My Most Important Learnings in Life
We’re all just monkeys, with a thin veneer of society keeping us from being terrible to each other. The rest is details. The first half of my life was spent learning this, and fixing my family situation. The second half of my life will be applying these essential lessons, and transmitting the best of it to my daughter. I’m sure I’ll organize and revise this over time, but you’ve got to have to start somewhere, no? So, I hereby lay out my primary learnings in life. I also have poetry, success and question and answer pages. If you want a deep look inside my head, there’s always here.
Nihilism sucks - thinking like this can help avoid it.
For me, nihilism has been the biggest trap in life. What really matters? I have convinced myself that if there weren’t some underlying universal truth, I doubt it would be possible to ponder such things. Yes, our existence may be some cosmic coincidence as atheists believe, but the system sure seems rigged to make it all possible. In fact, I find it so suspicious, that I believe the function of the universe may actually be to produce something interesting enough for some cosmic lonely entity to converse with… eventually… and we as a collective species are inching towards that. Various lines of reasoning lead to this conclusion, and lacking anything better to go on, I will work towards this end—if not for me in this lifetime, then for my decedents.
There ain’t nobody smarter than you.
Many folks try to make out that they are smarter than you—that you should drink at the teats of their wisdom. This is often an attempt to enhance their own self image at the expense of yours. Starting early in life, it can be profoundly damaging. I suggest recognizing the greatness in yourself, and the small people who are trying to chip away at your ankles with tiny axes for what they are. This effect arises from the innate human tendency—or any competitive social animal for that matter—to knock off a competitor early (it all gets back to being monkeys—or rather, yes I know, great apes). The pervasive pattern of “put-downs” arises in every situation from family to work to friends. The only purely unbiased advice you will ever receive comes directly from yourself.
Beware Groupthink. Most people are sheep.
People say they like creativity and innovation, but really on average, I would guess that most people hate it. Creative innovative acts upset the status quo. They create change, and cause everybody to adapt their behavior to a new reality. This causes discomfort, and always results in some portion of the population not being able to make the transition to the new way. Therefore, there is often lip-service given to supporting innovation and creativity, but when the time comes to invest in it, you will likely have the carpet pulled out from under you. There are exceptions, such as in those cases where disruption is being used as an offensive act to weaken a competitor, and you see that a lot with Google. But when it’s just you, then you may feel totally alienated unable to understand why others can’t see what is so clear to you. My advice is to conform in action, but not in mind, long enough for you to find your opportunity to disrupt—then come out of stealth-mode and kick then hell out of some competitors. Go for it full-force. You only live once.
Capability arises from the written word.
There’s something special about language that most people don’t seem to use to great affect. There have actually been studies demonstrating that you can’t think in an actual problem-solving fashion without language. So, by learning to string words together well, you are actually learning to observe well. Language enables thinking, and by extension better language enables better thinking. Better language comes from practice and story telling, so try narrating your own life in an attempt at objective self-reflection, ala Scrubs or The Wonder Years. This will help you recognize and solve problems you hardly even knew you had. Once you get over the temporary effect of thinking you’re crazy whenever you start this process, life will actually start to improve because all your decisions will be slightly better and the effect will compound over time.
Question everything, and go right to the source.
Life consists of layers of nonsense that must be peeled away to get to the worthwhile bits. Beautiful original thoughts, which should be simple and easily obtained during early development, somehow instead become more complex and codified over the ages. Gatekeepers always seem to manage to install themselves and somehow make the masses beholden to them as keepers to this knowledge and the keys of the kingdom. I’m speaking of both technology and religion. Few folks have the gumption to wrestle original knowledge directly from the sources—something that makes scientists so special. So, if something is truly important to you, then become one of those first-source knowledge-extraction folks. Don’t believe anything anyone tells you at face value. Instead, research it! Have original thoughts (thereby reproducing the original beautiful thought). Use multiple independent sources of information for validation. Seek out the great texts that defined the field. Learn the histories behind things. You don’t have to be a scientist to have a love for constant research and discovery.
Use strong metaphors to organize behavior.
What’s the weakest link in the chain? Which plates need to be spun? Were can you get the biggest bang for the buck? This is how I organize my day. This illuminates for me what needs attention urgent attention, what small bits of maintenance need to be performed, and where the biggest pay-offs are. Repeated day-to-day, these three simple metaphors have been profoundly useful to me, and there are tons of others that may work for you. I don’t suggest you use my personal metaphors for organizing your own behavior, but rather to figure out what works best for you. Start out by building a small library of crystal-clear thoughts that always reoccur to you and encapsulates some small, but important aspect of life. Then, keep re-invoking them on a daily basis, building a system and habit around them, making a very short easy to remember and articulate “logic-for-life” plan. It will ensure that there are strong rationale and consistency behind your actions, which should accumulate up over time and accelerate your progress towards your goals.
Identify and use the right life-long tools.
There are unlimited tools to employ in life, from writing implements to musical instruments to weapons to electronic gadgets. They become extensions of your body. The ones you choose directly affect the amount of impact you can have upon the world, your earning potential, your happiness, and even your survival. Choosing the wrong ones can put you at a subtle constant disadvantage. Choosing the right ones could allow you to take advantage of them your whole life and achieve total mastery. Try many, but master a few. Make sure that the few that you decide to master are likely to be around for the majority of your life, and likely to apply to a broad range of problems that need solving.
Put the love into it.
