Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

Tom MacWright

I read Principles by Ray Dalio on

Review

Principles is an extraordinarily broad, ambitious book by Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates. Dalio is a billionaire (18, to be specific), and uses this fact to repeatedly remind you that he doesn’t need the money from this book. He doesn’t even really want the glory or fame: he just wants to share his vision and this efficient system of decisionmaking that will undoubtedly change your life.

The first section is Dalio’s autobiography, and I think it’s the highlight. He paints a clear, somewhat likeable portrait of himself with which I found some commonalities: he was also disinterested in school and instead loved to understand how things functioned, as applied in practice.

The principles, though: well, prepare to be disappointed. You can scan a PDF excerpt to get a feel for the style. Without cherry-picking an especially bad example, here’s a taste:

2.5 Push through to completion.
  a. Great planners who don’t execute their plans go nowhere.
  b. Good work habits are vastly underrated.
  c. Establish clear metrics to make certain that you are
     following your plan.

Dalio, in short, is a true believer in man’s ability to understand and reduce the world to technical details and programmatic actions, but an exceptional example of the limitations of that approach. He breezes through pop-neuroscience. He falls in love with MBTI personality types, the wildly inaccurate labels that try to distill everyone into four letters.

But in that way, Dalio’s true faith is only possible because of his distance from the technical. From how he portrays Bridgewater Associates’s (a hedge fund) computing division, it was doing what humans did but better - but unfortunately was constantly lagging behind the rest of the organization in culture. The idea that computational processes and human processes could be qualitatively different, that a computer arriving at a decision in a microsecond and a person in a day might be evidence of a different type of thinking rather than a different speed, well, all of this is irrelevant to Dalio’s very high-level thinking.

Which is also a bit ironic because Dalio attempts to create a program for thinking. He numbers the principles - not just with integers, but with sub-sections. He could interrupt a meeting and quote principle 2.5-a. In structure and aesthetic, what he’s building is a sort of like a decision tree, but in reality it’s more like a structured list of inspirational office poster quotes.

In short, Principles won’t make you Ray Dalio. His biggest accomplishment is predicting the 2009 stock market crash. This won’t help you predict the next crash.

It’s fair to ask why I even attempt this kind of book anymore: I didn’t like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, either, and I just don’t get what people take from most self-help books. But to give a counterexample, I really enjoyed Non-Violent Communication. I liked it because it didn’t repeat its title in every paragraph, it proposed a new, different, and often effective technique that was concrete enough to actually try. I just can’t imagine someone sitting at their desk, stuck, and then remembering principle 2.5, Push through to completion., and then putting it into action. Few principles are surprising, and even fewer are specific enough to implement. And despite the three-level numbering system, they aren’t structured or additive in any way that would make them a true system.

Dalio can write, and he’s smart. His knowledge is strongest when it comes to economics. So if you want to read his brilliance, it’s best expressed when he’s summarizing economic principles, not speaking in generalities about life.

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