Friday, December 30, 2011

11 things I (re)learned in 2011

1) You can only fool yourself for so long.
Any part of your life feel like a sham? Answer that question honestly. You can't hide behind a job title or among other people. The turmoil and falseness will tear you apart inside, and cracks will form on the surface. It's best to have a reckoning with yourself, no matter how painful. What abilities, relationships and personal traits have you left untended? What fears and pains did you ignore as they festered? Did you manage to do some good? What don't you regret? And what comes next?

2) Don't expect too much from others.
I almost wrote this as "don’t expect much of anyone," but it sounded like a bit of grumbling misanthropy, which isn't my intention. What I mean is that people don't owe you things - not love or success or approval - and they're not to be confronted with a feeling of entitlement or burdened with too many lofty expectations. There might be people in your life who are generally much better than others at understanding you and treating you with love, care and generosity of spirit, but they're still human, and they can't read minds.  This isn't about accepting bad treatment from others; it's about seeing them as they are and not putting unreasonable burdens on them.  With an attitude of not expecting too much you're more likely to receive good things with gratitude instead of taking them for granted. And if you're in a bad situation or the target of toxic behavior you might be able to deal with it more effectively instead of spending a lot of time railing at everyone and everything about the unfairness of it all.

3) Demand the best of yourself
By"the best" I don't mean someone else's best or a set of superhuman expectations that you will either never try to live up to or will inevitably fall far short of if you do try, resulting in shame, guilt, inertia, melancholy, and perhaps an eensy bit of satisfaction that you managed to sabotage yourself so nicely. Don't set up your life so that you're spending most of your time licking your wounds and feeling sorry for yourself.  What do you love and hope for? What do you want to give to the world? How do you want to improve? Set goals, plan out the steps you'll need to take towards them, and expect that if you mess up or if things don't go your way, you'll pick yourself up, reassess, learn and keep going. Over and over.

4) You can't demand the best of yourself without being able to forgive yourself
A lack of forgiveness suggests little hope and faith.  Under these circumstances it's much harder to work well, live well, and see your own efforts as worthwhile because you're not really focused on the future (or on the present) anyway.  It's also much harder to avoid similar mistakes or poor choices in the future and to repair past wrongs, because you feel that your efforts will be useless.  Guilt and regret are meant to prod you towards meaningful change; they aren't signs that everything you do is futile and that there's no hope for you.  Don't be so hard on yourself.  Pining for inhuman perfection will keep you from being productive, loving, and engaged with life.

5) Figure out why you're procrastinating
It's not always easy to identify 'wasted time,' because 'wasted time' can give you inspired ideas and necessary relaxation.  Or it can wear you down and make you miss opportunities.  It's also a matter of attitude: you look at what you did yesterday or the day before, and you may see something good in it, some potential, or just dismiss it out of hand as lost time.  Either way it's not coming back.  Often it's a gut feeling: you know you're wasting time and putting off the important things, but you can't seem to stop procrastinating.  Why? Ask yourself what it is you're afraid of or what you hope to avoid.  Are you setting yourself up to fail? Maybe you think the work is fundamentally worthless or pointless; you can't think of a meaningful purpose for it.  Maybe you want to keep things exactly as they are and not face any surprises.  In any case, really think about why it is you're procrastinating (sincerely think about it, and don't just use it as yet another exercise in pointless procrastination).

6) An all-or-nothing attitude is counterproductive
One way to hold back from doing anything meaningful is by telling yourself that you won't bring about a perfect outcome or solution.  Either you want everything "just right" (whatever that means), or it's not worth doing at all: another example of superhuman expectations.  With that attitude there wouldn't be civilization.  No society can prevent or justly punish all crimes; does this mean we should stop writing and enforcing laws and stop fighting to redress judicial wrongs? Contributing to a charity won't prevent or stop every instance of hunger or sickness or pain in the world, but could it improve the life of at least one person? An all-or-nothing attitude is an excuse not to work towards anything worthwhile for yourself and others.

7) Instability is a fundamental part of life
Circumstances are always changing.  You're changing.  Life is fragile.  Living involves a series of adjustments, sometimes minute, other times huge and staggering.  If you pretend otherwise you will stagnate and be blindsided by circumstance.  There's a lifelong struggle for balance as you deal with all the shifts around you and in you.  You want to have a steady sense of self, a steady purpose, without being too inflexible or too changeable.  

8) There's no escaping from yourself
So don't be passive about your life.  And don't let others tell you what you should be; they're not the ones who will live every second of every day with the results of those choices.  Hear other people out, learn from them, value meaningful criticism, but ultimately make your own choices.  Words of approval and acceptance can feel like everything but they aren't, especially if they come from people who want you to compromise yourself.  They might have the best intentions.  They might think their advice will spare you from future pain and disappointment.  Their good intentions might also be mixed up with (or superseded entirely by) other motives: the need to control you, the need to live through you, etc.  If you're not what they want you to be then you become difficult and unmanageable.

9) Being kind is undervalued
It's seen as a weakness, or as a trait to develop in yourself if you aren't clever, good-looking, young, or rich.  There's a misconception that it's easy to be kind, because anyone can do kind things.  And it's true; anyone can.  But it's not always easy.  Not when you're having a bad day, when your temper is foul or when you're frustrated and other people are right there as perfect targets for your anger.  It's not easy when you're feeling short-changed and bitter, or when the people you're kind to respond rudely or ignore your efforts.  Part of being truly kind is also discerning the individual needs of different people, as opposed to pushing the same kind of charity or help on everyone regardless of who they are and what they really want or need; this can be very difficult to do well (and under some circumstances almost impossible).

10) Have patience
You will rarely get immediate results.  You will rarely get the exact results you expect.

11) "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts."
You said it, Churchill.


Be well, and have a great new year.