How to Steer Your Life By (Despite) Contradictory Advice

People love to give advice. I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of good advice from a lot of good advice.

Unfortunately, this advice is frequently directly contradictory – sometimes even in the same conversation. Here are a few examples to give you an idea of what I mean.

Persistence Vs. Insanity

Persistence pays off, they say. Stick with it. Don’t be a quitter. Hard work will win the day. Keep at it.

They also say that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

So if you’re doing the same things every day, and getting the same results every day, should you keep at it? Or are you just driving yourself inane?

Diversify Vs. Focus

Get a well rounded education. Pursue your interests. Learn a little about a lot, and never turn down an opportunity to gain a new skill.

But be focused. Don’t be a Jack of all trades and master of none. True genius is obsessed. Pick your one big calling in life and chase after it with single-minded focus. He who chases two rabbits catches none – or something like that.

Blending In Vs. Standing Out

Don’t be the nail that sticks out; it always gets hammered down. Be agreeable, look for things you have in common with the people around you, and downplay or hide your differences. Don’t be confrontational; don’t even mention topics that might start (or reveal) conflict – like politics, religion, or football. (Although, in Texas, they’re sometimes the same thing.)

But if you want to be more confident, just be yourself! Let your true identity shine through. People will love you for who you truly are.

(As an aside, if you ever want to see a conformist bunch, just look for some rebellious teenagers. Doesn’t matter what the current style or fad is; the effect is always something like a uniform. This is true for most groups, but the irony of conformist rebellion is pretty sweet.)

Procrastination Vs. Punctuality

Better late than never, after all. At least it got done. It might have taken three years to hang those photos/finish that filing/wash the car, but it’s done, by George. Who’s up for a nap?

On the other hand, William Shakespeare said better three hours early than a minute late. A lot of employers share his opinion; and when it comes to emergency services and pizza delivery, I can see their point.

I’m sure you can think of many more examples.

So how are you supposed to know which advice to apply when? This is your life! It’s important!

I don’t know how to handle conflicting advice, but here are some guidelines that I’ve found useful when trying to sort through the cloud of well-mean direction to find the right next step.

First: Laugh about it. You think it matters a lot. But it probably doesn’t. Or it does, but it won’t. (I’ve talked to quite a few long-married couples, and it seems no one cares what colors they had at their wedding after the twentieth anniversary or so.) Laughter will help you relax, relaxing will help you see more clearly, and seeing clearly will help you make a better decision.

Second: Look ahead. Are you going in the direction you want to go? Then keep going. No? Then turn around. It can also help, when you’re getting stressed out about a decision, to measure it by how long it will still matter. Will you care next week? Next month? Next year? Fifty years from now? If the answer to more than two of those is NO, then relax and don’t worry about it so much. See Step One.

Third: Stop worrying about you. There’s a lot of release in worrying about other people instead. Send someone a birthday card. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Donate something you don’t need anymore. Say something nice to a stranger.  Our lives have a way of setting themselves in order when we set ourselves to the service of others.

 

Thinking Like Cinderella – Or, Your Godmother Isn’t Coming

A victim waiting for a hero remains a victim.

Or, to rephrase the same principle: An ordinary person waiting to be transformed by an extraordinary event… remains ordinary.

Consider Cinderella.

Events moved her from a comfortable position (favorite daughter of a doting father) to an uncomfortable position (father dies, leaving her in the care of wicked stepmother and co.).

She remains in this new position, doing housework, fetching and carrying and slaving away, singing as she works, (and befriending the household vermin, depending on which version of the story you prefer), and does… nothing.

Oh, she works very hard, but it’s the same hard work every day. Actions → consequences; same actions → same consequences. In other words, Cinderella does as much to maintain the status quo as her persecutors.

And there’s no doubt that she would be there still, scrubbing the floors and singing to the soap bubbles, if events hadn’t intervened again, all but forcing her into Prince Charming’s arms.

(Even keeping in mind that Cinderella lived in a pre-industrial, pre-suffrage world, with limited economic opportunities for anybody, she could still have taken some kind of action. Presumably she knew how to read and write, since her father was a wealthy merchant. Didn’t any of the shopkeepers in town want a wife who could do sums? She could have run away and joined a convent, if nothing else.)

I love fairy tales, but they are fairy tales – and in our non-fairy world, it’s dangerous to think and act as though we expect our fairy godmother to come along at any moment and arrange our marriage….

… or our career change, or our education, or our makeover, or our happiness….

Any day can be a day that changes your life. I think it depends a lot less on circumstances than on how closely you’re paying attention.

I’ll share one day that changed my life, because I was paying attention.

I was unemployed (strike one), still living at home with my parents (strike two), and unhappy about it (strike three). My former employer had gone out of business, and I was looking (not very hard) for a job that would pay enough to either cover the gas for the commute (and it would be a long commute – my parents live a long way from everywhere) or enough for me to move out into my own apartment. I had no college degree and very little work experience, and it seemed nobody was hiring at the wage level I calculated I needed to move out or commute – or at least, they weren’t hiring people like me. (This was not long after the 2008 crash.)

