I was pleasantly surprised by the wisdom in The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz.
1. Be impeccable with your word. Don’t speak ill of anyone — other people or yourself. Don Miguel reports that impeccable means “without sin” and speaking without sin means not wronging others or yourself. This goes back to applies to what your mother said: if you can’t say anything nice about someon, don’t say anything. Julie Moraitis describes it as “Be Impeccable with your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.” Guy Kawasaki recommends the same approach for social media: “Stay Positive or Stay Silent.”
Eric Barker takes this good advice and provides a practical reason for following it. He wrote:
I found this study in the excellent book 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute. The author, Richard Wiseman, breaks it down like this:
When you gossip about another person, listeners unconsciously associate you with the characteristics you are describing, ultimately leading to those characteristics’ being “transferred” to you. So, say positive and pleasant things about friends and colleagues, and you are seen as a nice person. In contrast, constantly complain about their failings, and people will unconsciously apply the negative traits and incompetence to you.
In addition to it being the right thing to do, being impeccable with your word is also good for you.
2. Don’t take anything personally. Don Miguel writes “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.” He makes an excellent point. People spend a lot more time thinking about themselves than they do about you. And while it is an excellent point and good advice, it is hard to implement. It is hard not to feel hurt if others treat you with disrespect or don’t listen to you.
3. Don’t make assumptions. Of course, there is the familiar adage: When you assume, you make an ass of you and me (ass / u / me). I first heard this on an episode of the Odd Couple entitled “My Strife in Court” in which Felix is arrested for scalping an opera ticket.
Making assumptions about people’s motives or meanings can cause unnecessary misunderstandings. Don’t make assumptions.
4. Always do your best. Another profoundly simple but powerful statement. Don Miguel acknowledges that your best may be different at different times: if you are tired and hungry, your best may be different from when you are rested and relaxed. In whatever situation, we should do our best. At our best, we are generous, thoughtful, compassionate and understanding. It makes perfect sense to strive to do our best at all times.
This agreement reminds me of a story (and I wish I could remember where I read it first) of someone who worked for Henry Kissinger. Ambassador Winston Lord tells this story
I went in with a draft, and it was actually of a presidential foreign policy report. This is slightly apocryphal and not directly on your subject here, but I would go in with a draft of the speech. He called me in the next day and said, “Is this the best you can do?” I said, “Henry, I thought so, but I’ll try again.” So I go back in a few days, another draft. He called me in the next day and he said, “Are you sure this is the best you can do?” I said, “Well, I really thought so. I’ll try one more time.” Anyway, this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, “Is this the best you can do?” So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he called me in the next day and asked me that same question, I really got exasperated and I said, “Henry, I’ve beaten my brains out – this is the ninth draft. I know it’s the best I can do: I can’t possibly improve one more word.” He then looked at me and said, “In that case, now I’ll read it.” See Interview with Ambassador Winston Lord
Don Miguel Ruiz provides for simple but powerful agreements as guidance for personal freedom. Be impeccable with your word is the cornerstone. If you are impeccable with your word, you don’t take anything personally, you don’t make assumptions and you always do your best.