Thomas Jefferson's 10 Rules for the Good Life (Part 1)
September 13, 2022
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 and famously died on July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the United States of America, codified by Jefferson's most important and famous contribution to our nation, the Declaration of Independence.
Few people are aware that the day of Jefferson's death was the same day that his close friend, predecessor to the presidency, and fellow author of the Declaration, John Adams died.
Not knowing that Jefferson had passed away five hours before him, Adam's reverent last words were, "Thomas Jefferson still survives."
A year-and-a-half before his passing, Jefferson was asked by John Spear Smith to share some advice and wisdom with Smith's son, Thomas Jefferson Smith.
Jefferson obliged, sending a letter on February 21, 1825 to his young namesake that included words he hoped would be "a favorable influence on the course of life" for young Thomas.
First, there was a poem, which Jefferson declared a "portrait of a good man by the most sublime of Poets, for your imitation." The author of this poem was not stated.
Second, Jefferson shared his now famous, "Decalogue of Canons for observation in practical life," known by most people at the time and today as "Thomas Jefferson's 10 Rules of Life."
According to Oxford Bibliographies, the name “Decalogue”, or “ten words” (deka logous), refers to The Ten Commandments from Exodus in the Old Testament.
February of 1825 was not the first time Thomas Jefferson had shared his list of "Cannons of Conduct."
In an undated letter to his granddaughter, Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson included a full dozen "cannons of conduct."
Oxford Bibliographies points out that "Decalogue" is also a reference for "twelve commandments" in a separate chapter of Exodus. So, Jefferson's use of the term for both "ten" and "twelve" "cannons" was and is appropriate.
This list of twelve for Cornelia was later shortened to ten and shared with Paul Clay in 1817, the son of Jefferson's friend Charles Clay.
A slightly more refined list, but still ten, and the one almost exclusively referred to today, was shared eight years later with young Thomas Jefferson Smith.
So, what were these famous "10 Rules of Life" that have been revered, spread widely, and endured over the past two centuries?
In this article, we're going to consider the first five rules, providing an interpretation of their meaning in general, and where appropriate, how they apply in business.
Because interpretations vary, take my analysis as a starting point for your own interpretation as you think of personal examples for how each rule applies to you.
Lastly, those who are familiar with the philosophy of Stoicism will find Jefferson's ten rules to be particularly familiar.
That's because Thomas Jefferson was very well acquainted with stoic philosophy, which dates back 2,000 years to the Greek philosopher Epictetus and Roman philosophers Seneca and Marcus Aurelius (also Emperor).
For this reason, I will point out when one of Jefferson's rules is distinctly stoic, and in alignment with modern stoic writer Ryan Holiday's "50 Very Short Rules for a Good Life From the Stoics."
Jefferson's Decalogue of Canons shared with Thomas Jefferson Smith in 1825
(Library of Congress)
1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.
This rule clearly focuses on one of the most abundant of human habits, procrastination.
Much has been said and written about avoiding procrastination. A Google search on "how to reduce procrastination" yields 4,310,000 results.
The top article by Dean Bokari from Boise State University lists five great tips that are as good as any:
- Reduce the Number of Decisions You Need to Make Throughout the Day.
- Finish Your Day Before It Starts.
- The Nothing Alternative.
- The Next Action Habit—focus on something doable.
- Adjust Your Environment.
As you read through the explanation for each of Bokari's five tips, an important theme is repeated: the value of planning ahead.
For small business owners, goal setting is the way to take greatest advantage of planning for reducing stress, improving focus, and getting things done.
Without planning that comes from goal setting, everything that the business aims to accomplish is on deck, considered, and thought about in the here and now.
By establishing clear goals for what you want to accomplish in the longer term (3 years) and shorter term (1 year), you can focus your energy and attention today on just those tasks that are necessary to accomplish short term 90-day goals.
This prior planning, personally and for your business, greatly reduces the odds of you putting off till tomorrow what you need to do today.
2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself.
In the spirit of respecting someone else's time, it makes good sense to take care of tasks that you can and should be able to do yourself.
However, when it comes to Freedom Focused for business owners, following this rule too strictly will seriously compromise personal and professional freedom.
