Book review: The Four Agreements

moonrise over snowy Four Peaks mountain range

For someone who never actually read The Four Agreements, I have thought an awful lot about it in the three years since I didn't actually read it.

Generally, I thought about how great it would be if there really was some very simple and straightforward "Practical Guide to Personal Freedom," as the subtitle promises, a four-part pact one could make with oneself that provided a clear-cut path of guided self-instruction.

Specifically, I kept turning over Agreement #1, "Be Impeccable with Your Word", in my head, wondering if its stickiness meant that for me, that particular agreement was the key. In the three years since I've been paying attention to my habits, I've noticed that my mouth gets me in more trouble than any other part of me after my brain: I'm forever over-promising and under-delivering, when every smart business guide out there advises doing exactly the opposite. So when a copy jumped out at my on the "Most Requested" shelf at my beloved Bart's Books on a recent trip to my equally-beloved Ojai, I figured I'd pick it up and use it in tandem with my friend Jason Womack's new book, The Promise Doctrine, and once and for all, I'd whup this over-promising thing.

Imagine my surprise when I found that for three years, I've had the wrong takeaway rattling around in my poor, overloaded brain. Memory is faulty, but it's faulty in reliably illuminating ways: what I'd conveniently forgotten was that being impeccable with one's word meant not using it in vain, against yourself or anyone else. Negative self-talk? The root of most problems, since the Toltecs (the tradition author don Miguel Ruiz hails from) believe that you need to get right with yourself before you can truly get right with the rest of the world. Being impeccable, literally, not doing harm with one's word means not using it as a destructive force in any way, but instead using it to tell the truth, to express love (which, in a bit of sneaky-pete dovetailing, turns out to BE the Truth) and build good things, like bridges of communication.

And there's a special circle of hell reserved for those who use their words to gossip. Bonus-extra? You're living in it. No, really, you're making a hell on Earth when you participate in word slime, either by spreading it or letting it land. Very practical, those Toltecs, to hell with the Hell of certain religions who shall go unnamed: let's get this man-made hell sorted first, anyway.

The other three agreements, not to take things personally, not to make assumptions, and always to do one's best, fall naturally from the first. While any one of them could certainly stand alone, it seems like they work especially well as buttresses for that primary agreement. Not taking things personally, in this context, is the inverse of being impeccable with one's word: if you adhere to it, it stands to reason you'd have some protection against other people not being impeccable with their word. Not making assumptions works the same way (as if Felix Unger's stunning bit of definitive logic wasn't enough to convince you). And always endeavoring to do one's best is not just supportive of the first agreement, it's Do-Bee 101.

One warning for those interested in a four-simple-steps approach: if I haven't made it obvious, simple doesn't mean easy, especially here. I've screwed up enough times at both really simple and really easy stuff to know. It's not even easy to get through: at 138 pages, The Four Agreements is a short book but not an especially breezy read.

Or perhaps I should say that for some of us who could really use the information contained within, extraction will be easier if we take it slowly...


Image by midiman via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.