Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

The Simplest Way To Improve Your Life


Two men visit a Zen master.
The first man says: “I’m thinking of moving to this town. What’s it like?”
The Zen master asks: “What was your old town like?”
The first man responds: “It was dreadful. Everyone was hateful. I hated it.”
The Zen master says: “This town is very much the same. I don’t think you should move here.”
The first man leaves and the second man comes in.
The second man says: “I’m thinking of moving to this town. What’s it like?”
The Zen master asks: “What was your old town like?”
The second man responds: “It was wonderful. Everyone was friendly and I was happy. Just interested in a change now.”
The Zen master says: “This town is very much the same. I think you will like it here.”

As humans, we have a fundamental, almost desperate need to make sense out of life. Our brains are obsessed with putting order to all things. One result of this is that we tend to sort problems by magnitude. While it allows us to get on with our day-to-day, it’s also one of our biggest flaws. Because all we have is our own little measuring stick.

Sometimes, those measuring sticks look similar. They might overlap among people of the same geography, status, or age, but not a single one works everywhere, all the time. People’s problems in affluent countries seem petty compared to those in places struggling to secure the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But to the billionaire, the premature death of his child may be just as life-threatening as the scarce availability of food to the man in a third-world country. His ailment might not be physical, but it’s still there.

That’s the thing. We don’t know. We can’t. All we can do is entertain that idea. That’s called empathy. If you pair it with the will to accept other people’s problems as real, regardless of where they land on your personal, arbitrary scale, you make room for your perspective to change. You throw out the stick.

Take the story of the two men, for example. The Zen master shows us that how you approach an event will significantly impact its outcome. Even if you want change, it’ll be hard to achieve if it doesn’t come from the inside. But what if the two men came from the same town to begin with? What if their opinions are as random as their reasons for wanting something different?

There are many more twists to the story you can imagine and learn a new lesson each time. But the one I can see clearest is this: Often, changing your perspective is the simplest way to improve your life. Not the easiest. It’s hard. But the most straightforward. Does that always make it the best way? I don’t know. Probably not.

But it sure should be the first thing you try.