10 Rules on How to Live Well
November 03, 2016
count of how many industry newsletters I read every day. I’m not complaining. I’m
just afraid I’m going to miss something—so I try to read them all.
really stands out is Brain Pickings. Why? It inspires me to think beyond the
every-day. It exposes me to writers I’ve never heard of. And it makes me feel
like an intellectual.
the Bulgarian writer and creator of the blog, describes it as “a
cross-disciplinary LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces spanning art, science,
psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology, and more.
Above all, it’s about how these different disciplines illuminate one another to
glean some insight, directly or indirectly, into that grand question of how to
live, and how to live well.”
she shared what she calls her 10 Learnings, things that have enlightened her
over the years of publishing the blog. Take a look.
1. Allow yourself
the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for
“negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social
disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on
superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the
time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go
around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own
reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But
it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that
means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all,
2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige
is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It
causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those
extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but
they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying
to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract
from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
3. Be generous. Be
generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and,
especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a
celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every
exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and
be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is
an opportunity to exchange them.
4. Build pockets
of stillness into your life.Meditate.
Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative
purpose today dreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we
stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of
experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new
combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing,
the entire flow of the creative process broken.
5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously
advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t
believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity,
and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you
stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than
productivity. Ours is a culture that
measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability
to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but
worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder
that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture
something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of
immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as
a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious returning.
As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to
blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the
tedium of the blossoming. But that’s
where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny
8. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her
spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people,
ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and
visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has
already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are
healthy to protect your radiance.
9. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our
responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction
we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating
are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe
that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the
people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want.
But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that
the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role
each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the
machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently
supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the
superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called
10. Don’t just resist cynicism —
fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for
this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you
love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as
nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that
great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually
corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence
of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is
infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult
yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a
place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment.
This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an
act of courage and resistance.