Life’s Simplest Lessons

Recently I saw an image through the wizardry of social media and, after having read through it, thought about just how true it was. The title was “Simple Formula for Living,” but that didn’t really describe the list of items included. As I read them, I felt they more described lessons to be followed for a prosperous and spiritually valuable life. I certainly don’t always follow each bit of guidance (because I’m human and therefore imperfect), but I see the value in each and strive to maintain my compliance to them. Let’s go through them and briefly discuss the value.

Live beneath your means. When I was a teenager it would have been a good idea for my dad to teach me about financial management. He never really did though and I had to learn most of my financial lessons the hard way. One thing I tried to teach my children – vocally if not by example (it wasn’t always possible) – was to live beneath your means. Whatever you budget to spend, budget some of your earnings for savings FIRST.  PAY YOURSELF first (that money in savings). Tuck away 1/3 or so of each paycheck so that if something happens and you find yourself without a paycheck, you still have enough in the bank to survive for a few months.

Return everything you borrow.  Duh. Otherwise you’re a thief. The downside of this is that most of the stuff we borrow is borrowed from friends or family. Do you really want to steal from them?  Return it as soon as you’re done with it. If you lose or damage it, replace it.

Stop blaming other people. This is a tough one. It’s easy to do. Quite often we have bad experience due to circumstance and we blame the circumstance on someone else. While that may be rational and appropriate at the time, it can become a habit – blaming someone else. That outlook, however, also gives everyone else the power to control whether or not you’re happy in life. Stop that. Be responsible for your own happiness; your own direction; your own choices; your own actions. Take back and keep control of your own life.

Admit it when you make a mistake. It’s something none of us like to do because it means having to speak ill of ourselves. Believe it or not, we’re not all perfect. In fact, none of us is; not a single one. To admit the mistake we have to recognize the mistake and the best part of having done both is that we can then correct the mistake – or at least not make it again. But if you can’t admit your mistake then you can’t really learn very well from it; you’re too busy being in denial. Recognize it. Admit it. Apologize for it if necessary. Learn from it and move on.

Give clothes not worn to charity. This one seems pretty simple and self-explanatory. That said, how many times have you set aside clothes… so easily stored in a basket or trash bag… and NOT managed to make time to get it dropped off to your local charity? Forgotten all about it when the veterans’ organization called? What we can never fully appreciate or understand, unless we’ve truly grown up in a poor family, is the worth of a single piece of clothing to someone who desperately needs it. And while we usually think about things like clothing donations as “doing for others,” given the philosophy that “what goes around comes around,” we’re benefiting ourselves in some unknown future fashion.

Do something nice and try not to get caught. Let’s face it; we all appreciate being acknowledged when we doing something right… or something good… or something charitable, etc. We LIKE having people know we did something unselfish. We get a thrill and an ego boost when we’re recognized for being “a good person.” Not to get too convoluted in my reasoning, but if we do something purely to be recognized for having done it, that’s ultimately self-serving. It’s like going to church just so people can see that you went to church. Some time… whenever the mood strikes you, see if you can do something nice for someone in an anonymous fashion.  See how it feels. If you’ve never done it, you might be surprised.  There’s also the pleasure you get from having that secret; you did something no one knows about. You created a positive encounter or event for someone and they don’t know it was you. You became, in effect, the fairy godmother or godfather that no one knows about, and in doing so, you created a moment of magic for the person who benefited from your secret good deed. It actually feels quite awesome to know that you did that and didn’t get caught.

Listen more; talk less. I have a lot of trouble with this one. Silences are often uncomfortable for me and, as a result, I try to fill them with conversation. In doing so, I often rob someone else the opportunity to say something… and that “something” might be of greater value than I can ever guess at. Like I said: it’s something I am challenged with managing in my own day to day life.

Every day take a 30 minute walk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “I have no time to exercise.”  Those same people have time to watch several hours of television or play several hours of video games every day. Thirty minutes actually equals two percent… 2%… of any given day. For the health benefits, the peace of mind, the pure escape from the worries of everyday life, taking thirty minutes to go for a walk carries more value than you can measure as you put on your jacket and head out the door. Take the time… look around. The walk doesn’t have to be fast or long; thirty minutes at a leisurely pace is still thirty minutes of letting your mind review the day, anticipate tomorrow, and/or enjoy the beauty around you as you stroll.

