I’m sending you this letter from 30 years in the future. Even at your age, I’m sure you’ll recognize that although you think you know everything, every year you seem to learn a lot more, so by extrapolation (remember that word from algebra?), by the time you’re me, you’ll know a boatload. Below, I try to distill all of that into a few key pieces of advice. Some of this will sound familiar from my blog (that’s what people call publicly published personal journals these days), but there is a lot more here that I haven’t found time to write a blog post about – maybe I will someday. I know you will only half listen, and that’s okay. If just a few of these get through to you, we’ll both be happier and healthier…
- First and foremost, in everything you do, strive to do the “right” thing. This is called conscientiousness, and is the single most important thing you can learn. To help you do this, find an exemplary person, and when making any decision, ask yourself “What would s/he do?” This could be Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. or any other of a host of exceptional leaders. Or, more likely and more practically, this may be your parents, aunt or uncle, grandparents, minister or priest or rabbi, or teacher. Using your parents or other close caregivers has the great advantage that you know how they behave very well, whereas you usually only know about famous people from second-hand sources. This goes for the smallest decision (“Should I wash my hands?”, “Should I use my turn signal?”) to the largest (“Should I marry this person?”, “Should I attend college?”). Better yet, find several such people, and if what you’re planning to do goes against what they all would do, please take the time to carefully consider that.
- Notwithstanding the above, be aware that your parents and all such mentors are human, and not perfect. Always question why they do what they do, and don’t be afraid to do something different. Most of the time, you’ll discover they were right, but occasionally you will discover they were wrong. This is especially true for things which are clearly a matter of opinion, like: “Who is the best sports team?”, “Who should I vote for?”, or even “What religion should I follow?”
- Here’s a nifty litmus test I use when making hard decisions that involve changing my current course: I ask myself, “Later on, would I regret not taking this new path?” If the answer is that I would regret it, I know I have to take that path, no matter how hard it may be.
- Habits define you. Identify your bad ones and do what it takes to eliminate them. At the same time, replace them with good ones. Do this continuously. Do this for both behavioral and mental habits.
- Realize that thoughts lead to words, and both thoughts and words lead to action. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, stop yourself (literally say “Stop” in your head) before they grow into something worse. Catastrophizing often becomes a self-fulling prophecy. Likewise, if there is something you want to do or accomplish, start by writing it down, and telling others. (See Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions for more details).
- Every human deserves your respect. You should try hard to assess everyone you interact with, but not to judge them. Strive to always give everyone, even people you feel you know, the benefit of the doubt. Do not assume the worst.
- Read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Read it multiple times over the years and try hard to internalize its lessons. It’s title makes it sound like some sleazy how-to book for salespeople, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It is genuine, and immensely useful. Yes it was written in another time, but because it gets at the roots of what it means to be human, it is timeless. Close behind it is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Read them both!
- When you are a young adult, and even more so when you are older, don’t feel bound by your decisions, large or small. It’s easy to have thought patterns like, “Oh, I just spent a gazillion dollars and 4 years to learn to be a nanoimmunobiologist, so I’d better find a job and be one for the rest of my life, even though I think it’s boring and immoral.” Don’t fall into that trap, it will ruin your life. Constantly examine yourself and your life, and if you don’t like what you see, reinvent yourself.
- “Acting the part” can take you farther than you might think (just watch the film Catch Me If You Can – when it comes out in about 20 years). Of course, don’t try to deceive others like the main character in that film does, but mentally telling yourself things like, “Ah, I’m now a platoon leader – I should act like a platoon leader,” can go a long way towards turning you into what you aspire to be.
- Appearances do matter. Not just to others but to yourself. Like it or not, we are hard-wired to make an initial assessment of whether we like someone within 7 seconds of meeting them. This doesn’t mean you have to wear a business suit all the time (unless you want to or have to), but it does mean that you should be thoughtful of how you look when in the presence of others, and even when you’re alone. Don’t make your physical appearance an obsession. If you’re spending over an hour putting yourself together in the morning, you may want to think about whether you’re overdoing it. Also, make sure you “dress the part” – this signals both others and perhaps more importantly you, yourself, about how you intend to act. Going to work in the garden? Dress like a gardener. Going out on the town? Dress like a reveler (but not a revealer). Going for an interview, dress like an interviewee. Going to work as a <blank>, dress like a <blanker>.
- Find a uniform. This basically means, find a practical, sharp, acceptable way of dressing that is compatible with your lifestyle and personal style, and buy those clothes in bulk. This guarantees you look good and relieves you of any decision making when it comes to getting dressed in the morning. (Of course, have some variety!)
