Heuristics for Living

Rules of Thumb for Happier Days

If you don’t know what a heuristic is, it’s a short phrase that reminds you of a body of experience. It’s a rule of thumb that lets you make better decisions. Here is a list of some that I run my life by. I figured each one out the hard way.

The dark secret of heuristics is they are hard to learn without living the lesson. So good luck.

  • Optimize for Joy
    Make life choices based on if it increases or decreases your overall joy. Especially job choices.
  • Get Paid to Learn
    You can pay to learn, like at a school or conference. Or you can get paid to learn, by being at a job that grows you and gives you opportunities to learn. Why not get paid to learn?
    To be honest, I like both.
    I like to learn.
  • Don’t Ask, Don’t Get
    This is a reminder that while you do not get everything you ask for, you certainly don’t get things you don’t ask for. Stop wishing silently.
  • Do the Hard Thing
    Putting off conversations that must be had makes those conversations worse and the situation more miserable. Fire the people who need firing. Better yet, before you have to fire them, tell people whose performance is lacking that it is lacking so they can improve.
    Tell your loved one your needs aren't being met. Move out of abusive situations. Ask for the raise. Put the suffering animal to sleep.
    Do the hard thing.
  • Rejection is Often Surprise
    This has been a hard one for me to remember — no one likes their ideas shot down!—so I heuristic’d it.
    Often when I would introduce an innovative idea to an exec, he’d reject it out of hand. But later he might bring it up as something we should try (sometimes as if he thought of it.) This is not because he’s evilly plotting to steal my best stuff, but because new ideas need time to settle into a brain.
    When an idea is quite different, most people’s first instinct is to reject it, so it’s better to not take those first reactions as final. Wait, and bring it up again gently after a time.
  • Honesty Needs Compassion
    Honesty and compassion are not opposites. Honesty is more powerful with compassion. It is not compassionate to tell someone everything single thing you think. It is not compassionate to give them a truth in a way they cannot hear. You must seek to love the person who you are sharing your truth with, and shape your truth so that they can hear and understand it. And respect it may not be their truth.
  • Comparison is the Path to Misery
    This was best said in Nonviolent Communication:
    To feel horrible, first look at swimsuit models. Are you as good looking as them? Then check on biographies of great people. Have you accomplished as much as they have? Even neighbors or friends on Facebook seem to have nicer things than you and go more interesting places.
  • Walk Away from Crazy
    I have found out the hard way when people show themselves to be genuinely unbalanced, it’s better if I withdraw. It’s not always possible if it’s loved ones who are suffering, but if a stranger (or acquaintance) has shown themselves to be destructively random, I find it’s better for me to disengage.
  • Their Shit Is Not Your Shit
    It’s good to remember that when someone is spinning around in a state, you can choose to not take that on. You can support them with love without having to participate in the drama that is clearly making them temporarily nuts (for full-time nuts, see above).
  • Their Shit Is Not Your Shit Part Two
    People will judge you based on what they think is good or bad. They may belittle your choice to stay home with kids or go to work away from your kids or become a manager or stay an individual contributor or work at a big company or start a startup… be careful not to take on other people’s values. Don’t suffer when someone is judging you by their worldview, because you do not have to take it. Just respect they have a different idea of good, and dance to your own tune.
  • Understand, then Be Understood
    We all get super excited about our stuff and want to tell the world about it! But usually it’s better to take the time to understand the person we are talking to first, so we can share/teach/persuade more effectively.
  • Cruelty is Suffering
    When someone is suddenly cruel, it’s often because they are hurting and lashing out. Be more compassionate to the cruel, not less. (Unless crazy, than see above)
  • When you are tired of saying it, they are starting to hear it.
    No one is so fascinating that every word is memorized. Get used to repeating yourself, if you have a message you want to be retained.
  • Your Body Knows Things About You
    Pay attention to your body. Are you hands wringing? Is your stomach churning? Is your leg twitching? You are receiving a message that you are in turmoil, and it’s worth taking a few moments to breathe into that loci of anxiety.
    As well, your body shouting about hunger, tiredness or achiness from inactivity all deserves to be heard. And acted on.
  • Compassion Starts at Home
    You can not be kind to others until you learn to be kind to yourself.
  • Enough Instead of More
    When do we have enough money. Enough food. Enough tvs, cars, electronics. What do we really need to live?
  • Avoid Chimpanzee Thinking
    This is my latest heuristic. Chimps will grow a tribe to a certain size, split into two, then try to wipe out the other. Our nearest genetic relatives are into genocide.
    When we notice two things are different, try not to immediately classify one as bad and one as good, or one valid and one invalid. Don’t go to war with the guy next door.
    We aren't chimps, we’re humans. We are better than that. I hope.

That’s just a few, I make up more as life teaches me stuff. What are yours?