Saturday, January 5, 2013

How to Do Life: What I Wish My Parents Had Told Me

I'll be giving a talk Thursday based on my new book. The talk will be called, How to Do Life: What I Wish My Parents Had Told Me.

I thought you might like to see what I plan to say, so I converted my notes into this post:


Listen more than talk. You have two ears and one mouth--act accordingly. You can often make deep connections fast by also asking questions, especially those to identify and amplify on a person's hot button: career, family, hobby, health, money, looks, pop culture, etc. Don't just ask questions or you'll seem like an interrogator. Share some thoughts too, perhaps a disclosure about yourself.

In conversation, follow the traffic-light rule: During the first 20 seconds of an utterance, your light is green: You can keep talking with impunity. During the second 20 seconds, your light is yellow: your conversation partner may be starting to think you're long-winded. At the 40-second mark, your light is red. Yes, very occasionally, you want to run a red light and keep talking--for example, if you're telling an anecdote that's clearly interesting not just to you but to your conversation partner. But usually, at the 40-second mark, you should shut up or ask a question. If the person wants to know more, s/he can ask.

Usually, you'll effect more change if, instead of giving advice, you ask questions to help your conversation partner develop his or her own solution. You'll also be better liked because the person feels efficacious rather than shown-up.

Don't try to show how smart, rich, or well-connected you are. Usually, it's wise to prioritize making others feel good about themselves.

Choosing a Career

Do what you love and you may starve. And even if you don't, you're more likely to be unhappy than you might think. Because most people's passions lie in just a few common areas---entertainment, fashion, the environment, helping the have-nots, video games, etc--a zillion people want jobs in such fields. That means that employers can pay poorly and treat employees poorly because a wealth of wannabes is waiting in the wings. And even if you're treated well, you may not be happy--because, for the most part, work is work and because people are as happy as they are, by nature. It may be wiser to choose a career in a less crowded bailiwick because it's usually easier to land a job that has the characteristics that most affect career contentment: an ethical product or service, a good boss and coworkers, reasonable compensation, good learning and promotion opportunities, etc.

Preparing for a Career

School is overrated. Research, for example, this study, ever more clearly demonstrates how frighteningly little students learn in college despite all the time and money. And while yes, most employers demand degrees of their professional-level employees, 5 to 10% get hired without the "required" sheepskin. Before deciding you need to spend that fortune in time and money to get a degree, see if you can get hired without one, perhaps doing your learning at You U: a combination of reading, individual courses, mentors, tutors, conference attending, etc.

Finding a Job

If you ask your network for a job, you'll get advice. If you ask for advice, you may get a job.

Career Success

Dabbling is fun but is often a career killer. Relentlessly focus on becoming the go-to guy/gal at something that can earn you at least a middle-class living. Relentless focus--I've found those two words to be a defining characteristic of most successful people.

Everything matters enough to try. Almost nothing matters enough to get angry.

It's rarely worth fighting your boss. When I first was hired at US News in 2006, my editor changed my articles in ways I thought were wrong. I often argued with him and while I occasionally got my way, I won the battle but lost the war: I was replaced in 2010. Fortunately, I was rehired in 2012 but now, if my editor changes something I wrote, unless it's really important, I let it go. In retrospect, the changes I wanted weren't that crucial. Indeed, once I wrote the cover story for Family Circle and, in error,, it was published without the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs, which made the 4th paragraph a non-sequitur. In the end, the world didn't change even with that significant error in an eight-million-circulation publication. It's important to have perspective: How important is that, really?

Management tip: Intelligence and drive are key and hard to change. Hire for high intelligence and drive and train for skills and information You can far more readily teach people a skill and information than make them smarter or harder-working.


Don't judge people by what they say but by what they do. Recent example: Al Gore became famous for saying oil is evil yet he owns five SUVs, a mansion, and flies around in his gas-guzzling private jet. And last week, he took $100 million of that evil oil money so Current TV can be converted to Al Jazeera America.

Choose a low-maintenance romantic partner: someone who is kind to you, doesn't spend a lot, and isn't emotionally fragile. Don't let sexual chemistry trump those critical factors.

Choose friends who bring out the best in you, not those that drag you down.

Family is overrated. Sure, for some people, family is the best thing in their lives. But many people quietly find family more painful than it's worth. After all, you choose your friends while your family is selected for you. Corollary: Even though it's a societal norm, don't reflexively have kids. Few parents will admit it publicly but many feel the restriction of their freedom and the dollar-cost of having kids wasn't worth it. And that assumes you'll have a good relationship with your children: Countless kids and parents have relationships that stay strained for a lifetime.


You probably can't shop your way to contentment. The shopper's high of having acquired that stupid Coach purse quickly dissipates and, like a drug addict, the materialist needs to quickly search for the next dose, often a more expensive one. Buying lots of "stuff" is a fast path to short-term pleasure and long-term misery and perhaps homelessness. It also requires you (or your sugar daddy/mommy) to make lots of money. And most employers who pay employees lots of money do so because the work is difficult, distasteful, spiritually empty, and/or requires absurdly long work hours. That's a high price to pay for designer-label crap, a fancy address or car nameplate. If you find your contentment not in buying "stuff" but in productivity, creative outlets, and relationships, you won't need to pursue such a financially remunerative job but one you'd find more fun--for example, one in the creative arts or for a cause you believe in.

Put your savings in one place where you can diversify at low-cost. That will keep you from getting drowned in paperwork, losing track of where you money is and how it's doing. Most of my savings is in a Vanguard All-in-One Fund. Do maximize your contribution to tax-deferred savings vehicles like an IRA and 401k, which of course, also can be in most mutual funds including Vanguard.

Never try to time the market. Even the vast majority of professional money managers can't. As soon as you get $1,000 or more in money you don't need to keep in your checking or rainy-day account, invest it that day. That way, you'll buy more shares when prices are low and fewer shares when prices are high.

Your Well-Being

Lafayette Reservoir
Rituals are useful respites from our ever-changing lives. Six days a week, I take a 45-minute hike with my doggie Einstein. I go to the same place (the Lafayette Reservoir) every day, never even changing the direction I take around the lake. It's comforting.

Avoid doctors. So many medical errors are made, with more unnecessary deaths and morbidity likely with ObamaCare about to cover 51 million more people: 40 million legals plus 11 million illegals who will become eligible after Obama gets  "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" passed. The medical system is already overtaxed. It will be far more so when ObamaCare kicks in, less than one year from now. You may be wiser to minimize your interaction with the medical system and instead focus on the obvious: control your weight and stress, don't smoke or abuse alcohol or drugs, eat reasonably, and control such conditions as hypertension and diabetes. If you're under 60, it may even be wise to forgo the annual wellness exam. Discuss that with your doctor--or under ObamaCare, ever more likely, your physician assistant or nurse practitioner.

Pick your battles. Especially don't fight a megatrend, for example, America's current move leftward toward more redistribution to society's have-nots. Corollary: You have little chance to change people's foundational views: political, religious, work ethic.

Never look back. My father, a Holocaust survivor, rarely talked about it. When I asked him why, he said, "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Martin, never look back, always take the next step forward." I can leave you with no better advice.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Great insights!