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Category Archives: Principles

I have always seen duty as paramount. Duty prevailed over need, want, pleasure, choice, happiness or self-direction.

Whatever you did, and you could do anything, you had to first ensure that you did your duty to God and your fellow man.

Duty first.

This is a deeply held sense of duty. I moralised extensively. I gave it primacy over all moral virtue because it was the life objective: the primary obligation of the adult in society. Duty was the ultimate obligation.

No matter how unwilling you were. Or how onerous the duty. Or how irrational.

Duty first.

As you may guess from my recent post, I’m not so cocksure about my sense of duty. Or the importance of duty. Certainly not its total primacy.

Many of the things I’ve been thinking have recently been said – better than I could say them – by the ever interesting Steve Pavlina:

While you may have been convinced that these duties are important, the truth is that they’re of no particular importance to people with high self-esteem and a positive sense of self-worth. Such people do not care how much money you make, what kind of provider you are, or how long you’ve been married to the same person. They’re much more curious about something else: how you feel about yourself and the path you’re walking.

When, however, I connect with people who are responsibly doing their duty, but who haven’t yet cultivated a life of happiness, I can’t help but notice the sallow desperation in their eyes, the numbness with which they speak, and the damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t game of self-deception they play each day. They feel trapped and lost to the point where they label feelings like depression and frustration with words like “fine” and “okay.”

If you find yourself in such a situation, there is a way out, and it begins with finally acknowledging the truth to yourself and diving into the dark places where you think it may lead. Accept your situation as it is, and most importantly, accept how you feel about it. The reality is that the darkness you fear is really nothing to fear at all. Yes, you may face some challenges, but that is how you’ll grow.

Steve Pavlina describes meeting the dutiful person. If you read his blog though, it’s clear that Steve Pavlina is not one of those people. Maybe he was that person once, but he isn’t now.

I have met that person. I have walked in his shoes, thought his thoughts and weighed his heart. I am that person. I am a duty bound slave.

A person doing their duty should look bleak. A life lived for duty erodes you from the inside. It wears you down until you are ground down emotionally. It leaves behind the finest dust in your heart that stops all positive feelings

You can exercise no hope, no creativity, no wisdom and no strength except in the discharge of your duty.

But duty is never ending. There are always more duties.

Duty is unforgiving. What you do is too little.

Duty is ever present. You can never fail to do your duty.

Duty is harsh. If you’re going to do your duty do it right or don’t do it.

Duty is ungrateful. After all you are only doing your duty: what you should do.

Duty is expectation. Someone has decided what you must do. Your job is not to ask but to do. To obey or go away.

On the day that realisation hits you, or worse you become comfortable with that burden, it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing in your eyes anything but a life of quiet desperation.

The truth is that duty is a self-locking prison. Duty bound and an ardent believer in duty you will discharge the task no matter the cost. It’s about who you are after all: dutiful. And at that point it doesn’t matter how aware you are of the prison at that point because you can’t imagine a life without duty anymore.

I’m trying to be more aware now of what is duty and what is choice. I no longer see my life as duty first. For now that’s the most I can do. But it’s a valuable start.


The Romans had a fine tradition of never presuming to write a man’s (it was always a man’s)  biography until he died. I have become convinced of the wisdom of this tradition.

Death changes how we understand life.

Death is the final point within any individuals story. We know that wherever the narrative arc begins, no matter where we find the stage of the story now, its ultimate destination is death’s door.

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Hong Kong people work hard. Undoubtedly they do. It is not unknown here for people to start their day by 8am or 9am and for their working day to finish well past 8pm in the evening. That would be a normal day. One that clocks up over 12 hours on the job. And of course you check, and reply, to emails once you’ve gone home in the evening.

There’s nothing wrong with that attitude in this society. Its pretty much an always on 24/7 place. Restaurants don’t close till late. Shops don’t close till later. And fast food is always open. Especially since McDonalds upped the game by switching many of its outlets to operating 24/7.

In recent weeks I find myself moving towards that 24/7 approach to my own work life. I’m not so much worried by that but by the consequential result that I don’t find the rest of my life as interesting. That has me really worried.

Ingrate, that I am, I cannot help it.  I loathed their incessant pedantic demands, their rigid structures, their skewed sense of perfectionism. It rankled. Their bastard form of flayed to the bone English, skeleton-like passed off as a prose supermodel.

If only they could be reasonable: accept that a 5 word point made with a 6 word sentence was not an abomination but ordinary. That preferring the full stop over the comma, passive voice over active, not blasphemy. It  fulfilled effectively the primary goal of language: communication.

I had little success in persuading them. One can’t persuade an ideologue.

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The beauty of any ideology is that it’s simple. Any project that advances the ideology is good. Anything that hinders the ideology is bad. This clear division between right and wrong makes it easy to take action. Once the project has been measured by the ideology action is a short step away.

This black/white division based on ideology is common. One example is the US debt ceiling debate. Republicans are stridently insistent that there should be a cut in spending. There is no scope (in their ideology) for tax increases. Democrats see revenue increases as necessary. Each party being motivated by their ideology. Republicans see tax increases and government spending as wrongs. Democrats see tax increases as a necessary part of the redistributive function of government.

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One of the most effective ways to unite a newly formed team is hate. When the right kind of hate is present, nothing can match its ability to create the togetherness, camaraderie and inter-reliance that forges a fantastic team.

Not all hate is created equal in this regard. What you need is the most difficult kind of hate to find. You need broad, reasonable personal hate. When you have this magic ingredient, teams join together inseparably.

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Life is about how you see yourself. How you see yourself defines what you will do, what you might try and what you will never do. At the moment at least. How you see yourself can change. Its flexibility is its biggest freedom and biggest curse.

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In any issue where there is scope for disagreement there are only two people who you should challenge. The first is anyone who champions a view you agree with. The second is anyone who advocates a view you might agree with. Every other view is irrelevant.

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This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

Truth is the foundational virtue. Its centrality can be seen in every aspect of life. Truth requires us  to identify our true selves, be true to others, be true in speech and stay true in action. There is no realm of life that  exists exempt from this core.

These cardinal principles manifest themselves in a variety of ways. They form the basis of every intention and action. If we learn, we seek to learn the truth. If we teach, we teach the truth. If we argue, we present the claim that is true. If we act, we act in a manner that strives to be true to what we have learned and spoken.

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Character is created by conflict. The moral person can taste the temptation of immorality. The immoral person considers the moral response. How we respond to that conflict determines character. All individuality is created by our choice between two or more contradictions.

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