[Note 12-5-17: this question came up this week for a 2nd time, with 368 votes, by Richard Ferrers, and thoughtful reuse is also one my favorite rules]
Over the course of life you make experiences, learn from them and have certain key “nuggets” of wisdom that you hold on to. These are rules that you found that make you more successful and happy, make you avoid stupid things and make better choices. What are those?
I have rules about rules:
- Rules are magnets for cognitive dissonance. More than any generation in history we’re awash in lists of rules: the 7 secrets of this, the 12 killer tips for that. These lists have the pretense of providing insider advice for living better lives. But I can’t say the abundance of rules has made much of a difference for our quality of life. Are we better people than we were 50, 100 or 500 years ago because of these lists? Take the Ten Commandments: it’s the most well known list of rules in the world, and the most frequently ignored, even by those most faithful to them. I’m afraid of rules for that reason. It’s easy to find rules that are satisfying to mention, even when we delude ourselves that knowing a rule equates to following it.
- I’m doubtful that rules for one person are useful to others. When I played for my high school basketball team, I used to write “Play Smart” on the top of my sneakers. I was prone to turnovers and it was my little way of reminding myself to calm down. Had I copied Michael Jordan’s rules for himself or Magic Johnson’s, it couldn’t possibly be aimed at what my real problems were at the time. It’s useful to learn from masters, but the copying and pasting of one amazingly talented person’s system for their work to a novice or beginner is just silly. Rules and advice are a place to start, but anyone who does the work of trying to apply any sets of rules to their daily lives soon customize them, and it’s the work and self awareness that’s the hard part, not the rules themselves.
Instead there are pairs of contradicting rules I think about often. Each side of each pair are true, but never to the exclusion of the other. The uncertainty generated by these “rules” keeps them alive and pushes me to revise and review the rules themselves.
- The Golden Rule vs. Capitalism. One of the greatest contradictions in America is our hypocritical notions of biblical and economic ethics. We believe in the golden rule, and treating others as we believe they want to be treated, but this is in direct contradiction to competition, a central element of capitalism. In effect every NFL or NBA game consists of thousands of people intentionally not practicing the golden rule (“I want you to lose and will rub it in when you do”). Life itself is based on both cooperation and competition, not one at the exclusion of the other (see Dark Nature: a natural history of evil for an excellent primer on the moral duality of life). I try to treat everyone as I think they want to be treated, but I know that to run a business or to treat myself with self-respect, I sometimes have to put myself first (which can be done with varying degrees of grace). I often think about the idea of selling out as a writer, and what integrity means for someone who sells ideas for a living (See How To Call BS on A Guru).
- Live for the future / Live for the moment. The philosophy joke at work here is “everything in moderation, including moderation.” Living a balanced life means sometimes going too far, and sometimes not going far enough. It’s only when you hit an extreme that you rediscover where the middle ground for your life should be. I love being disciplined, and I love being a hedonist and I know there is a place and time for each attitude. I believe in taking big risks, but I don’t see any reason not to think them through. I know I become more ambitious if I know what my safety net is, not less. When I decided to quit to become a writer, I planned it carefully. I know some people lose their nerve when they consider all of the ways they might fail, but I don’t. I gain confidence from it. Generally I want to be wiser in the future which demands working on the edge of my comfort zone, sacrificing “the now” to get more data, which improves my judgment in whatever I’ll be doing a decade from now.
- Make meaning, but accept meaninglessness. I believe the universe is unknowable and most likely has little to do with the human race. I don’t believe in god, gods or the supernatural. I think the most likely outcome is the human race dies with the sun in a few billion years. This sounds horribly depressing, but I find it liberating. I know how special conscious life is and I LOVE being alive. It’s all the more amazing when I consider the infinite wonder around me might never happen again: this could be a once in a universe experience. This also means it’s up to me to decide to care about the Golden Rule, or not, or about my dog Griz, or not, or my friends and family, or not. I alone have to chose to put my limited energy into making those relationship meaningful (or not). It’s up to me to make the feelings and ideas I care about important in my life and no one else can do this for me (e.g. existentialism). I have to decide what matters and how much of my life energy I’m willing to dedicate to that decision. The very nature of the universe is a cry to anyone paying attention that we must decide what matters and aim the full force of our lifespans at that meaning while we are here. Or concede we don’t care as much as we pretend we do, when there’s so much good TV to watch. If there is meaning, it’s up to us.
- Everything is funny / Everything is serious. Every time you hear a joke that makes you laugh you have to know there’s someone out there who was offended or hurt by the joke. But we forget this when a joke hits too close to our lives, and that’s part of the rub of human nature. We’re emotional creatures who love to pretend we’re rational. My wife Jill is my best friend and central to our marriage is our deep, dark, twisted sense of humor. We eventually find a way to laugh at everything, even ourselves in our worst and saddest moments. I can’t take anything too seriously for too long and it’s a sign of my closest friends that they help me laugh at myself, at the universe or at the idea of life at all. Voltaire wrote “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh” and I if I believed in God this is the kind I’d agree with. Things in life can be sad and funny at the same time, one does not preclude the other. I do take work seriously. I work very hard at everything I do. I’m extremely serious about the things I make. But I can’t let myself lose sight of how funny it all is, even my belief that my hard work, in the end, matters, which it probably doesn’t. Far greater writers and artists than me have long been forgotten to history. But if I believe in the kind of meaning I’ve chosen, I’m committed to doing the work anyway, almost inspired by the fact I can’t know what meaning it will have in the future, if any at all.
- Feelings and Reasons. There is no such thing as a purely rational moment. The oldest parts of our brains control our emotions and drive our immediate responses to life (Read about your friend the amygdala). I used to pride myself on being logical, but as I studied the human mind, and myself, I discovered logic is a great disguise for emotions. We hide meanness and judgement behind “logic”. We often confuse debating skills and charisma with the hard work of truly thinking through both sides of an argument. Sometimes I have to let my emotions lead, and stop to ask myself: “What am I feeling right now? Why am I so angry about this Facebook comment? What feelings am I carrying around that are surfacing now?” And sort those feelings out before engaging with the world. Other times I have to let my logic lead, and focus on finishing the workout despite the pain, or writing the draft with complete disregard for my fear or self-loathing. Many of us live in denial of our emotions, pretending throughout our lives that we don’t feel the way we do, never understanding ourselves, and therefore never understanding anyone else. But we need a balance of logic and emotion to be the best version of ourselves.
What are your rules to live by? How did you decide on them? Leave a comment.