NOTES FROM MY POCKET NOTEBOOK
July 22nd, 2016
(Dictated but not read)
... I carry a small paper notebook in my pocket. In the digital age it's easy to leave notes on your iPhone, but there's something more dignified and lasting about a pocket notebook.
For the past few years, I've made observations in my notebook at various times in my life. As my 30th birthday gets closer, I thought I would dip into my notebook and pull out 30 of the lessons I've learned to share with you. They're shared in no particular order, except for the final three.
I. ON THE WHOLE, EVERYTHING IS PRETTY OK
In today's 'social media always online permanently connected 24/7 news cycle' world, it's easy to think that the world is bad, and getting worse. A historic perspective says differently. Being alive in the year 2016, you have benefits and opportunities that would have seemed like pure fantasy to past generations. You might be reading these words from thousands of miles away from me, mere seconds after I type them. If that idea gives you a headache, you can take pharmaceuticals that relieve pain, brought to you by people and corporations who have cured and eradicated thousands of diseases that killed your ancestors. Globally we've made enormous steps to eradicate slavery, genocide, poverty, and hunger compared to even 50 years ago. Things aren't perfect, that's fine. There are still plenty of problems in the world. But on the whole, things could be worse.
II. YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL OR EXCEPTIONAL
I built you up a little bit just to tear you down. The honest truth is that neither you nor I are particularly special or exceptional. At the time of this writing, there are currently 7,125,000,000 people on planet Earth. Of course there's going to be some overlap between you and other people. That's not a bad thing, however. If you ever feel stuck in a rut, know that statistically speaking someone very much like you has been in the same situation, and they've probably made it out OK too. I know this isn't comforting, but it really should be. Don't believe that you're owed something because you think you're one of a kind. You're very much not.
III. EVERYONE IS JUST AS MESSED UP AS YOU ARE
This is a corollary to the previous item. You do some pretty weird stuff. You feel like you're a pretty messed up person. That's OK! One of the greatest tricks of modern society is that it suggests other people have got it figured out. Everyone's happier, healthier, and having more sex than you are. Wrong. Everyone's got their own quirks, insecurities, and problems. You just don't have the luxury of seeing or knowing about most of them. Have you ever stopped to think about your favorite celebrity having diarrhea on the toilet? It's happened before, guaranteed. At the end of the day, virtually everyone's got the same stuff going on in their lives.
IV. EVERYONE FEELS JUST AS DEEPLY AS YOU DO
Another corollary. Sometimes it's easy to fall into a pit of despair or self-pity thinking that you're the most picked on person in the world. Teenagers are especially good at this. But the people around you have an equally rich emotional life, and just as many insecurities and hang-ups as you do. After a break-up, it's easy to think this is the worst thing that's ever happened to you. That's fine. But remember that almost everyone else has known that same feeling too. When interacting with people, it's good to remember that you can influence their feelings in the same way they influence yours. So don't be awful.
V. YOU'RE A HYPOCRITE, AND THAT's FINE
People in general are very good at passing judgement. I'm certainly not above this; I'm a very even-tempered person, but put me behind the wheel of a car in heavy traffic, and I'll point out every jackass and moron that we pass. When someone else drives like a moron, it's because they're, well, a moron. When we do something stupid while driving, it's because we were distracted, or we were thinking about work, or that fight we had, or we accidentally dropped our cup of coffee... Basically, people are really good at making excuses for themselves, but won't give other people the same courtesies. That's perfectly natural. But it's good to remember that we make excuses for ourselves when we're dealing with other people. Like I said above, everyone's got their own stuff going on in their lives.
VI. NOBODY THINKS ABOUT YOU AS MUCH AS YOU THINK OTHER PEOPLE THINK ABOUT YOU
Dance? In public? I couldn't, there's people everywhere, I'd be so embarrassed! Well, maybe, but remember that nobody thinks about you as much as you imagine they do. In the day to day scheme of life, you're only a brief blip on someone's radar. Maybe you'll do something notable or notorious or something, but in general, nobody's paying much attention to you at any given point. This should be liberating news. Do the things that make you happy, not the things you think you need to do because of someone else.
