I’ve been thinking a lot about how we live lately. Am I a success? What am I doing with my life? My birthday was last week and it seems pretty common to start thinking about these things when you only have a few more trips around the sun before you turn 40. And I already bought the red sports car…
My 38th birthday also marked the passing of my friend Joe. I miss my friend and writing is cathartic to me. I’m allowing myself this indulgement.
So today, I am taking the time to reflect on three things I wished I had spent more time and energy on earlier in my life and a road map for the future that I think can be valuable for a lot of people. Those three things are optimism, curiosity, and habits of happiness.
Every generation hears much about the hardships people overcame in the past. My great grandparents survived Depression, World War (two, in the case of my great-grandmother), and a long cold war. My grandparents struggled with a society fraying at the seams from racial injustice, a controversial war that seemed to have little purpose, and the first cracks forming in the dam holding back automation/globalization. My parents’ generation felt triumphant in the fall of the Soviet Union and ascendent with the dot com boom of the 1990s. My own Millennial cohort has fought unending war since 9/11 and were the first to be gouged by exorbitant college fees and then squeezed by a decade long recession and housing crisis.
It is those “titanic” struggles of Allies vs Nazis, Democracy vs Communism, Freedom vs Terror that capture the imaginations of journalists and popular culture. We like to mythologize these struggles, as proof that deep crisis brings out the greatness in us. We write great books about them. We spend hundreds of millions to recreate them for the screen. We love stories that tell us how the fires of war forge the heroes of yesterday. It creates a narrative where we believe that whenever a moment like this happens, we will just naturally rise to the occasion. This is a mistake.
It isn’t the fire of war that makes heroes. It is the ability to face hardship and come out the other side, perhaps damaged, but able to carry on. It requires that we reject the naked cynicism that saps the spirit and suggests we should lose all hope, replacing it with a sense of optimism. That there is a tomorrow and it might be better than today. And you don’t need to storm the beaches of Normandy or spend six months fighting the Taliban in Afganistan to find it. You just have to keep living.
It happens in small, hardly noticeable ways. Rolling your eyes at a friend’s stereotypical misstatement. Smiling as two small children go from strangers to playmates to best friends in under five minutes. A handshake that turns into a hug. A hug that turns into a good cry.
Our ability to keep our humanity even in those darkest hours is rooted in a belief that things will get better. This optimism is what has powered our nation, what makes the innovation and entrepreneurship that has driven our economy thrive and what has bent the arc of history towards justice. It is the reason our heroes volunteer to serve– and not just in the military, but as teachers, parents, business owners, and a whole host of other roles.
Find honor in service, big and small. From the ways your work supports the work of others across the business, provides value to clients, or improves our communities and take pleasure in it. See the good you do in the world and the good others provide. This is a choice. Believe that there are concrete ways you can make today better than yesterday and tomorrow better than today. Choose optimism.
One of the things that scares me the most when I hear my friends express doubt about their lives is a sense of finality. Like they have already fossilized and this it for them. I firmly believe that curiosity is essential for a life well-lived.
College has lost a lot of its luster as a sandbox for intellectual exploration. Miami in the early 2000s was a great example of this. For every highly curious thinker who wanted to live a life of the mind, there were a hundred students (thousands?) just there to expedite their pursuit of a career. A worldview that was once unique to the working and middle class– use education as a ladder to pull yourself up the economic status hierarchy– has become ubiquitous. Liberals charged elitist educational goals as arbitrary gatekeepers meant to limit access to the sons (and later daughters) of privilege. Conservatives have developed a contempt for much academic knowledge as alternatively fluff or propaganda.
Don’t fall into this trap. Knowledge is worth pursuing, outside of its monetary value or cultural standing. Study anything and everything that is interesting to you.
From your first reading of Gilgamesh in freshman world history to your capstone course in accounting or computer science, I suggest we seek out the weird and wonderful ways knowledge intersects. In this way, you will create a unique individual with singular skills– useful on any job market. And you’ll be way more interesting at parties!
Remember that learning doesn’t have to be under the tutelage of a master. It often won’t be. Just never allow yourself to be a finished product. And don’t be afraid to try new things. Learn something new every year. Use the rites of passage in life to benchmark your development. Note what new thing you’ve learned– from being able to read Spanish to playing the guitar and everything in between. You’ll be surprised by how much you have changed.
