The stupidest advice I ever heard turned out to be profound

I remember my smug dismissal of the advice when my friend first mentioned it. She said she saw it on Oprah.

“Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.”

It seemed ridiculous. But I kept thinking about it in the following weeks and months. I started to see how much time I spent worrying instead of doing, and how that was a major source of unhappiness for me. I also started to see how to change that.

Who says such things?

The advice came from Eckhart Tolle, whose acclaims include being listed as “the most spiritually influential person in the world.” It came up in response to a question from a viewer during Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Here’s a two-minute video clip.

My friend’s pithy recounting of his advice wasn’t an exact quote, but she captured the essence of it.

“It is true that you need to take action. It is not true that you have to worry to take action….You don’t need worry. You need action.”

New age wisdom isn’t so new

Once I was attuned to the idea of replacing worrying with action, I saw that the idea wasn’t new. Leaders throughout the ages have all given advice similar to Pay the bills.

Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning. 

– Winston Churchill

 

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.

 - Marcus Aurelius

 

If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.  

– His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, also wrote about helping people live richer, fuller lives. This is from his Scrapbook:

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

In writing this post today, I learned Dale Carnegie also wrote another popular book: How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

How I use this advice all the time

Just this week, when an issue arose at work, I worried. When I was feeling overwhelmed with things to do to finish the book, I worried. When the cough I’ve had for 5 weeks wasn’t going away, I worried. Each time, I told myself:

Don’t worry about paying the bills. Pay the bills.

I knew that I didn’t need worry. I needed action. So I organized a response to the issue at work and focused on it all week. I mapped out all the remaining book tasks and asked for help for those things I didn’t know how to do. I went to see my doctor.

I was happier. And I’ll be sure to listen to my friend’s advice more often.

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the 14th Dalai LamaA month ago, I saw an extraordinary post about a way to change your air travel experience, and it included a line I kept thinking about:

“Arrive early and move through the airport like the Dalai Lama. You are in no rush. All obstacles are taken in stride, patiently, with a smile.”

That image stuck with me. Imagine, no striving or manufactured complications. No irritation at the foibles of others, at the inhumane systems, or at the unpredictable nature of things. You could still travel far but you could be, well, cool about it.

I began thinking: That’s what I want my life to be like! 

3 quotes in my office that are all from the same book

As the universe would have it, around that time I’d just finished reading a book a dear friend had given me for my birthday called Cathedral of the Wild. It’s written by Boyd Varty and it’s about the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. The reserve is about the size of Switzerland and the Varty family has gradually returned it to its natural state over the last 40 years.

The book is a memoir filled with stories of the people and animals at Londolozi. But it’s also about Boyd’s internal struggles and personal growth, and those are the lines from the book I remembered. When I’d finished reading, I did something I never do: I printed out three quotes and taped them to my office desk.

“Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome.”

 

“It’s only got the power I give it.”

 

“Tsama hansie. Put down all you have been carrying.”

Operating instructions for a right life

In many ways, Lonodolozi was idyllic, a restored garden of Eden. But a years-long investor lawsuit related to one of the family’s ambitious projects made it feel like like their work and dreams were unraveling. Worse, the close-knit family started to come apart too.

The first quote was from a spiritual master in an Indian ashram where Boyd went seeking advice. The second was from his father speaking in reaction to the many calls from lawyers. The last was what the local Shangaan people would tell Boyd when he was a boy when he was tired after a long day.

They could be dismissed as just quotes, and even Boyd remembers snarling about the pithy wisdom from the ashram master. “I could have gotten that from a fortune cookie.” But by the end of the book, at the ripe old age of 29, Boyd sees the wisdom underlying these quotes as “the only operating instructions we will ever need for a right life.”

Moving through life like the Dalai Lama

Years ago I would have dismissed ideas like these as New Age fluff, but that was simply the result of ignorance and a closed mind. Now, I take comfort in life’s operating instructions every day.

When I’m trying to do good work and people, management systems, or bad luck deal me a setback, I think Know your truth, stick to the process, and be free of the outcome. All I can do is to persevere doing what I think is right.

When a person acts in a way that makes me angry or upset, I think It’s only got the power I give it. Mostly, my reactions to the barbs of everyday life are bigger problems than the barbs themselves. I need to recognize an issue without making it bigger than it is.

When I’m finished working, I think Put down all you have been carrying. There are times to focus on what needs to be done and there are times to tsama hansie - to restore, recharge, and just enjoy the moment.

Life, like airports, can be nasty and brutish. Or you can choose how you approach things and utterly change the experience.

How this one simple chart made me happier in 6 weeks

My first Happiness Resolutions chartJust six weeks. I’m still amazed.

I’d been actively trying to be happier for the better part of a decade – researching, experimenting, wanting. Yet it’s only recently that I found something that worked, something that’s simple, effective, and free. Now I want to tell everyone about it.

Here’s the story of my personal Happiness Project.

