My 21 Rules to Live By
Posted Friday, August 17, 2012 02:09 PM

My Twenty-One Rules to Live By

Allen Johnson

The title of this paper intentionally begins with the first person possessive adjective “my.”  These are the rules that make sense to me.  As such, they are very subjective.  Although I think my rules are self-evident in creating a life that is—in the long run—balanced, vital, and rich, others may take exception with one or more of the items on my list.  To those I offer this challenge:  Do well by your own thoughts, and create a list that is more meaningful to you.

My first confession of many to follow in this paper is this:  Although I work hard to abide by my 21 rules, I am not always faithful to them.  I am sometimes rude—those who know me best are well aware of that shortcoming.  And I often grow impatient with those who vehemently argue for mediocrity.  Still the following rules are what I wholeheartedly seek.  Although my outcomes are too often flawed, my commitment remains unaltered.

Some readers may criticize my rules on two grounds:  (1) the rules are overly severe, and (2) there is a perceived haughty tone of judgment directed toward those who do not abide by my rules.  To the first criticism, I pled guilty.  The rules are severe or at least demanding.  Actually, I prefer the word “disciplined.”  It seems to me that the people who are the most successful in life—that are the most self-actualized and the most at peace—are those who are extremely disciplined.  (I wrote a book about this notion entitled The Power Within:  The Five Disciplines of Personal Effectiveness.)  So, yes, the rules are rigorous, but I do not apologize for that; success does not come from being languid; it comes from being intentional.

Of the second criticism, that my tone sounds haughty and judgmental, I pled innocent.  As stated in the opening paragraph, these rules are guidelines that work for me and not an indictment against others who choose a different path.  The fact that I speak passionately about them, should only be taken as a celebration of my personal discoveries.   However, I grant you this:  For those who choose a more relaxed lifestyle, they may elect to feel annoyed or resentful by my assertions.  When a statement does not match our own reality, we tend to deal with that dissonance by discounting the speaker or message or both.  Thus, some may decide to label my ideas as haughty and judgmental.  To that I have no defense.

Finally, when making “a list to live by,” it seems reasonable to consider all dimensions of one’s life.  There are numerous ways in which a life plan could be classified.  I have chosen the following:  physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual.


Rules to live by in my physical life

  1. Eat an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. 

Comments:  I supplement my regime of fruit and vegetables with nuts, fish, and chicken.  Sometimes, I add tasty French bread and pasta (always a marinara sauce—never the cheese-based alfredo sauce).  The best French bread we have found—short of going to Paris—is called “All Natural French Style Demi Baguette Artisan Bread” made by Culinary Circle, which can be found at Albertson’s; it needs to reheated in a conventional over for 5-10 minutes at 375 degrees F. 


I rarely eat red meat—if at all.  I never add butter, salt, or salad dressing to anything, thereby learning to savor the real flavor of an unadulterated fruit or vegetable, and not the condiment.  Perhaps most importantly, I never eat fast food. 

If I’m hungry after dinner, I will have a bowl of cereal (I like a mix of Raisin Bran, Grape Nuts, and Cheerios, and occasionally a low-fat, sugarless granola—all of which are mixed together in a single container; if you try it, you’ll never go back to a single cereal).  My milk is always non-fat—never one- or two-percent.


  1. Drink water. 

Comment:  Despite what avid coffee drinkers might claim, I’m convinced that caffeine is an addiction. Light or sugarless soft drinks are certainly a ruse; the body responds to artificially sweetened drinks in the same way that it responds to sugar—by putting on unwanted pounds.


  1. Exercise daily. 

Comment:  I alternate between an aerobic cardio-vascular workout (usually a 10-mile spin on my recumbent tricycle) and weight training (beginning with chin-ups and ending with stomach crunches).  For me, occasionally missing one workout is acceptable.  Missing two consecutive days is sliding dangerously into entropy.


  1. Weigh daily. 

Comment:  This will surely sound fanatical to some, but if I am a pound over my ideal weight, I make adjustments to my eating and exercise routine for the day.  That way I only worry about ounces, not pounds. 


  1. Live within my means. 

Comment:  For those who are working, it is best to place at least 15 percent of their salary into savings—year in and year out.  (Upon retirement, less than 5% of all American have over $10,000 in savings.  That is astonishing and appalling.)  I refuse to own a credit card; a debit card provides the same convenience, but within the framework of financial responsibility.  It also helps to instill the discipline of delayed gratification.


Rules to live by in my intellectual life


  1.  Read daily. 

Comment:  During my youth I read most of the classic American and English novels (along with a few Russian, German, and French novels); today, at least 80% of what I read is non-fiction.  Although some fiction is instructive, good non-fiction is invariably educational; fiction is—for the most part—entertaining or diverting.  Yes, there are exceptions, but the highly popular books about magicians and vampires are unlikely to shed much light on the purpose of life.  And yes, there is a time for diversion, but not at the degradation of knowledge. 

