“Rules” for successful living

For most of my life, I was successful. Generally speaking, each year was better than the prior year, and whenever I made a “five-year plan”, my life turned out better than what I had planned. Like many people, I had developed little “rules” or habits or maxims or truisms that guided my life. Considering my current life, however, it is obvious that there is something wrong with this list. (Most things in life are out of our control: to say that it is “obvious” that my list is flawed is to arrogantly believe that I have more control over the world than I actually have.) Maybe some of these items are wrong, or more likely, I am missing some key habits and skills; skills that if I had them, I would have weathered this storm.

On this page

  1. “Rules” for successful living
  2. “Rules” I missed?
    1. Learn to depend on other people
    2.  . . . and to not feel guilty about it

In no particular order, and not a complete list, my “rules” for successful living:

  1. Having knowledge is good; being an expert at finding knowledge is better. If you were the most knowledgeable person that ever lived, the amount of knowledge you would have would be approximately the same as one drop of water in all of the oceans of Earth.

    Consider the laws of Illinois. Just the printed law of Illinois take up 11 large books with small print, but the laws passed by the legislature must be interpreted by the courts, so to truly understand the law of Illinois, you must also read court cases. The following reference tool starts with the 11-volume set of Illinois laws, adds some other rules, and annotates each law and rule with summaries of some court cases. To read the entire court case, you must go to yet another reference tool, but just this list of summaries of some cases expands the original 11 volumes to 147 volumes! And that is merely the law of Illinois; it doesn’t describe the law of any other state, Federal law, the law of other countries, religious law, international law, the history of law, or anything else related to law. The most knowledgeable lawyer in all of Illinois couldn’t know more than .001% of Illinois law.

    Therefore, being an expert at locating knowledge is probably more important than having knowledge. Some specific rules about finding knowledge:

    1. RTFM. When I was working in computer technical support, we often received unnecessary calls. With every computer, we shipped a manual that had a lot of useful information. It was shocking how many people would take the time to find the tech support phone number, call it, go through all of the automated menus, and ask a question that was answered on page 3 of their manual—and that could have been answered with much less effort and time if they would just RTFM: Read the Fucking Manual. If you are a lawyer, then RTFS (statute). If you are in the sciences, then Do the Math. If you bought something from Ikea, RTFI. The applications of this rule are nearly endless.
    2. Use dictionaries—often. Words are not merely the way we communicate with each other. Words are how we organize our internal thoughts and memories. If your vocabulary is limited, then so is your ability to process information, learn new things, and understand yourself; a smaller vocabulary even limits your ability to form accurate memories. While every language has hundreds of words to describe colors, for example, in every language the multitude of color-words can be reduced to just a handful of distinct words. In English, consider the difference between “yellow” and “canary”: yes, they are different words, but ultimately they are both just yellow. The number of distinct color words in languages varies, with the most complex language having 12 or 13 (if I recall correctly). This is important because when we “remember” the color of something, we do not recall the actual image of the object. Instead, when we viewed the object, we assigned a color word to it. Later, when we recall the “image” of the object, it is not the same as looking at a photograph. The color of the object we remember will match the color name we assigned to it.

      One simple experiment proves this in an elegant way. Pretend your native (non-English) language does not distinguish between blue and green (pretty common, actually). You are shown an object that a native English speaker would call green, but you call it “bleen”. The next day, you are shown an object that is identical in every way except the color. The color is slightly different—a native English speaker would call it blue, but you would also call it “bleen”. The scientist then asks you, “Is the object you saw today the same color as the object you saw yesterday.” You can only answer yes because both objects are “bleen”.

      The point is: you remember things and understand things only through words. If your vocabulary cannot distinguish blue and green, then all of those colors will be lumped into “bleen”. If your vocabulary cannot describe the world around you or your inner life, then everything will be lumped into “bleen”, and your ability to grow, communicate, and understand yourself will be limited.

    3. Ask the expert. Division of labor is essential to modern society, and division of labor includes division of knowledge. Whatever you are working on, it is a near certainty that someone else knows more about it than you know about it. Just like you do not try to build your own car and your own house and have your regular job, you should not attempt to know and learn everything. When you need knowledge, seek out experts and learn from them. Temper this, however, by integrating the knowledge into your skill set and do not blindly follow everything that the experts tell you.
  2. Use the right tool for the job. Mosquito repellent and a sharp knife are both powerful tools—when applied to the proper situation. If you are having trouble completing a task, it might be because you are not using the proper tool(s) for the task.
  3. Our strengths are our weaknesses. When you are good with a hammer, everything is a nail. When we become good at a certain task or a specific way of approaching life, we tend to apply our strongest skills in all situations. Related to “use the right tool for the job”, be aware that your strength will always be your weakness. I, for example, am generally good at analyzing, but this is a weakness when I over-think things or when I analyze experiences that do not need analysis. Some experiences in life are just experiences and do not need analysis.
  4. Be quick to compliment and slow to criticize. Most people do the opposite.
  5. Know where you are, so you can know where you want to be. “千里之行, 始于足下 (Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zúxià) The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet.” ― Lao-tzu. This phrase is usually translated as “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” While that concept is true, it is not what Lao-tzu was talking about. He wasn’t saying, “a lengthy task is made from smaller tasks.” He was saying that if you want to travel to a distant land, you first have to figure out where you are or you will go the wrong way!
  6. Write it down. If you need to remember it, then write it down, and have a system for organizing the information. Related to that, do not waste brain time memorizing things that you can record somewhere. I have only memorized a handful of phone numbers, for example, because I have everyone’s phone number recorded in at least four places.
  7. If you could not afford to replace it, then you need the warranty or insurance. My grandfather taught me this idea (through my mother). Before car insurance was common or legally required, he encouraged people to buy it. (No, he was not in the insurance industry.) He would ask, “If your car were stolen tomorrow, could you afford to replace the car?” If the answer is no, then you cannot afford to not have insurance. I have extended that idea to warranties and all types of insurance, and that is how I decide which insurance (or warranties) to purchase and how much I am willing to pay for it.
  8. You must buy the fire extinguisher before you need it. A Boy Scout might say, “Be prepared.”
  9. Always take your shoes with you. This was probably the first rule I made in life, and I’m not sure why I haven’t written about it yet. There is a story behind it, but I don’t have time to tell it right now.
  10. More to come? I have never tried to list all of my rules, and I assume there are more.

