Ever since my son was conceived, I’ve been thinking about what I want to teach him, about life and about the kind of person he should strive to be. It’s going to be a while before he’s old enough to absorb any kind of major life lessons, but that makes it more important to start coming up with ideas now, so I won’t be unprepared when the time comes.
I’m not going to list basic principles like the Golden Rule, because those go without saying. In this post, I’d like to collect the ideas that are just a little less obvious, ones that I wish I’d learned and internalized earlier than I did. I don’t claim that this is the definitive set of life lessons, just a snapshot of things I’ve figured out in 34 years of life. If I write a sequel in another ten years, or twenty, I’m sure I’ll have more lessons then that I wish I had known now.
1. Don’t be a free rider. When you take a train to go somewhere, you have to buy a ticket. A free rider is someone who tries to get on the train without paying for the ticket. That’s not fair to the people who have to work to make the trains go, because you’re taking advantage of their hard work without rewarding them for it. If everyone did that, soon there’d be no one who would do the work that everyone needs.
The way not to be a free rider is to pay for what you use. Don’t take more than your fair share, so that nothing is left over for others who also want it. When you use something up, replace it. When someone helps you out or does something nice for you, show them you’re grateful, and repay them for their time and their work. Sometimes you can’t pay a person back for a favor they did for you, but in that case, pay it forward instead, and do a good deed for someone else. You should always try to put at least as much goodness back into the world as you get out of it.
2. Try to be like the people you admire. One of the best ways to learn to do something is by imitating other people, and this works for character development too. As you go through life, you’ll meet people who are especially brave, or generous, or compassionate, or who have some other virtue you admire. Watch them and learn from them. Then, when you’re in a situation that calls for the same strengths, ask yourself what that person would do, and try to do the same thing yourself.
3. Take care of your health. You only get one body, so you have to make it last a lifetime. The thing about your health is that it’s easy to take for granted, because you don’t realize how important it is until you don’t have it anymore.
Life is better and easier when you have a body that does what you want. You heal faster when you’re hurt or sick. You can do everyday things more easily. And besides, exercise just feels good. I know it can be hard to go for a run or go to the gym, when there are other things I’d rather be doing instead. But when I make myself do it, I get this pure glow of energy for the rest of the day.
4. Live simply. The most important lesson you’ll ever learn is that happiness comes from meaningful relationships with friends and family and from making pleasant memories. It doesn’t come from what you own. Getting presents or buying new things for yourself is exciting, but only for a short time. Very soon, you get used to having the new thing, and then it doesn’t seem as exciting anymore.
Some people accumulate possessions just to show off. They always want the biggest, the most, the newest of everything because they think that makes them better than other people who have less. But it doesn’t work like that. Having more stuff doesn’t make you a better or a happier person. Even movie stars, famous athletes, and people who win the lottery aren’t any happier than the rest of us. They get sad and lonely just like everyone else. Sometimes they’re even less happy than everyone else, because when you have a lot of money, you can never be sure if people like you for who you are or if they’re just interested in what they think you can give them.
5. Live life with a plan. You can let yourself just drift through life, taking things as they come, making decisions as they present themselves to you. But just like drifting down a river without paddling or steering, you’re more likely to end up stuck in a dead end somewhere you didn’t want to go.
If you want to drop your anchor in a good harbor, you need to steer, and to steer the boat of your life, you need a map. That’s why it’s a good idea to make a plan for what you want to do with your life, and take stock every once in a while. Take time out to look back at where you’ve been and ahead at where you’re going. Your plan doesn’t have to be set in stone, and it’s okay to change it if it doesn’t line up with what you want anymore. But having it will help you make good choices and avoid regrets.
6. Learn to recognize your privilege. You were born to a well-off, happy family in a free, prosperous country in the most peaceful era in history. Those are advantages that millions of people never had, and you should always be mindful that you’ve had this good fortune. It’s a valuable reminder to practice gratitude for the good things you have and never take them for granted. And when you’re feeling sad, it may help cheer you up to remember that, even in your darkest moments, there are millions of people who’d gladly trade their problems for yours if they could.
