10 Rules of Life

rules of life to live byYears ago, there was a great web site called Global Ideas Bank that was a clearing house for creative ideas to improve society. I can’t find it anymore (though a blog has picked up the idea), but one of the ideas cataloged there was a collection of rules about life. I’d like to pass those rules on with a few of my own.

These rules are rather contrarian. Instead of wise bits of encouragement or a pat on the head, this is hard-knocks advice that assumes that dealing squarely with reality is the best approach. Each ends with an implied “that’s life—deal with it.”

I’ve added a few comments and quotes.

1. You can’t make people like you. “I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time” (Herbert Bayard Swope).

2. There is no way of getting all you want. Admire without desiring. “My riches consist not in the extent of my possessions but in the fewness of my wants” (J. Brotherton).

3. The world is not fair. “Expecting life to treat you well because you are a good person is like expecting an angry bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian” (Shari Barr).

4. Being good often doesn’t pay off. Make good its own reward. “The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it” (General Norman Schwarzkopf).

5. There is no compensation for misfortune. Life isn’t fair, and it doesn’t owe you anything.

6. We don’t control most things. “Risk taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called sure-thing-taking.” (Tim McMahon)

7. All important decisions are made on the basis of insufficient data. “He who postpones the hour of living is like the rustic who waits for the river to run out before he crosses” (Horace).

8. Each of us is ultimately alone. There is no supernatural friend who is looking out for you, smoothing the way. This can terrify you, or it can empower you. “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

9. When you die, that’s it. “Things work out best for those who make the best out of the way things work out.”

10. Most of us in the West are greatly privileged compared to people living in the rest of the world. It’s human nature to complain and look for more, but it is helpful to look up occasionally to appreciate how you fit into the big picture.

A Christian list would typically be more optimistic, and coming from that worldview, I can see how these rules might seem discouraging. To me, however, they simply seem to be a straightforward distillation of reality. It’s better to see life accurately, warts and all, than to live in a delusion.

I like optimistic advice, but I like realistic advice, too. What similar advice would you give as a bracing dose of reality?

Clothes make the man. 
Naked people have little or no influence in society.

— Mark Twain

Photo credit: Enric Martinez


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  • katiehippie

    ‘It doesn’t pay to be efficient’
    That’s all I got.

    • Sophia Sadek

      Efficiently put.

  • EndOfTheWorld

    Wanting Something Really Bad Cannot Compel It Into Existence

    Something I, as an atheist, get tired of hearing is that my atheism is a side-effect of me being “mad” at God, or afraid of divine judgement, or just being too darn cynical. If only I’d watch a sunset or listen to a baby laugh, my atheism would pass like a cold and I’d walk in the light forevermore.

    But here’s the thing, even as an Atheist, I wish there was a God. Maybe not the God of Abraham specifically what with the genocides and the weird rules and the strange personality shifts, but someone waiting on the far side of death to balance the moral books. Some authority of absolute power who can enforce the golden rule as law. Someone to comfort victims and punish the wicked. I don’t mean eternal golden mansions and lakes of fire necessarily, but maybe a God who’d let Anne Frank be the movie star she always wanted to be and give Adolf Hitler a million or so years of life as a Shoggoth’s tapeworm.

    That would be nice, to have the responsibility for justice taken off our shoulders, a meaning for this life imposed on us from above rather than work to craft one for ourselves, and a celestial denouement to our lives waiting for us at the end.

    I confess, It would be nice! But that’s not enough to make it real! So much of Christian Apologia seems to boil down to “God must be real and must be perfectly just or it would be very sad!” But sad things do happen. We aren’t as big as we thought we were two thousand years ago. The environment wasn’t created for us, but rather we evolved and adapted to thrive in our environment. As such, the universe doesn’t come with a prefabricated moral framework for us to adhere to, but rather morality is something that, like the rest of us, changes and adapts with the world and our understanding of it. The moral universe is something we have to put the work into to make real, and no amount of wishing will get us any closer.

    • The Man With The Name Too Long

      A couple of months ago I had what might be called suicidal thoughts. I wondered what the heck the point of living is if it’s all going to end. This has nothing to do with gods as an afterlife and gods do not necessarily imply each other. I also don’t think that after we die we should end up in an eternity of bliss or an eternity of torment based on what we believed or did in the relatively short years of life.

      These suicidal thoughts were compounded by the fact that I lived with people that say if I don’t believe what they believe then I will spend eternity in torment. I manage to get away from it by just enjoying what I have and not to pay so much attention to the people telling me I’m going to hell.

      • Pofarmer

        we are pretty much all surrounded by people who think we are going to hell. How to deal,with that, other rhan being a good person, I have no idea.

        • The Man With The Name Too Long

          I try not to get pissed off at people who say I’m going to hell but sometimes it happens. I have lots of pet peeves related to religion; the biggest probably being, “Atheists only do good things like charity to make themselves look good” because you apparently don’t want to help people if you don’t believe a spaceless, timeless, wizard created the universe. It’s a pathetic attempt to make being a believer seem more attractive for people who are not sure what they believe.

