Principles are ways of successfully dealing with reality to get what you want out of life.
Ray Dalio, one of the world’s most successful investors and entrepreneurs, cites principles as his key to success.
This brings us to an important question: Can we change? We can all learn new facts and skills, but can we also learn to change how we are inclined to think? The answer is a qualified yes.
Brain plasticity is what allows your brain to change its “softwiring.” For a long time, scientists believed that after a certain critical period in childhood, most of our brain’s neurological connections were fixed and highly unlikely to change. But recent research has suggested that a wide variety of practices—from physical exercise to studying to meditation—can lead to physical and physiological changes in our brains that affect our abilities to think and form memories. In a study of Buddhist monks who had practiced more than ten thousand hours of meditation, researchers at the University of Wisconsin measured significantly higher levels of gamma waves in their brains; these waves are associated with perception and problem solving.
That doesn’t mean the brain is infinitely flexible. If you have a preference for a certain way of thinking, you might be able to train yourself to operate another way and find that easier to do over time, but you’re very unlikely to change your underlying preference. Likewise, you may be able to train yourself to be more creative, but if you’re not naturally creative, there’s likely a limit to what you can do. That is simply reality, so we all might as well accept it and learn how to deal with it. There are coping techniques that we can use—for example, the creative, disorganized person who is likely to lose track of time can develop the habit of using alarms; the person who isn’t good at some type of thinking can train himself to rely on the thinking of others who are better at it. The best way to change is through doing mental exercises. As with physical exercise, this can be painful unless you enlist the habit loop discussed earlier to connect the rewards to the actions, “rewiring” your brain to love learning and beneficial change.
Remember that accepting your weaknesses is contrary to the instincts of those parts of your brain that want to hold on to the illusion that you are perfect. Doing the things that will reduce your instinctual defensiveness takes practice, and requires operating in an environment that reinforces open-mindedness.
As you’ll see when we get into Work Principles, I’ve developed a number of tools and techniques that help overcome that resistance, individually and across organizations. Instead of expecting yourself or others to change, I’ve found that it’s often most effective to acknowledge one’s weaknesses and create explicit guardrails against them. This is typically a faster and higher-probability path to success.