By Marcus Geduld
1. Marry your best friend.
I am truly amazed that I have the most successful marriage of all my friends — going strong after fifteen years. Most of my friends are amazed, too, because, growing up, I was the geek who couldn’t get a girlfriend. I had almost no relationships until I was in my mid twenties. I got married at 29. I’m now 45 and still deeply in love. Meanwhile, I have seen so many of my friends get divorces and/or grind their teeth through loveless, combative relationships.
What I’ve noticed about these people is that, 90% of the time, (a) they got married really young and (b) they mistakenly thought that long-term romances work best when when they’re based entirely on lust and trivial shared tastes (e.g. "We both like the same bands.")
Sometimes, I hear people say things like, "I’ve been dating this guy for a year. We get along okay, but sometimes I think about leaving… How do I know if he’s ‘the one’?" This makes me really sad, because it’s SO obvious to me that my wife is ‘the one.’ Why? Because she’s my best friend. Whenever anything good or bad happens to me, she’s the person I want to tell! When I need advice, she’s the person I run to! When I need to laugh, she’s the person I joke around with!
If you don’t KNOW that the other person is ‘the one,’ he’s not (or she’s not). And though it SUCKS to be alone — believe me, I know. I was alone for YEARS — it’s better than settling. DON’T settle. You’ll STILL be alone. It is very possible to be alone while being in a relationship. Many people are.
(Let me be really clear about what I mean by "don’t settle." I don’t mean "look for someone who is perfect." No one is perfect. I mean that if you feel luke-warm about someone, he’s not the one. If the person you’re with makes you continually unhappy, she’s not the one. Don’t settle for THAT because "it beats being alone." It doesn’t. You evolved to think it does. Your brain will continually tell you that it does. It doesn’t.)
The other sad thing I hear is "Bill is my best friend. We have so much in common. He’s always there for me. We talk for hours. I completely trust him and we have the exact same sense of humor … but … I don’t know … the spark isn’t there…"
When I hear this, I don’t say anything, because it’s none of my business, but I want to scream "GET OVER THIS ‘SPARK’ THING! STOP BELIEVING IN HOLLYWOOD VISIONS OF CATCHING SOMEONE’S EYE ACROSS A CROWDED ROOM! Jesus Christ! You found someone you connect with on SO many levels, and you’re not getting down on your knees and proposing?!? Do you think you’re going to find 30 more people like that in your life?!?"
The "spark" doesn’t last, anyway. I’m not saying that sex dies or anything. I’m just saying that incredibly exciting, new romance feeling inevitably fades. But, if you’re lucky, what comes next is much, much better. You spend years in that loving, warm place with the person you know you want to grow old with. And if you have good communication with someone, the spark can come later, even if it’s not there at first.
Lots of people seem to learn this after a long time and a lot of pain. They marry the "bad boy" or the "hot chick" instead of their best friends, because doing so is more exciting. Then those marriages — which are based on nothing — fail. Sometimes, if these people are lucky, they later marry those best friends who they should have married in the first place. If they’re unlucky, they can’t, because the best friends have moved on.
2. There’s no such thing as a "grown up," and if you try to be one, you’ll wind up becoming a poser at best and a killjoy at worst.
First of all, if you’re waiting for that magic time when you’re finally THERE, give it up. As I ease into the middle age, I can see it will never happen. I will never have learned what I need to lean in order to be a grownup. I will never be 100% confident. I will never stop failing…
People who seem like they have it all together are either faking it or living such incredibly boring lives that they never face any challenges.
Let me be clear that I am a responsible person. So if all "grownup" means to you is "someone who does the dishes," then — yes — I’m a grown up. But it’s not like when I was younger, I was a child … a child … a child … a child … and then I reached some particular birthday and — BOING — I was an adult.
God, I HATE people who think it’s important to be grown up. They are no fun at all. They are the people who, if you show any enthusiasm that goes beyond what you have to do at your job, inevitably say, "Looks like someone has too much time on his hands!"
Don’t be that guy!
As you go through life — especially when you pass through your 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s — continually ask yourself this: "When was the last time I played in the mud?"
It is VITAL that you play in the mud! You MUST do this or you’ll lose your soul! I am somewhat speaking in metaphor. If you don’t like mud, that’s fine. But when did you last finger paint? When did you last get into a pillow fight with your friends (or with your spouse?) When did you last sing a loud, off-key song where all the lyrics were nonsense words? What was the last time you did something utterly POINTLESS that was great fun?
