Principles guide actions. More importantly, principles connect actions to values. In other words, when you are acting on principles, you are acting in accordance with your own values. When you lack principles, or act against your principles, you are acting against your values. The result of acting in ways that violate your principles (and therefore your values) is a life devoid of integrity.
It is important to understand that often when we act in ways that violate our principles, we do so out of ignorance. That is to say, one of the main causes for not acting in a principled manner is due to a lack of self-awareness, or a lack of a deep understanding our core values and principles.
When we have not spent time in deep self-reflection to codify our values and principles, we are reactive to the world around us. We make choices that conflict with our values, and create inner conflict that results in dissatisfaction with our choices, and often the direction our lives are heading.
Where do principles come from?
Principles develop in several ways. We often adopt principles from others (family and close friends), or from the society we live in (laws, religion, etc.). However, if we do not really think about the principles we are adopting, as we grow we often find that some of them are not aligned with our own values.
This growth and questioning of adopted principles is a sign of maturity and increased self-reflection. As we evolve our own personas, we often question some of these adopted principles, and adopt different principles that better reflect our own values. This is part of a process psychologists call “self-actualization,” or becoming the person who we truly are.
Through this personal evolution we are able to live more integrated and fulfilling lives; that is, we are able to make choices and act in ways that are more consistent and aligned with our values. We become our own persons.
A final (and important) comment about principles
Principles are not all created equal. What I mean by this is that there are different kinds (or hierarchies) of principles. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, principles guide actions. So you may have different sets of principles for different activities, decisions, events, etc.
For instance, if you play baseball you may have a set of principles for when you are at bat. You may never swing at the first pitch as a matter of principle; you may crowd the plate as a matter of principle. You may always swing for the fences as a matter of principle. These principles will likely be connected to your personal values around risk, competition, etc. If they are not, you probably won’t have much success at the plate.
While your batting principles may be very important to you when you are playing baseball, they are probably not as important as your higher level, or “life principles.” These are the principles that you fall back on when making important life decisions, like what career you choose to seek, when (and to whom) to get married, whether or not to have kids, how to handle ethical dilemmas, etc. While these life principles are larger in terms of importance than, say batting principles, they must also be connected to your core values in order to lead you to a successful (however you define it), and integrated life.