Some time ago, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, John Perry Barlow sent me (and a few thousand other friends in his “BarlowFriendz” group) a birthday message with a gift.
The email recounted how, when Barlow turned 30, he decided that he could no longer “defend [his] peccadillos on basis of youth.” While the 30-year-old Barlow didn’t really want to be a grown up, he wanted “at least to act like one in the less toxic and stultifying sense of the term.” He thereupon sat down (around 2 am) and drew up a list of behavioral goals he hoped “would assist in the process.” The list was what Barlow called his “principles of adult behavior.”
By 30, as his many friends knew and he later recounted in his autobiography, Barlow had already lived a life full of many peccadillos. Stepping up “to acquire some minimal sense of responsibility,” as he described it, was a big step, indeed.
Barlow told his friends at the time that he didn’t expect perfect attainment of his principles. “However,” he wrote, “I post them as a standard for my conduct as an adult. Should any of my friends and colleagues catch me violating any of them, bust me.” On his 60th birthday, Barlow claimed only “mixed success.” Over the 24 years I knew him, I was with Barlow on dozens of occasions and experienced firsthand the truthfulness of his self-assessments on both the “mixed” and “success” fronts.
The gift that Barlow gave us on his 60th birthday was this list. It was not the first time that many had seen it but it was the first time I had heard the backstory.
Barlow offered his principles to ask for help in following them. He also gently hinted that they might have wider application. He wrote:
I give these to you so that you can provide me with encouragement in becoming the person I want to be. And maybe, though they are personally targeted, they may even be of some little guidance to you.
If an essential element of leadership is following one’s personal “true north,” as Harvard Professor Bill George has written, then Barlow’s principles could serve as an excellent internal compass. His principles of adult behavior are, in essence, excellent principles for adult leadership as well.
Barlow is no longer with us, but I’m sure that he would happily give these to you, with encouragement in becoming the leader you want to be.
Consider posting them as a standard for your conduct as a leader. Like Barlow, you won’t reach perfect attainment. But they might serve as a behavioral guide. You might even ask your friends and colleagues to bust you, should they catch you violating any of them.
- Be patient. No matter what.
- Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
- Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
- Expand your sense of the possible.
- Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
- Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.
- Tolerate ambiguity.
- Laugh at yourself frequently.
- Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
- Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
- Give up blood sports.
- Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.
- Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
- Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
- Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
- Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
- Praise at least as often as you disparage.
- Admit your errors freely and soon.
- Become less suspicious of joy.
- Understand humility.
- Remember that love forgives everything.
- Foster dignity.
- Live memorably.
- Love yourself.