          And the worst thing is that I sometimes consider that it may be true. I find that I instinctively try to do the right thing in a given situation. Only when I consider why I should act a certain way might I hesitate and even choose not to do whatever good thing I would have done.

          I guess it’s because of this attitude I have where if I’m about to do something and then someone tells me to do it, I get really ticked off and do not want to do it anymore. Because I have to prove to myself that I would do good when no one is watching or telling me to do it. It may or may not have something to do with my obsession with trying to be original as well.

        • MNb

          “the biggest probably being, “Atheists only do good things like charity to make themselves look good””
          So what? What’s wrong with making yourself look good? Humans are social beings. So it is important that there are people around you who think you are a good person. And the best, quickest and most effective way to reach that goal is to actually do good things.
          Please don’t take the following as criticism; I went through this myself (but not to a large extent). When you’re serious about atheism you have to shake off a lot of christian feathers. I was never baptized and received a fully secular education. Still, because The Netherlands originally were a christian country, lots of things I learned as a kid were from christian origin. One of those things is that behaviour only can be good if your intentions are good and that selfish intentions are always bad. That’s because christianity values altruism and self-sacrifice so highly.
          I think that position sucks. Healthy social relations are about taking and giving, about satisfying the needs of your partner (or friend) and your partner (friend) satisfying yours. There must be a balance. Some egoism in the form of well understood self interest is necessary to reach such a balance. You won’t get it by striving for altruism and self-sacrifice. Those are mainly means to put you down, as especially way too few women realize.
          I only fully understood this about 15 years ago, when I decided that utilitarianism was for me. I do good things because I want to look good in the eyes of people, especially those who are important to me. That’s simply a win win. The remarkable thing is that you get nice things in return, often unexpected. Have I forgotten my money once again and do I want to buy something for a few bucks? There is always someone I can ask. He/she will only laugh at me because I’m so incorrigibly silly. I never forget to be grateful, again because it makes me look good.
          Christians who condemn this attitude can place their lips against a not particularly hygienic part of my body.

        • katiehippie

          At least they are admitting that atheist can do good things. There are many that don’t believe we can.

        • Timothy Cooper

          Some Christians wouldn’t do a good thing if they had to go out of their way to do a bad thing. Foe example charity they would say that the give to their church and it “helps” people

        • MNb

          If those people don’t tell me that I will go to hell I see no reason to make a fuzz. If they do I laugh at them or tell them that they are stupid if they think they can convert me that way. Daniel Fincke of Camels with Hammers disapproves, but if somebody tells me so and assumes that I’ll be impressed somehow they are hopeless anyway.
          But I’ll immediately admit that this is easy for me to say, given my circumstances. I can afford to be not a particular good person if I feel like.

    • RichardSRussell

      Wanting Something Really Bad Cannot Compel It Into Existence

      Whether intentional or not, there are 2 ways to read that.

  • I hink there are times when you can’t reduce reality to simple rules without losing a lot of important nuance. Take rule 3. “The world is not fair.” On one level it’s completely true. Why does one person live a long, happy, fulfilled life and another, equally good, person die young of some terrible, painful, incurable disease? There’s no “why” – the universe, to misquote somebody, isn’t either kindly, or malicious, just indifferent. But it’s where we live, so we have to make the best of the cards we’re dealt and make what meaning, fulfilment, solace and contentment we can from life as it is.

    But “the world is not fair” is also a slogan long misused by the cruel, the greedy, the corrupt and the immoral to justify whatever injustice they’re currently perpetrating on their fellow humans. Take racism. I’m sure that when Rosa Parks decided to sit down and be counted at the front of that bus, there were plenty of quitters and cynical beneficiaries of the unjust status quo who knew that segregation was unfair to black folk, but justified the unfairness with the observation that the world just isn’t fair.

    Unthinking nature can’t be fair or unfair – it’s just physics and chemistry doing what they do. Humans have minds, awareness, an ethical framework and agency – they can be unfair to one another, but human unfairness is a choice, not a rule of nature.

    So, depending on whether you’re talking about nature or people, “the world is not fair” could either be an accurate descripton of reality, or a cynical cop-out.

    • MNb

      But I don’t think BobS meant this article as a thorough, exhaustive research of necessary life rules. So of course your comment is a welcome, though somewhat long winded addition.

    • Laurance

      I just got done telling another person that many of these “rules” actually come from Sheldon Kopp’s “Eschatological Laundry List, which has been around since the ’70’s.


      That list makes somewhat more sense, since there are 43 items on the list, and a particular item will be followed by more items which serve to clarify and enlarge.

  • MNb

    As you know I’m a utilitarian. So let me see how your rules contribute to increasing well being.

