Wed Feb 4, 2015
I tried to think of a Buzzfeed-worthy headline and this is all I could come up with. The truth is I hate most self-improvement articles (or are they calling them “life hacks” these days?) even though I still read them. But I thought I’d write one anyway because I’m all grown up now and am supposed to have accumulated a modicum of wisdom.
I’m under no illusion that young people everywhere are clamoring for advice on the internet. But judging by all the life-hack articles out there, us older folk must feel that the younger generation is going seriously astray. So here’s my contribution. And really, you don’t have to be a biological noob to read this - good advice is ageless after all.
1. Don’t just listen - speak up.
There’s this ubiquitous advice floating out there that great leaders don’t talk - they listen. And it is true that active listening is important - or lending an ear when someone needs to vent instead of trying to solve their problems. And you can learn more from listening than from speaking. Except when you don’t. Sometimes the speaker has meandered so far from reasonable discourse that it is your duty to cut them off. Great interviewers know this, and they aren’t afraid to redirect the conversation by asking the right question at the right time, or shifting focus, even if it seems brusque. Sometimes you need to give your opinion because what you have to say is worth hearing.
2. Learn to recognize patterns.
If you are attuned to patterns, then you can predict the future, which is a kind of superpower. It is not as easy as it sounds. At one end of the spectrum, mathematical gurus can recognize patterns in numbers, which translates into economic formulas, or fractal lattices that appear throughout the universe and in quantum computing. At the other end, a high emotional intelligence allows you to recognize patterns in human behaviour and, for example, de-escalate an emotionally charged climate to head off an argument. You don’t have to be a genius, there are patterns everywhere you look - if you pay attention to them. To work on something that is holding you back, find the pattern and you just may find the answer.
3. Interact with strangers.
Some of the best conversations of my life have been with strangers. A deep discussion in front of a fireplace at a youth hostel in the Zimbabwean highlands, with a forgotten beer in my hand. Whimsical repartee at a bus stop, leading to a midnight swing in a child’s playground bathed in the light of a full moon. Intense debates between classes at university. Don’t avoid human interaction by staring down at your smartphone. Look up and make eye contact. Smile. Who knows what will happen. You’ll forget what you just read on twitter in seconds, but you’ll never forget that unexpected connection with a stranger.
4. Create what you enjoy consuming.
Let’s be honest - most of us consume things more than we create things. We come home from a long day at work and watch TV for a few hours. Perhaps you enjoy reading or playing video games. On the internet, we are constantly being invited to consume news feeds, social feeds, and whatever else creates ad impressions. But if you enjoy playing video games, try and create one. If you are online a lot, try code a website. If you enjoy consuming certain things, you will find joy of a greater magnitude by participating in these things. Don’t make the mistake of doing something just because you’re good at it! You may be a great cook, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are passionate about food. When you switch from passive consumption into creative productivity, your mind is so much more engaged and you will be a lot happier as a result. Not only is creativity more rewarding, but you may develop a passion that you can lead to a career.
5. Don’t pursue your dreams at all costs.
Nobody wants to tell you the truth. Instead all you’ll hear is that “you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it” or “don’t give up on your dreams” or some version of the American Dream. It is simply not true. We live in a stratified society. Some people have access to more resources and supports and wealth. Maybe you have a trust fund and can afford to become a full-time novelist. That’s great, but don’t pretend you got where you are by working hard. There is no shame in being pragmatic. You’re not “selling out” if you take a job for the money. You may need five jobs to support your family or just to survive. Be practical. Don’t end up going into serious debt with a student loan and a degree in Art History without a practical plan on how you’re going to use your education. Don’t end up as a waitress in a seedy L.A. bar and spend the rest of your life waiting for your breakout audition. And don’t step on anyone you can to rise to the top either. There are some sacrifices not worth making.
6. Learn the power of respect.
Too often, people confuse respecting others with submitting to others. When you submit to somebody, you do it out of fear. Your acquiescence or agreement comes from a place of weakness because you just want to avoid conflict or save face. True respect comes when you validate someone else’s opinion without giving up your position. It comes from a place of strength, because even though you do not agree with them, you are able to tell someone that you understand and empathize with what they are saying. You are saying that their thoughts or feelings are valuable and real while holding to your principles. True respect is not easy, but it separates the lions from the sycophants.