The Rules of Life
A reader emailed me asking me what are “the rules” I live my life by. I won’t lie, I kind of blew off the question. My anti-authoritarian nature laughs in the face of rules!
But it got me thinking. The rules we make for ourselves aren’t actually rules, they represent deeper values. What do I care about and what am I willing to stand up for in my life? What would I “take a bullet for,” so to speak?
And when I thought about it that way, it became a very interesting question.
Some of these come easy. Others are a constant work-in-progress. All of them represent the values in which I live my life. They’re ideals, and as ideals they’re never fully achieved but only worked towards.
These aren’t necessarily “the best way” to go about one’s life — I’m not prepared to claim to know how to do that — but they’re working pretty well for me so far. Hopefully you can draw a little insight or inspiration from them for your own life.
Rule #1: Be skeptical of everything, first and foremost yourself.
Ideology is the enemy of progress. Every ideology is formed to solve one problem but will eventually cause the next one. To become permanently attached to one belief-system without skepticism is to remain stuck forever.
No matter how big the truth, how great the epiphany, how important the breakthrough, I will one day turn around and question it. Nothing is safe. Nothing is sacred. Belief is merely a temporary vehicle to shuttle me through greater expressions and manifestations of life.
But above all, question myself. Look at my emotions and impulses honestly and ask why I have them. Look at my rationalizations and beliefs and question their validity. Are they serving me? Why do I have them? Are they necessary? Is there something more true?
As George Orwell said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.” The capital-T Truth is something that is always pursued but never achieved. One must always actively pursue it.
Rule #2: Honestly express your thoughts and feelings to the greatest extent of your self-awareness (within relevance).
My own truncated version of radical honesty. One’s honesty is limited to what they themselves are aware of in themselves. For instance, I used to suppress many of my negative emotions and so there were times where I was upset and not even aware that I was upset. Therefore, it was impossible for me to be honest about it.
The goal here is to destroy the gap between what one is willing to think to themselves and willing to express to others. Rule #1 is crucial to be able to do this. Often, fucked up things pop up in my internal monologue and it’s important to question why they are there. What deeper feeling or belief is motivating it?
The parenthetical “within relevance” is the only place I diverge from Blanton’s take on honesty. I do not believe in verbal vomit. My mother does not need to know intimate details of my sex life. A business acquaintance does not need to know that I think his wife is hot. My girlfriend doesn’t need to know how I am going to catalog my business expenses on my tax returns, even if that is what I’m thinking about at the moment. Blanton’s argument is that stifling these thoughts, no matter how trivial or absurd, is unhealthy. I think muddying up a relationship with unnecessary information is unhealthy. If the thought is trivial or irrelevant, then withholding it drains no emotional capital.
Rule #3: Always challenge yourself to care more, both about yourself and others.
One of the biggest discoveries I made in my personal life was that compassion didn’t necessarily imply commitment. You can empathize with someone without being obligated to them in any way. Given my terror of commitment for most of my life, this freed me up to actually care about people beyond my small circle of friends around me.
Since this discovery I am regularly challenging myself to care more, in as many contexts as possible. As with many things, this care begins with myself: exercising regularly, presenting myself well, investing in my own growth and improvement. If you don’t care about yourself, then you’re not going to be able to genuinely care about others from a place of strength, but rather from a place of neediness.
Caring is difficult because it can hurt. It can create unpleasant emotions. It’s easy to close oneself off to the people around you, especially if they are strangers or simple acquaintances. One of the painful experiences of my trip to India was coming to terms with how much I didn’t give a shit about much of the world around me — not that I suddenly felt guilty for being wealthy or white or anything — but more that I realized the realities I had been shutting out and avoiding.
Rule #4: Judge people based on their behavior and nothing else; not their race, gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, talent, religion, nationality or social status. This also applies to yourself.
Psychiatrist and author Scott Peck defines evil as a the willful ignorance and degree of separation from the emotional needs of oneself and others.
Race, gender, socio-economic class, sexual orientation, these things have strong influences on our behavior and our perception of other people’s character. We all have unconscious biases and are susceptible to stereotyping. But at the end of the day, the definition of whether they are a “good” person or not is a person’s behavior and connection they have to the emotional needs of themselves and others. It’s useful to try to look at people in terms of the needs they’re trying to meet to understand their actions. Most people attempt to meet their needs through ignorant means, and although this can be destructive, it does not make them an evil or bad person. It’s only when someone is aware of their ignorance and chooses deception over truth when creating destruction that they become evil or bad.
Rule #5: Your actions and emotions are your responsibility and nobody else’s and vice-versa.
Each one of us must take responsibility for our own ignorance and behavior. Our needs are not the responsibility of anybody else and vice-versa (with the exception of children and their caretakers).
The key to healthy relationships is developing empathy on a basis of respect for each other’s autonomy. I don’t involve myself in people who don’t respect my autonomy (emotional and otherwise) and I always strive to respect the autonomy of others. This means that I don’t try to “fix” people and I don’t look to be “saved” by anyone. If I fuck up, it’s on me. If I am upset or sad or bored, it’s on me.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t empathize and care for others. On the contrary, this allows me to empathize and care for others from a place of strength and authenticity. My concern and help is offered unconditionally with no obligations or expectation. This is the only way love can truly be expressed. (See: Boundaries)
Rule #6: Fear failure but never let it stop you.
Stifling and hiding from fear only makes it worse. Wishing to not be afraid only makes it worse. Trying to logically “solve” my fear only makes it worse. Trying to plan or strategize my way into not being anxious only makes it worse.
Fear is normal. Fear means that there’s probably something I should do. Fear means that I’m rooting out my own ignorance and expressing myself more honestly. All growth begins in fear. Therefore I feel the fear and do it anyway.