    @1: Yup. Attempts to make people uniform invariably have made lots of people feeling miserable. The consequence indeed is that it’s impossible to please everybody; not to mention that such an attempt usually makes the pleaser feel miserable as well.
    @2: Yup. The 10th commandment (about envy) is a good one. Envy makes people feel miserable.
    @3: Yup. Psychology has pointed out that few things frustrate people like complaining about external factors you don’t have any influence on. At the other hand it contributes to well being to focus on factors you actually can influence.
    @4: Ah, but here I disagree. On the short term being good doesn’t always pay off indeed. On the long run though it’s a different matter. Sooner or later people will recognize that you’re a good person and grant you small, but nice awards.
    Last Monday I bought a sausage at my favourite stand. The owner roots for Argentina; I for Oranje of course. We always have nice chats and last weeks were about football (what you call soccer). So of course Monday we had some fun; at the end he gave be an extra large portion.
    @5: Basically the same as @3.
    @6: Ditto.
    @7: Yup. It’s possible to estimate chances though, so that mostly the decisions are still the right ones. Obviously that also contributes to well being.
    @8: Neutral. My female counterpart is happy with her belief.
    @9: If you pay attention you’ll notice that many believers follow this principle as well. So yup.
    @10: As I’m not living in the West, but in the 2nd world, yes. When you recognize this it becomes clear how utilitarianism leads to solidarity. Many people think it’s a sacrifice for me that I prefer to live in Moengo, Suriname. I don’t see it that way. I receive an appreciation and respect I would never get in the Netherlands. For me that’s an enormous reward.

  • satanaugustine

    No matter how bad things get, they can always get worse. “It could be worse” is true, but not comforting.

    • Sophia Sadek

      If you think that your own life sucks, read the Bible. It is full of descriptions of lives that suck even worse.

  • Peter B.

    Ten observations about life, to sure, and in as far as they go, quite accurate in an amusing sort of way. But “Rules of Life”??!?!!?

  • ZenDruid
  • RichardSRussell

    10. Most of us in the West are greatly privileged compared to people living in the rest of the world.

    Also, most of us living in the 21st Century are greatly privileged compared to people living at any other time in history.

    Here’s a corollary: As long as you’re still alive, things can always get worse.

    • Would you rather be a middle-class person in America today or a king 300 years ago? The king might’ve dealt with plagues and war, while Americans have cell phones, internet, and TV.

  • Greg G.

    Eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired, dance like nobody is watching, and make love whenever you can.

    A corollary:
    3a. Death is fair. One to a customer.

    When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. You might disturb a Balrog.

  • kraut2

    Doing your job always to the best of your abilities.
    Trying to be perfect leads to madness.
    Stop learning only when you are dead.
    Trust your friends – but watch them.

  • Greg G.

    Keep your boss’s boss off your boss’s back.

    A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay means that you do just enough work to keep from getting fired and they pay you just enough to keep you from quitting.

    Job qualifications often come down to being smart enough to pass the test and dumb enough to take the job.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Never forget that energy never dies; it is only transformed (unless it is consumed by a black hole). Avoid black holes as you enjoy your physical manifestation of energy on earth.

  • avalon

    The truth hurts, but it doesn’t kill. Lies may please, but they don’t heal.

    The only people who are mad at you for speaking the truth are those who are living a lie.

    It’s hard to accept the truth when the lies were exactly what you wanted to hear.

    Opinion can be endured as long as truth is free to dissect it.

    • MNb

      “Lies may please, but they don’t heal.”
      Questionable given the placebo effect and the fact that according to psychology more than 90% of all human beings have a more positive image of themselves than family, friends and acquaintances do. This rosy self image stimulates self confidence, which enables to deal with set backs better. Hence the lies which are part of a rosy self image do heal.

  • jeanvaljean24601

    No offence, but these sound like they were cribbed from the later Stoics, especially Epictetus. 🙂
    Still good stuff, but if you came up with them on your own, you are a smart dude.
    (Of course, I happen to think Epictetus rocks, but what do I know?)

  • wtfwjtd

    “Never monkey with another monkey’s monkey.”
    –Johnny Paycheck

  • Sophia Sadek

    I especially appreciate the advice on making decisions without sufficient data. Perfection is something to aim for, but it is an impossible goal to achieve. Living life sufficiently is adequate for achieving bliss.

  • Guest

    You’re a sad little man.

    • Philmonomer

      So many times, people write comments that tell more about the author of the comment than the purported subject of the comment.

    • Annerdr

      Reality often isn’t cheery. It is, however, a good basis for making life decisions.

    • Boomer8238

      I agree with everything in the post and I’m a “joyful little man”! Life is what it is.

      Living where the rubber meets the road without any mystical deity to cushion the raw reality of life brings one a zest for living that is unequaled within the sheltered confines of religion!

  • John Hodges

    There is the old saying “Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.”
    In my own life, I have certainly NOT gotten everything I have ever wished for, BUT everything I have actually gotten WAS something I did wish for at some point.