Recently, I finished reading Ray Dalio’s “Principles” — one of the most recommended business books of 2017. One of the world’s most successful investors and entrepreneurs, Ray shares the unconventional principles that he’s developed, refined, and used over the past 40 years to create unique results in both life and business — and which any person or organization can adopt to help achieve their goals.
In 1975, Ray Dalio founded an investment firm, Bridgewater Associates, out of his two-bedroom apartment in New York City. 40 years later, Bridgewater has made more money for its clients than any other hedge fund in history and grown into the fifth most important private company in the United States, according to Fortune magazine. Ray himself has been named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Along the way, he discovered a set of unique principles that have led to Bridgewater’s exceptionally effective culture, which he describes as “an idea meritocracy that strives to achieve meaningful work and meaningful relationships through radical transparency.” It is these principles, and not anything special about him — who grew up an ordinary kid in a middle-class Long Island neighborhood — that he believes are the reason behind his success.
In Principles, he shares what he’s learned over the course of his remarkable career. He argues that life, management, economics, and investing can all be systemized into rules and understood like machines. In particular, there is one life principle that really caught my attention. Ray believes that the personal evolutionary process takes place in 5 distinct steps. If you can do those 5 things well, you will almost certainly be successful. I want to share them here as I believe anyone of us can benefit from this systematic process.
The 5-Step Process
First you have to pick what you are going after — your goals. Your choice of goals will determine your direction. As you move toward them, you will encounter problems. Some of those problems will bring you up against your own weaknesses. How you react to the pain that causes is up to you. If you want to reach your goals, you must be calm and analytical so that you can accurately diagnose your problems, design a plan that will get you around them, and do what’s necessary to push through to results. Then you will look at the new results you achieve and go through the process again. To evolve quickly, you will have to do this fast and continuously, setting your goals successively higher.
You will need to do all 5 steps well to be successful and you must do them one at a time and in order. For example, when setting goals, just set goals. Don’t think about how you will achieve them or what you will do if something goes wrong. When you are diagnosing problems, don’t think about how you will solve them — just diagnose them. Blurring the steps leads to suboptimal outcomes because it interferes with uncovering the true problems. The process is iterative: Doing each step thoroughly will provide you with the information you need to move on to the next step and do it well.
It is essential that you approach this process in a clearheaded, rational way, looking down on yourself from a higher level and being ruthlessly honest. If your emotions are getting the better of you, step back and take time out until you can reflect clearly. If necessary, seek guidance from calm, thoughtful people.
1 — Have clear goals
- Prioritize: While you can have virtually anything you want, you can’t have everything you want. Life is like a giant smorgasbord with more delicious alternatives than you can ever hope to taste. Choosing a goal often means rejecting some things you want in order to get other things that you want or need even more. Some people fail at this point, before they’ve even started. Afraid to reject a good alternative for a better one, they try to pursue too many goals at once, achieving few or none of them. Don’t get discouraged and don’t let yourself be paralyzed by all the choices. You can have much more than what you need to be happy. Make your choice and get on with it.
- Don’t confuse goals with desires. A proper goal is something that you really need to achieve. Desires are things that you want that can prevent you from reaching your goals. Typically, desires are first-order consequences. For example, your goal might be physical fitness, while your desire is to eat good-tasting but unhealthy food. Don’t get me wrong, if you want to be a couch potato, that’s fine with me. You can pursue whatever goals you want. But if you don’t want to be a couch potato, then you better not open that bag of chips.
- Decide what you really want in life by reconciling your goals and your desires. Take passion, for example. Without passion, life would be dull; you wouldn’t want to live without it. But what’s key is what you do with your passion. Do you let it consume you and drive you to irrational acts, or do you harness it to motivate and drive you while you pursue your real goals? What will you ultimately fulfill you are things that feel right at both levels, as both desires and goals.
- Don’t mistake the trappings of success for success itself. Achievement orientation is important, but people who obsess over a $1,200 pair of shoes or a fancy car are very rarely happy because they don’t know what it is that they really want and hence what will satisfy them.
- Never rule out a goal because you think it’s unattainable. Be audacious. There is always a best possible path. Your job is to find it and have the courage to follow it. What you think is attainable is just a function of what you know at the moment. Once you start your pursuit you will learn a lot, especially if you triangulate with others; paths you never saw before will emerge. Of course there are some impossibilities or near-impossibilities, such as playing center on a professional basketball team if you’re short, or running a 4-minute mile at age 70.