Happiness science

How of HappinessThere’s been a lot of research into what make people happy, particularly in the past two decades following the positive psychology movement. We now know some people have a genetic predisposition to be happier than others. Some simply have better circumstances, too. Yet, as Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes in The How of Happiness, there’s about 40% of our happiness that’s not explained by these factors. Even people with the exact same genes and circumstances would vary as to how happy they were.

The difference is in behavior – what we do and how we think. You might think that’s good news since we can control these things. But in fact most of what we do is unthinking.

In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how little attention we have. It also shows us why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time and, since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

How to change the 40%

The Happiness ProjectThis May, I started reading The Happiness Project in which Gretchen Rubin, a writer in NYC, chronicled her yearlong journey to become happier. Through her research and experiments on herself and her family (which are charming, funny, and easy to relate to), she came across her Splendid Truth: “I need to look at my life and think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”

The key, as the research showed, was to change her habits – what she did and how she thought. To do that, she borrowed an idea from Benjamin Franklin, who early on in his life identified 13 values he wanted to cultivate and would keep track of his progress every day. Gretchen felt that, more than anything, this made her happier.

“The single most effective step for me had been to keep my Resolutions Chart…By providing an opportunity for constant review and accountability, the Resolutions Chart kept me plugging away.”

My Happiness Project

This week's Happiness Resolutions chartI had discovered the power of charting my progress in writing the book and then as part of changing any habit. So I took a sheet of paper and listed things according to Gretchen’s Splendid Truth, resolving to do more of what made me feel good, less of what made me feel bad, more that made me feel right, and more that created an atmosphere of growth.

I added a few things as the first few weeks went by, and now my Resolutions Chart includes these things:

Feeling good

  • Friends/family – Time with extended family and friends I don’t often see.
  • 6-second hugs – Physical contact releases oxytocin, increasing bonding, trust, and feelings of happiness.

Feeling bad

  • No alcohol – Not abstinence but balance.
  • No anger – Eliminating overreactions to small irritations.
  • Admin – Getting little things done instead of procrastinating.
  • Honest Day’s Work – Putting in a solid effort at work.
  • No negative talk – Less sarcasm, snapping, or gossip.
  • No phone overuse – Limiting time spent checking things on my phone.

Feeling right

Atmosphere of growth

  • Book/Circles – Investing in my learning, network, and career opportunities.
  • Yoga/gym – Training my body to be healthier.
  • Meditation – Training my mind to be calmer and more focused.

Some things, like working on the book or with working out loud circles, are fulfilling and meaningful. Smaller things, like being on my phone less and taking care of administrative tasks, simply make me less irritable.

The results 

Every day, in the morning and the evening, I looked at my chart for a few minutes. There were no great epiphanies. No single one of these things made me happier.

What happened is I became mindful of my happiness. Put together, all the resolutions on my chart made for a powerful shift in what I did and how I thought. Instead of thinking of happiness as something I would find, it has become a state I am actively trying to create. In a few minutes each day, the chart reminds me of what I need to do to maintain balance in my life and, when I’m out of balance, what adjustments I might make the following day. I gradually became happier after a few weeks. By 6 weeks, it was clear this I might maintain a resolutions chart for the rest of my life, just like Ben Franklin.

The thing I learned was this: You shouldn’t wait for a happy life. By taking small steps towards it now and charting your progress, you can gradually build habits that can make each day a happier one.

 

My big break

If there is a God, then surely he reached down that day, turned me around, and had me go back into that room.

Though it happened 37 years ago, I was reminded of it while listening to a public radio program called My Big Break, a show in which people recount a moment that changed the course of their life and career.

Here’s mine.

1977

I was an eighth-grader in St. Benedict’s Elementary School in the northeast Bronx and it was time to make a decision about high school.

Growing up in The Bronx

Everyone at school lived in the same all-Italian neighborhood. We grew up surrounded by big families, lots of food, and many good people. But we also grew up with racism and violence. Our world was small, defined by an area within a ten-minute walk or so. Living in a neighborhood where everyone looks and lives the same, difference was a threat. Also, when your world is small, small things matter more. Parking in the wrong spot or making eye contact with the wrong person could quickly become an issue of respect and honor.

When it came to high school, everyone went to one of the same few places. I just assumed I would attend the same high school as my brother and sister, Cardinal Spellman, also in the Bronx.

A fateful decision

Regis High SchoolA few teachers told us about other options, schools like Bronx High School of Science or Aviation that required a day off to travel to the school and take a special exam. One afternoon, a dozen kids or so were listening to a teacher describe Regis, an all-boys school in Manhattan. She described their academic program in glowing terms. She said the teachers were Jesuits, something I’d never heard of before, and that it was free. If you could get in, she told us, it was an incredible opportunity. But the odds were against us. Kids from all over the New York City area sat for the grueling 3-hour entrance exam and only a few hundred passed. Then they interviewed you and your parents and cut that number in half, resulting in only 135 kids attending Regis each year.

