When we hear the word “sustainability,” we tend to think in terms of the environment and natural resources. But sustainability principles are equally relevant to other parts of our lives, including our health, happiness, and collective well-being. For those of us seeking a more satisfying an sustainable way of life, nature’s lessons about what works — and what doesn’t — can help point the way.
Imagine a cherry tree in full bloom, its roots sunk into rich earth and its branches covered with thousands of blossoms, all emitting a lovely fragrance and containing thousands of seeds capable of producing many more cherry trees. The petals begin to fall, covering the ground in a blanket of white flowers and scattering the seeds everywhere.
Some of the seeds will take root, but the vast majority will simply break down along with the spent petals, becoming part of the soil that nourishes the tree — along with thousands of other plants and animals.
Looking at this scene, do we shake our heads at the senseless waste, mess and inefficiency? Does it look like the tree is working too hard, showing signs of strain or collapse? Of course not. But why not?
Well, for one thing, because the whole process is beautiful, abundant and pleasure producing: We enjoy seeing and smelling the trees in bloom, we’re pleased by the idea of the trees multiplying (and producing delicious cherries), and everyone for miles around seems to benefit in the process.
The entire lifecycle of the cherry tree is rewarding, and the only “waste” involved is an abundant sort of nutrient cycling that only leads to more good things. Best of all, this show of productivity and generosity seems to come quite naturally to the tree. It shows no signs of discontent or resentment — in fact, it looks like it could keep this up indefinitely with nothing but good, sustainable outcomes.
The cherry-tree scenario is one model that renowned designer and sustainable-development expert William McDonough uses to illustrate how healthy, sustainable systems are supposed to work. “Every last particle contributes in some way to the health of a thriving ecosystem,” he writes in his essay (coauthored with Michael Braungart), “The Extravagant Gesture: Nature, Design and the Transformation of Human Industry” (available at ).
Rampant production in this scenario poses no problem, McDonough explains, because the tree returns all of the resources it extracts (without deterioration or diminution), and it produces no dangerous stockpiles of garbage or residual toxins in the process. In fact, rampant production by the cherry tree only enriches everything around it.
In this system and most systems designed by nature, McDonough notes, “Waste that stays waste does not exist. Instead, waste nourishes; waste equals food.”
If only we humans could be lucky and wise enough to live this way — using our resources and energy to such good effect; making useful, beautiful, extravagant contributions; and producing nothing but nourishing “byproducts” in the process. If only our version of rampant production and consumption produced so much pleasure and value and so little exhaustion, anxiety, depletion and waste.
Well, perhaps we can learn. More to the point, if we hope to create a decent future for ourselves and succeeding generations, we must. After all, a future produced by trends of the present — in which children are increasingly treated for stress, obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease, and in which our chronic health problems threaten to bankrupt our economy — is not much of a future.
We need to create something better. And for that to happen, we must begin to reconsider which parts of our lives contribute to the cherry tree’s brand of healthy vibrance and abundance, and which don’t.
The happy news is, the search for a more sustainable way of life can go hand in hand with the pursuit of a healthier, more rewarding life. And isn’t that the kind of life most of us are after?
In Search of Sustainability and Satisfaction
McDonough’s cherry-tree model represents several key principles of sustainability — including lifecycle awareness, no-waste nutrient cycling and a commitment to “it’s-all-connected” systems thinking. And it turns out that many of these principles can be usefully applied not just to natural resources and ecosystems, but to all systems — from frameworks for economic and industrial production to blueprints for individual and collective well-being.
For example, when we look at our lives through the lens of sustainability, we can begin to see how unwise short-term tradeoffs (fast food, skipped workouts, skimpy sleep, strictly-for-the-money jobs) produce waste (squandered energy and vitality, unfulfilled personal potential, excessive material consumption) and toxic byproducts (illness, excess weight, depression, frustration, debt).
Conversely, we can also see how healthy choices and investments in our personal well-being can produce profoundly positive results that extend to our broader circles of influence and communities at large. When we’re feeling our best and overflowing with energy and optimism, we tend to be of greater service and support to others. We’re clearer of mind, meaning we can identify opportunities to reengineer the things that aren’t working in our lives. We can also more fully appreciate and emphasize the things that are (as opposed to feeling stuck in a rut, down in the dumps, unappreciated or entitled to something we’re not getting).
When you look at it this way, it’s not hard to see why sustainability plays such an important role in creating the conditions of a true “good life”: By definition, sustainability principles discourage people from consuming or destroying resources at a greater pace than they can replenish them. They also encourage people to notice when buildups and depletions begin occurring and to correct them as quickly as possible.
As a result, sustainability-oriented approaches tend to produce not just robust, resilient individuals, but resilient and regenerative societies — the kind that manage to produce long-term benefits for a great many without undermining the resources on which those benefits depend. (For a thought-provoking exploration of how and why this has been true historically, read Jared Diamond’s excellent book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [Penguin Group, 2005].)
