Dear Spencer & Luna, 25 lessons for living a good life
I’ve been meaning to do something like this for a while, and a combination of things had me writing and publishing this in the middle of the night.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve been learning a lot about my own mortality — death and dying. Trying to build a healthy relationship with it and understand it better. This has included a lot of reading from the Stoics, and more recently Man’s Search for Meaning and When Breath Becomes Air (read them both, just grab them from my library).
For the past few nights I’ve not been able to rest — I’ve been thinking a lot about my life, and especially you, Spencer and Luna. You are still young.
Paul Kalanithi wrote When Breath Becomes Air, and it was published posthumously (after he died). He died from cancer at the same age as I am right now!
A young friend of mine died recently from cancer. Colin was 30 years old.
So, my own mortality has become quite a theme recently, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to document things I’d like you to learn from me. I don’t want to just rely on me always being around to teach you.
Of course, my hope is you don’t just read my words, but you get to see me live my life according to this guide for many years to come.
Here are 25 lessons for living a good life…
1/ Be kind to people, no matter what
When people are angry or unkind towards you or other people, it’s because they are suffering from something, and they might not even know this. It’s probably nothing to do with you. It’s easy to be kind when you take yourself out of the problem. It’s not about you. Don’t take things personally. Just be kind to others, even if they aren’t in the same room as you.
2/ Anger doesn’t look good on anyone
Sometimes being angry feels good, but ultimately it’s weakness showing up in your behaviour. The ability to stay calm and rational shows strength. The training starts with the little frustrations of life, right through to the times when being rational and calm can save lives. I call it being ‘unflappable’. Don’t mistake this for not feeling anything. You are allowed to feel angry, frustrated, furious, irate. Just don’t let it control your behaviour. I get angry, I get emotional, but I’ve learned to first of all understand why I feel that way, and try to reduce the emotions so I can act and behave in a better and more controlled way. When emotions are high, it’s typically not a good time to act or decide.
3/ Things don’t matter
The amount of stuff you have and the quality of that stuff is wrapped up in social status. You only need enough of what’s required for you to do your work and raise your family. A good rule of thumb is to think about how you can live your life with less. Less stuff results in less things to worry about, less things to keep a hold of, and less noise in your life. I’m still relatively young writing this, and I care so little for things that I thought mattered — expensive cars, clothes, furniture, technology, etc. Generally speaking, stuff and things do not make you happy. You might think they do, but they don’t. If you are relying on external things to make you happy, and when you don’t have them you are unhappy, then you are not in control of your happiness. Things might be nice to have, but make sure you place ‘things’ in the right order in your life. Don’t distract yourself from what’s really important (keep reading).
4/ Read books
The one thing I am proud of is my library. Reading will have a profound and dramatic effect on your life. Back to my previous point. There’s no point in having all these books if they live their life sitting on a shelf. Yes, they are nice to look at, but they are meant for reading. Always return what you borrow, and start your own library. If you’re not sure where to start, ask the smart people you know what books changed their lives.
5/ Look after your health
Keep up general good health. Eat the right foods, hydrate, move, sweat. Find a sport or something that involves these things that you enjoy. Having fun makes looking after your health a lot more enjoyable.
6/ Drink less alcohol
I think far more about how much less alcohol I would like to drink rather than how much more I would like to drink. I often wonder what it would be like to give up alcohol altogether and what my life might look like. Anything that controls you is a weakness and ultimately affects your behaviour. If you look forward to having a drink after work, it has control over you. The real lesson here is self-control and self-discipline: are you able to abstain from certain pleasures? Are you in control, or is the pleasure in control. At my age (37), it’s common to see posts on social media from people giving up alcohol because they’ve seen how it controls their lives and adds no value. Apart from the negative health effects of alcohol, perhaps the factor that’s not talked about enough is the ’numbing’ of our feelings. Alcohol is used as an escape, but if you read what I’ve written here for you, escaping our feelings is the opposite of what we should be doing. We need to be more sober and understand our feelings. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy a smooth scotch or celebrate with your friends, just make sure that you are the one that’s in control.
