These are life-changers because they are tools to change what you need to change—and to appreciate what you already have.
Some advice is perfectly good advice, but it rolls off you with no practical application, soon to be forgotten. Other advice works well to solve a very specific problem, but only that problem. The bits of advice below, however, are things I use over and over no matter what the problem. They have changed my life because now, no project seems too large, no task insurmountable. They are ways to get unstuck any time I am stuck.
1) Start somewhere, start anywhere.
I used to think you always had to start at the beginning. The logical place to start, right? And sure, there are many things where you need to do certain things in a certain order—surgery, changing a flat tire, following a recipe. But for many things, particularly creative endeavors—the beginning is sometimes an elusive little bugger. A lot of people get overwhelmed and say, “I don’t know where to start.” Now, when I’m faced with a task that seems daunting, I simply divide it into as many actions as I can—always putting in some that are so clear that I can’t possibly screw it up. Need to write a book? My to-do list might include “open up your laptop and write one paragraph.” Want to build a shed? Find a list of tools needed and make sure you have all those. Suddenly invited to give a commencement address? Think about one small anecdote that you wish you had known as a college senior and expand from there. There is no project or task that is too overwhelming if there are specific actions you know you can take. Start with those. Even if it’s not the beginning.
2) It’s OK to do things twice. In fact, plan on it.
This is a natural extension of the above, even though I heard it at an entirely different time in my life, from an entirely different (now long forgotten) source.
Say you want to go out and get a mortgage. You might get to the bank, and not have one of the papers you need. The banker walks you through the process. You go and get the rest of what is needed. But the important thing is—you had some of the papers you needed. You started somewhere. There was no way you could have known every step ahead of time, so you ended up doing some of it over. Guess what—that is not the end of the world. Getting annoyed because something took you twice as long as anticipated will only make you the type of person that is constantly annoyed. It’s as if you thought you were entitled to get something right the first time —even if it is something you absolutely didn’t know how to do.
The added benefit to this strategy is that you are constantly giving yourself a second chance. That’s a very relaxing way to live.
So just plan to do everything twice, as if it’s part of the process. You’ll never again say “I don’t know why everything takes twice as long as I think it should.” But if by chance you do get it right the first time—bingo! You’ve won the time lottery for the day.
3) Seek to connect, not to impress.
Ok, I still have trouble doing this one. I catch myself on a daily basis saying, “wow, this will really impress them.” Whoever “them” is—colleagues, friends, exes, my Facebook connections. If I really impress them, THEN they will like me! And you know what? Occasionally I do impress people. But here’s what happens next—I come across as a show-off, braggart, and unconcerned about other people. Why on earth would someone like me for that? When I catch myself only trying to impress someone, these words flash like a neon sign in my head.
“Seek to connect” is good advice whether you are dating, job hunting, out with friends, spending time with your children. It doesn’t mean that it has to be all about them, either. That isn’t connection. It’s about the back and forth, the mutual understanding, the curiosity about what is happening with the other person. It’s an additive process—a sharing of selves, not a “ta-dum, here I am”. It’s when “I” and “you” become “we”, and “we” becomes “wow”. I guarantee, it’s better than impressive. The change to my life was that in every interaction—whether with a stranger or someone I’ve known for years—I feel connected in ways I hadn’t before.
4) Don’t be the person looking for a job. Be the person doing something interesting.
Do you enjoy talking to someone who is trying desperately to convince you how great they are? Neither do potential employers. The best way to get a job is to get a referral from someone who has no vested interest in you getting the job, but has simply seen you doing amazing things. If you are out in public, doing interesting things, people will say “wow, I wish I could do things like that”. And they will want to work with you. I’m not advising you immediately stop going on those interviews, but rather ask yourself—what are you doing today that is so interesting someone will want to hear about it? What are you accomplishing? What are you building? What are you creating? What are you doing that no other applicant is doing? Spend part of your day doing those things, and opportunities will start to find you.
How practical is this and did it really change my life? Back about 5 years ago, I was doing project work, one of the few times in my life I was between jobs. I had just gotten on Twitter, and saw immediately how it allowed me to reach out to people I didn’t know, connect over ideas, and get to know people from all over the world. Around that same time, the country of Iceland had declared bankruptcy and I read an article in the Harvard Business Review about how it happened, in part, because Iceland was “too insular”. I had an epiphany: “Iceland should get on Twitter.” And I made it happen. I was able to get a proposal in front of Iceland’s Cultural Ministry, I dealt with delays when a volcano erupted, and I talked with scores of people who were doing political campaigns in social media so I could develop a protocol for how a country should talk to the rest of the world. It was one of the most interesting things I did. Shortly after my that was done, I met with Tom Matlack, founder of The Good Men Project. “So what have you been doing?” he asked.
5) Anxiety is when the voices in your head are worried about the future. Depression is when the voices inside your heard are worried about the past. Peace of mind is when those two voices stop talking to each other.
I used to think peace of mind was boring. But peace of mind doesn’t mean emptiness of mind–it means lack of conflict. It just means you get rid of the squabbling and bickering of the voices that create strife. Being present is one way to silence those voices. Being fully immersed in things you are passionate about is another. Be happy with what you have, or change what you want to change. Peace of mind actually becomes a way to shape your future rather than worry about it. Peace is not boring.
6) If you want self-esteem, go out and do something esteemable.
I used to think I could squash those anxious and depressed voices through positive self-talk. But the minute I heard this one piece of advice, I realized that most affirmative self-talk is a lie. If you are trying to convince yourself that you are better than you are, your real self will see right through you. Instead—take action. Go out and do something esteemable. It can be anything. Play with your kids. Volunteer for a suicide prevention hotline. Build a shed. Write a book. Don’t know where to start? See #1 above.
The corollary to this is “Act first, feelings will follow.” Don’t try to talk yourself into feeling differently. Change your actions, your feelings will change in tandem.
7) This is water.
But here is the crux of it.
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
When we’re immersed in the day to day, when we are always trying to achieve things like “happiness” or “success” or “freedom from boredom” – those things will always remain elusive. Life doesn’t actually “happen”, despite what the bumpersticker is. Life is. Life is simply the reality of you, living in a world you are not really the center of. And as part of that life, you have a choice, every minute of every day—about what to do and how to think. More specifically, you have a choice about what to think about. What to notice. What to give your attention to.
The above advice has changed my life because it has given me the tools to change the things I want to change and appreciate the things I already enjoy. And “this is water” remains a code for me to pay attention to the joy and beauty in any given moment.
Photo: danale9 / flickr