Rule #7: Invest in knowledge, experiences and relationships, not status or possessions.
Warren Buffet — Investment God, second richest man in the world, philanthropist, minimalist, polyamorist, and All-American superhero — was recently asked in an interview what investment advice he would give ambitious young people today. His answer was unexpected and interesting. My paraphrase:
“I would tell them to invest in knowledge. Not necessarily education, although education can help, but knowledge. You get knowledge from everything, but most of all from experience, from trying things. Business assets fluctuate. Currency values fluctuate. The value of diplomas and degrees will change in time. But knowledge stays with you forever. It’s impossible to have too much knowledge or experience. I’m 83 and still using things I learned 65 years ago.”
Most people invest their time and effort chasing material wealth and social status. I believe if I invest my time and effort into knowledge, new experience and relationships, then material wealth and status will be a natural side-effect of that. Research shows that pursuing wealth and status for the sake of wealth and status correlates negatively with life satisfaction. It also shows that money spent on experience and relationships generates more happiness and well-being (and, I would argue, greater long-term wealth) than money spent on possessions.
The business coach Zig Ziglar taught that if your goal is to go out and find a way to get money from a thousand people, those thousand people will try to find reasons to not give it to you. But if your goal is to go out and make the lives of a thousand people better, then those thousand people will gladly give you money and much more. This has become one of the defining principles of my life.
Rule #8: Doubts, mistakes, insecurities are normal parts of life. Don’t avoid them, but instead use them as further motivation to improve.
Surveys find that while average happiness and well-being has not increased in the developed world in the past 50 years, rates of depression and anxiety disorders have sky-rocketed. I believe a large part of this is due to increased standards and expectations of perfection spread by mass media: always be happy, always be beautiful, always be successful, always be confident. We’re sold these messages over and over and over again and advertised to in such a way that keeps us in a constant state of inadequacy.
After years of successfully improving myself, I would continue to get frustrated that I had bad days where I was doubtful or insecure. I still had moments of anxiety in situations I had supposedly “conquered” years prior. And I noticed that the more upset about it I got, the more I reverted back to my old fearful and depressed mentalities. It was like watching all of my hard-fought progress unravel inside myself.
The fact is: insecurity is normal; fear is normal; self-doubt is normal. These may diminish in time but they will never go away entirely. When I feel them, I don’t try to suppress them or deny them. I let myself feel them. And then I use that emotion to motivate myself to change. I’ll say to myself, “I’ve been bummed out and laying around in bed a lot this week. What goals can I set to change this?” I’ll then set a series of specific, simple goals: go outside and run; do four hours of work; study a language for an hour; have dinner with a friend — all today, go! And then I make myself do it regardless of how I feel.
If I’m angry at someone I won’t deny that emotion, but channel it into productive use. “She thinks she can say that to me? I’ll show her. I’ll become so successful that she’ll regret ever rejecting me. I’ll make that the biggest mistake she ever made.” Use that anger. Channel that frustration into something productive.
Rule #9: Practice Gratitude
I was in a car accident last weekend. A motorcycle T-boned my girlfriend’s car as we were going home late Saturday night. The motorcyclist was not wearing a helmet.
When he hit us, I immediately thought the guy was dead. I jumped out of the car and ran to him. And to my astonishment he got up and walked off from it. While the insurance payments are a pain in the ass, not having a car to get around a massive city like São Paulo is a pain in the ass, having to deal with the police and tow company until six in the morning was a pain in the ass, all I could think was: Holy shit, we’re lucky that guy isn’t dead; we’re lucky it was just a motorcycle and not a truck (or else my girlfriend might be dead); we’re lucky it doesn’t prevent us from working, whereas the motorcyclist needs his bike for work. We are lucky about a lot of things. A wrecked car isn’t so bad.
Our default setting is to always focus on what we don’t have, what we lack, to what’s wrong. It’s wired into us. People always lament taking things for granted, or not being able to appreciate what they have.
Appreciation for what you have and where you are is an active habit that must be consciously practiced. Practicing gratitude increases happiness and well-being. It also makes you far more pleasant to be around.
Always thank people. Even if they didn’t know they were doing something for you. Thank them for just being there. Tell your friends and family what you like about them. Tell a woman what you find attractive about her. And be honest! When you wake up and brush your teeth, think of three ways in which you’re very fortunate. When something goes wrong, think of ways in which you were actually lucky that things didn’t go worse. (See: Shut Up and Be Grateful)
Rule #10: Nothing in life is so serious that you can’t laugh about it. Relax.
This is almost verbatim what my grandmother said as she was dying of a brain tumor. I was 13 at the time. It was one of those situations where she was given six months to live and we all had to sit there and watch the cancer slowly eat away at her, not knowing when the day would come. As time went on and her health deteriorated, she would often make jokes about her condition, or even jokes about her own death. She had a great sense of humor and some of the jokes were actually pretty funny.
Of course, not everyone in the family took them well. One night my aunt got upset and asked her to stop joking about her cancer, that it wasn’t funny and that she was having a hard time dealing with it (Oh, the irony, “Please stop being comfortable with your own death, because I’m not.”)
My grandmother replied with the statement above, and it stuck with me in a real way. If you can’t laugh about it, then you’re probably taking it (and yourself) too seriously. There’s a lot to be said about humility, about levity, and about the ability to maintain the paradoxical idea that everything you do matters completely while not actually mattering at all. Humor in the face of horror does that for me. It returns me to that quasi-spiritual perspective. Satire and humor allow you to say truths that are otherwise difficult or unacceptable to say but can be truer than any serious statement.
Or as an old man in a movie once said: “Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.”