VII. YOU WERE BORN WITH CERTAIN ADVANTAGES, AND YOU NEED TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT
Empathizing with other people is a crucial part of being a good person, and part of that means acknowledging when someone isn't as fortunate as you are. This gets tricky, because when you start talking about the benefits of being born white and wealthy versus, say, poor and black, people get very defensive. Nobody is downplaying that you have just as many problems, challenges, and obstacles as anyone else. But because of your circumstances, you might have less obstacles overall. Your challenges might not be entirely as difficult. You could have the resources to be able to handle difficult things. If you know, for 100% certainty, that you're going to eat dinner tonight if you're hungry, that's a privilege. That sounds lame, but that's a fact. Hell, if you have the luxury of reading this off the internet from somewhere comfortable, you've got a leg up on a whole chunk of the world. Until you can learn to accept that other people might not be as fortunate as you, you'll never be able to truly connect with other people.
VIII. THE WORLD ONLY WANTS WHAT YOU CAN GIVE
This might be one of the hardest truths on the list, and one of the most painful. It doesn't matter how good a person you are. It doesn't matter how smart, or attractive, or pleasant you are. It doesn't matter that you have a deep, rich emotional life, or that you give all your money to charity, or that you take care of your sick old mother. Society doesn't care. The world doesn't care. The world wants to know one thing: what can you do for me? You're not owed anything because you're sweet or nice or polite or wonderful. As a matter of fact, the world doesn't owe you anything period. As far as the world is concerned, you're only as good as the value you can provide to other people. I wish we lived in a world where your optimism and happiness and good nature counted for something, but we don't, so you need to figure out what you can reliably provide to others.
IX. YOUR ABILITY TO DELIVER AND REMAIN TOLERABLE TO OTHERS WILL DETERMINE HOW FAR YOU GET IN LIFE
If you asked me what two factors were most important in success, I would tell you the above. People only care that you get your work done accurately and correctly, and that you're not a pain in the ass while you do it. If you can get your work done correctly AND you're an enjoyable person to be around, you'll probably get promoted! This extends to just everything in life. Securing a relationship, for instance? Your ability to deliver your half of the relationship while still being tolerable, maybe even enjoyable, is 90% of the battle.
X. YOUR SKILLS AND TALENTS ARE A MUSCLE
You're only good at the things you excel at because you've practiced them. Very rarely someone is a born talent, and can take to a skill without any work. You're statistically not that person. If you want to become good at something, or stay good at something, you have to work at it. You have to actively do it. And you have to continue doing it even after you've 'mastered' it. Strangely, this doesn't just apply to literal skills. Happiness, for instance, is a skill. Practicing to be happy makes you, surprise, happier! So put in the actual work.
XI. WHAT'S INSIDE DOESN'T MATTER IF YOU DON'T PROJECT IT OUTWARDS
You're a sweet, charming, funny person inside, but you happen to be an abrasive asshole to 95% of the people you meet. Congratulations, your true personality is not that of a sweet, charming, funny person: your true personality is that you're an abrasive asshole. I used to work with a guy who was the most unethical, scumbag dude on the planet during work hours. By all accounts, totally nice guy outside of work. I'm sorry, but truly nice people aren't unethical scumbags. You are at least half unethical scumbag if you spend half of your day behaving that way. It doesn't matter how you feel inside, it's all about what you project to the world. You can be the world's greatest guitarist, but if you never play the guitar, you're not a guitarist at all.
XII. THE MOST VALUABLE LESSONS ARE THE HARDEST ONES TO LEARN
We're a decent way into this list, so it's probably time to mention: the most valuable lessons are the hardest ones to learn. You might be disagreeing with some of these, and that's great! You might not take a single thing away from this list. That's fine too. Because the stuff that really changes you, the stuff that truly sinks in, has to hurt just a little bit. Typically, the most something hurts, the longer it's gonna stick with you.
