The 25 Principles for Adult Behavior: John Perry Barlow (R.I.P.) Creates a List of Wise Rules to Live By

Image by the European Graduate School, via Wikimedia Commons

The most successful outlaws live by a code, and in many ways John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, Wyoming rancher, and erstwhile songwriter for the Grateful Dead—who died on Wednesday at the age of 70—was an archetypal American outlaw all of his life. He might have worn a white hat, so to speak, but he had no use for the government telling him what to do. And his charismatic defense of unfettered internet liberty inspired a new generation of hackers and activists, including a 12-year-old Aaron Swartz, who saw Barlow speak at his middle school and left the classroom changed.

Few people get to leave as lasting a legacy as Barlow, even had he not pioneered early cyberculture, penning the “Declaration of Independence of the Internet,” a techo-utopian document that continues to influence proponents of open access and free information. He introduced the Grateful Dead to Dr. Timothy Leary, under whose guidance Barlow began experimenting with LSD in college. His creative and personal relationship with the Dead’s Bob Weir stretches back to their high school days in Colorado, and he became an unofficial member of the band and its “junior lyricist,” as he put it (after Robert Hunter).

“John had a way of taking life’s most difficult things and framing them as challenges, therefore adventures,” wrote Weir in a succinctly poignant Twitter eulogy for his friend. We might think of Barlow’s code, which he laid out in a list he called the “25 Principles of Adult Behavior,” as a series of instructions for turning life’s difficulties into challenges, an adventurous reframing of what it means to grow up. For Barlow, that meant defying authority when it imposed arbitrary barriers and proprietary rules on the once-wild-open spaces of the internet.

But being a grown-up also meant accepting full responsibility for one’s behavior, life’s purpose, and the ethical treatment of oneself and others. See his list below, notable not so much for its originality but for its plainspoken reminder of the simple, shared wisdom that gets drowned in the assaultive noise of modern life. Such uncomplicated idealism was at the center of Perry’s life and work.

1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Admit your errors freely and soon.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
21. Remember that love forgives everything.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
25. Endure.

Barlow the “cowboy, poet, romantic, family man, philosopher, and ultimately, the bard of the digital revolution”—as Stephen Levy describes him at Wired—“became a great explainer” of the possibilities inherent in new media. He watched the internet become a far darker place than it had ever been in the 90s, a place where governments conduct cyberwars and impose censorship and barriers to access; where bad actors of all kinds manipulate, threaten, and intimidate.

But Barlow stood by his vision, of “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth… a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

This may sound naïve, yet as Cindy Cohn writes in EFF’s obituary for its founder, Barlow “knew that new technology could create and empower evil as much as it could create and empower good. He made a conscious decision to move toward the latter.” His 25-point code urges us to do the same.

via Kottke/Hacker News

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Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson’s Three Rules for Living Well: A Short and Succinct Life Philosophy

Milton Glaser’s 10 Rules for Life & Work: The Celebrated Designer Dispenses Wisdom Gained Over His Long Life & Career

The Hobo Ethical Code of 1889: 15 Rules for Living a Self-Reliant, Honest & Compassionate Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Michael J. Tobias says:

    He will truly be missed. Hopefully, his 25-point code will live on in the hearts, minds, and actions of a growing number of like-minded pioneers and lovers of freedom.

  • Joya says:

    My version of the code …. inspired by the 25 points :

    Be Patient and kind
    Assign responsibility
    not blame
    Don’t’ assume motives
    Expand your vision and sense of what’s possible
    If you can’t change it
    let it go
    Don’t expect more
    than you are willing to give
    Tolerate ambiguity
    Laugh at yourself frequently
    Be more concerned with what is right
    than who is right
    certainty is no guarantee
    You might be wrong
    Minimize risk
    you will be missed
    Respect others
    lies of omission
    only if you must
    Pursue mission
    not happiness
    It’s not all about you or me
    Praise at least as often as disparage
    Admit errors promptly
    Don’t’ take anything personally
    Love yourself
    Learn constantly
    Endure memorably
    With dignity

  • David George says:

    Very similar to Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for life” from his new book of the same name.
    1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
    2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
    3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
    4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday not to who someone else is today.
    5. Don’t let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
    6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
    7. Pursue what is meaningful – not what is expedient.
    8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.
    9. Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
    10. Be precise in your speech.
    11. Don’t bother children when they’re skateboarding.
    12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

  • david loos says:

    “be less suspicious of joy”? it’s phrasings like this that “red flag” this list, and all others like them, as another batch of self-help hogwash.

    if you need this kind of crap, then your life is always going to be screwed up.

  • Steve Heilig says:

    Sounds kinda like you might need this more than many.

  • Cicero says:

    Nothing like JBP’s 12 rules.

  • smartalek says:

    F*ck me dead, this is now the *second* time that I’ve had to learn of the passing of a beloved creator (the first being Ursula K Le Guin, of Earthsea and Omelas and ansible fame — who also, by-the-by, wrote BOTH of the stories that — to be far more polite than I suspect is deserved — were “homaged” in the movie Avatar, “The Word for World is Forest,” and “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow”), from a damn BLOG.
    Thank you, I guess?
    RiP, Mr Barlow; your words and Bobby’s music make you immortal — even if, ultimately, EFF was your greater gift to us.

  • William O. B'Livion says:

    One of my favorite quotes:

    “Despite almost every experience I’ve ever had with federal authority, I keep imagining its competence.”
    –John Perry Barlow

    It’s a shame the EFF had to stain his legacy by begging the government to take over the internet. They will regret that.

  • Z says:

    Except this list is far more self-centered

  • jo says:

    Funny, that’s one that stood out to me as being relatable.

  • Jerilyn Brandelius says:

    It was not mentioned that he wrote this list on the eve of his 30th birthday which was on October 3,1977 when he felt the need to articulate his version of being an Adult…

  • Naomi says:

    Amen to that, Steve

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