- You will hear the saying: “It’s not what you know but who you know.” There is some truth to that, but I’d revise it: It is both who you know, and what you know. By “it”, I mean the ability to follow the path you have laid out for yourself, and achieve the goals you set for yourself. Getting a job as a supervising manager at an architectural firm through your college buddy won’t do you any good if you know nothing about architecture and managing. On the other hand, you may be the best architectural manager in the world, but without connections in that world, your options for employment will be extremely limited. Make real connections, though, not just exchanging contact information with everyone you run into, especially after you start using the internet.
- Money can buy happiness, but you quickly reach the point of diminishing returns. Be prudent with your money, and learn to track your finances, but don’t be a spendthrift. You can always make more money.
- Learn the essential difference between an asset (something which makes you money) and a liability (something which costs you money). Maximize the money you put into assets and minimize the money you put into liabilities. The book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki can help you understand this key truth.
- Don’t assume that what works for the “average” person will necessarily work for you, but do try it as a starting point. Chances are you will have to modify it a bit to suit you, and maybe even throw it out and try something else that your gut tells you is right when you realize it doesn’t work. If you only do what the average person does, you will only have an average life (at best). Since you only get one life, chances are you’d like for it to be a bit more than average. (See You Are Not an Average, Joe for more details.)
- Take the time to learn how to give talks and presentations well, and how to convince others – it is an invaluable skill regardless of your career path. Continue to sharpen this skill throughout life.
- Try hard to eat well every day, sleep well every night, and move your body to the point of sweating doing something you enjoy regularly (most days). Always monitor what you eat and how it makes you feel. Figure out how much sleep you need and make it a very high priority. Don’t exercise for exercise’s sake, but do something you love doing, even if it isn’t considered “working out”. Track these three things – you may be surprised how much they affect not only your mood but your overall happiness. (See: Living the SWEET Life, Daily)
- Explore what you can do with your body. Don’t be satisfied with just one physical activity – try as many as you can. Dancing, skydiving, yoga, rock climbing, tai chi, hiking, fencing, parkour – there are so many amazing things you can do with your body! Your body is your vehicle through life – learn everything you can about it, through direct experience. And learn how to maintain it properly – you’ll be happy you did.
- To quote a good friend of mine, “TV is for people who have forgotten they are going to die.” Same goes for video games. Like sugar in your diet, these have their place in limited quantities, but by no means should they be your default activity. Even worse is “adult” content or other bizarre, extreme, or disturbing videos/books/games. It’s not just harmful to you but to others as well, and should have no place at all in your life.
- Choose your friends carefully, and your spouse even more carefully. Don’t date and don’t hang out with people because they are an easy choice and you are lonely. Hold out for the special people. Love is a choice, not something that happens to you.
- Ultimately, you must find your own path through life. It may take you your entire life to discover who you are – always strive to find out. Once you think you “know” who you are, you know it’s time to take action to learn more and try something new.
- Love means doing something for someone, even (or especially) when you don’t want to. This is the meaning of sacrifice and giving.
- Last but not least, here’s the secret to happiness: “The trick is to find some way in which you work with other people that you respect in pursuit of a noble end in a way that uses your strengths.” – Jonathan Haidt. In other words, after ensuring your physical health, you can pursue happiness by ensuring that how you spend your days is something that you a) are passionate about, b) can do better than most people, and c) supports you monetarily.
Thanks for listening. If you have any questions, feel free to send them my way.
And don’t forget to save this letter and refer back to it often. : ) (That’s a sideways smiley face – you’ll understand that a lot more in about 10 years).
All the best,
P.S. Remember that book See You At The Top you recently read by Zig Ziglar, that you took some notes on? After writing this letter, I went back and found those notes (yes, you’ve kept them all these years), and it all sounded so familiar, except I’ve relearned these things the “hard” way. Here’s what Zig said (I think I may have modified a few of these or even inserted some from Stephen Covey, but the core is still there):
- Common sense demands that you like yourself – you’re the only you you’ve got.
- To improve your self-image, improve the image of yourself – dress up.
- Read inspirational biographies.
- Listen to speakers who build mankind.
- Take “baby-steps” towards positive self-image.
- Smile, greet, and compliment others.
- Do something for someone who can’t repay the favor.
- Be careful of your associates.
- Make a list of your positive points, keep it with you.
- Make a list of past accomplishments, review and revise it often.
- Avoid pornography, violence, soap operas, and astrology.
- Realize that behind every success is a series of failures.
- Learn to speak in public.
- Look yourself and others in the eye.
- Maintain your health and physical appearance.
P.P.S. A woman named Mary Schmich will also write some great advice in 1997 – you should read that, too.