Strive for excellence, not perfection. While perfection seems to be the goal of a lot of people, how realistic is it? Sure, there are some things we can do in a perfect fashion, but we’re also human – and perfection is rare.  Excellence however… that’s subjective. “Perfect” is an objective measure of something; it’s flawless; ideal in every aspect. Excellent, however, is subjective and can be different things to different people. Being perfect is unreasonable a great deal… MOST of the time. Being excellent is achievable far more frequently and can be even more satisfying than perfection.

Be on time. Don’t make excuses. This is common courtesy but can also make good business sense.  First off, we’re only as good as our word and if we promise to be somewhere at a certain time, barring unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstance, we owe it to ourselves and whoever we promised, to be there when we said we would. As I said, that’s just common courtesy. That’s kind of the same as, “Do unto others…” I wouldn’t want someone else to waste my time, so I try not to waste theirs.  On the business side, being on time can actually have a cost attached if you’re not. I participated in a company-wide conference call once wherein the CEO of the company – the speaker for the call – was five minutes late. Since the call was “company-wide” there were roughly 300 people sitting and waiting for five minutes. Do the math: that’s 1,500 minutes or a cumulative 25 HOURS of wasted payroll. When you think of it that way, it certainly makes you want to be on time for business meetings. If someone has to answer to the higher-ups for wasting that kind of payroll, you don’t want it to be you.

Don’t argue. Get organized. I have to confess to some confusion at seeing “argue” and “organized” side by side. After further consideration though, I’ve come to realize that the more organized you are the easier it is to avoid arguments. People are less likely to argue with someone who has their act together. OR, if they disagree and THEY are organized, then they don’t argue but they articulate their disagreement in a clear and concise fashion. Either way… for either side… if you’re organized then the argument is either avoided or minimized.

Be kind to unkind people. I have BIG trouble with this one. As a believer in Karma, I tend to believe that if someone is unkind then there’s nothing wrong with me being unkind in return. As I think about it and try to be as mature as I can, I realize that isn’t the best way to think. After all, am I being kind to them as a reward for their behavior? Or am I being kind to them – despite their behavior – as a display of what type of person I am? Yeah. That’s the thought that stops me in my tracks. Hating people is a waste of energy. It usually only hurts the hater. Is being unkind the same way? Do I only harm myself if I’m unkind?  I’m still trying to wrap my head around it but I’ve come to the belief that just because someone else is unkind is no excuse for me to be unkind in return. While I will never be a victim, I’m doing my best to be charitable in this vein.

Let someone cut ahead of you in line. Lines. They’re there for a reason: to keep order; to organize people in a fair fashion; to avoid anarchy in the checkout aisle at the grocery store on Christmas Eve. Right? I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been in the express lane at the grocery store, with my basket of eleven items, and had someone step up behind me with ONE thing in their hands.  Yes, I’ll let them go ahead of me. I’m not bragging. It just seems to be that, in proportion, the time they’ll save to purchase that one item is greater than the time I’ll lose waiting to pay for my eleven. This is another one of those Karma things – just be nice and eventually it will come back around to you. And if it never does? You still gained in personal value; in how you see yourself; in how others perceive you.

Take time to be alone. This can be that same 30 minutes you take to go for a walk (see above).  We spend so much time doing for others, directly or indirectly, that we often forget to take a few minutes aside for ourselves. We need that time. You need a few minutes each day to quiet your mind and get a grip on what’s going on in your day. Are you facing challenges? Have you reached a goal? Are you getting ready to embark on a new endeavor and need a clear mind?  Take the necessary minutes out of any given day to ground yourself; to clear your mind; to get in touch with anything out of discord within you and to get it “in tune.”

Cultivate good manners. I recently watched a movie wherein one of the main characters made the statement, “Manners maketh the man.” I was raised in a household where “the queen’s etiquette” was drummed into me at the dining room table. Why? Because if it was good enough for the queen then it was good enough for my mother (I honestly think my mother believed she was a better woman than the Queen of England). The bottom line though was that I learned table manners, chivalrous behavior and general good conduct. I can’t begin to count the number of times my parents were complimented on my behavior as a result. I never saw what difference it made when I was growing up, but as a parent (and now grandparent) I can express my own appreciation when a member of the younger generation behaves unexpectedly… that is to say, with good manners. Let’s be honest, it’s becoming a bit rarified.

Be humble. Yeah; I don’t do so well with this one either. After all, I sit here typing all this on the assumption that what I have to say is worth reading by someone. That, in itself, is fairly arrogant, right?  Being humble isn’t just assuming that someone else is better than you at something. In fact, the harder part of being humble is knowing you’re pretty good at something but still recognizing that not only is there probably someone better but that your own level of skill doesn’t make you better than anyone else in general. Being humble means staying grounded.  Sure, you should take pride in your skills and abilities but don’t rub them in anyone else’s face.  It’s one of our human duties to develop the skills and abilities we have; otherwise we’re wasting potential and that, my friends, is certainly a sin hard to forgive. Don’t waste yourself… but don’t be arrogant about it when you haven’t.

