My Top Seven Rules for a Successful Life

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This article originally appeared on Quora: What are your top 7 rules of life? 

1. Being alone is better than being in an unhappy relationship.

I never had a girlfriend in high school. I didn’t have one for most of college. I was achingly lonely. Then, finally, I got into some relationships. Bad ones. And to my surprise, I was even lonelier. Finally, at nearly 30, I met the woman I’ve been happily married to for 20 years. So I’ve experience being lonely and single, lonely and coupled, and not-lonely and coupled.

Here’s what I’ve learned. It’s better to be alone than to be in an unhappy relationship. For some of us, it really sucks to be alone, but it’s still better than being lonely and coupled. Knowing what I now know, if my marriage ever ended, I would stay single until I found someone right for me—even if that meant risking being single for the rest of my life.

2. Don’t try to be original. Serve.

It’s impossible to simultaneously strive for two goals. At best, you wind up shortchanging both of them.

When I first started directing plays, my goal was to tell stories. But it was also to “be original.” I wanted audiences to be impressed by my talent and creativity. Trouble is, the stories I was telling weren’t about me. I was not a character in them. If audiences are thinking about me—and how clever or original I am—then they’re not thinking about Hamlet or Juliet.

I realized that “be original” is about ego. Ego is natural for humans, but it’s also the enemy of art and most other projects. So I re-conceived myself as a servant. My job isn’t to be original. It’s to serve the story. My job is to make the story the best it can possibly be, so that the audience has a meaningful and entertaining experience.

Let’s say I’m directing a play, and I realize it would be most effective if an actress entered wearing a red dress. Then I remember that, in the movie version, they have their actress wear a red dress. Immediately, I will think, “Then I can’t have my actress wear one, too. It won’t be original!” But if I really think a red dress is what serves the story best, then my actress needs to wear a red dress.

I try to think this way about all the things I do. My job, as a programmer, is to serve the application; my job as a writer is to serve the subject; my job as a husband is to serve the marriage.

When the spotlight is off me, it’s always a relief. It feels as if I’ve been giving a piggyback ride to a giant while trying to simultaneously build a brick wall. And now I’ve thrown off the giant and can use all my energy to make the wall as good as it can be.

Or, rather, I keep throwing him off. Ego doesn’t vanish. You can’t just choose to serve once. You have to make that choice over and over, for the rest of your life. I’ve found that’s true about most things. You can’t just flip switches in your brain and leave them set. Most hard things require you to keep on flipping those switches. But, after a while, they become easier to flip.

3. Grownups don’t have to do homework.

Children shouldn’t have to do it, either, but that’s another story.

Yes, as grownups we have to fill out tax forms; we have to go to work; we have to mow the lawn… But we don’t have homework, and there are no tests. Which means that if you’re reading a book and you don’t like it, you can stop reading it. You won’t get a better grade if you finish it, because no one is grading you.

If you’re at the beach and you don’t feel like swimming, you don’t have to. There’s no boss of you except you.

And if you feel like “I should…,” ask yourself why, and don’t give into the “should” unless you can be specific. Why should you go swimming if you don’t feel like it?

4. Work for free.

If you’re a rare person who has no neuroses about money, ignore this. Or, better yet, ask if you’re bullshitting yourself. Being a citizen of a capitalistic culture makes it nearly impossible to have a purely neutral relationship with money.

I am not a socialist, and I’m not saying you should quit your job. I’m saying you should find something really meaningful to do that is totally unconnected with money.

It should be unconnected with responsibility, too, so “raising your kids” doesn’t count.

I used to love to write. Then I started getting paid to do it. And I found that, what used to be a joy for me became a burden. I started changing my writing to suit the people who were paying me—or I didn’t, but I still resented their meddling. So I quit writing for money. I now write for free, and all the joy has returned.

I don’t write for free with the hope or expectation of being offered a lucrative book contract. I write because I love to write.

5. Arrange your life so you don’t have to hide anything.

I’m not talking about small things. It’s fine to tell Aunt Martha that her disgusting cake is tasty. I’m talking about things that are core to who you are.

I’m also not saying you should tell your boss you have a clown fetish. But you should tell someone. Arrange your life so that you have places you can go where you can let your hair down; find friends with whom you can be 100% yourself.

Lying and hiding and being closeted take energy. They takes a toll. Especially if you lie or closet yourself for years.

I have a friend with whom I have to hide a core part of who I am, I need to end that friendship. It doesn’t serve me, and it doesn’t serve the friend, either.

(Like much of what I’ve written here, this rule stinks of privilege. Some folks can’t be open and honest without great risk, and that really sucks. Do what you need to do in order to stay safe. But try to arrange your life so that you can be as open and honest as possible, at least with a few close friends.)

6. Always take responsibility.

Whenever you say “It’s your fault,” you hurt yourself, because you miss an opportunity to improve. That’s true even if it really is the other person’s fault.