Playing Scrabble doesn’t count. (I say that as a huge Scrabble fan.) Playing tennis doesn’t count. Those activities are great, but they’re too regimented. They are too much about rules. They don’t involve CUTTING LOOSE, LETTING GO and being VULNERABLE. (By vulnerable, I mean doing stuff that may lead other people to say "Act your age!")
Getting drunk or high doesn’t count, either. If you can only dance around in your underwear when you’ve had three (or ten) drinks, you’re doing it wrong. One of the reason drugs don’t count, is because they put you in an altered state that is disconnected from who you are when you’re not drunk or high. Your goal should be to become someone who always has a little bit of play in him — not someone who is super-stern and serious and needs chemicals to unwind.
I know that letting go this way is really, really hard for some people. If it’s hard for you, ease into it. No matter how hard it is, surely you can finger paint when you’re alone in your room! Make yourself do it until you can do it without shame — until you can let go and enjoy getting paint on your nose. You will wind up living longer and having less stress in your life.
And though you can start this in private, try to work towards doing it in the company of someone else. Play is fundamentally a social activity. You will never feel as close to another person as you will when you roll in the mud with him.
Despite the way I sound, I am a very shy person. I don’t, as a rule, go dancing in the streets. But I have a few close friends (and a really fun spouse) with whom I CAN do those things. Those friends keep me alive! I wouldn’t trade them for ten million dollars!
One last thing: if you have kids, what’s your relationship to them? Are you very much the MOM or the DAD. Do you feel like they are the KIDS and you are the GROWN UP? Or do you feel like they’re your friends and you enjoy playing on the floor with them? Of course it’s important to be the grownup for them sometimes. But see if you can ease yourself into a different kind of relationship with them? When did you and your kids last have a snowball fight?
3. Most grownups stop learning. Don’t.
I spent many years as a teacher, mostly teaching computer classes to adults. These were folks who were being forced to adopt new technologies for their jobs. They were very unhappy. They would say, "I don’t understand this stuff! I’m just not one of those computer people."
What I gradually learned, via long discussions with many, many students from many different occupations, is that this wasn’t true at all. Their problem — though very real — had nothing to do with computers. It had to do with the fact that this was the first time they’d been ask to learn anything new in years. They would have had just as much trouble if their boss had forced them to learn how to knit, juggle or play the guitar.
Even many people we think of as smart do very few new things every day — things that stretch them. Here’s an example: I used to work for a large auction company (think Sotheby’s or Chirstie’s.) This company employed a lot of "experts." An expert was, say, someone who had spent decades studying French ceramics. Having done a lot of studying, he can now look at a vase and instantly tell you when and where it was made, what it’s worth, and whether it’s an original or a reproduction. I am not making light of this skill. I certainly couldn’t do it.
But let’s take a look at what it involves: the expert had to spend decades cramming information into his brain. He had to get to a point where that information wasn’t just in his brain but also instantly accessible. Doing all that grunt work was an incredible feat, and the expert has good reason to be proud of what he accomplished.
But if he’s like most of us, he learned most of his knowledge in his 20s. Starting in his 30s, he began coasting. Coasting feels really good and most jobs are built to let experts coast. You know you’re coasting when you can go to work and instantly know how to fix any problem. You’re coasting when you can look at the vase and instantly know when and where it was made.
You’re coasting if all your problems at work are things like annoying co-workers and long hours. If you never (or rarely) need to do exhaustive research or work out complex problems on paper or white boards, you’re coasting.
I’m a computer programmer, which means my job is pretty intellectual, and I coast way less than a lot of people: but I STILL coast about 75% of the time. A lot of the code I write is boilerplate stuff. I’m "solving" problems that have already been solved before, and all I need to do is copy, paste and make a few tweaks.
Doctors coast a lot of the time (at least general practitioners do). They hear the same symptoms over and over again, and in most cases, they can do their jobs very well by doing mental "database searches" and regurgitating answers that worked in the past. This is also the case for non-trial lawyers.
If you’re a "smart person" like me, and if you work in an "intellectual" field, it’s humbling to ask yourself, at each point in your day, "Am I stretching my intellect? Am I coming up with a new solution? Am I facing a new problem that I’ve never faced before?" How much of the time do you do this? 10% of the time? 5% of the time? 1% of the time? How many years have gone by without you having to face a REAL intellectual challenge?
Incidentally, the jobs that we think of as intellectual tend to be the least intellectually demanding (with some exceptions, such as Mathematician and Brain Surgeon). The "dumb jobs," such as auto-mechanic and football player tend to involve a lot of continual, on-your-feet thinking.
