Gregory WieberWriting
Principles, by Ray Dalio (review)

Ray Dalio runs Bridgewater Associates, the world famous hedge fund — one of the few to bet correctly during the 2008 financial crisis. They're known for implementing radical workplace practices, and in Dalio's new book, we're shown the principles behind all of it.

What does it mean to be principled? It means that you make decisions not randomly, but based on a kind of code of conduct; a contract with yourself, your organization. Dalio saw patterns in his life, similar types of challenges that would arise again and again, and through a combination of objectivity and trial and error arrived at principles to navigate through it all.

Luck has played a role in Dalio's life, no doubt. But while Dalio doesn't shy away from highlighting his success and smart calls, he spends the majority of the book taking us through his weaknesses and most public failures.

Being brutally honest about your own shortcomings is a kind of meta principle woven throughout the entire book. In Dalio's view, when we fail, it's often due weaknesses that trip us up again and again. (It's not all 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps', though; Dalio acknowledges life's tendency to whack us over the head with a two-by-four whenever it feels like it.)

Principles touches on subjects I've found interesting and useful in my own work and personal life: meditation, cognitive behavior therapy, habits. Dalio's principles are a synthesis of these and many other ideas — a survival guide of sorts. But while one might be tempted to just copy them wholesale, what I appreciated most about the book was the framework it provides for arriving at your own principles; or even just a compelling case that it's worth having principles in the first place.

One exercise in the book I found particularly interesting was to spend time thinking about your biggest failures — identifying the weaknesses that were root cause. Was it a lack of critical information? Ignoring something that was plain to see because ego was in the way? Poor communication? After doing that with several failures, you begin to see the patterns in your own life. Once you've identified your weaknesses it becomes a matter of correcting them, or finding ways to work with people who are strong in the areas in which you are weak.

I haven't formed a strong opinion on the way that Bridgewater operates — I just don't know enough about them as a company. What comes across clearly in the book is just how radical their culture is; Baseball cards rating the 'believability' of every employee across a variety of metrics — from strategic thinking to ability to stay on task; apps for giving brutally honest, real-time feedback during meetings; expert systems for making decisions. As a technologist, I'm fascinated by this approach — this attempt at codifying an organization's principles. My biggest concern is that Dalio, despite his emphasis on candor and self-reflection has a blindspot — that algorithms can also encode our biases if we're not careful.

Ultimately, it's the principles themselves I find most interesting. In both life and work, Dalio recommends taking an iterative approach — something I connect with. Build, fail, learn, repeat. There's evidence for the effectiveness of this approach in other works. In The Power Of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, we're shown that during the Space Race, one of NASA's core habits was to applaud any time a rocket exploded. By embracing failure in this way, it freed them to try. Dalio lists The Power of Habit as a reference — it's a book that changed my life in many ways, and it's influence is felt throughout Principles.

I'd love, as Dalio wishes in the book, to see the principles of so many other interesting and productive people who have come and gone. Dalio wonders: what principles did Steve Jobs live by? Leonardo Di Vinci? I wonder: what were Picasso's principles that made him so prolific? Which ones guide Barack Obama through his own life? If nothing else it's neat that Dalio created this example for others to follow. Maybe we'll see more like this.

It's a big book, but one that can be skimmed and read non-linearly. In fact, Dalio recommends skipping the auto-biographical section if you're not sure you want to hear about his life; though I thought it was a nice piece of storytelling that added color to the principles in the second and third parts of the book.

On the whole I found Principles to be universal — as interesting for artists as it might be for investors. If nothing else, it's a starting point for thinking about what kind of principles you'd like to live by.

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