XIII. SOMETIMES THE LAST PERSON CARRYING MENTAL BAGGAGE IS YOU
There's a somewhat famous Zen koan, a variation of which appears in several cultures. In it, two monks meet a woman who asks for their assistance in crossing a stream. Monks are forbidden from communicating with women, but the older monk helps her cross the stream, and they all continue onward. The young monk eventually turns to the old monk and says, 'It's against the rules for you to communicate with women, let alone carry one across the stream? How could you do that?' The old monk replies, 'I put the woman down on the other side of the stream, why are you still carrying her in your mind?' There's some truth in this. Sometimes you're the last person mentally carrying a weight. Remember that time you accidentally tore your pants and embarrassed yourself in high school and you felt like you were going to die? In all likelihood, you're the only person who does still remember it. Learn to let things go.
XIV. THERE'S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEING ALIVE AND LIVING
It may seem like semantics, but at the end of the day, there's a world of difference between being alive, and doing the things required to stay alive, and actually living. Step out of your comfort zone and do something fun or exciting or scary. Simply surviving to old age is a noble goal, but it's not a very fulfilling one.
XV. YOU ARE THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU SPEND THE MOST TIME WITH
In personality theory, there's an idea that your personality and behavior is directly affected by the five people you spend the most time with. There's a lot of truth in that. If you spend all your time with five very quiet librarians who like to read, I bet that you, in turn, become a quiet person who likes to read. Simple enough, right? Look at the five people you spend the most time with. If any of them are anything other than positive influences on you, it's time to change your inner circle.
XVI. SELF-IMPROVEMENT IS HARD BECAUSE YOUR BRAIN HATES IT
Generally speaking, the brain hates anything that challenges the status quo. Your brain handles a billion things every day, and given a choice, the brain prefers to stick to the routines that it knows and is comfortable with. Have you ever started exercising, and found it nearly impossible to stay committed to it? That's because your brain is telling you to give up, to revert to the status quo, and to do the same things you always do. The brain is the absolute best organ, but it's wrong. Take the rare moments of clarity and understanding and build on them. Every part of your body and mind is fighting you, telling you no. Ignore it. Anything worth having comes with sacrifice and struggle.
XVII. THE WORLD IS A BIG, COMPLICATED PLACE THAT YOU ONLY UNDERSTAND A TINY PORTION OF
Be willing to change, adapt, and grow. It's OK to be wrong. Even if you live your life constantly on the go, traveling across the globe, talking with every person you meet, you're still only going to experience a tiny percentage of what the world is and has to offer. Understand that other people will see different percentages than you will, and they'll likely have a different understanding of the world. Keep your eyes and ears open, and make a point to learn from other people's experiences in addition to your own. This also ties into the next point...
XVIII: TRAVEL THE WORLD, AS TRAVEL ELEVATES YOUR PERSPECTIVE AND EXPANDS YOUR KNOWLEDGE
XIX. YOU'RE GOING TO DIE, SO AVOID REGRETS
Ultimately, each one of us will shuffle off the mortal coil. Unless by the time you're reading this someone has invented immortality. In which case, congratulations, I guess. You can skip this point. For everyone else, the most common thing said by elderly patients before death is that they regret doing or not doing something. It's easy to regret something in hindsight, because hindsight is 20/20. But when it comes to taking chances, it's often better to err on the side of just going for it. Live a little bit. Ask that pretty girl out on a date. Go on the trip you've always dreamed of. Don't regret anything, because you could die tomorrow, and that would suck.
XX. ONLY GIVE WHAT YOU'RE PREPARED TO LOSE
Whether it's money, your time, or your heart -- don't give it away unless you're willing to accept the possibility that you might not get it back. Money's always the big one; a friend will ask you for a loan that will inevitably never get repaid. If you can't afford to say goodbye to the money forever, don't give it out.
XXI. 80% OF PEOPLE WILL DISAPPOINT YOU 80% OF THE TIME
People always get indignant when I preach this one. Maybe it means managing your expectations, but in my personal experience, 80% of people you encounter will disappoint you 80% of the time. As I mentioned, the secret here is to not expect much from people. That way, if they deliver beyond your expectations, it's a net win for both parties! This means that when you find someone who doesn't disappoint you or let you down, it's worth holding on to them fiercely. But otherwise? Well... don't expect much.