7/ Get smart with your money
I need to have financially better people around me because I’ve never quite been able to get to the point where I feel like I know exactly what I’m doing. My advice: seek help and guidance from people that are older or further ahead than you, and can clearly show you that they have managed their money well. It’s a relatively easy thing to do, it just needs to your attention as a priority. The earlier in your life you learn about how money works, the better. Hopefully, by the time you read this, I’ll also have more control in this area and we can share our lessons.
8/ Choose your friends slowly
A mistake people often make is that they judge people by how they look or what they have. This can fool you. People that have all the riches and live a life of luxury, aren’t always the best people to seek friendship with. Instead, look at the characteristics of the person — how they carry themselves, how they treat others, how they communicate, their values and principles — their philosophy. Judge people before you become friends with them, not afterward when it’s too late. You will be heavily influenced by the people you spend time with, choose carefully. Do not give in to the pressure to be friends with everyone or friends with the most popular people. What I’ve learned is that you may only ever have a small number of true friends in your life, and therefore, most of the relationships you have will come and go.
9/ Listen more than you talk
Two ears, one mouth. Use them in that order. This sounds simple, but it’s so important in communication across all aspects of your life. Listening deeply shows that you care, it helps you to understand others, you will naturally build more empathy for others, and it will help you to understand how people behave and why they behave in specific ways. Talk less, listen more. You don’t have to speak to look smart. In fact, looking smart isn’t really the point. People want to be seen, heard and understood. People will want to be around you and you will be a good person for others if you listen to them and show that you care. This is especially important with your own family and your own kids. Nothing bonds a strong relationship like deep listening and understanding. This is perhaps the best gift you can give to the people you care about the most.
10/ Make your bed in the morning
When you get up, make your bed and tidy your room. When you come back at night after work or being out for the day, you will thank yourself for it. It’s a simple pleasure, but it creates order, and it might be one of the only things you can control in your day.
11/ Make time for thinking
Regardless of what you end up doing for a living, make time for thinking. Don’t let your job take over your whole life and your whole identity. Each day make time for thinking, reflection, writing and creating your own ideas.
12/ Choose your family first
Work will always be there for you, and you can always make more money. Your family will not. You can’t get your time back. Every decision you make, make it with your family in mind. If you say yes to something work-related — a promotion, a project — consider how this may affect your family. I call this ’the family filter’ — all decisions and choices go through this filter first.
13/ Make smart decisions, slowly
Not so slow that you don’t make any decisions, but don’t feel pressured by others to make decisions. Make them in your own time, and with careful consideration. Your life is simply made up of a series of choices and decisions. Get good at making decisions, and you will get good at building the life you want.
14/ Don’t study other peoples lives
We want the best for the people we know. We want them to be safe and well. Other than that, don’t concern yourself too much with how other people are living their lives and the choices they are making. They are their own agents in their own lives. If they want your advice, perhaps they will ask for it…but until that point, don’t let it concern you. Don’t become obsessed with other people’s lives. Study your own life. In particular, stay away from celebrity gossip, worshipping gurus, and reality TV.
15/ Don’t compare yourself to other people
The easiest way to stop this from ever happening is to be so sure and clear about the kind of life you want, what other people do and what other people have brings you joy for them, but no resentment for you. Spend real time thinking about your own values, philosophy and the kind of life you want. If you feel resentment or jealousy about what other people have or what other people are doing, you need to spend more time figuring out what you want so you can be happy for others, without it becoming about you wanting the life they have. In general, the less you want more, and the less things you have a need for, and the healthier your relationship with others becomes.
16/ Don’t watch breaking news
Unless you happen to work in politics, or in a news station, there’s little need to concern yourself with breaking news. Yes, keep in touch with world issues — you can read or learn about the issues that you care about deliberately and voluntarily — but there’s almost no need to watch or read the news. If something major is happening you will find out about it. 99% of news has very little direct impact on your daily life.