What’s wrong with coasting? Nothing, necessarily, if it makes you happy. But we’re moving into a time period where it’s harder to get away with it. The pace of change has quadrupled and we’re getting hit with new technologies daily.
But the bigger problem is that "if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it." You need to continually give your brain a workout or it will grow sluggish. We all know those people who have retired at 65 and then spent twenty years sitting in front of the TV. What’s sad is that we accept that people in their 80s are going to be sluggish. But that’s not a given. They don’t have to be! YOU don’t have to be. If your job isn’t challenging you, find ways to challenge yourself.
Note: most people get frustrated when they fail. This is one of the reasons why they quit trying new things. Trying new things inevitably leads to failure. But understand that, if you’re trying anything challenging, it’s going to take you at least a month to succeed at it. A month is the MINIMUM. It’s more likely that it will take you six months.
So if you, say, try to learn the guitar but "fail" at it after a few hours, you haven’t failed. You can only fail at the guitar if you try to play it for six months and, during all that time, make no progress.
4. If you’re an artist or "creative person," stop trying to "be original."
Your goal should be to tell the story you’re trying to tell. (Or play the melody or fill the canvas with color or whatever.)
When I’m not programming computers, I spend my time directing plays. I run a classical theatre company. Here’s the main lesson I’ve learned over the years: if I’m directing, say, "Romeo and Juliet," my job is to tell that story. Let’s say that, in order to make the story clear and exciting, it turns out that Juliet should be wearing a red dress in a particular scene. But I go see another production and notice the actress in that production is wearing a red dress in the scene in which I was going to put MY Juliet in a red dress!
I will feel that very human urge to make my Juliet wear a blue dress, because I don’t want to be accused of copying or "not being original." I need to get over it. IT’S NOT ABOUT ME. IF it happens to be a case that a red dress tells the story better than a blue dress, then my Juliet NEEDS to wear a red dress. Art is best when the artists serves the art rather than the other way around.
This general rule applies to many things besides art.
5. If you focus on what’s fair and what’s unfair, you’ll stagnate.
John: Someone keeps stealing pens off my desk! Whenever I need a pen, I can’t find one!
Mary: Well, pens don’t cost very much. Why don’t you just buy a bunch of them once a month. Just think of them as perishable items that have to be replenished!
John: I shouldn’t have to do that! It’s not MY fault the pens go missing! People need to STOP stealing my pens!
Mary: Okay. What can you do to stop them from stealing your pens? Do you have a cabinet or something you can lock them in?
Mary: Can you tell your boss? If there’s a security problem in your office, maybe he can…
John: I’ve TRIED that. He doesn’t care! He says it’s just pens. That’s not the point! It’s stealing. Stealing is WRONG!
Mary: You’re right. It IS wrong. It sucks that your boss isn’t going to do anything about it, but I guess that’s the way it is. And it seems like it’s causing you a lot of anxiety. Wouldn’t you feel better if you spent $2 on pens once a week? You could just assume they’ll get stolen and get new ones when you need them. That way, you’d know you’d always have a pen!
John: Why should I be the one who has to buy new pens?
Mary: You shouldn’t be, but you are.
John: That’s not fair!
There’s nothing wrong with striving for fairness and justice. But if that’s not possible, it’s pointless to fall into a mode where you’re constantly stressed out and throwing your hands up in disgust. The pen problem literally used to drive me crazy. Then I took Mary’s advice. The truth is, I earn enough money that buying pens a couple of times a month is no big deal. I wish people wouldn’t steal from me, but I’m just not going to worry about it. A couple of dollars a month let me check a worry off my list. THAT is money well spent!
6. If you’re not failing, you’re doing it wrong.
We need to raise our kids so that they EXPECT to fail and so that they understand that after failing they should keep going. I have finally gotten to a place where I dislike NOT failing. I am suspicious when I don’t fail. Not failing generally means I’m playing it too safe. It means I’m not growing or learning. It means I’m keeping myself from finding all sorts of solutions I could be finding. But the only way to find them is to play past failure.
7. You can’t reason with a lizard.
If someone is hysterical or angry, it’s pointless to reason with him. Don’t try. The "lizard brain" can’t use logic. Understand that you’re dealing with a cornered animal, not a calm philosopher.
8. Stop reading the newspaper.
You don’t really have to stop. If you enjoy reading it, by all means read it. But if you’re one of those people who gets deeply stressed out every time you read the paper or watch CNN, consider stopping. Why are you constantly putting yourself through this stress? Because it’s one’s duty to stay informed? Why?