- Remember that great expectations create great capabilities. If you limit your goals to what you know you can achieve, you are setting the bar way too low.
- Almost nothing can stop you from succeeding if you have a) flexibility and b) self-accountability. Flexibility is what allows you to accept what reality (or knowledgeable people) teaches you; self-accountability is essential because if you really believe that failing to achieve a goal is your personal failure, you will see your failing to achieve it as indicative that you haven’t been creative or flexible or determined enough to do what it takes. And you will be that much more motivated to find the way.
- Knowing how to deal well with your setbacks is as important as knowing how to move forward. Sometimes you know that you are going over a waterfall and there is no way to avoid it. Life will throw you such challenges, some of which will seem devastating at the time. In bad times, your goal might be to keep what you have, to minimize your rate of loss, or simply to deal with a loss that is irrevocable. Your mission is to always make the best possible choices, knowing that you will be rewarded if you do.
2 — Identify and don’t tolerate problems
- View painful problems as potential improvements that are screaming at you. Though it won’t feel that way at first, each and every problem you encounter is an opportunity; for that reason, it is essential that you bring them to the surface. Most people don’t like to do this, especially if it exposes their own weaknesses or the weaknesses of someone they care about, but successful people know they have to.
- Don’t avoid confronting problems because they are rooted in harsh realities that are unpleasant to look at. Thinking about problems that are difficult to solve may make you anxious, but not thinking about them (and hence not dealing with them) should make you more anxious still. When a problem stems from your own lack of talent or skill, most people feel shame. Get over it. I cannot emphasize this enough: Acknowledging your weaknesses is not the same as surrendering to them. It’s the first step toward overcoming them. The pains you are feeling are “growing pains” that will test your character and reward you as you push through them.
- Be specific in identifying your problems. You need to be precise, because different problems have different solutions. If a problem is due to inadequate skill, additional training may be called for; if it arises from an innate weakness, you may need to seek assistance from someone else or change the role you play. In other words, if you’re bad at accounting, hire an accountant. If a problem stems from someone else’s weaknesses, replace them with someone who is strong where it’s needed. That’s just the way it is.
- Don’t mistake a cause of a problem with the real problem. “I can’t get enough sleep” is not a problem; it is a potential cause (or perhaps the result) of a problem. To clarify your thinking, try to identify the bad outcome first; e.g., “I am performing poorly in my job.” Not sleeping enough may be the cause of that problem, or the cause may be something else — but in order to determine that, you need to know exactly what the problem is.
- Distinguish big problems from small ones. You only have so much time and energy; make sure you are investing them in exploring the problems that, if fixed, will yield you the biggest returns. But at the same time, make sure you spend enough time with the small problems to make sure they’re not symptoms of larger ones.
- Once you identify a problem, don’t tolerate it. Tolerating a problem has the same consequences as failing to identify it. Whether you tolerate it because you believe it cannot be solved, because you don’t care enough to solve it, or because you can’t muster enough of whatever it takes to solve it, if you don’t have the will to succeed, then your situation is hopeless. You need to develop a fierce intolerance of badness of any kind, regardless of its severity.
3 — Diagnose problems to get at their root causes
- Focus on the “what is” before deciding “what to do about it.” It is a common mistake to move in a nanosecond from identifying a tough problem to proposing a solution for it. Strategic thinking requires both diagnosis and design. A good diagnosis typically takes between 15 minutes and an hour, depending on how well it’s done and how complex the issue is. It involves speaking with the relevant people and looking at the evidence together to determine the root causes. Like principles, root causes manifest themselves over and over again in seemingly different situations. Finding them an dealing with them pays dividends again and again.
- Distinguish proximate causes from root causes. Proximate causes are typically the actions (or lack of actions) that lead to problems, so they are described with verbs (I missed the train because I didn’t check the train schedule). Root causes run much deeper and they are typically described with adjectives (I didn’t check the train schedule because I am forgetful). You can only truly solve your problems by removing their root causes, and to do that, you must distinguish the symptoms from the disease.
