Five rules for success

This a response to the question, “What 5 rules would help me become successful if I applied them to my life?”

I love questions like these.

They remind me that we already know the answers. Billions of people have come and gone and demonstrated what to do and what not to do, yet we still ask how to lead a good life and be successful and attain fulfilment.

The fact that we are relentless questioners and interrogators of our environment is one of the most endearing qualities, we as a species, have going for us.

They also remind me of a passage from B.H. Liddell Hart’s Strategy, which is his masterful survey of military strategy. There’s a chapter called “The Concentrated Essence of Strategy and Tactics.” It’s three and a half pages long, but the product of a lifetime of his thought. At the beginning he says:

“Napoleon realised that only the practical is useful when he gave us his maxims. But the modern tendency has been to search for principles which can be expressed in a single word—and then need several thousand words to explain them. Even so, these ‘principles’ are so abstract that they mean different things to different men, and for any value, depend on the individual’s own understanding of war. The longer the one continues the search for such omnipotent abstractions, the more do they appear a mirage, neither attainable nor useful—except as an intellectual exercise.”

Gregory David Roberts wrote that “anything that can be put in a nutshell should remain there.” What is simple and powerful is never easy to effectively explain.

Giving five rules for success is a pointless exercise in some ways. Most of the answers given are self-evident, obvious, but staggeringly difficult to apply consistently and thoroughly in our lives. Which makes me think that the real value of this question lies not in the prescription of five rules, but in their application.

The adaptation of these “rules” to your individual circumstance is what matters.

Nevertheless, I’ve attempted to explain five rules, or themes, that have had the most impact on my life. Unlike many others here, I haven’t started and sold companies, or wrote a best-selling book, or saved lives, but these are patterns I have observed and learned from people far smarter, far wiser and far more accomplished than myself.

So I think they work.


Mitigate risk and control your downside:
Don’t do things that kill you, like smoking or eating junk. To be a success, you need to be alive. Wear your seat belt. Floss. Eliminate single points of failure from your life and career. Don’t go into debt and don’t spend money on bullshit. Use your money to have experiences and connect with interesting people.

Favour the negative over the positive:
Say ‘no’ more than you say ‘yes.’ Time, attention and energy are precious. Protect them. Subtract before you add. Happiness through the removal of unhappiness. Success through the avoidance of stupidity. What you don’t do and what you don’t know are more important than what you do.

Embrace the mastery mindset:
Mastery = time x attention x ego. That means you must watch and observe and monitor closely your own strengths and weaknesses, and those of others. You must do this every day, for decades. And despite anything that happens; failure, humiliation, disaster, loss. The first rule is to be really fucking good at what you do.

Recognise the dichotomy of control:
You cannot control what people think of you, or where you were born, or the family you were bought up in, or the outcome of your efforts. But you can control your response to all of this. You do decide how you act and how you think and what you do with everything that happens to you.

Don’t be an asshole:
Karma may not be an actual thing, but it’s beneficial to pretend that it is. The world is small now. Everybody will eventually find out if you manipulate and cheat and hurt and steal.

​Imagine you keep a logbook of everything you ever do. Before you die, your child is going to sit on your knee and together, you’re going to review the logbook, point by point. What would you be embarrassed to have on there? Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your child to know about.


There is nothing world bending here.

You probably already know all this. But as Andre Gide observed: “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

We ask the same questions. We get the same answers. The cycle never ends.