Consider “The Four Agreements” for Happiness in Life and Work

In The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, bestselling author don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, the book offers a powerful approach that can quickly put you on a path to live in harmony with yourself and others.

When your mind drifts to open source, it naturally lands on compliance matters: agreements about licenses, contributions, code of conduct, governance and more. In this blog, I’m going to tell you how you can apply The Four Agreements to achieve happiness in your personal life and open source work, a simple “code of conduct” that has effectively seen me through the pandemic, economic upheaval and unrest in the world. 

Put in their most basic form, The Four Agreements are the following:

1. Be Impeccable With Your Word

Ruiz explains this agreement as an act of taking full responsibility for your spoken and written words. It refers to integrity and can be rephrased as “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”

Applying this concept is challenging, especially for those of us who are high-achievers, driven by deriving validation from the output of productivity, while afflicted by a barrage of nasty self-talk, egging us on toward the next challenge. I used to set ridiculously high expectations for myself across diverse areas of interest and ended up judging myself for not investing enough time or commitment to one given field. However, abiding to this newfound integrity, I find that I can fully engage in each field by devoting 15 minutes on Monday mornings to allot time to each one throughout the week. Now I really enjoy my work, am true to myself and best of all, I don’t beat myself up anymore!

There’s a lot to be said about exercising integrity and choosing your words carefully when collaborating with others, especially in the open source community. Why? Because individuals in open source are apt to retain their roles within a certain community even when they change jobs, which is why your reputation and integrity are so important. Agreement #1 calls for using the power of your word constructively and inclusively when opening or addressing project issues, responding to and asking questions, and participating in Zoom calls and in-person events. It means making the community a better place because you’re in it.

2. Don’t Take Anything Personally

Whether we work in an open source community or not, we can feel hurt or mistreated by others’ words or actions. We all have differing beliefs, desires and goals so why do we take the actions and words of someone else and internalize it? It’s a common mistake I used to make. I was convinced that only others could make me feel accepted or valued for my work. This agreement points out that what others say and do is a projection of their own reality and not to give others our power.

Maintainers of open source projects endure high levels of stress and are at risk for burnout as there are so many conflicting demands upon their time and expertise. They often need to respond to colleagues, customers, community members and in some cases, beyond the ecosystem, while keeping an even keel. I once witnessed a contributor lose his cool and lash out at a maintainer when a PR hadn’t been accepted for valid reasons unbeknownst to the contributor. They were both offended, looking to assign blame to the other. If the contributor had asked why the request remained unresolved, a logical discussion between the two would have ensued. By not taking things personally, people are much more collaborative and focused on finding resolution, not blame.

3. Don’t Make Assumptions

Making assumptions is the greatest waste of our time and energy. Yet, we think we can out-strategize a colleague based on having no information at all, equipped with only the belief that we really know what they are thinking. If we’d ask questions, opening the communication channels instead, we’d empower ourselves with knowledge, avoid misunderstandings and find ample time to focus on our goals.

In the context of a new open source project, forming expectations about the way a community should be set up, who you would expect to work with, how exactly something is supposed to be done or who is “normally” responsible for a task are not only examples of assumptions that aren’t validated, but therein stand a good chance of stirring up some misunderstandings in coming into the project. (I’m speaking from experience!)

This agreement advocates that your best strategy is to replace your assumptions with questions and listen carefully until all your assumptions are confirmed or corrected. Keeping communication open and welcoming will help others avoid this trap.

4. Always Do Your Best

Doing your best sounds like something your parents would say, but it’s timeless advice. Ruiz tells us your “best” changes from moment to moment, from situation to situation. In fact, doing your best doesn’t translate to overdo, overwork or “over” anything. It simply means showing up, as we are and who we are, even if all we can do in that moment is listen.  

The best thing about doing your best? Self-judgment and regret is eliminated in any given moment. That leaves no opportunity for beating ourselves up, wallowing in regret or sabotaging our efforts. This is a liberating experience, and I am doing my best to put the finishing touches on this blog post right now.

Guiding Principles to Live By

Abiding by The Four Agreements gives us self-awareness and the ability to manage our emotions by not making them dependent upon others. We are in harmony with ourselves, respectful of others and good communicators. We understand our motivations and give everything our best shot and grow more self-empowered.

My personal path toward experiencing more freedom from limiting beliefs and fears and finding happiness through incorporating The Four Agreements into my life has not only brought me to the world of open source, but helps me stay happy, focused and motivated to develop further in this area. I invite you to do the same!

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