Almost everything worth doing is difficult, and there is an initial seemingly impossible hump to get over. Want to play the violin? Become great at a sport? Master the vim text editor? Since so many things worth doing take such a commitment in your life, and will occupy such large chunks of your time every day, you should absolutely love the things you choose. Anything less is compromising on life. So the trick is to find things that you love doing, and figure out how to do it professionally. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but since the alternative is often misery, it’s worth trying. You know you’ve reached the goal when what you’re working on right now is the thing you would most like to be doing right at that moment over anything else—also a superb way to deal with the distraction problem, and become able to easily plunge yourself into the zone. When there’s no longer love in it, it’s time to adjust your career.
Employ the 80/20 rule to great effect.
Forget perfection. There is no such thing, and it would probably be boring, anyway. Life is interesting, and perhaps even possible, due to imperfections that take the form of infinite variation. So while still aiming high, at some point try to favor iterative variations over some one pure and probably non-existent form. Use the 80/20 rule, and try to get 80% of the benefit of any given endeavor out of the first 20% of the effort. Rinse and repeat. Over time, you will be much farther along.
Put all your eggs in one basket, then copy it many times.
This may sound abstract, but it’s more and more applicable in the information age. In the age-old debate of centralized vs. distributed resources, there is now one definitive answer: both! Invest yourself into one brilliant shining masterpiece, and then ensure that each copy you make is equal to the original, right down to the stroke-by-stroke undo history, so you can play it forward and back like a movie. Research distributed version control systems (dvcs) to see a real-world example of this. When you copy it somewhere with inadequate ability to manifest a copy (storage without a processor), at least it can lie dormant, waiting for ideal conditions. This provides the best combination of security, speed and variation. It may sound techie, but the broad principle is applicable to more and more in life, and is one of the great benefits that technology is providing. Those who can understand this concept and use it to great effect will be unstoppable in life.
Get a grip on reality.
All human experience is funneled through sensory apparatus like eyes, with the lens and retina and rods and cones. This means that everything we see and do and know is an approximation of the objective world. All experience is the mind recording movement and interaction of such symbols. In other words, we don’t experience reality—we experience sensory input, interpreted by the mind. But our minds can also replay and invent such experiences, so we must be discriminating about what we believe. While this fact can throw some people into nihilistic thinking (refer to learning #1), all it really means is that you need a preponderance of evidence to let beliefs in—forever more zeroing in on that objective world. But conversely, sometimes you need to provide a preponderance of evidence to make others conform to your reality—an admittedly subjective one that you’re trying to make more real. It sounds evil, but it’s not. That’s just life.
Choose your own path in life.
There are many ways to live, and many paths to happiness, and they are all valid. You get to choose how high to aim, and whether or not to try to make a big impact on the world. But ultimately, there is a natural program playing out, driven by cause/effect and animal instinct. You can just go with the flow of that program, and amount to just about the same as any other human animal getting with the program–remembered mostly for your children and by your children. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is always the option of changing the world, preferably for the better, through cleverness and force-of-will. And that’s fun too.
Find the very best teachers, even if they’re books.
If you choose to change the world, you either need to have received the proper programming by dumb luck, or you need to seek it out. Seeking out self-programming is tricky. If everyone could do it, we’d all be super-achievers. And frankly, society doesn’t encourage it, reserving such words as entrepreneur and scientist for special people. You need to stumble upon such books as The Art of War, Think and Grow Rich, or Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion. Then you need the ability to incorporate their lessons into your automatic behaviors–make it habit. Then you need to have the motivation and persistence to stick with it, the smarts to avoid pitfalls, and the wisdom to not let your goals consume you at the expense of all else.
Don’t let the daily grind break your momentum.
The daily grind will ruin you. It is the enemy of greatness, and a more powerful foe than all others combined. The hours will slip by, then the days, weeks, months, years, and ultimately, your life. It’s just barely enough time to carry out life’s natural path: first being able to provide for yourself, then finding a mate, next starting a family, and finally being able to provide for them—with the reward of extending your lineage. Because this common path in life also a profound source of happiness, it’s totally okay to go that route—but just know that that is what’s happening. If you’re more ambitious than that, find your most naughty time-sink, be it reality TV, video games or whatever, and play mental tricks on yourself to trade that time for what you need to do. But put the love in it. Trade your naughty time-sink for something that you would actually rather be doing, once you got into it. Then use that mind-trick every day on yourself, and don’t let the momentum break.
Release the latent potential in things (connect dots).
The greatest achievements happen when someone recognizes and releases potential that is already there, such as with the Eureka! moment when Archimedes realizes to measure gold content with water displacement. The combustion engine was built on the realization that controlled explosions can produce the power of a waterfall in a box, and flight was assured merely by knowing that box had to weigh less than the lift achieved in wind tunnels. These are small and obvious things in hindsight, but each changed the world. Such opportunities are never exhausted, and exist all around us even today–just waiting to be spotted and picked up like money off the floor. Recognizing latent potential whose time has come, and releasing that potential is the easiest way to change the world.
Practice connecting the dots.
Why can some people see and connect the dots that others others can’t? I’m convinced that the practice of uncommon thinking and observation is a skill that needs to be practiced and cultivated, much like anything else. But what precisely is that skill? Is it quiet and mysterious? No! It is loud and noisy, and almost violent arranging of words and forming memorable thoughts in your head –just like talking out loud, but to yourself. Entertain yourself. Appreciate ironies. Describe scenes. Take note of things. Assign metaphors. Have your own narrative going on, and recall old narratives. Present your brain with lots of opportunities to do some connecting.