Most people learn over time, but often learning comes too late to be fully useful. There are certainly many things that I know now that would have been extremely useful to me earlier in my life; things that could have saved me from many of the mistakes and hurts I suffered over the years—and most of those that I inflicted on others too.
I don’t buy the romantic notion that my life has been somehow richer or more interesting because of all the times I screwed up; nor that the mistakes were “put” there to help me learn. I made them myself—through ignorance, fear, and a dumb wish to have everyone like me—and life and work would have been less stressful and more enjoyable (and certainly more successful) without them. So here are some of the things I wish I had learned long ago. I hope they may help a few of you avoid the mistakes that I made back then.
Most of it doesn’t matter. So much of what I got excited about, anxious about, or wasted my time and energy on, turned out not to matter. There are only a few things that truly count for a happy life. I wish I had known to concentrate on those and ignore the rest.
The greatest source of misery and hatred in this world is clinging to past hurts. Look at all the terrorists and militant groups that hark back to some event long gone, or base their justification for killing on claims of some supposed historical right to a bit of land, or redress for a wrong done hundreds of years ago.
Waiting to do something until you can be sure of doing it exactly right means waiting for ever. One of the greatest advantages anyone can have is the willingness to make a fool of themselves publicly and often. There’s no better way to learn and develop. Heck, it’s fun too.
Following the latest fashion, in work or in life, is spiritual and intellectual suicide. You can be a cheap imitation of the ideal of the moment; or you can be a unique individual. The choice is yours. Religion isn’t the opiate of the masses, fashion is.
If people complain that you’re too fond of going your own way and aren’t fitting in, you must be on the right track. Who wants to live life as a herd animal? The guys in power don’t want you to fit in for your own sake; they want you to stop causing them problems and follow their orders. You can’t have the freedom to be yourself and meekly fit in at the same time.
If you make your work your life, you’re making your life into hard work. Like most people, I confused myself by looking at people like artists and musicians whose life’s “work” fills their time. That isn’t work. It’s who they are. Unless you have some overwhelming passion that also happens to allow you to earn a living doing it, always remember that work should be a means to an end: living an enjoyable life. Spend as little time on the means as possible consistent with achieving the end. Only idiots live to work.
The quickest and simplest way to wreck any relationship is to listen to gossip. The worst way to spend your time is spreading more. People who spread gossip are the plague-carriers of our day. Cockroaches are clean, kindly creatures in comparison.
Trying to please other people is largely a futile activity. Everyone will be mad at you sometime. Most of the people you deal with will dislike, disparage, belittle, or ignore what you say or do most of the time. Besides, you can never really know what others do want, so a good deal of whatever you do in that regard will go to waste. Be comforted. Those who love you will probably love you regardless, and they are the ones whose opinions are worth caring about. The rest aren’t worth five minutes of thought between them.
Every winner is destined to be a loser in due course. It’s great to be up on the winner’s podium. Just don’t imagine you can stay there for ever. Worst of all is being determined to do so, by any means available.
You can rarely, if ever, please, placate, change, or mollify an asshole. The best thing you can do is stay away from every one you encounter. Being an asshole is a contagious disease. The more time you spend around one, the more likely you are to catch it and become one too.
Everything takes twice as long as you plan for and produces results about half as good as you hoped. There’s no reason to be downhearted about this. Just allow for it and move on.
People are oddly consistent. Liars usually tell lies. Cheaters cheat whenever it suits them. A person who confides in you has usually confided in several others first—but not got the response they wanted. A loyal friend will stay loyal under enormous amounts of thoughtless abuse.
However hard you try, you can’t avoid being yourself. Who else could you be? You can act and pretend, but the person acting and pretending is still you. And if you won’t accept yourself—and do the best you can with what you have—who then has any obligation to accept you?
When it comes to blatant lies, there are none more egregious than budget figures. Time spent agonizing over them is time wasted. Even if (miracle of miracles!) yours are honest and accurate, no one else will have been so foolish.
The loudest noise in the world is the sound of people whining. Don’t add to it.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. Recent articles there on similar topics include Chickens, eggs, and happiness and Why perfection isn’t a viable goal. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.