“Rules” I missed?

I have been trying to figure out what went wrong that led me here. I do not really believe I will figure it out, but first, I tend to analyze everything and this is not an exception. Second, the point of telling this story is so that other people might figure out how to avoid my complete hopelessness in their own lives, and it is natural for me to speculate about what went wrong. Therefore, it is unnecessary for me to figure out what went wrong or to believe that I might figure it out: I am not writing this for my benefit.

Learn to depend on other people

I think the most obvious rule I missed is that humans are social animals and it is exceptionally important to structure our lives around the social aspects of our actions. It is impossible to accomplish anything, or to even survive, without the help of other people. Money and other modern constructions can make it harder for us to see how much we depend on the other seven billion people in the world, but no amount of technology will ever remove our psychological need for human interaction. People who live in complete social isolation tend to develop severe mental impairments within six months. The “castaway” scenario is increasingly less likely on a planet that is more crowded every day, but it illustrates the fundamental need for social interaction: if you do not have it, you will literally go insane.

As an American, and especially as a Texan, my culture strongly emphasized “individuality” and “self-sufficiency”. These concepts are myths. You probably do not own a single object that you could construct yourself. Even if you are a cabinetmaker who made your own cabinets, you did not construct the tools you used to make those cabinets. You did not mine the metal from the earth, forge the hammer, grow the tree for the lumber, distill the gasoline for the trucks that delivered your materials, or do a million other tasks. Self-sufficiency is an illusion, and for me, I think it was a dangerous illusion. According to our modern definition of self-sufficiency, I was successful for many years. And that success—that strength—was also my weakness. I focused on “self-sufficiency”, and I neglected to learn how to depend on other people.

Yes, I do mean “depend on other people”. That is practically a sin in modern America: depending on other people. We do it all the time, but we refuse to acknowledge it or to value it. As my life became more difficult than I could handle, I lacked the skills and relationships to get help from other people. Hell, I lacked the ability to even recognize that I needed help from other people. Even today, I know that I need help from other people, but I have no clue what help I need. Nor do I know who to ask for help or how to ask them for help.

My lack of ability to seek and receive help from other people is extreme. I doubt most people are as deficient in this area as I am. When I look at the lives of other people, I see things that are absent from my life. Something as common and simple as a “best friend forever” is foreign to me. I see it, I know it is possible, but it has never been a part of my life. I have no idea how to form that type of relationship: a dependency that is so deep and strong. That is just one example of my extreme lack of knowledge in this area. I might be good at helping other people, but I am terrible at receiving help from others.

 . . . and to not feel guilty about it

One major lesson I have slowly learned over the last two years: I am great at asking for help in my professional/school life, but when I need help in my personal life, not only cannot I not ask for help, I feel very guilty accepting help from other people.

I think the difference is that in professional/school life, people expect to work together and help each other, but expectations are quite different for our personal lives.

In our personal lives, we are supposed to be self-sufficient and independent. And we expect some types of people to be more self-sufficient than other people: Americans are supposed to live the American Dream, which means (in part) that we should make it on our own (consider the foreclosure-tsunami and how many times you have heard, “some people just shouldn’t own a house” really? if that is true, then it means “some people should just be serfs”); as a Texan, I am supposed to “pull myself up by my bootstraps”; as a man, no, wait, I mean as a MAN, I am supposed to “buck up” or tough it out; as part of the majority ethnic group, the huge advantages I get should be enough for me to succeed (and white Americans do get advantages), and if they are not enough, then there is something wrong with me; since I am smart, I should figure-it-out mydamnself, and if I can’t, then I am lazy; and the list goes on.

Culturally, it is ok to ask for and get help from your family–most of the time. To most people, which do you think sounds worse (recall that I am 36 years old): “I live with my mother.” or “I am roughing it in my car until I find a new job.”? A 36-year-old, white, Texan, MAN, with a brain, who lives with his mother is a complete loser.

Since I was young, I have been told by the world, my country, my culture, and my teachers, bosses, schoolmates, coworkers, friends, and family, “You have been given gifts, so you have to help other people.” They said it implicitly and explicitly. The phrase that haunts me every day: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

I was born lucky: I was given a life that is better than 95% of all people who have ever lived. (Not an exaggeration; 7 billion people alive today, 100 billion who ever lived: do the math.)

When I need help in my personal life, I feel very guilty.

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