An Idea from Computer Science That Can Change Your Life

Years ago, I learned about an idea from computer science that has helped me in other areas of my life. It’s called the robustness principle, or Postel’s law (after Jon Postel, who formulated it while working on TCP.) The principle states:

Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.

In this case, “conservative” and” liberal” aren’t political positions. Instead, they refer to the laxity of an application’s communications with other applications.

An application sends and receives data. Its designers have some control over the format of the former, but not so much over the latter. Incoming messages may be malformed either through noise or lack of care.

The application’s outputs should be well-defined and consistent — but it can’t expect the same from other applications. As a result, the application should be disciplined in what it emits and flexible with what it takes as input.

If all applications follow this principle, the system should hum along with few misunderstandings. At least in theory — as I understand it.

One area where the robustness principle has helped me is in relationships with other people. I aspire to be conservative in what and how I share (i.e., avoid drama) while understanding that other people will say all sorts of unmindful things.

The other person may have even been unreasonable or rude. But you have no idea what they’re going through. Their kid may be sick. They may have lost their job or been in a car accident. You don’t know their context. You can’t know their context.

As a result, it’s best to be patient with people. Often, they’re not trying to offend you — they’re just having a bad day/month/year/life. Or maybe they didn’t benefit from an education as good as yours. Whatever the case, give them leeway.

This isn’t to say you should take anything that comes your way. Sometimes, you’ll deal with truly malicious actors who are trying to “hack” you or mount a DDoS attack on your attention. Alas, distinguishing the (temporarily?) unskillful from the sociopaths takes practice.

But practice you must, because most people aren’t malicious. They’re just suffering — humans living messy human lives who haven’t prioritized communicating effectively. But you can. Be conservative in what you do and liberal in what you accept.