These are extraordinary times.
In our work, our lives, and everything in between we are witnessing change that is so fast and unpredictable that our first challenge is simply to make sense of it.
Globalization, technology, and the knowledge economy have propelled countries, industries, companies, and individual careers into new and uncharted territory. Unprecedented and destabilizing economic, political, and social events are unfolding. Massive financial shifts have undermined the leading economies of the world. Old, prestigious companies with long, storied heritages have disappeared overnight. Entire industries have awakened to discover that they need to adapt, transform, or become extinct. It’s no exaggeration to say that leading thinkers around the world are seriously discussing new forms for the future of capitalism.
At the same time, because economic creation always accompanies economic destruction, a new generation of entrepreneurs is seizing the moment. As giant companies appeal to Washington, D.C. for financial aid, brand new startups suddenly emerge to capture the public’s imagination—and the market’s wallet. Financial and business fissures have opened to innovation, invention, and inspiration.
The time has come to re-think, re-imagine, and re-calibrate what is possible, what is desirable, what is sustainable.
It’s time to re-write the rules.
We’re badly in need of rules of thumb that work, that make sense, that can guide us through and past these turbulent times. Rules of thumb that teach us how to work—and also inspire us to understand why we work. Rules of thumb that show us higher roads to take in our business and personal lives—and demonstrate that those two roads are best traveled as one. Rules of thumb that suggest a code of conduct for each of us as individuals and for all of us as a community. We want rules of thumb that help us succeed—and help us win at work without losing the people and things we care most about in life.
That’s what Rules of Thumb is about. It’s a collection of 52 rules I’ve gathered over the last 40 years or so. During that time I’ve met and worked with a series of remarkable men and women who have given me their wisdom and helped me make sense of my own experiences. I’ve talked with famous leaders who are world renowned and learned from obscure entrepreneurs who are unknown; I’ve sat with brilliant Nobel prize winners whose scientific discoveries cure millions and visited modest community organizers who change the world one person at a time—and learned valuable lessons from all of them. I’ve interviewed CEOs and spiritual leaders, basketball coaches and novelists, business thinkers and elected officials—and come away with fresh insights and hard-won truths.
I’ve recorded those lessons on 3 x 5 cards that I carry with me every day at home and on the road. (This wonderful system is something I learned more than 20 years ago from Harvard Business School Professor Ted Levitt, one of the mentors you’ll meet in this book.)
Not long ago, I reviewed all the 3 x 5 cards I’d written on and saved. This time my goal was to capture the rules I’d learned. I began to fill up 3 x 5 cards until I reached 52, at which point I stopped. Not because I’d run out of rules, but because they represented the best of what I’d learned and what I had to pass on.
Because I want you to understand where these rules came from, each has a story about how I learned it. In almost every case they come from four deep experiences I’ve had in my life:
*In the early 1970s, after graduating from Amherst College I went to Portland, Oregon where I worked for Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, and with the committed, forward-thinking team he put together in City Hall, as well as the community of activists across the city who transformed Portland into the urban showcase it is today. It was an education in urban planning, in electoral politics, and the art of making change.
*In the 1980s I worked for Ted Levitt and with the creative, dynamic group he assembled at the Harvard Business Review to re-invent that prestigious journal and to change the business conversation at the highest level. I was the beneficiary of a free education in business and management and in the art of combining best thinking with best practice.
*In the 1990s I partnered with Bill Taylor and a hard-charging, fast-thinking, and marvelously adventuresome team to launch and edit Fast Company magazine, the fastest growing business magazine in U.S. history. It was an education in entrepreneurship and in leadership; it was the hardest and most rewarding thing I’d ever done.
*In the 2000s, since leaving Fast Company I’ve explored new ideas, new directions, and new experiences—serving as an advisor to the KaosPilots, a Scandinavian school for social entrepreneurs, and as chairman of the Waldzell gathering, an Austrian conference that takes place at the historic Abbey of Melk. As a self-appointed minister-without-portfolio, a self-styled global detective, I’ve traveled, consulted, and entered a new world of teachers and a wide variety of experiences.
But this book isn’t about me; it’s for you.
The whole purpose of Rules of Thumb is to stimulate, inspire, challenge, and help you. Read it, use it, apply it in any way that works for you. It’s a book of rules—but there is no rule about how to read it.
You can start at Rule #1 and work your way to Rule #52.
You can use it as an I Ching for work and life: open it to any rule where the pages happen to fall and consider that entry your day’s reading.
You can read one rule per week and make reading Rules of Thumb a year of self-discovery.
Read the ones that make sense to you; skip the ones that don’t—for now at least. You can always check back later and see if something in your life or in the world has changed to make what seemed obscure or irrelevant suddenly make sense. Make your own notes about the rules that speak to you. Talk back to the book, talk back to the rules.
Most important, start keeping your own 3 x 5 cards to capture your own rules. You’ll find that you’ll pay closer attention to your own experiences; you’ll collect your own network of teachers; you’ll discover ideas that matter to you and help you make sense of the world.
You’ll start having a conversation with your own life and your own experiences. Those 3 x 5 cards will stack up as you take note of the best conversations you get into—including the ones with yourself. You’ll discover rules of thumb in your daily life that work for you.
That’s what Rule #53 at the end of the book is for: I left that one open. Send your contribution to www.rulesofthumbbook.com. I’ll collect them and post them so we can learn from each other.
More than anything, here’s what this book is about:
It’s about what works.
It’s about a way of learning what works and applying it to your own life.
It’s about the value of experience and observation—of life lived and life reflected on.
It’s about what all of us can learn from our own experience and from each other.
It’s about change—and how to make sense of change.
And it’s about what doesn’t change, the fundamentals of life well-lived and work well-done.
Each of us—and all of us—are in charge of generating our own rules of thumb to guide us through times of great turbulence, uncertainty, and opportunity. We need to be our own best thinkers and best doers, best teachers and best learners.
We may be on different journeys, but we’re on different journeys together. Each of us can generate our own rules of thumb; all of us can learn from each other. It’s our best hope for creating the future we all want.