One of my big projects recently has been to establish a set of daily rules that I felt would help me achieve a variety of goals. This got me thinking about rules in a larger sense. Is it possible to create some kind of set of “rules for life?”
This is something of a Sisyphus-ian exercise; it’s not particularly realistic to create a blanket set of rules for people. Different people are different. What works for me may not necessarily work for you. So instead of “rules,” here are five practices that seem to help people get the most out of life.
Take Total Responsibility
“Yesterday I was clever and tried to change the world. Today I am wise and try to change myself.”
This is probably the single most important trait I’ve found in highly successful, fun-to-be-around people. They take complete responsibility for their actions, success or failure, and overall life course.
Blaming others is incredibly easy. So many people pin things on their parents or the government or Mercury being in retrograde or plain old bad luck. And sometimes those “blames” are accurate. Maybe the circumstances someone grew up under weren’t ideal, or they’re blamed for something they didn’t actually do, or some authoritative force went out of their way to make their life difficult.
Privilege is a real thing and it has real consequences. Shit does, in fact, happen, and it can absolutely happen to you.
The problem is that those factors are fundamentally outside of our control. Unless the goal is to create some broader social change, spending time and energy complaining about them is purposeless and distracts from the things we actually can influence. Taking total responsibility isn’t about turning a blind eye to the factors that affect a person’s reality – it’s about controlling what we can.
Taking responsibility can, initially, be deeply painful. It’s not fun to own up to past errors, and if you’ve pushed responsibility away for a long time it can all come crashing down when you finally do accept it. It can feel like you’ve wasted an awful lot of time.
When you blame others for your reality you give them power over you. Be the author of your own destiny.
Do Not Believe Your Brain
“Would you believe in what you believe in, if you were the only one who believed it?”
– Kanye West
Our brains are big fat liars. Do not trust them.
Let’s get into the way-back machine for a second. Your brain is the culmination of millions of generations of evolutionary pressure, reaching all the way back to tiny little protozoa floating in the primordial soup. During that period of time the organisms that survived passed on their genes, while those that didn’t became casualties of natural selection. Your genes (and therefore your brain) are optimized for one purpose and one purpose only: to survive.
This has massive consequences for our psyche, including the development of what’s commonly referred to as the “negativity bias.”
- We overestimate threats. Outside of a belief in god, fate, or any of that, your only biological purpose on this earth is to live long enough to pass on your genes. Given that’s the case, it makes sense that we’d inherit the genes passed along by VERY risk averse ancestors. It’s in your brain’s best interest to routinely overestimate the threats around you. This is great when it comes to survival, but really terrible when it comes to quality of life.
- We underestimate resources. The flip side to the above, your brain’s evolutionary tendency is to assume the worst case scenario – could you still survive if everything went to hell? This leads us to underestimate the resources available to us and shy away from putting faith in other people.
- We’re slow to learn that the above is the case. If you’re an ancient mouse, and a shadow passes over you, what do you do? You run screaming for cover. Now nine times out of ten it’s just a cloud or a leaf or some other harmless thing. But one of those times it’s a bird of prey that wants to turn you into lunch.
Your brain is more than happy to leap away from the shadow nine times just to avoid that tenth instance. This made sense in the ancient world, where mistakes could lead to a very final outcome. But modern life is, in general, much more forgiving. The threat is a red herring more like 99 times out of 100, and that one time the consequences aren’t that bad anyway. Even so, our brain has a tough time realizing that the empty threats are just that, so we tend to be on “red alert” much more often than we need to be.
Our brains are constantly lying to us, simply because they’ve been built over millennia to view the world through negativity-bias tinted glasses. Things are rarely as dark as they appear.
Be Kind to Your Three Selves
“Of all sad words of mouth or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.”
– John Greenleaf Whittier
We have three selves: a past self, a present self, and a future self.
When we get down on ourselves for actions taken years ago we’re punishing our past self.
When we work ourselves to the bone for some vague future accolade we’re punishing our present self.
When we eat unhealthy food for a cheap thrill we’re punishing our future self.
Generally speaking, most people are too lenient with their present self at the expense of their future or past self. But kindness to all of the selves, present self included, is important. It’s about finding the right balance.
Practice patience and compassion with your past self. Understand that everything you’ve gone through is part of a natural learning process that got you where you are today. Make the effort to remember the great things you’ve done as well as the bad, and internalize the good feelings that came with those things! Remember the errors and faux pas with a self-deprecating groan, a laugh, and the fondness of an older sibling for the mistakes of a younger.
Practice being supportive and firm with your present self. Understand that you are truly in control of your fate, and that actions today dictate what will happen in the future. Make the effort to balance work and leisure, not over-indulging in either. Remember that just as your past self built your current self, so will your current self build your future self. Think about what you want that future self to be, and take steps every day as your current self to achieve that dream.