Okay, I understand why. We live in a Democracy and blah-blah-blah. Fine. But you’re not required to have a life of stress. It doesn’t help you or anyone else for you to be stressed all the time.
And just KNOWING that there are starving people doesn’t help those starving people. If you have a plan of action, by all means carry it out. Otherwise, give yourself a break. If you feel terribly guilty when you’re not informed, then just give yourself a two-week break. You don’t have to stop reading the papers for life. But get out of the habit of being addicted to stress and sorrow. Your blood pressure will go down.
9. Do something that’s not for money.
Make sure there’s something pleasurable in your life that is completely disconnected with money. In our culture (in all cultures?) money comes with all kinds of baggage. Find something you like to do that will NEVER make you any money.
If you’re a waitress who longs to be a professional actress, acting in plays for free doesn’t count. It’s great, but it’s not what I’m talking about, because you’re hoping to one day quit waitressing and MAKE MONEY acting. Keep that dream alive, but find some other activity to be your non-money-pleasure. Say, "I like sketching (or whatever) and it will never, ever make me any money. And if someone offered me money to sketch, I’d turn it down, because I want one thing in my life that is forever disconnected from money."
And it can’t be something connected to duty. Yes, you don’t get paid for raising your kids, and, yes, a lot of that job is fun. But parts of it are a duty. So it doesn’t count. Knitting counts. Playing basketball with your friends counts.
Hanging out with friends doesn’t count. It’s fun. It’s not about making money. But it’s not a specific activity. You need something that will jolt you out of the belief that most of us have — that anything you spend time and energy on MUST be about money.
10. The hour before bed is for you.
Don’t work right up until bedtime. Even if you "have to." Take half an hour — even 20 minutes if it’s all you can spare — before you go to bed to unwind in an engrossing way. (Do this even if you’re really tired and would rather not stay up an extra 20 minutes.) By which I mean don’t just sit on the sofa with a glass of wine. If you do that, it’s too easy to start thinking and worrying about work. Spend that time reading a chapter of a fun thriller (not a "classic" that you think you "should" read) or watching an episode of a sitcom that makes you laugh.
Think of this as your duty. It will help you get your work done better the next day. It will help you get to sleep.
11. There is no such thing as highbrow and lowbrow.
Or if there is, who cares? School has bamboozled us into thinking Shakespeare is superior to "Gilligan’s Island." As someone who directs Shakespeare plays and reads "King Lear" for fun, I’m here to tell you that the only great art is the art you love.
Life is really fucking hard. You have to deal with losing jobs, getting divorces, paying taxes and fixing the toilet. Don’t add to your troubles by telling yourself — or letting someone else tell you — that you’re a moron because you prefer beer to expensive champagne.
If something is beloved by experts, "refined people" and scholars, there probably IS something wonderful about it. If you want to spend an hour with me, I’ll explain to you why Shakespeare is wonderful and what you’ll get out of his plays if you spend some time studying them. But it’s not a requirement. You’re not in school any longer. (Or if you are, you soon won’t be). There’s no teacher waiting for you to turn in your homework.
I am NOT a better person than you because I read Shakespeare. I read Shakespeare because I enjoy it. If I read it because I "should," I’d be a fool.
Art is primarily sensual. It can sometimes politicize people or give them intellectual ideas, but what art does best is feed you: it feeds your eyes with colors; it feeds your ears with sounds; it feeds your nerves with "what’s going to happen next????" Life is short. If "24" feeds you more than "Hamlet," enjoy your feast!
If you feel guilty about watching "American Idol" when you "should be" watching "Masterpiece Theatre," then agree to challenge yourself once a month. Once a month, you’ll go to a museum or watch a foreign film. The rest of the time, watch and read and listen to whatever makes you sit on the edge of your seat. Whatever makes you sing and dance.
If you’re an "intellectual" like me, take a break from the Bergman films and Shakespeare plays once in a while. Sure, sure. "American Idol" is the death of American culture or whatever. But a couple of episodes of it. It’s pretty engrossing and fun.
Get out of the habit of labeling things as high and low. There’s stuff that feeds you and stuff that doesn’t. There are acquired tastes which don’t feed you now but which might feed you in the future, once you get used to them. As soon as you get the urge to categorize one thing as "art" and the other thing as "just entertainment," try to stop. There are different sorts of meals, and it’s great to live in a world with both caviar and Pop Tarts!