- Recognize that knowing what someone (including you) is like will tell you what you can expect from them. You will have to get over your reluctance to assess what people are like if you want to surround yourself with people who have the qualities you need. That goes for yourself too. People almost always find it difficult to identify and accept their own mistake and weaknesses. Sometimes it’s because they’re blind to them, but more often it’s because their egos get in the way. Most likely your associates are equally reluctant to point out your mistakes, because they don’t want to hurt you. You all need to get over this. More than anything else, what differentiates people who live up to their potential from those who don’t is their willingness to look at themselves and others objectively and understand the root causes standing in their way.
4 — Design a plan
- Go back before you go forward. Replay the story of where you have been (or what you have done) that led up to where you are now, and then visualize what you and others must do in the future so you will reach your goals.
- Think about your problem as a set of outcomes produced by a machine. Practice higher-level thinking by looking down on your machine and thinking about how it can be changed to produce better outcomes.
- Remember that there are typically many paths to achieving your goals. You only need to find one that works.
- Think of your plan as being like a movie script in that you visualize who will do what through time. Sketch out the plan broadly at first and then refine it. You should go from the big picture and drill down to specific tasks and estimated time lines. The real-world issues of costs, time, and personnel will undoubtedly surface as you do this, and that will lead you to further refine your design until all the gears in the machine are meshing smoothly.
- Write down your plan for everyone to see and to measure your progress against. This includes all the granular details about who needs to do what tasks and when. The tasks, the narrative, and the goals are different, so don’t mix them up. Remember, the tasks are what connect the narrative to your goals.
- Recognize that it doesn’t take a lot of time to design a good plan. A plan can be sketched out and refined in just hours or spread out over days or weeks. But the process is essential because it determines what you will have to do to be effective. Too many people make the mistake of spending virtually no time on designing because they are preoccupied with execution. Remember: Designing precedes doing!
5 — Push through to completion
- Great planners who don’t execute their plans go nowhere. You need to push through and that requires self-discipline to follow your script. It’s important to remember the connections between your tasks and the goals that they are meant to achieve. When you feel yourself losing sight of that, stop and ask yourself “why?” Lose sight of the why and you will surely lose sight of your goals.
- Good work habits are vastly underrated. People who push through successfully have to-do lists that are reasonably prioritized, and they make certain each item is ticked off in order.
- Establish clear metrics to make certain that you are following your plan. Ideally, someone other than you should be objectively measuring and reporting on your progress. If you’re not hitting your targets, that’s another problem that needs to be diagnosed and solved. There are many successful, creative people who aren’t good at execution. They succeed because they forge symbiotic relationships with highly reliable task-doers.
You almost certainly can’t do all these steps well, because each requires different types of thinking and virtually nobody can think well in all these ways. For example, goal setting (such as determining what you want your life to be) requires you to be good at higher-level thinking like visualization and prioritization. Identifying and not tolerating problems requires you to be perceptive and good at synthesis and maintaining high standards; diagnosis requires you to be logical, able to see multiple possibilities, and willing to have hard conversations with others; designing requires visualization and practicality; doing what you set out to do requires self-discipline, good work habits, and a results orientation. Who do you know who has all those qualities? Probably no one. Yet doing all 5 Steps well is required for being really successful;. So what do you do?
Everyone has weaknesses. They are generally revealed in the patterns of mistakes they make. Knowing what your weaknesses are and staring hard at them is the first step on the path to success. You can either fix them or you can get the help of others to deal with them well. The second option requires you to have humility. Humility is as important, or even more important, as having the strengths yourself. Having both is best.
All 5 steps proceed from your values. Your values determine what you want, i.e., your goals. Also keep in mind that the 5 Steps are iterative. When you complete one step, you will have acquired information that will most likely lead you to modify the other steps. When you’ve completed all 5, you’ll start again with a new goal. If the process is working, your goals will change more slowly than your designs, which will change more slowly than your tasks.
I would highly recommend you checking this book out. Its hundreds of practical lessons, which are built around his cornerstones of “radical truth” and “radical transparency,” include Ray laying out the most effective ways for individuals and organizations to make decisions, approach challenges, and build strong teams. He also describes the innovative tools the firm uses to bring an idea meritocracy to life, such as creating “baseball cards” for all employees that distill their strengths and weaknesses, and employing computerized decision-making systems to make believability-weighted decisions. While the book brims with novel ideas for organizations and institutions, Principles also offers a clear, straightforward approach to decision-making that Ray believes anyone can apply, no matter what they’re seeking to achieve.