The Good Life Gone Bad
So, what exactly is a “good life”? Clearly, not everyone shares the same definition, but most of us would prefer a life filled with experiences we find pleasing and worthwhile and that contribute to an overall sense of well-being.
We’d prefer a life that feels good in the moment, but that also lays the ground for a promising future — a life, like the cherry tree’s, that contributes something of value and that benefits and enriches the lives of others, or at least doesn’t cause them anxiety and harm.
Unfortunately, historically, our pursuit of the good life has focused on increasing our material wealth and upgrading our socioeconomic status in the short term. And, in the big picture, that approach has not turned out quite the way we might have hoped.
For too many, the current version of “the good life” involves working too-long hours and driving too-long commutes. It has us worrying and running ourselves ragged, overeating to soothe ourselves, watching TV to distract ourselves, binge-shopping to sate our desire for more, and popping prescription pills to keep troubling symptoms at bay. This version of “the good life” has given us only moments a day with the people we love, and virtually no time or inclination to participate as citizens or community members.
It has also given us anxiety attacks; obesity; depression; traffic jams; urban sprawl; crushing daycare bills; a broken healthcare system; record rates of addiction, divorce and incarceration; an imploding economy; and a planet in peril.
From an economic standpoint, we’re more productive than we’ve ever been. We’ve focused on getting more done in less time. We’ve surrounded ourselves with technologies designed to make our lives easier, more comfortable and more amusing.
Yet, instead of making us happy and healthy, all of this has left a great many of us feeling depleted, lonely, strapped, stressed and resentful. We don’t have enough time for ourselves, our loved ones, our creative aspirations or our communities. And in the wake of the bad-mortgage-meets-Wall-Street-greed crisis, much of the so-called value we’ve been busy creating has seemingly vanished before our eyes, leaving future generations of citizens to pay almost inconceivably huge bills.
Meanwhile, the quick-energy fuels we use to keep ourselves going ultimately leave us feeling sluggish, inflamed and fatigued. The conveniences we’ve embraced to save ourselves time have reduced us to an unimaginative, sedentary existence that undermines our physical fitness and mental health and reduces our ability to give our best gifts.
Our bodies and minds are showing the telltale symptoms of unsustainable systems at work — systems that put short-term rewards ahead of long-term value. We’re beginning to suspect that the costs we’re incurring could turn out to be unacceptably high if we ever stop to properly account for them, which some of us are beginning to do.
Accounting for What Matters
Defining the good life in terms of productivity, material rewards and personal accomplishment is a little like viewing the gross domestic product (GDP) as an accurate measurement of social and economic progress.
In fact, the GDP is nothing more than a gross tally of products and services bought and sold, with no distinctions between transactions that enhance well-being and transactions that diminish it, and no accounting for most of the “externalities” (like losses in vitality, beauty and satisfaction) that actually have the greatest impact on our personal health and welfare.
We’d balk if any business attempted to present a picture of financial health by simply tallying up all of its business activity — lumping income and expense, assets and liabilities, and debits and credits together in one impressive, apparently positive bottom-line number (which is, incidentally, much the way our GDP is calculated).
Yet, in many ways, we do the same kind of flawed calculus in our own lives — regarding as measures of success the gross sum of the to-dos we check off, the salaries we earn, the admiration we attract and the rungs we climb on the corporate ladder.
But not all of these activities actually net us the happiness and satisfaction we seek, and in the process of pursuing them, we can incur appalling costs to our health and happiness. We also make vast sacrifices in terms of our personal relationships and our contributions to the communities, societies and environments on which we depend.
This is the essence of unsustainability, the equivalent of a cherry tree sucking up nutrients and resources and growing nothing but bare branches, or worse — ugly, toxic, foul-smelling blooms. So what are our options?
Asking the Right Questions
In the past several years, many alternative, GDP-like indexes have emerged and attempted to more accurately account for how well (or, more often, how poorly) our economic growth is translating to quality-of-life improvements.
Measurement tools like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), developed by Redefining Progress, a nonpartisan public-policy and economic think tank, factor in well-being and quality-of-life concerns by considering both positive and negative impacts of various products and services. They also measure more impacts overall (including impacts on elements of “being” and “doing” vs. just “having”). And they evaluate whether various financial expenditures represent a net gain or net loss — not just in economic terms, but also in human, social and ecological ones (see “Sustainable Happiness,” below ).
Perhaps it’s time to consider our personal health and well-being in the same sort of broader context — distinguishing productive activities from destructive ones, and figuring the true costs and unintended consequences of our choices into the assessment of how well our lives are working.
