Developing Your Personal Philosophy of Life

7 tensions to resolve.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

From Plato to Stephen Covey, it’s long been argued that life is more meaningful if guided by a foundational personal philosophy.

To that end, here are seven tensions the resolutions of which can help you develop your personal philosophy. Of course, you could choose a moderate position within each of these polar pairs but often people choose to aim toward one side or the other.

Planning vs. living in the moment. Clichés exist on both poles. Ben Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you’re preparing to fail.” On the other hand, Emily Dickinson wrote, “Forever is composed of nows.” In deciding which way you want to lean, it may help to look at your track record: To date, has your planning been worth it? Or has your planning too often been wrong? Has it shepherded you toward worthy paths or closed to you opportunities you should have taken? Or has your planning too often kept you from appreciating your present moments, always looking ahead as I foolishly did when, as a 20-year-old touring Paris, I raced through the Louvre so I could make it to the Tuilieries before closing time?

Practical vs. idealistic. We have been preached both: “Be realistic,” and on the other hand, “Dream big. Follow your passion.” Which side to tilt toward may depend on your self-efficacy: Bright, driven, non-procrastinators have a better chance of achieving their idealistic dreams or at least, as suggested in another cliché: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars,” (Norman Vincent Peale).

Disciplined vs. laid-back. Many people find it more pleasurable to be laid-back. The question is whether that will contribute, net, to your success and contentment, or at minimum, will the decrement to your success be worth it? On the other hand, some people enjoy the process of being disciplined or at least are willing to be disciplined in the service of more successful outcomes. The question is, “How about you?”

Reflective vs. impulsive. Some of this is hard-wired. Impulsivity has a significant genetic component, but it’s not completely genetic. Again, look at your track record: Have you been more successful by making quick decisions and thus getting more done? Or have you been more successful when taking your time, reflecting, considering more of the implications?

Just vs. merciful. Solid arguments can be made for leaning either way. Justice, by definition, means that people get what, on the merits, they deserve. How primary is that to you? Other people prefer a life tilted more toward mercy: Even if, on the merits, a person deserves less, the mercy-centric person leans toward giving people a break. How about you?

Self-critical vs. self-accepting. Some people feel it’s worth being hard on themselves: being self-critical and ever trying to improve. On the other hand, other people feel that’s too big a price to pay and/or that enough of who they are is hard-wired or has been molded by early experience and current externalities that they’d rather focus on self-acceptance.

Self-reliant vs. communitarian. There are quotable quotes at both poles. Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre wrote, “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”  In contrast, Hillary Clinton famously said, “It takes a village.” Again, look at your track record. Has your reliance on other people yielded more benefit than liability to you and perhaps to them? Or have you done better by focusing on self-reliance?

The takeaway

So, do you want to write bullets or a paragraph or two describing your personal philosophy? If so, yes, consider the aforementioned seven tensions but there may be other factors that merit consideration. A few possible examples: the role of spirituality or religion? Your work or relationship non-negotiables? Your ethical red line in the sand?

If you might find a model helpful, I offer my philosophy of life here.

Most people don’t follow their personal philosophy assiduously, but developing one can create guideposts that can help you live the life you want to live.

I read this aloud on YouTube.