Notice I didn’t say “blame yourself.” There’s a difference between self-blame and taking responsibility. If you’re judging, you’re just spinning wheels. Taking responsibility is an active process. It’s about problems-solving, not blaming.

You can’t change someone else’s behavior, but you can change your own. So instead of saying, “You’re missing my point,” say “I’m not communicating clearly,” and then try to communicate better.

Do this even if you’re sure it is the other person’s fault. And if you’re thinking, “Why should I take the blame?” then go back and read the second paragraph of this section. It’s not about blame. It’s about using the opportunities life throws at you to improve at whatever it is you do.

BONUS RULES 

1. Play

Play every day. I don’t mean play chess, and I don’t men play basketball. Structured games and sports are wonderful and useful, but they’re not the sort of play I’m talking about, here. I’m talking about playing in the mud, chasing your friend around the park, making up silly words, and turning household items into puppets. As a grownup, do the things you used to do as a child.

In addition to relieving stress, this sort of play frees the mind. It boosts your creativity. To have a vigorous mental workout, you need to go back and forth between free play and constrained play. Most of us have the second category covered.

If you can, play with someone else. Social play is great for bonding, and creativity gets further boosted when you can riff off another person.

2. Experiences are better than stuff.

If you have $300, and you can either use it to buy some nice clothes or to take a vacation, choose the latter. You’ll get a bigger, longer-lasting jolt of happiness from it than from the clothes. In general, try to spend your money on experiences, not things. Things tend to get stale after the initial rush of buying them and showing them off. Experiences often last a lifetime, because they linger in memory.

By the way, I’m quite materialistic. There’s an antique store in NYC that I love, and when I was last in the city, I went there and bought a really cool vintage photograph, which is now hanging on my wall. I also went to see a really good Broadway show.

Truth is, I rarely think about the photo. I’m used to it being on my wall, and I ignore it most of the time. But that show … it’s still actively churning around in my head, even though it’s been a year since I saw it.

3. Collaborate with others on things you all care about.

If you get to do this at work, with your coworkers, you’re lucky. For most people, work is about making money. And many workers spend their off-hours only doing relaxing forms of socializing.

When I started working in the non-profit theatre community, I realized there was another form of socializing that happens when a group of likeminded people come together to do something they deeply care about—something that’s not focused on them. The group has an external object of focus (in this case a play).

It feels like clicking in to what we’re supposed to be doing as humans, and perhaps that’s because it’s what we used to do, back when our brains evolved to their current forms, back when we were tribal hunters and gatherers, collaborating to feed the tribe.

You don’t feel part of a village by just living in one. You have to contribute to it, and you have do so by collaborating with the other villagers, not just by voting or giving money.

Some folks get this experience through churches; some get it through sports or other intense hobbies; some get it through working for charities. However you get it, get it.

4. Practice empathy

People talk about the importance of empathy, but it took me years to understand how to practice it when it didn’t come naturally. I would sit there and try to squeeze it out, but it wouldn’t come.

Here’s how to do it: when someone behaves in a way that you intellectually understand but can’t relate to, put your creativity to work and come up with an analogy—one that fits your own life. It’s usually best to focus on the emotion and not the subject.

For instance, I know that some people who oppose gay marriage feel as if it somehow tarnishes the tradition. I can’t relate to that, because, to me, it feels obvious that my marriage can’t be hurt by someone else’s marriage. But that sort of thinking focuses on the subject: marriage. By doing that, I’ll never feel empathy, because my values about marriage are too different from those of the anti-gay-marriage crowd.

So I need to get creative: forget marriage. Have I ever felt upset about someone tarnishing something? Have I felt that way even if it didn’t directly affect my experience with that thing?

Yes. I’ve often feel that way about music. For instance, I love the Beatles, and it upsets me when someone does a bad cover of “Penny Lane” or “Yesterday.” I feel as if that somehow hurts the original. That’s irrational, because the original still exists. I still have it on my iPhone, and I can still listen to it whenever I want. And I needn’t ever listen to the bad cover. Still, it’s out there, and that bothers me. Other people’s songs hurt my songs.

For some reason, I feel as if all versions of “Yesterday” are part of some sort of bigger whole. “Yesterday” is an institution, and it can be cared for or spit on. And I don’t like people spitting on it. Maybe that’s how some people feel about marriage. If so, it’s as irrational as my feeling about “Yesterday,” but that’s okay, because, right now, I’m not trying to justify anything; I’m just trying to broaden my empathy.

Maybe some folks feel that when they get married, they’re not just getting into a relationship with another person; maybe they feel as if they’re joining something larger than that—something that all marriages create together—and they don’t want that to have a bad cover.

In order to increase empathy, you can’t just do this exercise once or twice. You need to do it daily. You need to do it whenever you think “What’s wrong with those people?” It’s a set of muscles. You can strengthen them or let them atrophy.

Why would I want to empathize with bigots? Because I know that empathy has nothing to do with excusing. Having gained some insight into how some anti-gay-marriage folks may feel, I am no more inclined to side with them than I was, before. I am as staunchly pro gay marriage as ever. The empathy is for me, not for them. Their bigoted stance betrays a failure of empathy on their part. And I don’t want to be like that.