To that end, we might begin asking questions like these:
- Where, in our rush to accomplish or enjoy “more” in the short run, are we inadvertently creating the equivalent of garbage dumps and toxic spills (stress overloads, health crises, battered relationships, debt) that will need to be cleaned up later at great (think Superfund) effort and expense?
- Where, in our impatience to garner maximum gains in personal productivity, wealth or achievement in minimum time, are we setting the stage for bailout scenarios down the road? (Consider the sacrifices endured by our families, friends and colleagues when we fall victim to a bad mood, much less a serious illness or disabling health condition.)
- Where, in an attempt to avoid uncertainty, experimentation or change, are we burning through our limited and unrenewable resource of time (staying at jobs that leave us depleted, for example), rather than striving to harness our bottomless stores of purpose-driven enthusiasm (by, say, pursuing careers or civic duties of real meaning)?
- Where are we making short-sighted choices or non-choices (about our health, for example) that sacrifice the resources we need (energy, vitality, clear focus) to make progress and contributions in other areas of our lives?
In addition to these assessments, we can also begin imagining what a better alternative would look like:
- What might be possible if we embraced a different version of the good life — the kind of good life in which the vast majority of our choices both feel good and do good?
- What if we took a systems view of our life, acknowledging how various inputs and outputs play out (for better or worse) over time? What if we fully considered how those around us are affected by our choices now and in the long term?
- What if we embraced more choices that honor our true nature, that gave us more opportunities to use our talents and enthusiasms in the service of a higher purpose?
One has to wonder how many of our health and fitness challenges would evaporate under such conditions — how many compensatory behaviors (overeating, hiding out, numbing out) would simply no longer have a draw.
How many health-sustaining behaviors would become easy and natural choices if each of us were driven by a strong and joyful purpose, and were no longer saddled with the stress and dissatisfaction inherent in the lives we live now?
Think about the cherry-tree effect implicit in such a scenario: each of us getting our needs met, fulfilling our best potential, living at full vitality, and contributing to healthy, vital, sustainable communities in the process.
If it sounds a bit idealistic, that’s probably because it describes an ideal distant enough from our current reality to provoke a certain amount of hopelessness. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely unrealistic. In fact, it’s a vision that many people are increasingly convinced is the only kind worth pursuing.
Turning the Corner
Maybe it has something to do with how many of our social, economic and ecological systems are showing signs of extreme strain. Maybe it’s how many of us are sick and tired of being sick and tired — or of living in a culture where everyone else seems sick and tired. Maybe it’s the growing realization that no matter how busy and efficient we are, if our efforts don’t feed us in a deep way, then all that output may be more than a little misguided. Whatever the reason, a lot of us are asking: If our rampant productivity doesn’t make us happy, doesn’t allow for calm and creativity, doesn’t give us an opportunity to participate in a meaningful way — then, really, what’s the point?
These days, it seems that more of us are taking a keen interest in seeking out better ways, and seeing the value of extending the lessons of sustainability beyond the natural world and into our own perspectives on what the good life is all about.
In her book MegaTrends 2010: The Rise of Conscious Capitalism(Hampton Roads, 2005), futurist Patricia Aburdene describes a hopeful collection of social and economic trends shaped by a large and influential subset of the American consuming public. What these 70 million individuals have in common, she explains, are some very specific values-driven behaviors — most of which revolve around seeking a better, deeper, more meaningful and sustainable quality of life.
These “Conscious Consumers,” as Aburdene characterizes them, are more carefully weighing material and economic payoffs against moral and spiritual ones. They are balancing short-term desires and conveniences with long-term well-being — not just their own, but that of their local and larger communities, and of the planet as a whole. They are acting, says Aburdene, out of a sort of “enlightened self- interest,” one that is deeply rooted in concerns about sustainability in all its forms.
“Enlightened self-interest is not altruism,” she explains. “It’s self-interest with a wider view. It asks: If I act in my own self-interest and keep doing so, what are the ramifications of my choices? Which acts — that may look fine right now — will come around and bite me and others one year from now? Ten years? Twenty-five years?”
In other words, Conscious Consumers are not merely consumers, but engaged and concerned individuals who think in terms of lifecycles, who perceive the subtleties and complexities of interconnected systems.
As John Muir famously said: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Just as the cherry tree is tethered in a complex ecosystem of relationships, so are we.
When we live in a way that diminishes us or weighs us down — whether as the result of poor physical health and fitness, excess stress and anxiety, or any compromise of our best potential — we inevitably affect countless other people and systems whose well-being relies on our own.
For example, if we don’t have the time and energy to make food for ourselves and our families, we end up eating poorly, which further diminishes our energy, and may also result in our kids having behavior or attention problems at school, undermining the quality of their experience there, and potentially creating problems for others.
If we skimp on sleep and relaxation in order to “get more done,” we court illness and depression, risking both our own and others’ productivity and happiness in the process and diminishing the creativity with which we approach challenges.