Practice generosity and love with your future self. Understand that for many people the definition of hell is when the person they became meets the person they could have become. Make the effort to put your future self in a position to succeed, and be willing to trade one minute today for two minutes tomorrow. Remember that your future self isn’t all that far in the future, and that you’ll eventually become that future self whether you want to or not.
Nobody F***s with a Doctor
“Come at the king, you best not miss.”
– Omar, The Wire
There’s a story from my childhood that’s really stuck with me. When I was in my early teens my family made regular trips to Yosemite; my father (Dr. Rick Hanson, a noted psychologist and author) particularly loved the outdoors. On one of those trips we stayed at a campsite called White Wolf where there was a sort of diner/cafeteria where meals were served.
We were waited on by a young woman, let’s call her Alice. Alice was in her early 20s, and quickly bonded with my family in general and father in particular. My memory of her exact circumstances is a bit hazy, but she was clearly somewhat rudderless. She enjoyed her work, but it wasn’t by any means what she wanted to do forever.
My dad began lightly mentoring her during mealtimes, and one day they had a conversation about her future. She had vague plans of maybe going back to school or otherwise pursuing something more material, but wasn’t sure if it was worth it. There was a long list of “why not to’s” – the cost, the time, the effort around finding the right school and applying once she did. The stress inherent in the possibility of rejection.
My dad, in that very therapist-y way of his, just kinda smiled and nodded as she spoke. After a pause she asked him what he thought.
“Well,” he said, “nobody fucks with a doctor.”
This wasn’t exactly what any of us were expecting to hear as my dad’s not really one for casual profanity. But after a beat she started laughing. Then he did. Then we all did.
Many years later my dad received an email out of the blue. It was from Alice. She had gone back to school, and then on to more school after that. She was going to graduate with an advanced degree. That conversation changed her life.
This is a lesson about the value of education, but in my mind there’s a broader moral to the story. Expertise matters. People take experts seriously and give them respect. There are very few truly successful people who haven’t achieved a level of expertise in what they do. Think about your average day – are you consistently taking the steps necessary to achieve that expertise?
The single biggest investment you can make in life is one in yourself.
“Just imagine becoming the way you used to be as a very young child, before you understood the meaning of any word, before opinions took over your mind. The real you is loving, joyful, and free.”
– Don Miguel Ruiz
Everyone has opinions. I have many, many opinions. My family would be more than happy to tell you how much I love my opinions. Opinions are great! They’re really fun!
No seriously, opinions suck. My opinions suck, your opinions suck. They all, pretty much universally, suck.
This might seem a little odd coming from a guy who’s running a website that’s more or less founded on opinions. And I’m certainly not telling you to click away from this article simply because you’ve learned that my “opinions suck.”
Here’s what I mean by that:
- Opinions constrain. They prevent us from accessing new information. They limit our ability to change and adapt. They jade us. These biases prevent us from seeing the world as clearly as we could, and we often have to tear down our old beliefs before we can build up new ones. Opinions are often the wall that stands between us and truth.
- Most of the time there’s a very limited link between opinions and reality. When it comes to opinions, and decision making in general, emotion is typically stronger than reason. Your feeling about a person, place, or thing impacts your thoughts on it much more than the facts do. We see this in political elections all the time. Sure, that candidate has a better healthcare plan, but would you want to “go get a beer with them?” This isn’t inherently an evil thing – emotions are pretty great after all – but people often fall into the trap of presenting an opinion as an objective truth. The fact that I like something doesn’t make it objectively better than something else.
- Opinions are fundamentally unreliable. Humans are surprisingly bad at perceiving the world around them accurately – we tend to overestimate threats (and feel threatened by the wrong things), underestimate resources, prioritize the now at the cost of the later and defer responsibility. We suffer from a whole host of cognitive biases due to a range of factors from social normalization to incomplete information. In short, we’re actually not that great at processing information and making informed decisions from it.
Learning how to take a step back from my opinions has been a really challenging process for me personally. It’s very easy to have immediate, strong responses to things – particularly negative ones – but much harder to pause for a moment after that immediate response and open yourself to the possibility of something different. I think a bit more skepticism about opinions in general, and our own in particular, is probably warranted.
Those are five practices that I’ve been trying to apply more consistently in my life. As always, your mileage may vary, but I’d encourage you to give them a try. What are some that have had a really positive impact on your life?
 Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1988). “Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorizations”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75 (4): 887–900. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997.
 Smith, N., & Larsen, J., & Chartrand, T. (2003). “May I have your attention, please: Electrocortical responses to positive and negative stimuli”. Neuropsychologia 41 (2): 171–183. doi:10.1016/s0028-3932(02)00147-1
 Szalavitz, Maia. “10 ways we get the odds wrong.” Psychology Today. 20 November 2015. Web. 2 February 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200801/10-ways-we-get-the-odds-wrong.