After her presentation, she asked us who would like to sign up for the exam. My best friend and I looked at each other and decided to leave. Academic achievement was mostly ridiculed growing up. We craved normalcy and acceptance. A school full of smart kids, Jesuits, and rigorous academics seemed decidedly not normal.

We got up, left the room, and were laughing smugly, happy that we were walking back to our smaller, more comfortable world. Halfway down the hall, we slowed down and stopped, as if being pulled back. “It is a day off, though” one of us said. We considered it further. “Okay, we’ll just take the test. We don’t have to go.”

So we turned around, walked back into the room and started a process that led to both of us going to Regis. There, we learned to read works in Latin and Greek. We analyzed religious texts rather than just recite them. We discovered a culture of hard work, critical thinking, and service to others where being intellectually curious and nice was the new normal. My world got much, much bigger.

Making your own luck

A fateful decisionGoing to Regis High School was my big break. I was lucky. But what about other people? What of all those who keep walking down that metaphorical hallway, unaware of the possibilities behind all those doors?

While it can be entertaining listening to people answer “What was your big break?” the question I really want to ask people is “What big break would you like to create?” Then I want to give them the skills and the habits to make that big break happen, to improve their own luck.

Part of that is writing a book to help people build a better network, career, and life. Another is trying to create a way for people to self-organize and help each other. Maybe the first step is simply helping people consider the possibilities beyond their current world.

What big break would you like to create?

The prospect of premature death didn’t make me change so I tried this instead

The Lipitor I no longer need“Take this pill, every day, for the rest of your life,” my doctor said. I sighed at this obvious sign of decline, envisioning the 7-day pillbox that all old people seem to have. “Already?” I asked.

Approaching 40 years old, I was overweight, stressed, and didn’t exercise. My medical history wasn’t great either, my dad having died of a massive heart attack and my mother having suffered from diabetes.

I knew I was killing myself slowly. But the specter of the many changes I needed to make was too overwhelming. I couldn’t face all of it for the sake of some still-distant benefit. So I just kept doing what I was doing.

Yet 10 years later, I’m back to the weight I was in high school, eliminated most of my harmful stresses, and my doctor says I don’t need that pill any more.

Here’s what worked for me. Whatever your goal, I hope it helps you make the changes you want to make.

Food as metaphor

What I thought I wanted was just a habitPart of my problem was ignorance. I simply didn’t know what was in the food I was eating, where it came from, and what it was doing to me.

But the bigger problem was the set of habits I had developed. That bacon, egg, and cheese on a bagel was like an old, familiar friend I’d see every day. So too was the hamburger with fries, the Chinese food takeout, the slumping on the couch watching TV after a long commute from a stressful job.

Although I knew it wasn’t good, it was what I knew. It also seemed to be what everyone around me was doing. Only now do I understand how much our habits and our environment shape so many aspects of our lives.

Change at work

Verbal persuasion isn't enoughIn my job, I’ve spent years showing people how their way of working was bad for them and for the firm. The pointless meetings. The armies of people processing emails. The ludicrous HR policies and systems. This is the fast food clogging the arteries of corporations.

I pointed out better ways, gave them examples, and they still didn’t change! “What’s wrong with these people?” I would think to myself. But nothing was wrong. I had only to look at my own behavior to see how difficult change is. After all, if verbal persuasion was enough then people wouldn’t buy so many packs of cigarettes with “Smoking kills” pasted on them.

The only thing that worked

There was no single thing that made the most difference for me. It was a combination of things that I learned and applied gradually over time. A few months ago, I found that much of the wisdom and research I discovered in a decade of reading self-help books was distilled into a simple, practical list in Coach Yourself. This short list summarizes the basic approach towards changing anything in your life.

  • Take small steps towards your goals
  • Set some realistic, achievable goals
  • Structure your life to help you attain your goals
  • Allow yourself to fail sometimes without turning it into a catastrophe
  • Look at the areas where you’re successful
  • Reward yourself for your successes
  • Focus on your achievements
  • Enlist the support of friends
  • Chart your progress
  • Picture the way you’d like life to be

Where my previous attempts at change failed, it was because I attempted too big a change too quickly, overreacted to my failures, lacked peer support, or missed some other element on this simple list.

The next small step

As I wrote this I reflected on what I did and ate yesterday. My day started with meditation. Then I walked to work, ate a wide range of scrumptious vegetarian meals, had a cold-pressed green juice for a snack. I even went to yoga with my wife, something I hope will be my newest habit.

10 years ago, I couldn’t imagine such a set of changes. But each small change empowered me to do a little more. This process led to a new career, writing a book, and creating a  “guided mastery” coaching program that helps people change their own work and life.

Of course, what’s right for me may be wildly different than what’s right for you. The path you take will also be different. But for most of us the change begins with a small, simple step.

What will yours be?