At the individual level, unsustainable choices create strain and misery. At the collective level, they do the same thing, with exponential effect. Because, when not enough of us are living like thriving cherry trees, cycles of scarcity (rather than abundance) ensue. Life gets harder for everyone. As satisfaction and well-being go down, need and consumption go up. Our sense of “enough” becomes distorted.
Taking Full Account
The basic question of sustainability is this: Can you keep doing what you’re doing indefinitely and without ill effect to yourself and the systems on which you depend — or are you (despite short-term rewards you may be enjoying now, or the “someday” relief you’re hoping for) on a likely trajectory to eventual suffering and destruction?
When it comes to the ecology of the planet, this question has become very pointed in recent years. But posed in the context of our personal lives, the question is equally instructive: Are we living like the cherry tree — part of a sustainable and regenerative cycle — or are we sucking up resources, yet still obsessed with what we don’t have? Are we continually generating new energy, vitality, generosity and personal potential, or wasting it?
The human reality, in most cases, isn’t quite as pretty as the cherry tree in full bloom. We can work just so hard and consume just so much before we begin to experience both diminishing personal returns and increasing degenerative costs. And when enough of us are in a chronically diminished state of well-being, the effect is a sort of social and moral pollution — the human equivalent of the greenhouse gasses that threaten our entire ecosystem.
Accounting for these soft costs, or even recognizing them as relevant externalities, is not something we’ve been trained to do well. But all that is changing — in part, because many of us are beginning to realize that much of what we’ve been sold in the name of “progress” is now looking like anything but. And, in part, because we’re starting to believe that not only might there be a better way, but that the principles for creating it are staring us right in the face.
By making personal choices that respect the principles of sustainability, we can interrupt the toxic cycles of overconsumption and overexertion. Ultimately, when confronted with the possibility of a better quality of life and more satisfying expression of our potential, the primary question becomes not just can we continue living the way we have been, but perhaps just as important, why would we even want to?
If the approach we’ve been taking appears likely to make us miserable (and perhaps extinct), then it makes sense to consider our options. How do we want to live for the foreseeable and sustainable future, and what are the building blocks for that future? What would it be like to live in a community where most people were overflowing with vitality and looking for ways to be of service to others?
While no one expert or index or council claims to have all the answers to that question, when it comes to discerning the fundamentals of the good life, nature conveniently provides most of the models we need. It suggests a framework by which we can better understand and apply the principles of sustainability to our own lives. Now it’s up to us to apply them.
Make It Sustainable
Here are some right-now changes you can make to enhance and sustain your personal well-being:
1. Rethink Your Eating.
Look beyond meal-to-meal concerns with weight. Aim to eat consciously and selectively in keeping with the nourishment you want to take in, the energy and personal gifts you want to contribute, and the influence you want to have on the world around you.
To that end, you might start eating less meat, or fewer packaged foods, or you might start eating regularly so that you have enough energy to exercise (and so that your low blood sugar doesn’t negatively affect your mood and everyone around you).
You also might start packing your lunch, suggests money expert Vicki Robin: Not only will you have more control over what and how you eat, but the money you’ll save over the course of a career can amount to a year’s worth of work. “Bringing your lunch saves you a year of your life,” she says.
2. Set a Regular Bedtime
Having a target bedtime can help you get the sleep you need to be positive and productive, and to avoid becoming depleted and depressed. Research confirms that adequate sleep is essential to clear thinking, balanced mood, healthy metabolism, strong immunity, optimal vitality and strong professional performance.
Research also shows that going to bed earlier provides a higher quality of rest than sleeping in, so get your hours at the start of the night. By taking care of yourself in this simple way, you lay the groundwork for all kinds of regenerative (vs. depleting) cycles.
3. Own Your Outcomes
If there are parts of your life you don’t like — parts that feel toxic, frustrating or wasteful to you — be willing to trace the outcomes back to their origins, including your choices around self-care, seeking help, balancing priorities and sticking to your core values.
Also examine the full range of outputs and impacts: What waste or damage is occurring as a result of this area of unresolved challenge? Who else and what else in your life might be paying too-high a price for the scenario in question? If you’re unsure about whether or not a choice or an activity you’re involved in is sustainable, ask yourself the following questions:
- Given the option, would I do or choose this again? Would I do it indefinitely?
- How long can I keep this up, and at what cost — not just to me, but to the other people and systems I care about?
- What have I sacrificed to get here; what will it take for me to continue? Are the rewards worth it, even if the other areas of my life suffer?
Not all growth and productivity represent progress, particularly if you consider happiness and well-being as part of the equation. The growing gap between our gross domestic product and Genuine Progress Indicator (as represented below) suggests we could be investing our resources with far happier results.
Data source: Redefining Progress, rprogress.org. Chart graphic courtesy of Yes! magazine.
