In December 2009, I started a document called Why I Bother. It was intended to be a one-page personal life roadmap, which is why at some point I renamed it Roadmap. (Simplicity, FTW!) Every year since then, at Christmas and Independence Day, I re-curate that document, removing the old, adding the new and tweaking the current.
I won’t pretend that I do everything I tell myself I’ll do. But I also won’t sugarcoat the truth that without this document, and my self-imposed semiannual revision to it, I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have.
The paper consists of several discrete text blocks: A short paragraph about the meaning of life, a one-sentence personal vision statement, a list of 10 bucket-list goals, a list of 10 life strategies, a set of high-level monthly achievements planned for the next six months, a reminder of the things I must do every day within a typical week to meet my semiannual targets, and finally a few meaningful quotes about why the whole exercise matters. I ruthlessly trim it to ensure it fits on a single 8.5-inch-by-11-inch sheet of paper (single sided!).
From time to time, I share parts of this framework on this blog. Today, I offer a revised look at the Ten Life Strategies I try to honor. Here goes:
- Cultivate serenity. Find the path of least drama and reserve personal time to recharge your batteries—whether through prayer, or meditation, or hiking in the forest or petting a cat. When the going gets tough, smile and exhale and remember that all of this has happened before and all of it will happen again. There’s no such thing as an unfixable problem, so there’s never a need to panic.
- Nurture insatiable curiosity. Always ask why and always poke one level deeper than everyone else. No matter how bad it is, most of us can deal with what we can understand. Understanding, however, only follows when you probe from what appears to be, to what a thing really is. Aristotle’s theory of causation helps to guide the relevant questions.
- Encourage excellence through focus. To be conspicuously excellent requires that you set aside trivialities to emphasize the thing you want to be excellent at. As such, you must focus, putting aside the minor activities that often consume the bulk of one’s time. Do fewer things with greater care. The risk of being a jack of all trades is that you never become a master of one.
- Favor action over study. It’s tempting to think too deeply before committing to something big. Better, I believe, to think quickly, then do something, then re-evaluate what you did from a more experienced position. A person can spend a lifetime preparing for a major goal then find that by the time he’s ready to pull the trigger, the opportunity has vanished. When in doubt, do. Scientific method, and all that.
- Foster relationships. “Other people” aren’t a distraction; they’re the whole point of living a fruitful life. Take care, then, to keep friendships alive and to avoid burning family bridges. Traversing the high road can sometimes be unpleasant, marked with bitter compromise, but it’s a damned sight better than always being right and therefore always being lonely.
- Reduce consumption. Do more with less. Spend less money, eat fewer calories, drink less booze, make fewer bad choices, engage in less-conspicuous materialism, suffer through fewer empty one-night stands. Et cetera. A spartan lifestyle brings benefits beyond mere simplicity.
- Present an enticing façade. People are naturally attracted to beauty. We aren’t all gifted with Hemsworth genes, but we can all pay attention to the minor details—behavioral as well as physical—more likely to incur social approbation. Even a perfectly ordinary person can rise through the aesthetic ranks by paying careful attention to manners, grooming, wardrobe and comportment.
- Resist unhealthy entanglements. Bad habits and negative people rob you of time, energy and often money. Put negative influences aside, ruthlessly. Avoid the desire to be “right” and thereby fuel others’ needs to reciprocate. When you find a bad apple, chuck it into the field and grab a fresh one, because no matter how hard you try, you’ll never completely eat around the worm.
- Avoid the fire hydrant. Things that are truly important rarely demand immediate attention. It’s seductively simple to fall into the trap of always responding to a deluge of “daily drama”—email, arguments, unplanned deliverables, maintenance activities—that constitute the tyranny of the urgent. But not everything requires your attention or response. If you prioritize the important, and ignore the urgent-but-unimportant, eventually your plate will rebalance in a much healthier way.
- Plan for an uncertain tomorrow. Be bold in the face of risk, but don’t be an idiot. Prepare for retirement or emergencies—not just financially, but also in terms of the skills you master, the experiences you enjoy and the love you’ve shared. Tomorrow might be bright, or it might be black. You don’t know. But if you treat each day like it’s the last, you’ll find that when the last day finally arrives, you’ll face it with quiet dignity.
I sometimes honor them more in the breach, but nevertheless, I try to leverage these ten life strategies to help me realize my long-term goals.