Also, just for fun, I maintain an on-going vocabulary list from my reading—primarily words that I’ve heard, but whose definitions elude me:  parsimonious, obstreperous, scurrilous, diffidence, sedulous, to name a few.  When I employ such words, it is usually done with a wink and a smile; after all, I realize that the first purpose of communication is to understand and be understood.


  1. Be passionate about learning. 

Comment:  The range of learning possibilities is limited only by my imagination.  I can be a thespian, a painter, a musician, a photographer, a dancer, a traveler, a linguist, a researcher, a scuba diver, a pilot, a historian—a student of any noble endeavor.  For me the thrill of learning is the elixir of life.


  1. Be intentional about doing what is important.

Comment:  That which is important is those endeavors that are in alignment with my personal mission, my higher self.  That which is urgent is, for the most part, irrelevant and distractive.  For example, the addiction to texting is more often than not “urgent.”  Some argue that texting creates a richer social network.  Although the number of communication contacts may be higher, a blip on a screen cannot and does not substitute for real human intimacy. 

We think that many things are important because they ring, beep, and even shout at us.  That is seldom the case.  Being urgent-driven is like the driver who ran out of gas on the freeway and explained to the State patrolman, “Gee, I’m sorry, I was too busy driving to stop for gas.”  In the driver’s case, planning was “important”; when, due to lack of planning, the driver ran out of gas, the predicament became “urgent.”

The hapless driver example underscores this point:  When unaddressed, important issues become urgent issues.  If one is repeatedly delinquent in resolving conflict in a relationship, that relationship will eventually suffer and perhaps even terminate.  Then, what was important—dealing with unresolved conflict—becomes both important and urgent; the problem is that the newfound sense of urgency may arrive too late to save the relationship.



Rules to live by in my social life


  1. Never gossip.

Comment:  First a definition is in order.  Here, I am defining “gossip” as conversation behind the back of the subject that is meant to be malicious.  People engaging in gossip are really attempting to elevate their own status by sharing unknown and juicy pieces of condemnation.  They often end with “Can you believe that?” in the hope that the other will be aptly astonished and, better yet, add a titillating tidbit of his/her own.

Although I have to admit that this guideline is not always easy for me, I strive never to gossip.  Invariably, gossip says as much or more about the weaknesses of the gossiper than the person being berated or betrayed. 

On the other hand, speaking with a discreet companion in an effort to find wise alternatives toward helping another person evolve intellectually or spiritually is responsible problem-solving.


  1. Be careful about judging others.

Comment:  This rule is not as straightforward as some of the other rules and needs to be qualified.  It is important to understand that actions that harm others need to be judged.  At that point we are talking about justice.  Genocide, rape, child abuse, war mongering, and corporate greed at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the citizens all come to mind as actions deserving of severe judgment. 

That is not to say that every person does not merit his or her day in court.  It is to say, rather, that these despicable acts need to be taken seriously with the intent of putting an end to the reprehensible, even vile, behaviors. 

That said, there are many judgments that are so subjective that they become irrelevant when applied to others.  In such cases the impulse to judge others is based on the ludicrous idea that it is my responsibility to persuade others to adhere to my standards, my values, my church doctrine, and/or my prejudices. 

When dealing with subjective life styles, it is wiser to work on myself and allow others to determine if my model of behavior is worthy of their favor and emulation.

Incidentally, this is why I was very careful in writing the opening paragraphs of this paper, pointing out that what applies to me, may not apply to another.


  1. Seek community. 

Comment:  Community is a place where I can be personally genuine, while being nonjudgmental of the other.  In that environment, all problems—trivial or daunting—can be solved.  It is very difficult to get to a place of community.  Too often we want to fix the other, which is the fastest way to destroy community.


  1. Listen wholeheartedly.


Comment:  I make a conscientious effort to hone my skills in listening to understand—as opposed to listening to counterattack or otherwise transform the other.  Many believe, falsely, that they are good listeners; experts say that only one in 10,000 is an excellent listener.


  1. Be social.

Comment:  Some will surely disagree with me, but I am persuaded that as technology expands, social lives collapse.  We often live in a small village in the south of France.  During the day the town is teeming with activity:  people are going to the post office, the bakery, the grocery shop.  But at 6 o’clock in the evening, the streets are deserted; if you see a stray cat, that is saying something.  I have asked a number of my French friends from the village about that phenomenon.  They all say the same thing:  “It was not like that before.  In the old days, people would bring out a chair, sit on the sidewalk, and chat with their neighbors across the street.”  And then they explain how all that changed with the advent of television (I have seen French television; believe me, it is not that interesting).  This trend toward isolation will continue. 

