The most useful life principles don’t come from esteemed ancient philosophers like Seneca or Aristotle. Nor do they come from eccentric billionaires who litter their memoirs with pedantic advice, indecipherable to anyone outside their inner circle.
Their wisdom isn’t faulty, but if it requires serious study to understand it, you’ll gain little utility from it. Most of us lack the time and resources to learn and incorporate their teachings into everyday life.
The most useful, effective, and pragmatic wisdom comes in the form of common sense. Ralph Waldo Emerson defines it this way:
Common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes — Emerson
It’s simplistic in nature, so obvious that once learned, you think, “How did I not figure this out before? Why did it take me so long?”
That was the recurring theme as I learned these lessons throughout my forties. Perhaps, if someone had shared this knowledge with me in my twenties, I wouldn’t have struggled so much in my youth. Here’s the wisdom I never had.
1. Saving things for special occasions is a bad idea.
On the weekend of my wedding, I bought my parents a $150 bottle of wine. My mom suggested we save it for the day we announce we’re having a baby.
It took three years before that announcement came, and by then, that bottle of wine had disappeared, probably doled out at a meaningless gathering or brought to a random party without giving it a second thought.
If you’re saving something for a special occasion, beware; that day may never come. Life is too unpredictable. Enjoy it now.
2. If you’re against everything, you’ll have little energy to be “for” something.
It’s far easier to shoot down ideas than it is to put forward your own. It’s safer to attack other people’s beliefs than it is to believe in something yourself. You probably know somebody like this — a peer, friend, or family member. They’re quick to find fault with your vision but devoid of original thinking themselves.
It’s okay to be cautious, slow to adopt beliefs. Go ahead and question assertions that set off alarm bells.
But the constant skeptic, the one who tears down everyone else’s dreams, the one who never professes their own values, the one who exists merely to wag their finger. Man, they are miserable people.
3. Problematic friends make you miserable.
In my twenties, I clung to troublesome friends who exhausted me and treated me like crap. For prestige and ego, I did whatever necessary to retain those friends.
Since then, I’ve learned that it’s better to distance yourself from friends that prove problematic and let go of ones that cause you misery. These three questions unmask the troublemakers.
- Do they cause more problems than they solve? Ironically, friends who brand themselves as professional problem solvers seem to create more messes than they clean up.
- Do they siphon your energy without ever giving back? Have you ever had that friend who leeches onto you when they’re in trouble but then vanishes from existence when you’re in need?
- Are you happier when they’re not around? Try to fix your relationship or try distancing yourself. Some friendships thrive on smaller doses.
If there’s no solution to fixing your friendship, it’s best to move on and make new friends.
4. If your day-to-day life excites you, the highs and lows matter less.
It happens so often. A boss or authority figure mistreats you. Infuriated, you resolve to correct the injustice. A few days pass, and your fury dissipates into acceptance.
The same happens for joyous events too. If you’ve ever felt the elation of a pay raise, you know that in a matter of weeks, you’ll revert to your previous level of happiness or dissatisfaction.
Whether it’s the drudgery of a monotonous job, the luxuries of wealth, or the unfairness of life, we get used to our situations.
But if your day to day, uneventful life brings you joy, the highs and lows won’t matter as much. Focus on doing things that make the forgettable days worth living.
5. You can’t plan memorable moments, but you can enable them.
When families get together, they often talk about nostalgic memories. When I’m with mine, we reminisce about the time we ran out of gas a half-mile from a restaurant and pushed our car the rest of the way.
We hadn’t planned for that moment, but fifteen years later, it still results in a series of belly-laughs. It’s the small, unexpected moments we remember most fondly. We can’t plan or predict them, but we can give them a chance to happen by spending time with people we enjoy.
6. Asking stupid questions will make you a hero.
Have you ever sat in a meeting, struggling to understand something, wanting to ask a question, but remaining silent out of fear of sounding stupid? I’ll admit, I sometimes allow that fear to overcome my good sense. When it’s a choice between ignorance or embarrassment, we choose ignorance.
That said, when I do summon the courage to ask a stupid question, there’s always at least one person who chimes in, “Thanks for asking. I was wondering the same thing.”
7. Calling yourself a professional adds unnecessary pressure.
The minute you call yourself a professional, you put yourself on the defensive. Professionals are supposed to be omniscient, crystal ball readers. At least, that’s what we think when we’re sitting across from a client or peer.
When you slap the professional label on yourself, you not only have to prove it, but you also must defend it. Some folks are comfortable with that. I’m not one of those people, so I don’t refer to myself as one. Instead, I state what I do and let my work convince people I’m a pro.
8. No, “just showing up” won’t make you successful.
If you show up, you have a better chance of success than the hordes who don’t. You’ve probably read that pop advice on the internet. Don’t believe it.
Lots of people show up. That’s not good enough. The road to success is longer than we anticipate. It’s filled with competition, unexpected challenges, and plain old boredom. Most of your competition, even those with superior talent, will give up before crossing the finish line. To win is to stick around, endure, and outlast.
The Fabien strategy, staying in the game long enough until your adversary gives up, is the most underrated success principle.
9. It’s okay to dabble, but it’s not okay to become a dabbler.
It’s important to dabble in new ventures as a teen or a young adult. It’s even okay in your later years with one caveat. You don’t want to become a dabbler, someone who never commits to anything.
Throughout my twenties and thirties, I dabbled in countless careers, hobbies, and passions but always gave up when it got hard. I woke up one morning and realized my life CV was nothing but a blank page. That’s when I committed to writing every day for the next 25 years.
When you find a pursuit you enjoy, one that makes you feel whole, stick with it, even when it gets hard, even when it frustrates you, even when you reach a seemingly impenetrable roadblock.
These life lessons might seem obvious, but for me, they represent almost fifty years of hard-earned knowledge. I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. As French philosopher, Voltaire once said, “Common sense is not so common.”