The Basics

When I was an instructor at the Naval Academy in 2008, my friends and I decided to come up with a list of life rules. Our goal was to define the fewest possible rules that applied to any situation in our lives.

We refined our list until we had nine rules, each philosophically consistent with the others:

  • There are two types of people in this world: freedom-lovers and freedom-haters. Love freedom.
  • Everything is a competition. Act accordingly.
  • People feed on the insecurities of others. Never show weakness.
  • Everyone is fallible. Always go personal.
  • Nobody pays to watch defense. Attack, Attack, Attack.
  • But defense wins championships. Tell the truth and never apologize.
  • It’s not enough to win. Break their spirit.
  • Always exit on a high note.
  • If you want to make friends, win.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, these rules reflect the essence of military culture — the desire to beat the enemy. War is a part of life and the point of war is to win. In a broader sense, they reflect the spirit of competition and apply to any serious competitive endeavor.

But, as I’ve come to understand, these are not rules for life; there’s far more to life than just competition. I remember sharing the rules with a friend of mine who was a new dad, and he said, “Those are the rules of a child.” When I shared the list with my parents, they said basically the same thing, and replied with their own rules – one from my Dad, and one from my Mom. My Dad wrote, “Here are my life rules. Notice I dated them as I think rules should change as you grow older and wiser.”

Here’s a summary of what my parents wrote:  first, their instructions on how to live, and second their observations about the nature of life.


  • Give more than you receive
  • Have a strong faith and religion
  • Have a firm handshake and look them in the eye
  • Honor your commitments
  • Own your mistakes
  • Be firm but fair with others
  • Work hard now (and things will come easier later)
  • Don’t start a job if you’re not going to finish it
  • Play ‘em like you got ‘em
  • Buy quality and take care of your things
  • Keep your social graces

The Nature of Life

  • The world’s a circle (what goes around comes around)
  • It’s all relative (except for the difference between right and wrong)
  • Trust is earned
  • Power is taken, it is never granted
  • Knowledge is power; no one can take it from you
  • You are who you associate with
  • Your children cannot be your friends until they are 25
  • Respect comes from love, example, and fear of authority
  • Organization is the key to productivity
  • A smile and affection go a long way
  • The number one possession in life is time

For the past several years I’ve kept a file on my computer called “The Basics.” I use it to capture thoughts about life and how I should relate to it. It took a long time to develop, but eventually the ideas resolved into groups:  reality, attitude, curiosity, forethought, goals, initiative, and rhythm, among others. The order is deliberate:  first, the nature of life, then how you approach it, learn from it, plan for the future, get started, and so on. Here’s “The Basics” as of today. I’m sure these bullets will evolve as I learn more about life.

Now that I’m a dad, I’ve been thinking about what guidance I might share with my son. I took another look at “The Basics” and wrote this letter to him — but I have a strong feeling he’s going to teach me more about life than I can ever teach him.

Dear Son,

We live from the ground up, one day at a time. Life is tough, cruel, and unfair. Life is also free, fun, joyful, and sublime. The only thing you control is your response. I hope you’ll be curious, inquisitive, and aware…grateful, kind, and affectionate…carefree, enthusiastic, and self-assured.

I encourage you to explore, ask questions, and think for yourself. Learn from the past, look ahead, and cooperate with others. I wish you a healthy mind, body, and spirit…loving relationships with family and friends…and the satisfaction of spending yourself in a worthy cause.

My challenge to you is: find beauty, wonder, and exhilaration…No matter how ugly, dreadful, or boring life can be. When things get hard or complicated:

  • Get started. It’s the hardest part of any task
  • Keep going. Success is inevitable through hard work over time
  • And challenge yourself. Joy and duty are one and the same

Remember, in good times and bad, this too shall pass. So live life! Enjoy the moment! Life’s too short for anything else. This is your life, live it from the ground up, one day at a time!

Love, Dad

5 thoughts on “The Basics

  1. Hey Justin,

    I really love reading your posts because they bring me back to having you as one of my heroes growing up. It’s like you’re spitting wisdom from DC to LA.

    Miss you man,

  2. Really enjoyed the read and your insights on the basics. Funny how they apply no matter how old one is as we all keep evolving

    Congratulations on the birth of your son, nothing makes me happier than seeing Chris as a DAD.


  3. Another great letter. I know your parents are in awe of your creativity and perspective just as you will be of your children.

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