So, although it is not much, my wife and I are fighting back.  At least once a week, individually and collectively, she and I invite someone to lunch or dinner.  Although our hospitality is sometimes reciprocated, we generally don’t expect a similar invitation, for, as I have implied, we live in an age of social laziness.


  1. Cherish social friends.

Comment:  This is related to the previous rule.  There are two kinds of people in the world:  Those who say “Hey, we’ll have to get together sometime” and do nothing, and those who say “Say, let’s spend some time together; how about next Tuesday at 7 o’clock.”  It is hard to find those who are members of the latter group; when found, they should be cherished.  Unless we cherish them, they too will vanish into extinction like the giant Irish deer or the Persian Caspian tiger.


  1. Seek out mature friends.

Comment:  I define “mature friends” as those who are bright, articulate, humorous, thoughtful, tolerant, and adept at active listening.  I realize that is a daunting criteria that makes for a very short list.  But such extraordinary people do exist.  When I meet them, I do my best to make them a friend for life.  I seek them out because they are fun.  They are the kind of people with whom you can be irreverent without being chastised, raucous without being frowned upon, and philosophical without anyone feeling attacked or somehow inadequate.

I am drawn to these people like a parched man to a long sip of cool water.  This is a position that has been a source of controversy between my wife and me for years.  My wife argues that there is value in every person and, so, each person should be cherished.  I do not discount the importance of every human being—certainly all are precious.  Still, if I am going to spend an evening with someone, I would rather talk about the mysteries of life than the color of the drapes. 


  1. Mentor young people. 

Comment:  There is a caveat to this rule.  When I spend time with young people, I work hard to limit—if not altogether eliminate—the practice of saying that he or she is “special” and “can do anything.”  In the 1960’s and 1970’s, educators and pop psychologists heralded the news that self-esteem must be cultivated and nurtured.  We told our children so often that they were “special” and “could do anything” that they came to believe it.  The result was an epidemic of narcissism. 

The fact is that accomplishment comes not through entitlement, not through excessive and unwarranted praise, and not by an inflated sense of self-esteem, but through raw talent, study, reflection, and disciplined practice.  I’m convinced that understanding and implementing this maxim will help us to move young people away from entitlement and self-absorption and toward civility and community.

All that understood, working with young people is a way of leaving a legacy.  Think about the people who positively influenced you.  You were likely captivated by them because they demonstrated a genuine interest in you.  I am astonished by what a few well-placed words can do.  I believe as a mature adult, I have an obligation, a mission really, to assist young people by challenging sloppy thinking, refining performances, and encouraging when their first impulse is to give up and seek an easier task where they can be told, once again, that they are “special.”


  1. Apologize for misdeeds.

Comment:  It is part of my personal mission to apologize quickly and genuinely when I am rude.  The best apology includes a pledge to remove the offensive behavior from my repertoire.  When I honor that pledge, I am truly at my best. 

Truthfully, I hate apologizing—not because it is not the right thing to do, but because it means that my past behavior was inappropriate, and that realization is painful, even agonizing, for me.  Maybe it is out of reach, but my goal is to never have to apologize, which would be indicative of a life of integrity. 



 Rules to live by in my spiritual life


  1. Take responsibility for my own salvation.

Comment:  It is exclusively my responsibility to work out my own salvation.   The popularity of a belief—including Christianity—does not necessarily ensure its veracity.  It was not so long ago that most people believed intractably that the world was flat and the center of the universe.  Of course, science has proven otherwise.

Many say that people are incapable of working out their own salvations, that only God can do that.  The notion is to abandon our will and let God take over.  For me, that flies in the face of logic.  It feels superstitious:  What you don’t understand, allow God to take control.  I don’t see how that is much different from expecting the Greek god, Dionysus, to bring in an excellent grape harvest in a dry season.

I can say this:  I pledge to walk in the light as I see the light.  However, I will not walk into darkness, and call it light.  Faith is what people turn to when logic runs out; I see no reason for going beyond the boundaries of logic.  If I were to violate that reasonable guideline, my belief system would become fanciful and superstitious.  I would rather base my life on what I know, not on what I don’t know.


  1. Realize that doctrine diminishes the world.

Comment:  I believe that doctrine and dogma (especially religious) divide, thereby making the world smaller and more adversarial.  Such values are subjective and arguable.  Principles, on the other hand, are objective, self-evident, and timeless; they make the world larger and more peaceful.  Examples of principles are love, tolerance, forgiveness, understanding, and the golden rule.  To my way of thinking, principles are all that one needs to live a virtuous and satisfying life.

