At the end of every year, a friend of mine sends a group email. The email provides a quick summary of the events that occurred in the passing year that were important in his life, and what he learned as a result. This year, at the end of the email he provided a call to action:
If you’ve got a moment to reply, I’d love to hear what you did this year and what you’ve learned.
As I read over the exciting and inspiring things my friend had achieved throughout 2013, I started to think about what had happened in my life over the past 12 months. This year was big for me. I left a comfortable, well-paying job at an awesome company and moved half-way across the world with nothing but a Macbook and a backpack. I travelled around South East Asia, went to a life-changing conference, started a freelance consulting business and moved to Vietnam.
I hit the reply button, and started writing a response to my friend. I started with a small list of 2-3 points, which soon grew to 5-6 points. An hour and 1000 words later I had a comprehensive list of lessons I’d learned throughout the year, complete with quotes and references. I reproduce that list below, edited for public consumption.
1. Attitude is everything.
This one sounds like a typical self-help guru platitude, and if you said it to me at the start of the year, I would’ve dismissed it as being devoid of any meaning. But after spending a good deal of time travelling by myself throughout the year, my understanding of attitude has shifted to a simple and highly practical concept.
Your attitude is simply the set of default thought patterns that you fall back into when something happens. It determines how you react when something (good or bad) happens to you.
Attitude is important, because completing hard but beneficial projects such as writing, learning new skills, creating art or conducting business requires a lot of work – often in the face of negative feedback, and usually when you don’t feel like doing it. Attitude really is one of the key determinants in whether you continue to show up and execute daily or not. As Thomas Jefferson put it:
“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.“
2. No one has all the answers.
As humans, we’re psychologically wired to seek out confidence and certainty in leaders. It’s rather unfortunate, then, that we live in a world that is inherently stochastic and unpredictable.
Which leads to an important (but rarely mentioned) lesson about leadership: everyone is making it up as they go along.
100% certainty of anything is an impossibility. The only thing people can do is work with the information they have, take a “best guess” at the truth and then run with it.
There’s an important implication wrapped up in this: anyone who says they have all the answers is either self deluded, or is trying to sell you something.
3. Successful people aren’t magical.
In 2013 I was lucky enough to meet a bunch of people I’d admired for a long time – writers, business owners and industry leaders whose careers I’d been following for years. And the best possible thing happened: they were a disappointment.
That isn’t to say that they weren’t intelligent, hard-working or diligent, because they were all these things and more. But when you’re watching people do great work from a distance, you tend to idealise their skills and their process. It’s not until you see them up close that you remember: they’re human.
Ironically, being disappointed by your idols is in someways the most inspiring and exciting thing that can happen. If they can achieve it without being perfect, there isn’t anything stopping you from doing the same.
4. Habits define your life.
As humans, we’re capable of incredible feats of inspiration, creative vision and will power… on occasion. The rest of the time, we’re defined by our habits. As Dan Ariely explains, we have the best of intentions when we plan what we should do, but when we actually go to do it, we’re at the mercy of our willpower.
Aristotle said it best: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Get your habits and routine sorted out and everything else will fall into place.
5. You already have everything you need to be successful.
You don’t need to be “anointed” or given permission by anyone to do great work. The people that are succeeding in the new economy are those who are willing to build relationships, stand up for their ideas and take responsibility. Doing this isn’t so much about being the best, as it is having guts and executing.
6. “The map is not the territory.”
No matter how well constructed your mental models are, they can never provide a 100% accurate representation of the world as it truly is. As a result, real world experience trumps theory-based learning.
7. Don’t judge the terrain.
The world is unfair. It can even be pretty fucked up at times.
The best ideas don’t always win. The hardest working, most intelligent person rarely receives the most accolades, recognition or reward. Simply by being born to certain parents, some children will be resigned to a life of low education and social immobility.
The (often harsh) realities of the world are like mountains. They’re immovable, irrefutable and unbending. Accept them as the terrain and move on. There’s as much sense complaining about the steepness of a hill you’re ascending as there is in complaining about how the world is “unjust.” It doesn’t make you feel any better and it doesn’t make the climb easier.
8. Everyone has an agenda.
People act and make decisions out of self interest. Even when people are acting charitably, they’re usually doing so for their own selfish reasons… and this isn’t a bad thing. As humans, our first priority is most often self preservation (as it should be, for any sane individual).
A consequence of this is that what people say they’re doing is often at odds with what they’re actually doing. This is especially important when taking advice. We’re much better served by sitting back and analysing the actions of successful people instead of listening to what they tell us are the “secrets to their success.”
9. Institutions serve the mean, not the individual.
Institutions (schools, universities, corporations, society as a whole) are constructed to ensure the best outcome on average for the constituents. This means that the rules set up to govern the institution are often suboptimal or even in opposition to the best-case outcome of the individual.
If we’re willing to take responsibility, work hard and think creatively, it’s worth trying to understand the rules of the institutions we’re involved with, and when they do and do not serve our best interests.
10. Most people subscribe to a worldview of victimhood.
Most people see their lives and their circumstances as being imposed on them by external sources. They refuse to take responsibility for anything.
Unfortunately there’s a highly damaging side effect to this belief: if your life is entirely defined by external influences, there’s nothing you can do to improve the situation. While this acquiescence to victimhood can be relieving for some people, it isn’t a helpful point of view if we’re actually interested in improving ourselves or our life outcomes.
It’s only by stepping outside of the “victim” mentality and taking responsibility for the current state of our lives that we can start to change our behaviours, and eventually improve things.
11. Wealth is the result of owning assets.
Most people don’t become wealthy because they don’t know the definition of an “asset” (something that provides a net positive economic value). Note that the two typical “assets” people invest in (property, motor vehicles) don’t fit this description.
12. We need pressure to improve.
As humans, we’re mentally ill-equipped for an environment where survival is practically guaranteed. We’re hardwired to put in the least amount of effort possible to keep us alive, which is a great strategy in an environment where survival is difficult. But that isn’t the environment most of us live at the moment, and when survival is easy and we want to pursue creative endeavours, this can be catastrophic.
In order to thrive in our current environment, we need some external pressure to drive us to action. It could be a deadline to reach, something to fight against, or something to fight for. Goals are a good start, but the real key is accountability. When you’re setting a goal, ask yourself: who will I have to answer to if I don’t get this done?
13. You haven’t really learned something until you’ve used it.
Even after sitting down and writing out over 1000 words about the things I’ve “learned” this year, it doesn’t mean I actually know these things. Understanding a concept is only the first step. The next (and most important) step is to implement it in your life.
Happy New Year.