Realize and accept that life isn’t fair. “Expecting life to be fair is like expecting the lion not to eat you because you didn’t eat it.” “Fair” is a human concept and one we’d really like for the universe to abide by. Of course, it doesn’t; never has and never will.  Life – our existence in this universe – will just as obviously not be fair. As too many people have said, the sooner you accept that life isn’t fair, the sooner you can get past it and move on to work on making your life a happy one. When things happen that are “unfair,” it behooves us to look at the event; recognize it for what it is; adjust… improvise… adapt… overcome whatever part or portion of it that is unfair and move on in a positive fashion. Fretting over the unfairness of life holds you back. Don’t let it.

Know when to keep your mouth shut. I don’t feel like I should even type anything about this. Along with, “Talk less; listen more,” this “Know when to keep your mouth shut,” is one of my biggest faults (in my own opinion). I have plenty of friends who would agree, tongue in cheek. In all seriousness, when SHOULD you keep your mouth shut?  That’s something only you can figure out. But perhaps it’s when you’re getting ready to say something you might regret later? Something that might be hurtful to someone you’re angry at? But also care about and don’t want to hurt? Sometimes keeping our mouth shut is difficult because we have a desire to say something hurtful; to strike back; to lash out. That is precisely the best moment to “practice the pause,” and think about what we’re about to say. If what you’re going to say is going to hurt someone and it’s not absolutely necessary to say, THAT is when it’s best to keep quiet. (Now, I need to start taking my own advice.)

Go an entire day without criticizing anyone. This is actually far easier than you might think. Even if you’re an intolerant bastard like I am (all too often), keeping your mouth shut about it is relatively easy. Just start the day with a commitment to yourself that you won’t waste any energy criticizing anyone. Think about it: When we’re critical we are pointing out flaws – either in outlook, speech or behavior. Unless that person is a child of ours or someone we care deeply about, why do we feel obligated to correct them in any way? Wake up one morning and decide to go the day without being critical of anyone. If you ARE critical, keep it in your head and don’t say anything. It can wait a day, right? See how the day goes. You might find it’s more peaceful than other days have been.

Learn from the past. Plan for the future. Live in the present. This seems like common sense to me but it can certainly be challenging at times. How many times have I repeated the same mistake? How many lessons have I learned in the past and then forgotten or ignored because the circumstances seem somehow different now? How many times have I learned from the past but then failed to take the lesson into consideration as I made plans? The trick is to not get so overly caught up in the past or the future that we miss our life in the present. Someone once told me that both the past and the future are artificial and fictitious. The past doesn’t exist anymore; only our memories of it. The future has yet to exist and what we really perceive, that we call “future,” are our hopes or expectations. The future, for sure and certain, doesn’t exist, hasn’t existed and won’t exist.  It’s ALWAYS the future.  The present is our reality. It is impacted by our lessons learned in the past and our hopes/dreams for the future. Most importantly, our present is the only one of those three we can immediately impact. Don’t confuse them.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. And how much of it is “small stuff?”  I JUST accepted a delivery at my house (as I type this) and the UPS guy asked me how my Christmas was. Did I get everything I wanted?  Well, not really. On the other hand, my family is all healthy and my bills are paid and isn’t the rest “small stuff?” How much of what we worry about each day will have little or no impact on our day tomorrow? How much of it do we spend energy and emotional response on without ever thinking about the fact that we’re effectively wasting that energy and those emotions? Keep things in proper priority and manage them accordingly.

It’s all small stuff. I had to laugh as I read those last four words. Here I sit, trying to finish typing out this entry and I got to “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” and I was trying to figure out how to articulate what is or isn’t small stuff.  Apparently, it’s all small stuff. In all seriousness, what isn’t? The health of my family – that’s not small stuff. Time with them – that’s not small stuff. Food on the table – that’s not small stuff. So… if my family is healthy; there’s a comfortable roof over their head; they have clothes on their back; my bills are paid. EVERYTHING else is small stuff. I will do my best not to lose sleep over the small stuff. How about you?

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If you enjoyed reading this article, please check out my two published books which are classified as “self help” and “motivational” –

Above Dirt (2nd Edition): For your Kindle or Paperback Edition

A Fork in the Road: For your Kindle or Paperback Edition

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