Learn more about the most reliable, sustainable sources of happiness and well-being in the Winter 2009 issue of Yes! magazine, available at www.yesmagazine.org.
Learning From Nature
What can we learn from ecological sustainability about the best ways to balance and sustain our own lives? Here are a few key lessons:
- Everything is in relationship with everything else. So overdrawing or overproducing in one area tends to negatively affect other areas. An excessive focus on work can undermine your relationship with your partner or kids. Diminished physical vitality or low mood can affect the quality of your work and service to others.
- What comes around goes around. Trying to “cheat” or “skimp” or “get away with something” in the short term generally doesn’t work because the true costs of cheating eventually become painfully obvious. And very often the “cleanup” costs more and takes longer than it would have to simply do the right thing in the first place.
- Waste not, want not. Unpleasant accumulations or unsustainable drains represent opportunities for improvement and reinvention. Nature’s models of nutrient cycling show us that what looks like waste can become food for a process we simply haven’t engaged yet: Anxiety may be nervous energy that needs to be burned off, or a nudge to do relaxation and self-inquiry exercises that will churn up new insights and ideas. Excess fat may be fuel for enjoyable activities we’ve resisted doing or haven’t yet discovered — or a clue that we’re hungry for something other than food. The clutter in our homes may represent resources that we haven’t gotten around to sharing. Look for ways to put waste and excess to work, and you may discover all kinds of “nutrients” just looking for attention.
Pilar Gerasimo Pilar Gerasimo is the founding editor of Experience Life.
40 things about life I wish I could travel back in time and tell myself
By John Fawkes, Owner, johnfawkes.com
Most of us have, at some point, considered what we would do if we could travel back in time. Maybe we would give ourselves some hot investment advice and become millionaires, or change history for the better, or witness our favorite historical event.
If I could travel back in time and do one thing, I wouldn’t cheat on the stock market, or kill Hitler. I would simply give myself a few words of advice.
What follows are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life- from books, from hard-fought experience, from friends, teachers and mentors much wiser than myself. Some of these lessons took me a very long time to learn- and while I wish I could have learned them faster, it would have taken me even longer if I didn’t have help.
Sadly, we can’t time travel, but what we can do is learn from others, which is a hell of a lot faster than trying to figure things out for ourselves. Here are 40 little knowledge bombs that, in my opinion, took me way too long to learn.
- Natural talent is mostly a myth
Tiger Woods started learning to play golf when he was one year old. Most of what we think of as natural talent is really just the result of having started practice early.
2. To get good at something, you need to love the process
The people who get good at signing songs are those enjoy singing scales and doing warmup exercises. The people who get really good at basketball are those who enjoy doing dribbling and layup drills. Successful online business owners don’t just enjoy making money; they enjoy doing things like writing articles or managing ad campaigns.
Everyone wants the outcome, but in order to be motivated to work towards it, day in and day out, you have to learn to get some enjoyment out of the process.
3. Negativity and positivity can both screw you over, just in different ways
If you’re too negative, you’ll intimidate yourself out of trying things, get too hung up on past failures, and won’t be fun to be around. If you’re too positive, you’ll be overconfident, fail to anticipate how your plans can go awry, and constantly let yourself off the hook for your failures, without learning from them.
Better to be hopeful, but also objective and realistic. Anticipate how things can go wrong, and make contingency plans. Analyse your failures and learn from them, without beating yourself up.
4. Never be dismissive of things you don’t understand
If someone says “I don’t understand how anyone could like X,” what they usually mean is “X is stupid.” But surely your lack of understanding is a failure on your part? Any time you find yourself being dismissive of something you don’t understand, make an effort to understand it instead. Any time you ask a rhetorical question you don’t know the answer to, try asking it as a regular question instead.
5. Get comfortable not having an opinion
It’s important to be able to justify your opinions, but not everything is important enough for you to put a lot of research into. Too often, we feel obligated to have an opinion on every topic set before us. Don’t. If someone asks you your opinion about a topic you haven’t thought about before, don’t make one up on the spot- but admitting that you haven’t thought about it yet, you retain the ability to form a well-informed opinion later on.
6. You only have so many fucks to give. Ration them carefully.
Everything you care about uses some of your limited supply of mental energy. Many ambitious or “socially conscious” people fail to grasp this- they get worked up about everything, and accomplish nothing. Practice strategic apathy; reserve your energy for a small number of important things. If it helps, don’t think of it as apathy- think of it as focus.
7. Always have just one or two goals you’re focusing on
To make big improvements in one area of your life, you need to work on that one area for at least 20 hours a week, for at least three months. 40 hours a week for a year would be better. You can only do this for one or two things at a time. You can and should have more than two life goals, but learn to focus on one or two at a time, while saving the others for later.