Share these pursuits. Don’t show up to a class reunion, wedding, or funeral armed to talk about developments at work. It embarrassed me to no end that half of what I said this weekend was about my career. Be defined by the things you pursue rather than the work you do.
What have you learned this year? Hell, what have you learned in the last month? Ask yourself this more often. If you cannot answer it, resolve to learn something.
Third, Experience life, happily:
A lot of who we are, at our core, comes from where we are from. You can see it from the start. What a smart child! Such a happy baby! Yet who we become is not pre-ordained. We are made by experiences, good and bad, pushed by our parents, teachers, and communities. And eventually, we internalize and/or reject these paths and forge our way forward, for better or worse.
Who we become moves from nature and nurture to experience. Life is the accumulation of the things we do. Every second of every day. Like a sandbar, we are built by the slow accumulation of those experiences over time. Each grain slowly and haphazardly deposited, mingling with earlier deposits, the pre-existing environment, and ongoing changes.
In many ways, we become our daily habits. These are the experiences we control. The repetitive motions of our lives. Take note of the people who value routines of exercise and how they look a decade later compared to those who eschew it. Do the same exercise with readers and non-readers. Smokers and non-smokers. Habits are important. They shape our health, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Yet we rarely give them much thought.
I believe in the habit of being happy. I’ve not always been good at it. I still fail, often. But I try. People will discourage this in a million tiny ways. Sometimes they mean well, like when they warn you not to get too excited to save you from being disappointed. Do not let their fear of pain hold you back. It is good to feel positive excitement. And it is good to process defeat. Insulating yourself from those emotions encourages you to not take risks. In most cases, the risk is entirely imaginary. Failing is an important part of life. And hardly anyone but you will even note the “failure.” Other times it will come from someplace nasty. Some will mock your happiness and optimism for being nieve and tout the superiority of their hard, cynical views. These folks are cowards, preferring the easier approach of casting doubt and avoiding risk as opposed to trying and perhaps failing. They are wrong. This is the path to profound unhappiness.
So how do you build a habit of happiness? I’d suggest you need to make time, place money and stress in the proper context, and say the things everyone else leaves unsaid.
Find time and spaces to center your thoughts. I wake up each day and have a pot of coffee. The beverage isn’t the point– indeed, you’d be wise not to develop such a reliance on caffeine as I have– but the habit is. I think during this time. About the news I am reading– what do I think about this? Why? What is important about it? How can I talk about this in ways that improve my life and community? I think about my tasks for the day– where am I going, what will I accomplish, what might have to wait for another day? It keeps me from missing important things. Sometimes I dream a little too. The point is to make time to think.
Money and stress: You do not need as much money as the world tells you is necessary. For most of my friends and family, the likelihood is you’re going to have enough of it. Hopefully, we are all able to spend our lives doing something we love and are proud of. But not all self-satisfaction comes from the money you make in your career. We’d all be better off if very little of it did. Most of the stress people I know have is centered on having enough money to keep up appearances and feeling unprepared for the future (or disagreeing about what being prepared means with their partner).
My 20th high school reunion is next year. I don’t know what my friends think, I suspect I’ll have some long conversations with them after this piece, but from where I stand I am not interested in hearing how much anyone is making, what their title is at work, or what kind of car they drive (I am deeply interested in anything cool their are doing to remodel or build a home however!). Instead, I want to hear the pride in their voice as they talk about their kids, some unique accomplishment they took part in (like hearing from a friend nominated for an award or being recognized for their service). My reading of history and my good fortune to be friends with several very happy (much) older former colleagues has me convinced that this becomes even more true in subsequent years. After all, someone will always make more money than you, have invested more wisely, been more miserly or greedy. It is an unwinnable race. Celebrating one another’s accomplishments is not only fulfilling, but it is also inspiring. If she can do that, I can do this…
Saying the unsaid: Take every chance to tell people you care for that you love them. You will never regret that extra time you said I love you.
Tell people what you appreciate about them. I like how honest you are. I like how direct you communicate. I like your laugh– it is so earnest. Few things are better than hearing people notice you and like you for the things you are and do. Whenever you have the opportunity to deliver a sincere compliment, do it. From liking someone’s hair to being proud of the kindness they displayed. Say what others leave unsaid. It makes the world a better place.
Do your best to live with happiness each day. We only get so many of them. Do not waste them being a sour ass.