Tactics vs. Principles

There’s a ton of good advice out there on the web and published in books.  (There’s also a ton of bad advice too but that’s a post for another day.)  However, even most of the good advice you’ll find on my site and elsewhere will likely be of little use to you if you don’t understand the underlying ideas.  The first step towards reaching this understanding is to identify whether that piece of advice is a Tactic or a Principle and follow it up with the respective game plan.


When I was a grad student many years ago, I remember taking a class in quantum mechanics which used a textbook choke full of concepts and very little instructions on how to apply the concepts to solve problems.  The professor, on the other hand, only tested problem solving and not recall of concepts in his exams .  Although I had a solid technical background, I struggled with that class far more than the vast majority of university courses I had taken.  Specifically, the lack of examples made it difficult to know which calculations to perform and the steps needed to crunch out solutions to problems.  It eventually dawned on me almost halfway into the course that I had to understand the basic concepts behind quantum mechanics instead of reading a bunch of examples to figure out how to solve problems.  I made sure I understood the concepts rock-solidly before moving on to tackling problems and eventually passed the class. Far more importantly, I also gained lifelong appreciation for mastering Principles instead of just mastering the superficial Tactics.


For much of your K-12 and college educations, you learned by mastering Tactics.  Whether you learned arithmetic by doing countless math problems, history by remembering the dates and significance of major events, or chemistry by memorizing the periodic table, it was good enough to pass exams.  While you did learn some theories and Principles from time to time, their emphasis has been relatively weak.  I agree that much of the Tactical knowledge you learn in school is indispensable in real life, but you can reap even greater benefits in diverse situations by mastering the Principles behind those Tactics.


What are Principles?


Principles are highly conceptual pieces of knowledge that convey a mindset to be followed rather than specific steps to solve a problem.  It’s usually up to the audience receiving the knowledge to come up with a game plan to implement it.  Principles are also generally independent of an individual’s specific situation and require ingenuity to execute while respecting his/her constraints, environment, values, etc.  If the piece of advice you’re receiving is something along the lines of “do whatever it takes to accomplish X in order to achieve Y” or “it doesn’t matter what software you use as long as you accomplish Z” then it’s likely a principle.  Principles are best suited for providing guidance to a wide range of situations but will require some creative thinking on your part to implement successfully.


What are Tactics?


Tactics are pieces of knowledge or advice that call for specific techniques or methods of execution.  If you come across advice that is organized step by step (Step 1: Do this, Step 2: Do that, etc.), then it’s very likely a tactic.  Tactics are relatively easy to implement for results as long as they happen to be targeted to solving your specific problem.  In reality, not everyone’s situation is the same and following a Tactic word for word probably won’t get you the same results as the author or someone else.  It’s important to adapt every Tactical advice you receive (whether on my site or somewhere else) to your specific situation for best results.  What parts do you need to adapt?  Well, it really depends on your judgement but knowing the Principles behind the Tactic helps tremendously.  Take a minute or two to go through each detailed step of a Tactic and think “Why?”; this will bring you closer to discovering the broader and more versatile Principles behind the specific Tactic.


Examples of Principles


  • In order to get rich, spend less money than what you earn.
  • To lose weight, burn more calories than what you eat.
  • Never invest in anything you don’t understand.


Examples of Tactics


  • Cancel your cable and watch your favorite shows on Netflix to save money.
  • Instead of eating until you feel full, just stop eating once you no longer feel hungry.
  • The % of your portfolio that should be invested in bonds is approximately equal to your age.  Invest the rest into stocks.


Why I’ll Write About Both Tactics and Principles.


While I strongly believe Principles are more superior to Tactics, I will offer plenty of Tactical advice as well.  The Tactics here are actual techniques I use on a regular basis or specific solutions to my past problems.  I may not always reveal the Principle(s) behind each Tactic but you should always strive to find it.


Most articles offering advice will be tagged with either principles and/or tactics depending on their nature.  Don’t be afraid to leave comments or contact me for advice on implementing a Principle provided that you give some examples of what you’ve already tried so far.




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