17/ Give your energy to what you can control
What you can control: How you react, what you say, what you think, how you behave, the choices and decisions you make, your attitude, your happiness.
What you can’t control: What other people say, and how they act and behave. The choices that other people make. Other people’s happiness. The weather, the news, politics. The past. The future. Death.
Learn to let go of what you can’t control and focus on what you can control. Even if everything is taken away from you, you can still control your attitude. There’s always a choice.
18/ Find something bigger than you that guides you
For me it’s Stoicism, for you it might be something else, but find it. What is it that you are looking for? A faith, or something spiritual that helps you define your own values, will help you to live a good life and understand what’s truly important. A set of guiding principles for living a good life — that’s what philosophy is all about. You’re welcome to read my books and make your own choice.
19/ Work on your self-awareness
The more self-awareness you have, the more useful you will be to other people. When you have strong emotions, do not ignore them. Try your best to let yourself sit with your emotions and feelings so you can understand them. How do you feel? Why do you feel this way? How did you react? Why did you react that way? When you are self-aware about how you show up in the world you will know the right way to behave in almost all situations and you will truly be yourself and show up consistently as you. You won’t have to ‘pretend’ to be someone else or have to behave in a specific way to fit in. You will be confident in your own skin because you know who you are. And because you understand yourself you will find yourself in a much stronger position to help others. You can’t help other people with their emotions if you can’t understand your own emotions. I learned this when I became a parent. If I want to help you to be emotionally stable and have the best chance of being mentally healthy as you grow, then understanding my own emotions and feelings comes first, which in turn means I’m in a better place to help you.
20/ It’s not about being famous
Life isn’t about being famous or well known or a celebrity. Something I learned from a friend of mine was if you want to be a celebrity, be a celebrity in your own home. Life is about figuring out how to live a good life, a life that has meaning for you and the most important people around you. The people that impress me the most are the people I hardly see online or on social media, and when I catch up with them they have been working hard in their job, but they are spending a lot of time with their family and living a good life. They aren’t interested in being ‘famous’ — fame might be a natural outcome of their work — they are far more interested in the most important relationships in their life.
21/ You are your only competition
We’re all on a different path, doing different things for different reasons. Sure, look at those that are ahead of you and let their journey inspire you to be better. Don’t compare your beginning to someone else middle and let it become an unhealthy or resentful relationship. Compare yourself today to yourself a year ago. Are you better? Who do you want to be in 10 years? That’s what matters the most.
22/ Be your own best friend
Often times the things we say to ourselves are things we would never even say to our worst enemy. Keep your own self-talk and inner voice healthy. Be proud of yourself, love yourself, celebrate your life, cheer yourself on. Look in the mirror and be proud of the kind of person you are. Be your own friend, you are the person you spend the most time with.
23/ Don’t go to bed in a bad mood
The number of times I’ve regretted this! Solve your problems with your partner before you go to bed. Being stubborn is a weakness. It’s your ego protecting itself. It will do you no favours. Learn to forgive — and not just others, learn to forgive yourself.
24/ Learn to say sorry
Apologise when you make mistakes, when you say the wrong thing and when you misbehave. It’s ok to make mistakes, but it’s not ok to not learn from them and not let the people you have affected know that you respect them. An apology shows that you are learning and that you have respect for other people. Don’t be ignorant and take responsibility for your actions — both good and bad.
25/ Do the right thing
Doing the right thing might potentially be the opposite of what is best for you. It might mean forgoing something so others can have. It might put you in difficult situations or force you to have difficult conversations. You cannot go through life only doing nice things. Doing the right thing is the right thing to do, even if it’s hard or unpleasant. Also, you might do the right thing and no one ever notices or gives you recognition for it. You do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you will be celebrated for it. Just do the right thing, whether people are watching or not.
I was going to keep this private, but I thought I’d share it with you because it may inspire you to do something similar for your children. I’ve been thinking for a long time about documenting lessons and advice for my kids, I’m still trying to figure out what that might look like, and this is a good start.
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