Through the ages, countless, unspeakable horrors have been leveled on millions of people in the name of doctrine.  That doctrine is sometimes Christian, sometimes Moslem, sometimes Jewish—and Hindu, and Buddhist, there are no exceptions.  I am not concerned with the ideology surrounding the virgin birth, or the proper time and process for baptism, or the meaning of the trinity.  On the other hand, I will defend to my death the sacredness of pure, untainted, unconditional love, for when has that kind of love ever brought harm to another human being?


  1. Be humble.

A spiritual being takes himself or herself lightly.  I’m at my best when I can poke fun at my own foibles.  Whatever my meager achievements or accolades, I am not immortal.  My ego will have no consequence in the grand scheme of time and space.  Accordingly, humility is more realistic and abundantly less annoying to others than is hubris.    

In practice, this means that I cannot think for one moment that I “know it all.”  That would be regressing back into adolescence.  I must always be a student of logical and judicious ideas, a seeker of wisdom, and a champion of my own salvation.


  1. Be a humanitarian.

I am a secular humanitarian.  I care about the suffering of other human being—all human beings.  I cannot pledge “one nation, under God,” as we are asked to do each time we stand to pledge allegiance to the flag.  If there is a God, he is surely a shepherd of all nations.

As such, I am, foremost, a citizen of the world and, secondarily, a citizen of the United States.  Nationalism can easily obscure what is really important: the unprejudiced advocacy of humanity.  Others can do as they like, but for me, I am a humanitarian and, consequently, a relative pacifist. 

 To say that I am a “relative pacifist” is a strange combination of words and deserves explanation.  I think that most wars can be avoided if evil is addressed early on:

  • If our founding fathers had addressed slavery when the constitution was written, there would have been no civil war. 
  • If the Versailles Treaty at the conclusion of WWI had not been so onerous to the German people, there would have been no WWII. 
  • If the atomic bomb had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and if the arms race had been limited in 1945, there would have been no cold war. 
  • If the question of the Palestine homeland had been successfully addressed, a war on terrorism may have been averted. 

Again and again, it is when matters are allowed to drag on in their evil ways that ultimately war becomes the only solution.  So, when Hitler became a product of the egregious Versailles Treaty (not to mention his own lunacy), and because the disparity was not addressed early on, a new and more expansive war was the inevitable consequence.  At that point the war must be fought. 

 So, as a “relative pacifist” I call for the early detection and resolution of world conflict. 

Furthermore, to be absolutely clear, although there are times—due to political apathy, misjudgment, or lack of moral action—when war becomes the only solution, I would personally never serve as a soldier.  I believe that there is always a need for civil disobedience, and that true pacifists serve an important function as a national moral compass when revenge and greed are in the air.

During the Viet Nam War, I chose to register as a conscientious objector and not take up arms against another human being.  Rather I chose to be a voice of peace in a world of vociferous battle cries.  As such, I fulfilled my alternative service by teaching for the Mennonites in an Algerian mountain village high school—a county that was struggling with its newfound independence.

One other point should be made on this subject.  Civil disobedience tends to be valued or devalued depending upon the time and setting.  At the 1945 and 1946 Nuremberg trials, German soldiers argued that they were simply “following orders.”  This argument was not seen as valid by the Allies, who protested that the German soldiers should have examined their consciences and exhibited civil disobedience. 

Ironically, during WWII Americans who expressed their civil disobedience as conscientious objectors were scurrilously demonized for cowardice—7000 of whom were imprisoned.  

In other words, civil disobedience is either praised or scorned, depending on who is doing the judging.  My stance is that if civil disobedience is right, it is right regardless of the times and popular culture.

I would like to return to the topic of my humanitarian philosophy.  It is a curious discovery for me, but I have heard people—typically conservative Christians--say the word “humanitarian” as if it were a curse word.  Upon reflection, I take their censure to be wrapped around the idea that a humanitarian is a euphemism for an agnostic or, worse, an atheist.  In some respects I think that tacit criticism is unfair; I’m sure there are a great number of humanitarian Christians—at least I hope so. 

On the other hand, these critiques may be on to something, for I do think of myself as an atheist—albeit a humanitarian atheist. 

So, what does it mean to be an atheist?  I suspect that each atheist would define it differently.  This is what it means to me:

An atheist is a person who collects concrete evidence that will help shape his or her view of the world.  An atheist is not grounded in mythology or superstition, but in empirical research.  An atheist is a scientist.  Moreover, an atheist is one who is intellectually, socially, and spiritually honest.  The atheist refuses to spin an idea to win the favor of an audience; the evidence is presented as empirically experienced—nothing more, nothing less. 

Personally, as an atheist, I have found my “Twenty-one Rules to Live By” to be based on experiential evidence, and I believe that if I live by them as faithfully as I can, I will be a better person, and I will in some infinitesimal way leave the world in a better place.

Allen Johnson
509-627-3000 (Richland, WA)