A modern principle for digital humans

A fundamental human problem: how do we cooperate to maintain our civilization when each individual is a mess of ego and self-preservation?

Evolution gifted us with both the bonding drug oxytocin and a sense of existential dread we call embarrassment. Religions enshrine morality in divine will and immortal reward. Western enlightenment thinkers appeal to rationality and the natural order.

But what always sticks are easy-to-remember principles. The Judeo-Christian marketing department nailed this one: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It even has a catchy name.

However, modern people are organized in more ways than any classic thinker could have imagined. “Just be nice to your neighbor” won’t cut it anymore. Nearly everyone is a part of a company, an online forum, an HOA, a slack group, the prom committee, a twitter thread, or maybe even something more decentralized and weird. Attachments are ephemeral.

So how should we act?

I discovered such an answer only recently (surprising because it comes from my collegiate department). I was amazed by its simplicity and flexibility. Although not quite as pithy as the Golden Rule, it’s nonetheless easy to remember. As proof, this principle spread in unwritten fashion for most of its existence.

The Reasonable Person Principle

Linked above, but we’ll take it in pieces. The overview states:

  • Everyone will be reasonable.
  • Everyone expects everyone else to be reasonable.
  • No one is special.
  • Do not be offended if someone suggests you are not being reasonable.

The bullets are simple enough: be reasonable. I interpret “reasonable” in contrast with two other qualities: emotional and demanding. Emotional actors are irrational — literally not acting with reason. Demanding actors expect others to behave without reason — that is, in the demanding actor’s best interest. Both serve ego. And ego is the enemy.

Continuing…

Reasonable people think about their needs, and the needs of others, and adjust their behavior to meet the goals of a common good for the community, i.e., expressing what you want to say, but accepting and accommodating the needs of others.It holds that reasonable people strike a suitable balance between their own immediate desires and the good of the community at large.

This advocates a community-focused mindset: reason would dictate that what is good for the community is good for the individual. If the community falters, the individual would cease to get much value out of it. Of course, this is a balance. If someone were giving to a community and got nothing back, that person would (reasonably) leave. (Keep in mind: some communities, like citizenship, are not voluntary communities. The principle doesn’t extend everywhere).

I also like the part about self-moderated self-expression. A community should not to tamp down any one person’s individuality. Instead, it should provide the guard rails to make sure it doesn’t descend into 4chan-level madness.

Not all people share the same model of reasonableness, so disagreements inevitably occur. Under the reasonable person principle, the first thing to do is work it out privately (perhaps in person, since e-mail is known to amplify feelings). Indeed, many people would find it unreasonable to bring in third parties before trying personal discussion.

This is a refreshing statement. People interpret law and proprietary differently, and that’s acknowledged from the outset. Better to plan for the inevitable than to try legislating away conflict. It boils down to communication.

More generally, the reasonable person principle favors local, unofficial actions over formal administrative ones. It assumes that people will be responsive when reminded of a conflict or asked to re-examine their behavior. It encourages requesting rather than demanding. And it leaves some room for difference of opinion.

Simple. Let people work things out for themselves. But only reasonable people can be trusted to do this. And in a zeitgeist obsessed with decentralization, perhaps a little reasonableness wouldn’t hurt.

Lastly, if I were to add one thing, a motto that has served me well since college: assume good intentions. It’s amazing the mental shift when you assume others are motivated by good but acting under uncertainty. Instead of thinking “how could they have done that,” try “what good intentions could have led them to do that?” I think you’d find everyone to be a little more reasonable, not least of all yourself.

They All Ship

Ira Glass:
The most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

Venkatesh Rao:
“Releasing. As in the agile software dictum of release early and often. In blogging, frequency isn’t about bug-fixing or collaboration. It isn’t even about market testing … It is purely about rational gambling in the dollar-cost averaging sense. It is the investing advice ‘don’t try to time the market’ applied to your personal work.

Taylor Pearson:
You need to put yourself on a deadline and ship. ‘Ship’, a term from Steve Jobs’ line ‘real artists ship’ and popularized by Seth Godin, is an essential difference between work and The Work. … The Work may be the best way to achieve the goals that many people seek through work.

Dan Norris:
Understand that you have two choices: to create something or consume something. The only thing I know about successful people is that they create things. Create so much they can’t ignore you.

All form the same idea: shipping, releasing, publishing, producing, etc. That is, make something, then make it accessible to others. Writing in your journal does not count as shipping — posting on a blog does. Playing guitar does not count as shipping — uploading a song does. Doing code puzzles does not count as shipping — contributing to open source does.

Every majorly successful person I can think of (or at least those that have attained household name status) are shippers. They release a lot. They have an air of prolific mastery. It’s magic. How do they get so much done?

One example: Robert Moses.[1] He’s perhaps the most prolific public official to have ever lived. He was New York City’s Parks Commissioner in the first half of the 20th century. He simultaneously held 12 state and local titles. He built 2.6 million acres of parks, 658 playgrounds, 416 miles of parkways, and 13 bridges. He worked tirelessly and ceaselessly. He had grand, clear visions. And he didn’t compromise. In the styling of biographer Robert Caro, he “Got Things Done;” he shipped.

Robert Moses is the rule, and not the exception. The biography section is filled with men and women like him. What explains this commonality? Consider a few observations:

  1. They’ve had such an impact because they’re excellent, and they’re excellent because they’ve consistently shipped. Ira Glass, speaking above, said that every maker has a gap between their taste and the quality of their output. Only by producing a lot, can you close that gap.
  2. Part of the love (arguably narcissism) they had for their craft was seeing it affect the real world. They had a sincere extraverted aim to their work: to publish it, to bend reality, to put a dent in the universe. Jerry Seinfeld didn’t just love comedy, he loved to make others laugh. And that love drove him to keep producing and getting better.
  3. A quickly expanding body of work attracts attention, which is a major aspect of success. People remember your one hit, not your entire back-catalog of flops. More work gives you more chances to strike a chord, as Rao said above.

Shipping is something that everyone can do. As a creator, your work is obvious — create and publish. But for knowledge workers, your shippable work is not so easy to identify. If you’re a leader or a manager, how do you ship?

Again, look at the example of Robert Moses above. He didn’t lay bricks or thread suspension cables across bridges himself. Instead, he was the coordinator behind the projects. As they say: he didn’t make it, but he did make it happen. By deftly delegating to and wielding an organization that was able to produce so many public works, he got the credit and became the man who “got it done.”

In knowledge work, it’s similarly important that the project you are tasked with gets done. Maybe that means you execute on it yourself, or maybe that means you enable others to. The bottom line is to build a reputation such that people feel confident entrusting you with responsibility. And you do that by shipping.

Shipping quality work over and over has been shown throughout history as a sure way to get good, to get noticed, and to get rewarded. So do the work and ship.


[1] “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” is a majorly influential book on me that you will surely see more references to.