My Principle

Written by Troy Howard

11 March 2014

Bret Victor is one of my favourite thinkers. One of the few people who deserves the oft-chuckled-at title of "thought leader".

In his talk Inventing on Principle, Bret described how he, and many other influential figures, have been guided by a driving principle, unique to the individual, which when applied to a variety of situations, led them to improve and innovate upon the status quo. He advocated that one could find their personal principle, identify with it, and be guided by it.

I think I've found my principle.

No One Should Ever Feel Like They Can't Do Something

Looking back on my personal history, at the things I've done that have been the most significant both to myself and to others, I tried to find a commonality.

The main commonality between them is my personal sense of disgust and sadness when I see people tell themselves that they can't do something. I'm inspired by people who "defeat the odds" to succeed, despite what ostensibly are insurmountable obstacles. Stories of folks like Richie Parker, Sam Berns, or Caine Monroy can bring me to tears.

But I'm also inspired by less dramatic successes. Watching an artist or a craftsman use a tool that is perfectly suited to a job. Watching a figure skater glide over freshly smoothed ice. I love watching people be free of frustration, confidently able to create what they want to create.

Growing Up

You can be anything you want to be, if you just set your mind to it. - Someone From My Childhood

Growing up, somehow I got the idea lodged into my head that "You can be anything you want to be, if you just set your mind to it". I'm not sure who it was that put that idea in my head. Probably not my mother…. or my teachers… or anyone around me. They were all very closed to possibility, and spent a lot of time telling themselves and me to stop trying. Maybe it was the television.

No matter how it happened, I'm so lucky that it did. I grew up in a very poor, very depressed environment. I was surrounded by people from a severely oppressed minority, stigmatized by their skin color, beaten down by generations of institutionalized violence. But I was not one of them, I was a White Male™ and therefore, free of the inescapable nature of their oppression. We might have shared a common origin, but not common limitations.

Being a White Male™, I could learn and grow, find and take opportunity and rise above my humble origins. Once I got there, no-one would be the wiser, and I could claim ownership of my own success. Growing up, my peers and their elders had no such future to look forward to. They didn't feel, like I felt, that they could "be anything they wanted to be". Even if they made it, their skin color would always betray their origins; a beacon of "less important, less capable, less trustworthy" broadcast to anyone who so much as caught a glimpse of them.

A Sense of Possibility

Not having that sense of possibility is a huge loss to the human heart. We are fundamentally optimistic creatures. Perhaps we're even evolutionarily adapted to be somewhat irrationally optimisitic; presuming that the future will be what we want it to be, driven to be unreasonably confident, then ultimately succeeding, proving the world wrong.

Looking around me, as a child, I saw a loss of that sense of the possible in every dark-skinned person I met, and in most women of every race. It took me until I was 9 years old before I realized that I was different.

I began to see the weird mixture of envy and resentment in their eyes, because I still had hope. I was able to look forward to a future for myself, and believe that I could achieve something, anything, if I put my mind to it; but they couldn't.


You can have anything you want if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose. - Abraham Lincoln (maybe)

This is not a new idea. Abraham Lincoln, widely credited for being the political force that freed the ancestors of my childhood neighbors from outright slavery, said this in the early-to-mid 1800s… Or maybe it was Robert Collier), who lived in St. Louis (where I lived as a child), during the late-1800-to-early-1900s, just after Lincoln's era, and personally witnessed such terrible events as the East St. Louis Race Riots of 1917.

I'm not sure which of these now-dead people deserves credit for this quote and my Google-fu can't quite give me a definitive answer. Doesn't matter to me. Either one (or both) of them saw the same problem that I see now, but in a more poignant form than it exists today.

There's still a long road to achieve that dream that you can be anything you want to be, but to be irrationally optimistic, we are closer today than we ever have been.

Logic, Souls and Healing

You may notice that I phrased my principle above as "No One Should Ever Feel Like They Can't Do Something" – a double-negative. The original quote is "You can be anything you want to be"… Why did I express the same thing, using double negatives? Because, logic.

I am too realistic, too pragmatic, to buy into a feel-good mantra that anyone can do anything. I know that's not true. I wish it was true, but it's not. There are limits. Real limits, like missing limbs, poorly functioning human hardware, diseases, ailments, malformations, and many other things. But one thing that is almost always true is that inside, despite physical limitations, the human soul still works. Maybe not even the brain, but the soul; that immeasurable engine of feelings and emotions.

Most of us have a functioning soul despite any other limitations, but most of us have unhealthy souls. I'm not a religious person, or even very spiritual, but I do believe in this idea of a soul, and I believe that it's important to care about its health and those around you.

I can't, in good conscience watch my peers and neighbors suffer, while I reap the benefits of their suffering at the same time. I want to see our society healed, and end this plague of the soul.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

My principle focuses on keeping the soul healthy. I want anyone, at anytime, to feel as if they can accomplish whatever it is that they want to accomplish. But, more specifically, I want them not to feel like they can't do something.

I don't think everyone needs to be warm and fuzzy and pushing their personal envelopes all the time. Inspiration is like a fire; it can't burn all the time. Maybe they never think about doing anything new. Maybe they never have an idea or any inspiration to be more than what they are. Ok… that's boring, but it's fine, if that's just who you are. But when that inspiration happens, I want people to be able to capture that flame, stoke it and let that fire grow as far as possible while it burns.

When someone feels that they can't do something, it prevents the flame of inspiration from ever igniting. Being told you "can't" douses it cold as it struggles to move from a spark to fire, never set alight.

Not everything succeeds. Not everything is reasonable or even has a chance. But inspiration should be encouraged and ideas should be explored, tried, and be considered possible until proven impossible.

Like the US legal principle that we are innocent until proven guilty, I hold that we can consider anything possible until proven impossible.

Let It Be Incomplete

The Wiki Way: being able to describe the incomplete and make it useful. - Ward Cunningham

I recently sat down and chatted with Ward Cunningham over lunch. I asked him about his personal principle. This resulted in a long conversation. One thing that stuck out was his idea that you could leave things incomplete, but they could still be useful. That was one of the underlying principles that inspired him to create the wiki and help launch the Agile movement. Seems like a good principle.

My ideas here are not fully developed. I'm not completely sure if my principle is correctly described or how to be guided by it. But at least, stating it here, in this fledgling and incomplete form, is a starting point.

Let's see where it goes…