Too many business owners fail to delegate work to others because, "it's easier to just do myself," or "that person can't do this task as good as I can," or "the client expects to work with me directly," etc., etc.
An inability to delegate will forever tie owners to their business, and in doing so, significantly reduce their level of personal and professional freedom... and ultimately their "freedom to exit" the business when they're ready, for maximum dollars, and minimum residual obligation.
Even so, keep in mind that there are clearly some activities that you should truly not trouble others to do because you should do them yourself.
These would be activities which are considered your "unique ability."
Activities that are your "super power," that everyone recognizes as something you're exceptional at doing, that you love to do, and that give you energy.
"Unique ability" is described in greater detail (along with incompetent, competent, and excellent activities) in my article "Never Work Another Day in Your Life."
In summary, I recommend that you follow Jefferson's second rule when, for example, as the business owner you're demonstrating to others that there is no task that is "beneath you," like answering a phone.
Also, when there's a task that fits into your "unique ability."
For most other activities, delegate, delegate, delegate.
3. Never spend your money before you have it.
In the literal sense, following this rule will prevent you from overextending yourself financially, like purchasing lots of new equipment or hiring a lot of new employees before cash flow can cover the new expenses.
From a slightly more abstract perspective, I'm reminded of a couple popular idioms or proverbs that have a similar meaning: "don't put the cart before the horse" and "don't get out over your skis."
From this interpretation, rule number three can be applied more broadly to actions that are not strictly financial, like spending lots of time and effort planning to move into a new office before the final terms are agreed to and included in a signed lease or purchase agreement.
As with rule number one, planning ahead is critical to not getting tripped up and violating this rule.
For this reason, I would suggest a slight modification to the third rule: Never spend your money before you have it "planned for."
4. Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap; it will never be dear to you.
At a conference several years ago, my brother and I were perusing the items on display for a silent auction.
As we moved from tantalizing item to tantalizing item, we came across a Medi-Rub foot massager.
My brother reminded me that he had purchased one for over $300 from a booth at last year's conference, and he thought it was great.
Who doesn't love a foot massage?
So, I wrote down a low-ball bid for $175, confident that I would be outbid by someone who also loved foot massages.
I won the bid...BUT, the massager sits in my living room collecting dust, rarely being used.
It's now a trophy example of Jefferson's fourth rule, draped in the reminder of money I had wasted on something, just because it was a great deal.
Unfortunately, we're all susceptible to violating this rule because our brains are wired to respond to the oldest marketing tricks in the book.
If someone offers you a really good deal on something, your natural instinct is to want to take advantage of the fact that you can have it for fewer dollars, even if you don't really want or need what's "on sale."
This natural tendency is tweaked further when you also learn that there's a limited quantity of the item being sold at the really good price, and amped up even further when a time limit to take advantage of the deal is included.
In his "7 principles of persuasion," Dr. Robert Cialdini refers to this marketing trick as "scarcity," and of course it works!
The problem is that we often end up with, as Jefferson warns in this rule, things we don't really want or need, and that will never be dear to us.
5. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
Pride can certainly be blamed on many bad decisions, even ones that we know will cause us harm.
Some might call this being stubborn.
Dr. Cialdini would call it "consistency", referring again to his 7 principles of persuasion.
People are more likely to stick to a course of action (be "consistent") once they've committed to it, and especially once they've publicly declared to the world verbally or in writing that they're going to do, or are already doing, something.
Doing otherwise might be seen as an insecurity, show a lack of resolve, or a lack of self-confidence. All behaviors that could make one look bad in the eyes of others, ultimately hurting one's pride.
Not asking for help when you need it, because of pride, applies to this rule. It's also one of Ryan Holiday's "50 Very Short Rules" from the stoics: #29 Don't be afraid to ask for help.
As a small business owner, it's essential that you let go of pride and accept the help of others. It's the only way to create a truly Freedom Focused business and maximize your personal and professional freedom.
To be continued...
We'll be back again in "Part 2" of this article to finish reviewing Jefferson's "10 Rules of Life," starting with Rule 6, "Never repent of having eaten too little."
Until then, stay...
Focused on your freedom!