XXII. WHEN IN DOUBT, ASSUME STUPIDITY RATHER THAN MALICIOUSNESS
Similar to the above rule, when something bad happens, it's much safer to assume stupidity and mediocrity than maliciousness. In general, most people want to do good for one another. When they fail to, or when something careless happens, the majority of the time it's caused by ineptitude rather than a specific desire for something bad or negative to happen.
XXIII. REAL FRIENDS WILL TELL YOU THE TRUTH, EVEN WHEN IT'S UGLY
There are two kinds of friendship: friendship based on convenience, and actual, dyed-in-the-wool friendship. The difference between these two comes down to their willingness to tell you the facts, even when they're not particularly pleasant or kind. I'm certainly not suggesting you take an unending amount of verbal abuse from your friends, but a real friend will tell you when you're being a jackass in no uncertain terms. Anyone who isn't willing to call you out on your bullshit probably isn't deeply invested in you enough to care about the long term outcome. You're looking for someone who is interested in sticking around for a while, and wants you to be the best version of yourself during that time.
XXIV. FAMILY IS CREATED, NOT BORN
Some people are blessed with incredible families, and that's amazing. Others, however, are born into terrible families, or simply don't have a family at all. That's why it's important to note that your family is more than just the people you share blood and DNA with. Your family is anyone you've invited into your personal circle so closely that they feel like family. Just because your 'real' family sucks doesn't mean that your family has to suck. Just get to work on making a better one.
XXV. LOVE IS AN ACTION, NOT A STATE OF BEING
In the words of contemporary philosopher Fred Rogers, love isn't a passive word, it's an active verb like 'struggle'. There can certainly be an element of love that means blind devotion and support, but in 99% of relationships, loving someone is difficult work. When someone's awful, the mood is tense, or the money is all gone, love can feel more like a chore than a pleasure. And that's OK! Love means being willing to work through it rather than walking away.
XXVI. YOU CAN'T SAVE EVERYONE, AND THAT'S NOT YOUR PROBLEM ANYWAY
For some people, this means realizing that you are a limited person living in the nearly unlimited world. For others, this realization applies to only a single person. Plenty of folks get into relationships or friendships thinking that they can 'fix' the other person, or change them in some way. The truth is that nobody can change unless they're willing to acknowledge something needs to change, and they're able to put in the work to change themselves. You can't love someone better, you can't love someone into a better situation, and you can't love problems away. Until people are willing to take accountability for themselves, the best you can do is remain supportive. Don't waste your time on 'fixer-uppers' when you already know on some level that there's no way to 'fix up' a person.
XXVII. YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
As another contemporary philosopher once said, you can't always get what you want (although if you try, sometimes you'll find you get what you need). Sometimes the things that we want most desperately simply aren't right for us, or are sadly outside of our grasp. Rather than fighting this, it's better to take a realistic approach and acknowledge the things within your control and the things outside of your control. To quote my great grandmother, if you put all your wishes in one hand and shit in the other, you won't be surprised to see which one fills up first.
XXVIII. THIS TOO SHALL PASS
If you're the kind of person who likes getting tattoos, this is my vote. If there was ever a single sentence worth printing on your body, it's probably this one. When all else fails, remember that this too, like many other problems in your life, shall pass. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but the low points in our lives are mostly temporary, and not worth obsessing over. If you want to be especially grim about it, death eventually reaches all of us, so in an ultimate sense 'this too shall pass' certainly applies to you.
XXIX. THE WORLD CAN BE A PRETTY SHITTY PLACE, AND THE RESPONSIBILITY BELONGS TO BOTH OF US
Despite all the good things in the world (go back and reread the first entry here if you're confused), there are still plenty of bad things in the world. Life is hard and nights are long, with plenty of opportunity for unhappiness and suffering in-between. That said, that's your problem. That's a problem for all of us. Because the world can be a terrible place, it's your responsibility to do what you can to make it better. It doesn't take a huge sea change to do something kind for someone else, but a million acts of kindness repeated over and over can have an enormous impact.