8. Be aware that people aren’t all good. Most of the people you’ll meet are kind, friendly and helpful. But there will be some who can be cruel, greedy, unfair or thoughtless. If you expect it, you won’t be as shocked when it happens.
9. Practice empathy, even for people you don’t like. Even when they’re being cruel, greedy, unfair or thoughtless, other people do the things they do for reasons that make sense to them. Sometimes they don’t know any better, sometimes they have pain or problems in their own lives that you can’t see just by looking at them. That doesn’t mean you have to forgive or excuse it when they hurt other people, but before you punish them, you should try to imagine yourself in their place.
10. Be egalitarian. This is a fancy way of saying you should try to treat everyone alike. Don’t act as if you’re better than other people or treat other people as if they’re better than you. People are just people, no matter who they are or where they come from. They all have to eat and drink and sleep and do all the same ordinary things, and they all feel the same feelings.
11. Remember that there’s always more to learn. As you go through life, you’ll occasionally meet people who believe that they know everything they need to know and no one has anything to teach them. The funny thing is that there are a lot of different people who act this way, and many of them believe very different ideas, ideas that can’t all be true together. The lesson you should learn is that being very confident and certain about what you believe doesn’t make you more likely to be right. No matter how much you know already, there’s always more to learn. You can never be sure you won’t discover a fact that will make you think about everything else in a completely new way – and you never know who might be able to teach you that fact.
12. Help often. Be generous with your time and energy. Helping other people who need something you have to give is like using one candle to light another. You create more light without putting out the first one.
13. Don’t try to fill a bottomless pit. Just as you shouldn’t be a free rider, you shouldn’t let other people be free riders on you. It’s good to help people, but it’s not doing them a favor if you help so often that they never have to solve any of their own problems. The best way of helping someone is helping them to become independent. Not every friendship or relationship has to be an exactly equal exchange, but both people should get something out of it.
14. Read all the books. Each and every one of them has something to enrich your life: novels, nonfiction, poetry, philosophy, history, mysteries, sci-fi and fantasy. Read mythology and religious texts from many different cultures, and learn about all the beautiful, bizarre ideas people through the ages have imagined to explain how the world works. Read Shakespeare and Terry Pratchett.
15. Create things that can outlive you. Write books, compose music, paint pictures, make sculptures, bury time capsules, plant trees, and maybe, some day, start a family of your own. You’ll live a better life in the present when you have a reason to care about the future.
16. You can’t make old friends. Friends, like fine art and wine, are among the few kinds of things that get more precious with age. In time, you’ll grow apart from some people, as life takes you along different roads. But there will be some people you’ll stay close to, the friends who know the deepest places of your soul and who’ve stuck with you through the storms and challenges of life. Treat them as the treasures they are.
17. Appreciate nature. The natural world has more wonder and beauty than anything human beings can make. When you’re out in the sun and the grass, under the trees and the sky, you’ll benefit in ways that you can’t get from a screen or even a book. Being in nature makes us healthier, calmer and wiser, no matter the season. There’s music in the rain, poetry in snowfall, and deep peace beneath the night and the stars. Try to spend some time outside enjoying it every day.
18. Treasure your mistakes. No matter what advice I or anyone else can give you, you’ll make mistakes and wrong choices sometimes. That’s part of being human: no one is perfect. But another part of being human is that we can learn from our mistakes so we don’t make the same ones again. You should treat your mistakes as rare opportunities: each one is a stepping stone to becoming wiser and growing into a better person.
19. Take some time to play. Do one thing every day that’s purely for your own enjoyment. This works whether you’re 9 or 90.
20. If you want to meet girls, try starting with the shy dark-haired one sitting in the corner. I admit, this advice is more personal and may not be as likely to apply to your life. But it worked for me.