8. Moderation is usually just an excuse to be average
You don’t get into amazing shape by drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, eating moderate amounts of junk food, and exercising moderately a couple times a week. You don’t become a billionaire by working 40 hours a week. Extreme results require extreme efforts.
9. Sometimes you have to outgrow your friends
Birds of a feather flock together. Unfortunately, when you grow, not all of your friends will be growing with you. Your friends tend to rub off on you; as such, they can pull you up or hold you back. Ask yourself: If I wasn’t already friends with them, would I want to make friends with them?Are they more like the person I want to become, or the person I used to be?
10. Most of your friends are more popular than you are- but that’s nothing to worry about
One of the silliest things people stress out about is the fact that most of their friends seem to be more popular than they are. The truth is, most of your friends probably are more popular than you, due to something called the friendship paradox. Because people with more friends are proportionally more likely to be your friend, you’ll be less popular than most of your friends even if you actually have a lot of friends overall. This is nothing more than a quirky mathematical property of social networks, so stop worrying about it.
11. Close friends are good, but acquaintances are perfectly fine too
Having acquaintances you’re not close with isn’t shallow or disingenuous. Pretending they’re close friends is. Friends, best friends and acquaintances all have their place in your life- just appreciate them each for what they are.
12. Networking can be fun and authentic, if you do it right
I hated networking for the longest time, because it felt sleazy, desperate and unauthentic. Now I’ve learned how to enjoy it, and have even met friends at networking events. Here’s how I do it: take a genuine interest in people, focus more on helping people than on asking for their help, get to know people in your field before you need something from them, and when you want something from someone, be up front about it. I
13. Looks matter. A lot.
Your appearance has a huge effect on the way you’re treated- socially, professionally, and in all areas of life. Maybe this is fair, maybe not, but it’s true- and yes, it’s true for men as well as women. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to decide what impression you want to be giving out, and shape your appearance around that. If you look good, it will have a positive effect on almost every interpersonal interaction that you’re a part of.
14. Working hard at something is less important than working consistently at it
We are what we do consistently, not what we occasionally struggle at. Hard work is important, but you won’t accomplish much by working hard for a while, getting exhausted and giving up. To achieve something great, work at it almost every day. This means you need to pace yourself; work as hard as you’re able to sustain, not so hard you get burnt out.
15. Learn when not to be honest
Honesty is nice in principle, but not everyone appreciates total, brutal honesty. Before giving people advice or feedback, get a good read on them. If they seem like they can handle the whole truth, give it to them. If not, sugar coat it. As much as you might want to help people by telling them the truth, you need to consider the social consequences if the person you’re talking to gets offended.
16. People tend to assume others are like themselves
We tend to assume other people share our preferences, opinions and values (unless we actively dislike them from the start- then we do the opposite). This leads us to be surprised when other people behave differently than we would, and to avoid that, we need to make an effort to really learn about other people.
This also means you can tell a lot about someone by what they assume about others. If someone thinks everyone is out to cheat them, they may well be crooked themselves. If someone expects everyone to be nice, they’re probably nice too.
17. You can’t argue with haters, because they’re not arguing with you
When your work attracts irrational hate from strangers, it’s tempting to defend yourself. This is pointless, because the hate isn’t even about you- you’re just being used as a stand-in for something or someone else.
For instance, as a fitness writer I sometimes get hate mail from people who are mad that I say it’s entirely possible to lose weight. What’s really going on there, is that they are trying to convince themselves that they can’t lose weight no matter what they do, so they can give themselves permission to give up. I’m just a stand-in for the voice in the back of their head telling them they’re wrong, and I can’t win that argument because I’m not really a part of it.
18. Be a quitter
If you own a stock, ask yourself if you would buy it. If the answer is no, you should sell it. If you’re in a relationship, ask yourself- if you weren’t dating that person, but knew what you know now, would you choose to start dating them? The same goes for jobs: would you take the job you have now, if you knew what it was like and didn’t have it already? If not, look for a new one. Choosing to stay where you are is as much a choice as choosing to movie; you should have no bias either way.
19. Most dating advice is self-centered and useless
Most of us want a partner who is good-looking, empathetic, fun, has a great career, sense of humor, has a cool life we can be a part of…and the list goes on. And yet, how much dating advice tells us to just “be confident,” or use some magic pickup line? How come the standard is so high for the people we want to date, and so low for ourselves?
The way most people gather information about dating is just as bad. Women look at the fashion models in women’s magazines, and figure that must be what men look for in a woman. Men look at the men in men’s magazines, and figure that’s what women like. Why not look at the women in men’s magazines and the men in women’s magazines? Why not read romance novels to learn about women, or watch action movies to learn about men?
20. If you want honest feedback, make it painless for the other person to give
If you ask someone who knows you to give you their honest opinion about you, something you’ve done or an idea you have, they’ll usually choose to be nice rather than honest. It’s easier to give honest feedback if you’re not talking directly to the person you’re talking about. Ask people for anonymous feedback, or tell them you’re asking for a friend.
