What is the most important thing you’ve ever learned?
Walking? Reading? Counting? Or perhaps how to take care of yourself? Managing money? Do your job? Recognize emotions? Human psychology? Loving someone else? Loving yourself?
It’s a simple question, yet not an easy one. The answer will be different for every person. In fact, the answer will likely change over the course of your life, depending on what you’re dealing with.
Today, I’m going to answer that question from my perspective. It might not be the most important lesson you will ever learn, but it should at least be useful.
Too old to die young
Before we get to my answer, here’s a little story.
During my later teens and twenties, I had a lot of fun, but also worked hard. I felt I could make a difference in the world, do something special and probably also make a bunch of money along the way.
The latter was never a goal in itself, but definitely an expectation I took for granted given the hard work I put in*.
Fast forward to my early thirties.
After all kinds of jobs, lots of travel and entrepreneurial ventures, I was left more or less empty-handed financially: no significant savings nor assets to my name, besides some shares and stocks in a few, at that time, fledgling operations.
The conclusion seemed clear: I failed. Managing and entrepreneurship are not for me. “You’re too old now. Throw away those crazy dreams and take a normal job, Tim.”
The return of the itch
So I did take a, well, reasonably normal job. It was relaxing in a way, and especially secure (monthly income, anyone?). For a while it was just what I needed.
But soon there was an itch. Something wasn’t right, missing. And was everything that happened before really all my fault? Was I truly not good at managing and entrepreneurship? Or was that something I was just telling myself?
If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away. What are we, anyway? Most of what we think we are is just a collection of likes and dislikes, habits, patterns. At the core of what we are is our values, and what decisions and actions we make reflect those values.”
– Steve Jobs in a 1985 Playboy interview
While this itch was growing on me, two things happened more or less simultaneously:
As you will see, these two concepts lead to the most important thing I have probably ever learned:
To tame my mind and focus exclusively on what I can change, while not getting disturbed nor distracted by anything else.
How often do you…
- …get irritated with yourself about something small?
- …tell yourself you can’t do something?
- …feel guilty, insecure or angry about a thought you have?
- …feel sorry for yourself?
- …tell yourself you are having a bad day, before the day is even over?
- …let your own mood and thoughts be disrupted by someone else’s emotional or grumpy response?
Focus on what is in front of you right now. Ignore what it ‘represents’ or it ‘means’ or ‘why it happened to you’.”
– Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle is The Way
The combination of Stoicism and meditating proved extremely powerful.
Stoicism taught me I shouldn’t attach unnecessary opinion and emotion to my thoughts, but see things for what they are. Meditation gave me the skill to actually do that.
Taming your mind
Few things are as difficult as observing your own thoughts clearly and objectively.
Is my response appropriate or based on an overdose of emotion?
Is my mind truly at ease, or is there still some stress lingering below the surface?
Am I really good at this, or am I only trying to convince myself?
Do I indeed suck at this, or is that just something I’m telling myself?
Answering these questions becomes much easier as you practice meditation regularly.
Part of meditating is about being aware and comfortable with your own thinking. You learn to gently steer and slow down your train of thoughts. It is as if you can take a bit of distance from your own thinking, as opposed to identifying your sense of self (emotions, ego) directly with your thoughts**.
If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things–that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”
– Steve Jobs in his biography by Walter Isaacson
Separating observations from emotions
Once you can “see” your own thoughts and thinking patterns, you can start dissecting them. Specifically, separating observations from emotions and opinion.
“It is reported unto thee, that such a one speaketh ill of thee. Well; that he speaketh ill of thee, so much is reported. But that thou art hurt thereby, is not reported: that is the addition of opinion, which thou must exclude. […] Thou must use to keep thyself to the first motions and apprehensions of things, as they present themselves outwardly; and add not unto them from with thyself through mere conceit and opinion.”