And if I have to have an enemy, I want to understand him as thoroughly as possible.

And if I want to help come up with solutions, it’s likely some of them will involve dialog. And it’s hard to talk to people—or even debate them—if you have no window into their minds.

5. Be literal

My superpower is autism. More specifically, it’s my tendency to be literal-minded. I’m lucky in that I’m not stuck in a rut of literalism. I appreciate metaphor, nuance, vagueness, and ambiguity. I love poetry and abstract art.

But those loves came relatively late to me. As a child, my natural way of thinking was to be very literal minded, and that mode is still part of my core. I can switch off my appreciation for ambiguity, and, when I do so, it feels a bit like coming home.

And what I’ve found is that I almost always benefit from literalness, even if I only interpret things that way for a few seconds—even if I wind up rejecting the literal interpretation in the end.

Because the language we use tends to color our thoughts. This is what makes poetry and song lyrics so powerful. But it’s the power of a double-edged sword.

For instance, if I complain that “Everyone hates me,” it’s worth taking it literally and asking “Really? Everyone in the entire world? All 7.5 billion people hate me?”

“No! Of course I didn’t mean that! Don’t be so literal?”

“Okay, so what did you mean?”

“I meant lots of people hate me.”

“What’s ‘lots’? How many, exactly?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t counted them. Lots…”

“Like a million?”

“No, of course not.”

“A hundred?”

“No!”

“Can you name one person who hates you?”

“Yes. Bill! Well, maybe he doesn’t hate me, but he treats me like I don’t exist.”

“Okay, Bill ignores you. That’s one person. Who else…?”

This sort of literal exploration is more likely to lead to problems-solving than “Everyone hates me.” The latter has its uses. When we’re venting, it’s sometimes helpful to exaggerate or to use metaphor. This, again, is one function of poetry and art. It elevates our specific problems to universals, which helps us work through our feelings about them. But it’s good to come at those same problems from a more autistic angle. If you’re not autistic, maybe ask yourself what someone like me—or Mr. Spock—would say if he heard you.

6. Specify agents.

Ask yourself who is doing what to whom? Avoid passive and agent-less language:

“Black people keep getting blamed…”

Who is blaming them? The Universe? Your thinking will get much clearer if you force yourself to be specific.

“Why are educated people perceived as snobs?”

Who is doing this perceiving?

It’s okay if you’re not sure. Then be specific about that. “I get a sense that some people think that educated folks are snobs. I’m not sure why I think that, and I’m not sure who I’m talking about, but, still, I get that impression.”

7. Don’t read the newspaper.

Or, if you must, read it once a week. The news isn’t going to change that fast, and, even if it does, nothing terrible will happen to you if you learn about it a few days after it happens.

By “newspaper,” I mean “news source.” Don’t visit CNN’s site every day, and certainly don’t visit it several times a day.

Ask yourself this: of all the stories you read, how many, on average, cause you to take action, as opposed to just getting upset? And out of all the times you have taken action, how many of those times required immediate action? If you wound up giving money or writing to your congressman, could that action have waited two or three days and still have been effective?

Ask yourself how often reading the news makes you unhappy. Finally, ask yourself what good that unhappiness is doing for you or anyone else.

Bonus: set aside an hour each day—or a half hour if you can’t manage an hour—in which you don’t use the Internet. It doesn’t count if it’s work, housework, or errands. I mean you time. You time that’s offline.

During that period, do something sensual. I don’t necessarily mean sexual, though that’s a possibility. I mean something that involves some of your senses besides seeing. Cook something; do some gardening; dance; shoot some hoops; sculpt with clay; meditate…

8. Knowing doesn’t count as knowing

If you read something and “get it,” you don’t really get it. You will forget it. In order to really know it, you have to move it from your brain to your bones.

I found this truth really painful for years, because I’m the son of two college professors, and I wanted to believe that the intellect was all-powerful. I wanted to believe that if I read something in a book, and if I understood what I was reading, I had gained something. Years of experience proved that wrong.

It also bummed me out that learning wasn’t as fast a process as I wanted it to be. It takes way longer to do than to read, but, unfortunately, truth is the truth and learning takes the time it takes.

You have to take what you’ve “leaned” and put it into practice. That’s true even for really heady subjects, like computer programming, a surprising amount of which is about getting used to typing things with your fingers. The typing isn’t just a trivial afterthought to the thinking. Programming largely is typing.

Actually do the thing that’s in the book. Or, if it’s not something you can do, write about it or explain it to someone else.

Which is why I’m explaining these rules. It’s not enough just to know them. Knowing is not knowing.

Related posts:

How can I improve my ability to listen to another person in a conversation and respond right away?How can I think faster and better?
What should people know and do before getting married to lessen the chances of divorce?

Marcus Geduld is computer programmer, teacher, and Quora contributor. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+

My Top Seven Rules for a Successful Life