21. Statistics lie all the time.
Most crack smokes smoked marijuana first….but most marijuana smokers never smoke crack. The average American has one breast and one testicle. Statistics can be entirely true, and still lead you to believe something false.
22. Bad salesmanship is infuriating. Good salesmanship is a crucial life skill.
Pushy, dishonest salesmanship is a pet peeve of mine. Buy my stupid tchotchkes! It’s unique, I’m the only stupid tchotchke seller in town! Buy it now, I’ll give you a good price if you buy now! But good salesmanship isn’t pushy or dishonest- instead, you inform the prospect of all their options, and help them to pick the best option for them, without pushing them to buy at all. A bad salesperson is a predator, but a good salesperson is a trusted advocate for the customer.
23. It’s better to be loved by a few than liked by many
OkCupid once did a study that looked at how attractive people were rated, on a scale from one to five. It found that the more people rate you a 5, the more messages you’ll get- but ratings of 3 and 4 were worse than useless, being negatively correlated with number of messages.
If you’re a blogger like me, you may have thousands of readers who like you- but your money comes from the much smaller number of people who love you enough to buy your stuff. There’s not much reward for being mildly liked- it’s better to be loved by some and hated by some than liked by everyone, so swing for the fences.
24. Judge yourself by your inputs in the short term, and your outputs in the long term
When people want to lose weight, I tell them to weigh themselves once a month. On a daily basis, they should ignore the scale and judge themselves solely by whether they followed their diet and did their workout.
If you want to start a business, you probably won’t have revenue on day one- but you should be working hard on day one. If you’re in college, you only earn credits once a semester- day to day, you focus on your assignments, not your transcript. When working at something long-term, check your outputs occasionally to make sure you’re on track, but focus on your inputs- whether you’re following the plan and doing the work- day in and day out.
25. Judge people harshly up front, invest more in them later.
We’re often told that we shouldn’t rush to judgement. This sounds nice, but isn’t practical if you’re meeting a lot of people in your life. When you withhold judgement of everyone you meet, you have to spend more time getting to know all of them. If you evaluate people more harshly up front- in dating, hiring, friendship, or any other realm- you have fewer people to deal with, and can give more attention to those who meet your standards.
26. When you’re told you have two options- you almost always have more
My kung-fu teacher once told me that where he grew up, there was a church and a liquor store on every corner. He was told he could either be a church person or a liquor store person. Instead, he became neither- he’s not a criminal or a drunk, and he’s spiritual but not involved in organised religion. He knew there had to be other options.
Think you have to get married or stay single? You can be in a lifelong relationship without marriage, or even be non-monogamous. Think you have to work 9–5 or put up with irregular shift work? You can freelance. When you have two options, that often gives you just enough of an illusion of choice to conceal the fact that you actually have more.
27. Money can buy happiness, if you use it right
People are always debating whether money can buy happiness, but the research is clear: it can, depending on what you spend it on. Collecting crap you’ll barely use won’t make you happy. Spending your money on experiences will make you happy- as will giving it away to a good cause, or saving it so you become more financially secure. So make the effort to earn more money, but just don’t waste it on dumb shit.
28. People care about what you can do for them, and that’s okay
If you want a job, the hiring manager is wondering what you’ll do for the company. She doesn’t care how badly you need a job. If you’re trying to start a friendship with someone, or start dating someone, they’re wondering what you’ll add to their life. You have no right to be mad about this, because you think the same way. To get what you want, make an effort to view things from their perspective.
29. “I don’t care what people think of me” is bullshit
Whenever someone says they don’t care what people think of them, it just means they really want to be seen as someone who doesn’t care what people think of them. In truth, you should care what people think of you- but not everyone. Figure out who is a good judge of character, and view their opinion of you as useful feedback- but ignore most everyone else.
30. You can change your personality
People’s personalities generally don’t change once they’re grown up- but they can. Personality change requires you to grow and strengthen new neural pathways. This actually works the same way that physical exercise works- you have to stress those neural pathways to the point of fatigue, then rest them, and they grow stronger when they recover.
In practice, this means you have to engage in new, desired behaviors, and keep at them past the point where they start to be mentally tiring. If you want to become extroverted, you need to go out and socialize, and keep talking to people for at least a half hour past the point where you really just want to go home. If you want to be more productive, you nee to force yourself to work past the point where you’re dying to take a break. It’s tough, but it gets easier over time.
31. New years resolutions are for losers
If you make something a new years resolution, you’re actually less likely to get it done. Consider this: did you really think of that resolution on new years day? Or, did you think of it a month or two earlier…and use new years resolutions as an excuse to put it off?
