I was at home with my family, chillin’. The telephone rang. It was an old friend from college, Otis, someone I’d not seen much in a couple of years. His voice sounded terrible, stressed to the max.
“I’m homeless, Steve” he said. “I’ve been sleeping in my storage unit, and the facility kicked me out. I need help.”
I drove into Pasadena to pick him up. Otis looked terrible, shamed, frightened. I fed him, and put him up in a transient hotel for a week while I figured out how to help him, eventually hooking him up with social services, and helping him find a job and apartment.
It was so sad. I’d remembered him back in college, smiling and laughing with the rest of us. “We’re all geniuses” he would say. “Not me,” I’d think, but would smile along. He seemed to have knowledge about EVERYTHING. It really was amazing. A walking encyclopedia. Playing against him at Trivial Pursuit was an exercise in futility.
I remembered the first time I saw a flaw in that bravado. It was the moment I realized that he knew everything about everything, except anything that could actually do him good. “Trivial Pursuit” was made for people like Otis. Vast amounts of data without any real organization focused on advancing his life.
A reader recently said: “The older I get the more I realize how much more there is to learn.”
I answered that that was because here will always be more to learn, I find it more valuable to ask what are the most IMPORTANT things to learn, and go deep on those. And seek the most important things about those. You either head toward infinite masses of data, or a few key truths.
It’s using the Pareto Principle that asks what the most important 20% of any process might be. 80% of your time is spent with 20% of your friends, 80% of your money comes from 20% of your customers, 80% of your results come from 20% of your behaviors, and so forth.
There are an infinite number of things to do and learn in the world. How can you decide?
- Start with your ultimate goal(s). The Dalai Lama said that the meaning of life is to seek joy. As a simple statement, that’s hard to beat. Let’s say that you start there. It is beautiful because we don’t ever really want “things”. We want the emotional states we believe having those things or experiences will give us.
- Ask what you need to have sustained joy. Drugs won’t do it. Neither will short-term relationships or unethical behavior. Chart a path that day after day moves you away from pain and toward pleasure, in a manner aligned with your values. For most of humanity? This means the path of “Adulting”: mastery of the physical body, exchanging legal goods and services with your community in a manner that allows you to support yourself and a family, a loving relationship with another adult, and some activity that expresses your emotions deeply.
- Each of THESE arenas then has “ultimate goals” but they will tend to be more tethered to daily life, be less general than “find joy.”
- The most important of these might be the “making a living” thing, as money enables the time to take care of your body, the ability to build a nest, and the free time to practice your hobby. NOTE: the luckiest people in the world are those who manage to make their hobby their profession. That is rare and a very delicate balance.
- If you know how much money you need to make to be safe and comfortable, you then have to develop the products or services that enable that. What will they be? NOTE: if you don’t have a salable skill, might I suggest that the most critical skill might well be marketing and sales? Once you have true expertise there, you can make a living selling ANYTHING. All you have to do is find someone with a skill you admire, whose wares are in alignment with your values, and partner with them.
- Whatever you decide to do, study people who have done it well before you. If possible, choose people who started from a position similar to yours. DON’T BE TOO RIGID ABOUT THIS. Taken to an extreme, there is NO ONE who has ever been in precisely your position. Rigid people take this to mean that they cannot model anyone, and have to make it all up on their own. Trust me: you don’t have enough time in life to reinvent every wheel.
- Your initial plans, therefore, should be to take the early steps that lead to the skills that give you the options to eventually become what you want. Small steps. Baby steps. But constant steps, week after week, month after month, year after year. Always keeping your eyes on the “prize” of a happy, joyful, healthy life.
To do these things, you need to be sure that some solid proportion of your time is spent answering questions in those four major arenas:
- How can I support myself , and contribute to my society with joy and dignity?
- How can I find and nurture love with another adult human being, one of mutual support and passion?
- How can I nurture health, energy, and aliveness in my physical body? Be the mirror of the kind of body I am attracted to?
- How can I continue to express and explore my true nature, in a joyful and positive way?
It might take you sixty seconds a day to check in on these and ask if you are heading in the right direction. If not, course-correct. While random information is fun, if you don’t have the ability to avoid pain and seek pleasure in these four arenas, you are engaged in a Trivial Pursuit.
Years passed. Unfortunately, not too many. Otis’ health collapsed. He was fortunate enough to have friends who helped get him into a facility. I remember the last time I saw him. He was the same funny guy, but there was something…a lot different. It wasn’t just the shrunken body. It was the realization that he’d run out of dancing room. There were no more masks to wear. He’d never had a family, a job of real adult responsibility, never had a body of health and vitality. I had never really been able to help him. It wasn’t my responsibility: each of us owns our own lives and makes our own choices. But…it still hurt.
He smiled at me, a tear in his eye. Dammit, we loved each other. But I wondered: did he really love himself? He’d never given himself a chance. Or had he? There was so much about him I didn’t know, even after all of these years. And now..it was too late.
A month or so later, I heard that Otis was dead. The story was over. I could only hope that, in ways I might not be able to understand, his life had brought him joy.
Not “Trivial Pursuit” joy…but real joy. I didn’t know. And I never will.