In Search of Wisdom
My 14 favorite ideas.
Posted Mar 12, 2019
It would be hubristic of me to assert that these attempts at wisdom have reached that high bar, but they’re my best shots.
Weigh contribution over happiness. This was the first idea that came to mind when I thought about wisdom. Yes, the pursuit of happiness is deified in the Declaration of Independence, but the contributory, less happy person has lived a life better led than the happier, less contributory person. For example, the bricklayer who decides, after an 8-hour day whether to build that security wall from the live-alone granny rather than his twin who decides to watch TV with a six-pack. Or take an extreme example. It’s difficult to imagine Mother Teresa was happy amid the sewage stench of Calcutta’s streets, her ankles ever bitten by scorpions, yet most people would agree that her life was better-led than the hedonist who spent as much time as possible on sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Your prioritizing contribution needn’t send you to Calcutta. Simply, as you weigh how to spend your time, keep top-of-mind the idea of contribution’s primacy.
Do good; certainly no evil. This paraphrase of Google’s first corporate slogan speaks to me. There’s nothing wrong with acting in your interest but do weigh the net costs to others. For example, readers of my work know that I've often touted Trader Joe’s. Well, TJ's just shortened its hours at my local store, likely as a cost-saving measure. Every time I’m there between 9 and 10, plenty of people are shopping and, for people to be willing to come out and shop late at night, it must be a real convenience to them. But that didn’t seem to matter much to Trader Joe’s—So much for “We put our customers first.”
Just do it. Just because “Just Do It” is a corporate slogan gone cliché doesn’t invalidate its psychological underpinnings: That often, additional rumination increases the risk of erroneous inaction more than the risks of “just doing it.” Even if the effort fails, much can often be learned from failure, and in having taken action, the person gains in sense of self-efficacy.
Don’t chase money beyond a middle-middle-class income. Too often, the increase in happiness is dwarfed by the reduction in career options and an increase in stress and ethical temptations. These days, government jobs, especially federal, often offer a particularly enticing deal: competitive salaries, outstanding benefits, and nonpareil security of employment.
Consider doing your career prep outside academe’s halls: on-the-job, apprenticeship, self-teaching perhaps augmented by online or in-person courses—Community college and university extension programs tend to be particularly good at career preparation: longer on practice than theory.
Build on your strengths. Remediate weaknesses only to the extent crucial to personal and professional success.
Seek the right level of granularity. A major cause of inefficiency is doing things too perfectionistically or too slap-dash, too little or too much focus on the details. Of course, some times we choose to be granular because it’s fun or crucial, but don’t just default to either high or low granularity—Decide on a case-by-case basis.
Maintain very high standards in choosing a long-term-relationship partner. The 50% divorce rate doesn’t fully describe the problem. Many unhappy couples stay together for the kids or simply because of inertia. In good long-term relationships, yes the parties should have similar levels of sexual attraction but also enjoy being with each other outside the bedroom, both make a good income (not only to ease finances but it’s a proxy for being “together” enough for an employer to pay them decently,) and not have fatal flaws: violent temper, significant mental illness, spendaholic, substance abuser, etc.
Think hard before marrying as well as before having children. In many sub-cultures, getting married and having kids is de rigueur. But given the percentage of unhappy marriages and the nearly unequaled sacrifice incurred by having children, clear-eyed reflection is required. Of course, some people find their marriages and their children to be their life’s highlights but quietly, many, spouses and parents harbor deep doubts.
Hire slow; fire fast. Especially today, when legal protections often make terminating an employee a long nightmare, take the time to poll your respected colleagues and friends for people you should invite to apply for a job. Then use simulations and probes of stated accomplishments to get a more valid indicator of the person’s likely success on the job than is provided by answers to stock questions such as “Tell me about yourself" and "What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” De-value references—Nearly everyone can find positive ones. After hiring, if the employee starts out poorly, spend a little time on remediation. If that suggests that the employee won’t soon become even an average performer, before implementing the formal pre-termination procedure, it’s often wise to try to counsel the person out, perhaps helping the person find a better-suited position.
Allocate your time and money to what will make a bigger difference, even if it’s not to the neediest. Every battlefield medic knows to use limited resources not on the sickest but on those with the greatest potential to profit.
Be moderate in most things, especially diet and exercise. I’m no MD but, in light of the ever-changing health recommendations, logic suggests it unlikely that marathoning, triathon-ing, or high-intensity exercise (tripling your heart rate for 5 minutes a day) can, long-term be salubrious. I feel similarly about intermittent fasting, very high fat (Keto) and very low-fat (Ornish, etc.) diets. I like Michael Pollan’s moderate recommendation: as much fruit and especially vegetables as you want and small quantities of the rest.
Dollar-cost-average into Vanguard. I am not a licensed financial advisor but many of them say you could do far worse than to, after you've stocked a few-month rainy-day fund, every time you have an extra few hundred dollars, don’t try to time the market, just immediately put it in a Vanguard All-in-One Fund that matches your risk-tolerance or time-horizon. Vanguard Funds offer fine diversification and performance at rock-bottom fee. A|so, most people should fund tax-deferred vehicles such as IRA, 401K, 403b, 457, or 529 plans before funding other investments.
Never look back. My father rarely talked about the Holocaust. When I asked why, he said, “Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won’t give them one minute more. Never look back; always take the next step forward.” I’ve had 5,500 career and personal coaching clients, including some of the world’s most successful people and some real strugglers. And while nearly all have had bad, often very bad, things happen, my successful clients were far more likely to have followed my father’s advice.
Is there anything in the above that you don’t already do but might want to?
And as always, I welcome your thoughtful comments and even more so, your own favorite wise idea.
UPDATE: Do read the comment by "Your Reader in Pennsylvania." He adds some real wisdom.