because of this, I think this has helped me really live in a world of Meaning.Living in a world of meaning has two key benefits, greater enjoyment and greater focus.Here’s a simple example:I wear a blue shirt every day (except for when my building has washing machine issues).  It’s almost always the same type of blue shirt. I do this because I want every day to be a great shirt day and to always be wearing a shirt I like. I have high expectations for all aspects of quality of life — they all add up. I also wear the same type of shirt to eliminate unnecessary decisions that clutter my consciousness. I want all my attention to go towards advancing the Mission and increasing the presence of the Axioms. I wear blue because it reminds me of home, Kentucky, my favorite painting, and of Creativity.  Even my shirt, a fairly small detail, carries a significant amount of Meaning to me and increases my focus.

This might seem obsessive, but it is actually, I find, more expressive and just makes sense. And when you add up many small Meaningful details, you have a world that speaks to you and reminds you of where you’re headed.

If I could take Meaning and bottle it up and turn it into a feeling, I think it would be the same feeling you feel when you close your eyes and take a slow deep breath.


Why none of this is about Happiness

The most common Axiom most people have in American culture is “to be happy.” Everything is supposed to go back to personal happiness. I’ve decided that this, in practice, is actually a really shitty Axiom.

First of all, if we can agree that it is the most common Axiom people abide by, we can ask, “does it work?” I think empirical evidence would show that it doesn’t. I see plenty of miserable and lost people that follow this Axiom, and it’s not their fault–it’s the wrong tool. Granted, I also see people that are extremely happy that probably would agree that this is a good Axiom that they follow, but my guess is that most of these people would be just as happy abiding by the laws of Scientology (whatever those are.)

Remember an Axiom is something that defines how we live, and so a good Axiom has to be applicable at all times. You don’t have to live long to realize you can’t be happy all the time. So naturally, people’s decisions revolve around tradeoffs between pain or boredom or just average living in order to make it to the other “happier side” only to find once they get there they still don’t really feel any better, “If I work hard for 30 years and make 10 million dollars, I’ll be able to coast for the rest of my life,” “I’ll do all this horrible academic work, get my PhD, and then I’ll be in a really good position.”  All of this is foregoing a real answer to,”What should I be doing ” (and implicitly ”Why should I do anything?”).

Another problem with “to be happy”, is the fact that it prompts the question, “Am I happy?”  As far as I can tell, this is actually detrimental to feelings of happiness. It disrupts the flow of life and takes the focus off of living, “Am I happy? Am I happy enough? Would I be happier doing this, that, or the other thing?” Realistically, it’s nearly impossible to answer these questions, and even if you track your moods, you’re still left with, “Would I be happier in a different situation?” I think it’s a tough way to gain any sense of progress or feeling of belonging with it.

Thirdly, let’s consider the people that are able to apply this rigorously and do achieve a satisfaction in the moment. This requires being happy with what you have. I wholeheartedly agree that we should be thankful for what we have, but always being happy with where we’re at ultimately turns into complacency that at some point gets in the way of greater levels of energy and enjoyment. I see the goal of being “happy in any given moment” as being no different than “I should exist in a drug-induced state of euphoria.” In either case, you will at some point detach yourself from reality.

I see happiness as an outcome of life being well-lived–much like an athlete’s stats or the fortune an entrepreneur makes. You don’t get either by simply staring at the books, you get them by focusing on what makes you breathe.


Writing this was a beast, and I’m dying to get on to the more concrete topics, but having gone through the process of writing this has been hugely beneficial. And while this post is much longer than I’d like, I’m quite proud to have discovered that my motivations for doing what I do reduce down to a few simple principles that permeate the entirety of my life.

Now, that I have my Axioms codified, I can  better articulate and gut-check the capstone of this vessel that I’m filling with my life–my Mission.