To kill time while I waited for the magic job to appear, I enrolled in a class at the local junior college. (Forty-five minutes from home, one way, nothing but empty highway and lonely gas stations on the way. I told you this was the middle of nowhere.) I no longer remember what the class was.

The first night, the instructor asked us to introduce ourselves to the class with our name and our goal or purpose for taking the course.

I have never heard any room of otherwise unrelated strangers sound so unanimous.

I’m waiting for a job opening.

I’m waiting for the economy to improve.

I’m waiting for a better….

I’m waiting until…

I’m waiting…

Normally this would be my cue to feel superior (always a lovely warm feeling). But as the introduction train made its way to me, I stood up and heard myself say “I’m waiting to get a good enough job so I can afford to move out.”

The instructor’s polite expression read somewhere between disgust and despair. She looked around the room of Cinderellas, and you could see her thinking: What am I supposed to do with this lot?

I did a lot of thinking on the drive home. (One of the great benefits of living in Nowhere, USA; you have lots of time to think while you drive.)

I didn’t know what I could do, but I decided that I would stop waiting. No more drifting along hoping vaguely for a fairy godmother or angel investor or lottery ticket to change the course of my life. I was going to do something.

(I had a job within three days; I moved out of my parents’ house a week after that. But that’s a different story.)

The only reason we know Cinderella – besides the nonsense with the glass slippers – is because her fairy godmother took matters into her own hands.

Cinderella was just waiting.

And she would have kept waiting forever if her fairy godmother had lost her address or her wand or her interest.

Waiting is easy. All you have to do is keep doing what you’ve always done. Sure, nothing will change, but you’ll never be surprised or disappointed. Dissatisfied, but not disappointed.

I love fairy tales, but I don’t live in one.

Neither do you.

Stop thinking like Cinderella. Stop waiting, and act.

Light Keeps Going

I love the stars. I lived in the Texas Hill Country for many years. In the front yard you could look straight up and see the milky way like a bright splash across the sky. (I honestly never learned to identify any constellations fancier than the Big Dipper and Orion, though.)

The beautiful thing about star light is that the light we see on earth today is actually ancient. That light has been traveling for thousands or millions of years to reach us (depending on how far away the star in question is).

That means that there are some stars we might see tonight that actually went out years and years ago, but since the light is traveling from so far away, the end of that light hasn’t reached us. In other words, to us, those dead stars are still shining.

And our planet isn’t the end of the universe, either. All the starlight that we see doesn’t stop because it’s reached the end of its journey. That light doesn’t know who sees it; it just keeps going.

Space is infinite. So in theory, because light keeps going, stars shine forever – somewhere. Light never stops.

I’ve seen the good acts of others cause echoes in other people’s lives that keep going for generations. A good man once shared a piece of advice with me that he had received from his mentor in his youth. I realized as I listened to him that his mentor was a good and humble man who had no idea that his words were still being repeated – and bringing great comfort – decades later.

You might worry that you’re one small person in one big universe, and you can’t possibly make a difference.

Don’t worry about it. Just shine.

You’ll never know which kind words and good deeds make a difference, just as a star doesn’t know as it shines which particles of light will take your breath away on a cold clear night. But stars keep on shining anyway, and our dark nights are more beautiful for it.

Your light will change lives. It will change you. It will change those around you. Be kind. Be brave. Be honest.

Just shine.

Because light keeps going.

 

I Choose to Choose

The first reason I don’t drink coffee is because it’s against the Word of Wisdom – the health code that I believe in as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (you know us as those weird Mormons).

The second reason I don’t drink coffee is because I get scary hyperactive just on sugar. A handful of Skittles can make me vibrate in place so hard I blur around the edges. The world is not ready for me on caffeine.

But the last reason I don’t drink coffee is because there are too many choices. Starbucks has a menu more than a meter long for just one beverage! And I don’t even speak the coffee language well enough to understand what all those choices mean. Latte? Cappuccino? Decaffeinated? (Why?)

Just like setting up this website, in fact. So many choices! Options and themes and plugins and styles and colors and oh my!

Decision fatigue is a real thing. So I often stand at the threshold of decision, hesitating to step out because, as long as I don’t choose yet, I can’t make the wrong choice. So I’ve hesitated to start a Real Writer (TM) website. I’ve hesitated to start a blog. I’ve hesitated to choose a pen name. (This isn’t one, by the way.)

Today, I choose to choose. Maybe I’ll choose wrong. Maybe my website will be hideous. Maybe my blog will be the newest non-addictive anesthetic of choice for people going into surgery.

But definitely I can choose again. If I’m brave enough to make the first choice.

I choose to try.