– Marcus Aurelius in Meditations
An uncooperative scooter-lock, led to a short burst of anger at the lock. A nasty remark by a colleague was met by an emotional response to that nasty remark. The day not unfolding as originally planned meant an unproductive afternoon because the morning was “bad”. My past nagging at me when making a decision caused me not to start to a company because past demons were holding me back.
Those and many other things used to throw me off balance.
All of these examples involve your mind reacting with emotion instead of reason. With opinion instead of observation.
Focus exclusively on what you can change.
What is up to us, and what is not up to us.
What is up to us? (our playing field)
What is not up to us? Everything else. The weather, the economy, circumstances, other people’s emotions or judgements, trends, etc.”
– Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle is The Way
Seeing what is there in front of you
Once you can see things for what they are, you have a power that ripples into all aspects of your life:
- You will be patient when someone else has a bad mood.
- You’ll have a clear head and logical thinking available to you, when meeting an (annoying) problem.
- You will stay calm and dignified when someone insults you.
- You will not write off an entire day, just because something bad happened in the morning.
- You’ll have a cool head when others are panicking.
- You will not give up your dreams, just because you failed in the past. Or because you’re too old, young or inexperienced.
Now don’t mistake all of this for suppressing emotions. Of course it’s fine (and human!) to have feelings. But be aware when they’re clouding your thinking. When they consume more of you than they should.
What happened to that itch?
I realized I was telling myself stories:
- “Now I’m too old.”
- “I was never meant to run a company.”
- “I’m not good at managing people.”
- “I’m too nice to be tough.”
- “Dreams are for dreamers.”
What I perceived as failures were in fact lessons, and I had learned a lot. My dreams were still there and there was no good reason to give up on them. So I started Saent.
But the benefits of Stoicism and meditation didn’t only show up in the bigger decisions, such as starting a company.
You’ll be hard pressed to find me irritated about anything, these days. Few things throw me off balance and if so, only for a brief moment. I’m able to turn, what others would call a bad day, into a good one. In fact, I never call anything a “bad” day anymore.
Advantages abundant. And not only for me; those around me are clearly also better off with this new version of Tim.
Ready for more?
Behind mountains are more mountains.”
– Haitian proverb (from Ryan Holidays The Obstacle is the Way)
Separating thought from opinion and emotion is the first step. Once you’ve mastered seeing things for what they are, you can continue practising Stoicism:
- Working on acceptance. Acceptance of whatever happens to you, amor fati: love your fate.
- Realize it’s an uphill battle. The more you accomplish, the more challenges life will throw at you.
- Being in the moment. In other words, mindfulness. Not worrying about past nor future, simply with what’s in front of you in the present.
- Practicing Essentialism. Marcus Aurelius was perhaps one of the first Essentialists. He wrote in Meditations:“Thy carriage in every business must be according to the worth and due proportion of it, for so shalt thou not easily be tired out and vexed, if thou shalt not dwell upon small matters longer than is fitting.”
I hope this is as useful for you as it is to me. But don’t hesitate to answer that powerful and oh so interesting question in the comments or in an email:
What’s the most important lesson you’ve ever learned?
* Usually seven days a week, sometimes six. Sure, I was doing stuff I liked, nevertheless, I put in 40 – 70 hour weeks from when I was 18 till when I was in my early thirties.
** If this sounds vague, here are a few examples of attaching opinion and emotion to your own thoughts:
- Even though you planned, you didn’t go to the gym in the morning. The rest of the day you feel guilty, a failure or undisciplined, simply because you didn’t go.
- You had a longing thought of lust about your ex which you shouldn’t have. That can spark feelings of guilt, shame or frustration.
- You’re having a meeting or conversation and are not really present. Instead, you’re (subconsciously) worrying about whether the other person is enjoying the conversation, whether they can see you’re worried / insecure / etc.
- By lunch, it’s clear you aren’t even close to finishing anything on your todo list. You spend the afternoon feeling down and unaccomplished and write this off as a bad day.