New years resolutions are, almost by definition, things you’ve been putting off. A better time to start your new years resolutions would be November. The best time to start working on a resolution is as soon as you think of it- don’t put it off until some arbitrary date.
32. You can’t reason people out of something they weren’t reasoned into
That’s an old Mark Twain quote, but it’s actually backed by science. There are two kinds of beliefs- those that are cognitively based, and those that are emotionally based. Cognitively based beliefs are based on logic, and can only be changed with logic. Emotionally based beliefs can only be changed with emotional arguments. If you want to change someone’s beliefs, you need to first understand what their existing belief is based on.
33. Being an asshole costs you more than you think
Being disliked can have a lot of consequences. You won’t get invited to parties. You won’t get referred for job openings. People will be reluctant to introduce you to others, making it hard to network.
And the thing is, nobody will tell you about it. You won’t know that that party ever happened, or that job was available. The cost of being a jerk is largely invisible to you, and measured in missed opportunities.
34. Not everything is someone’s fault
When something goes wrong, people’s first impulse is often to try to figure out whose fault it is. And once they find someone to point a finger at, often they’ll stop there, as if that alone solves the problem. Not only does that not solve anything, but many problems have no human culprit. The growing gap between rich and poor might be because the rich are doing something to make it happen- or it might be impersonal market conditions. Women might outlive men do to public health policies- or it might just be biology. When searching for the cause of a problem, don’t assume it must be someone’s fault.
35. Not wanting to change isn’t self-love
There’s a growing trend on the internet of people writing essays that basically say “I suck at something, but that’s okay and I love myself.” The authors will talk about how they struggled with their weight, lack of social skills, or go-nowhere career, but then stopped trying to change and started loving themselves.
That isn’t self-love; that’s laziness and resignation. If you love your kids, you’ll want them to have friends, to get good grades, to be healthy, to have a good life. If you love yourself, you’ll want to have the best life you can possibly have- and that means making the effort to build that better life for yourself.
36. Fight Club was wrong- you are your job
Aristotle had it right- we are what we do repeatedly. Anything you spend 40 hours a week doing is a big part of who you are, and there’s no getting around that. If you feel the urge to disassociate yourself from your job, it’s time to find a job you care about.
37. “Follow your passion” is vapid and self-centered career advice
Just because you enjoy doing something, doesn’t mean you’re good at it, or that people will be willing and able to pay you for it. The universe isn’t obligated to give you money for doing what you love. Instead, figure out what you’re good at that people will pay you for, and pick something that you either enjoy doing, or can see yourself growing to enjoy (you can build your passion over time). If you want to get paid for something, you have to think of the customer first.
38. Be an independent thinker, but remember that the majority is usually right
Over the past ten years I’ve seeing a growing number of people falling prey to what I call “red pill syndrome.” They find out that one or two of society’s deeply held beliefs is wrong- for instance, that buying a home isn’t usually a good investment, or that a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good career. Then they decide that society is wrong about everything- college is a waste of time and money, 9–5 jobs are as good as slavery, dating and marriage are a huge scam, the stock market is rigged, voting is pointless, and everyone is wrong about everything.
It’s good to be a skeptic. It’s good to question conventional thinking. It’s not good to always think the opposite of what most people think. Not only is that just as mindless as always siding with the majority, but you’ll be wrong more often, because the majority opinion is correct more often than not.
39. Do whatever you want, unless there’s a good reason not to
Most of us go through life doing what we’re supposed to do, instead of what we want, subjugating our own dreams and desires to our perceived social obligations. When you have to make a decision, don’t start by asking yourself what you’re supposed to do. Instead, first ask yourself what you want to do. Then, ask yourself if there’s any compelling reason why you shouldn’t do that. If there aren’t, go ahead and do what you want.
40. Invest in yourself sooner rather than later
I’ve invested a lot of money in myself over the years- by buying courses, or by hiring coaches, and in areas as diverse as business, social skills, fitness, kung-fu and singing. Every time I’ve invested in myself, I had been thinking about it for a long time before I finally decided to spend the money. And every time, once I invested in myself, I ended up kicking myself for not doing it sooner.
Whatever goals you have, your success in reaching them will be proportional to your willingness to invest time and money in them. Join a gym. Start seeing a nutritionist. Take a coding bootcamp. Get a mentor. Hire a habit coach. Join a mastermind group.
Much as with financial investing, the most important key to investing in your own skills is to start early. Getting good instruction in the beginning changes your entire learning trajectory. Don’t make the mistake I did- invest in yourself early and often.
If I had known then what I know now, I could have sped up my personal development by at lest a decade. I can’t time travel- but I can share what I’ve learned with you, just as others have shared their own knowledge and experience with me.
Also, if anyone actually does know how to time travel- please email me.
Before you go…
If you found this article helpful, click the💚 button below or share the article on Facebook so your friends can benefit from it too.