I have two roommates. I am the leaseholder. For the second time in my adult life, I recently kicked someone out: he’s insufferably self-centered. The type of person who never sees his own part in things. He’s been busy at work lately (surprise: we all are). Someone in his family is sick. He’s trying to win back a woman he broke up with last year. In other words: he is a normal person with a normal life. His problem isn’t with this weird series of events, but his inability to handle them, and the fact that he expects everyone else around him to pick up the slack.
This self-centeredness comes through in very small, subtle ways: he claims that he doesn’t have time to take out the trash or check the mail. He says that other people should wait to use the kitchen until after he’s done making dinner, and that he can’t clean up the kitchen after he’s done cooking; between these two things, the kitchen is unusable for hours… during dinnertime. (You know, when we’re all hungry.) He frequently takes items in the common areas and hides them in his room. He leaves rotten food and empty containers in the refrigerator because he simply doesn’t have the time to clean.
G thinks that everything is okay… because he pays his rent on time. One big thing, he thinks, makes it okay. And yet: we dislike him. Very very much. All of those little things weigh on us and make us realize that he doesn’t prioritize having a good relationship with the people he lives with.
Getting lucky is like this: people think that “the one big thing” is what counts, but study after study show that personality traits and habits are what predict life outcomes. Health isn’t about skipping dessert: it’s about consistently eating well and exercising. Good relationships aren’t about flowers on Valentine’s Day: they’re about small displays of gratitude and affection towards your partner. Positive relationships with your coworkers aren’t about getting your work done on time: they’re about the small interactions in the break room, the moments you take a few minutes to help them via email.
What you do all the time is what adds up. That’s what other people notice.
A good life isn’t about waiting for the magical elevator. It’s taking the stairs to the top, everyday.
My high school principle was in love with this quote, which was either from Theodore Roosevelt or Arthur Ashe:
“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
But things are different when you get older and turn pro: you need the right tools. You need to watch that tutorial video, read that book, ask that person, save for the right software, buy that whiteboard.
Actually, you don’t. Don’t be a diva who needs to have everything perfectly in place before writing a word. Be like MacGyver. Look around you, at everything you already have, and think about how you can make progress using the tools already at your disposal.
Instead of waiting for the perfect opportunity, think about how you can create the perfect opportunity—or at least get closer to it—in your current situation.
I used to wait to write until I had a few perfect, quiet hours. Then I started bringing a notebook with me everywhere and taking advantage of downtime to jot down a few notes. Capture ideas. Plot and progress. Every word adds up.
Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. When it comes to your life goals, be like MacGyver: your brain is the only tool you really need.
Anyone with lots of goals understands how frustrating it is to not feel productive. What was I wasting time on? How can I be more efficient at work? How can I produce more? I wish I would have gotten more done at work. Bills, errands, traffic, chores, and the maintenance of daily life make it easy to feel like we didn’t achieve our potential today.
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I didn’t work so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish I had let myself be happier.
Work is always right in front of our face. Our projects and goals are inevitably quantified and measurable, so we always notice the gap between “what I did” and “what I still need to do.” The more time we spend thinking about work, the more natural and important it seems—and the more we identify with work.
But when it comes to the important stuff in life—the stuff we’ll be musing about in decades, when our bodies and minds aren’t cooperating as well—there are no project managers busting our chops; no Gantt charts holding us accountable.
At night, don’t ask yourself if you were as productive as possible at work. Ask yourself:
- Did I give myself time to do something personally meaningful, that makes me happy?
- Was I honest with the people around me, or did I bite my tongue out of fear? How can I set things straight tomorrow with compassion?
- Did I reach out to someone I haven’t been in touch with in a while?
- Did I do something today that got me closer to fulfilling a lifelong dream?
The universe will carve out 8 hours for you to work and be productive tomorrow; you alone are responsible for carving out time for building the foundations of a meaningful life.
As anyone who has ever been passionate about a particular sports team knows, the other side has a habit of playing dirty and the referees tend to make unfair calls. But the secret is that this happens on both sides.
The year is 1951. In what is probably the most-studied football game in the history of psychology
, Dartmouth traveled to Palmer Stadium in New Jersey on November 23, 1951 to play Princeton. By all accounts possible, it was an ugly game. The star of the show—Princeton’s Kazmaier, had been featured on the November 19, 1951 cover of Time
magazine, the caption reading: “From a single wing, a triple threat.”
Kazmaier left early after sustaining a concussion and breaking his nose. Dartmouth also saw its share of injuries, including a broken leg.
Dick Kazmaier, in happier days, pre-concussion and nose break.
Nearly all Princeton students judged the game as “rough and dirty”—not one of them thought it “clean and fair.”
1/3 of Dartmouth students introduced their own category, “rough and fair.”
Later, researchers showed students from both schools clips of the game and asked what they saw. When Princeton students saw penalties:
•the ratio of Princeton’s flagrant to mild penalties was 1:3
•the ratio of Dartmouth’s flagrant to mild penalties was 2:1
When Dartmouth students saw those same penalties:
•the ratio of Princeton’s flagrant to mild penalties was 1:2
•the ratio of Dartmouth’s flagrant to mild penalties was 1:1
Dartmouth fans had a much easier time justifying their team’s violent behaviors. And Princeton wasn’t innocent, either: in the third quarter, a Dartmouth player was taken off the field with a broken leg.
The feedback we get about our assessments starts with how a decision feels. Is there anything more ambiguous than the social world—especially sports? And is there anything easier than justifying the actions of our own ingroup?
And then, it’s reinforced through our social groups. It’s how our habits get reinforced. Social feedback is why Dartmouth fans—all of them surrounded by other Dartmouth fans they were motivated to maintain a bond with—thought that Princeton started playing dirty in that infamous 1951 game. Social feedback is why you’re more likely to love a song if your best friend loves it. Even when we’re looking at a football game and trying to decide which team started the ruckus, what we see is never purely objective.
Light doesn’t directly pass through to the visual cortex. First, it has to run through the orbitofrontal cortex. The OFC is thought to be the link that interprets external and internal sensory information and figures out how to guide our behavior, measuring the “outcome value.” Leading neuroscientist Luiz Pessoa once argued that “Vision is never pure, but only affective, vision.” Everything we see first passes through a lens that plays a role in how we evaluate objects and helps assign value to environmental stimuli. Emotions, preconceptions, or feelings are integral to the way we process information.
And then, after we see something passing through that lens, our decisions and evaluations get reinforced externally. If we think that our coworkers will approve of the hire, or our parents and friends will be on board with a new romantic interest, or if our fellow fans agree. From our brain’s perspective, feeling like we’ve come to the right conclusion is its own kind of reward—one that’s surprisingly removed from the more important question of whether or not we’re actually right.
So was the Super Bowl fair? That depends on who you wanted to win, and who actually won.
Four years ago, I drove across the country from New York to Portland with my friend in his Prius. After a smooth-sailing, fun-filled week, the car ended up breaking down in the Columbia River Gorge—just an hour and a half outside of Portland. We had to call a tow truck and wait. A few days later, he called: he’d heard back from the repair shop.
My friend Nick and I, waiting in the Columbia River Gorge for the tow truck. (Nick is trying to get out of the photo.)
We ran out of gas.
The morning we “broke down,” we were at a rest stop for coffee. I recommended getting gas. We didn’t need it, he explained, because we were in a Prius. There was plenty of gas. But… wouldn’t we need gas eventually? We were already at a rest stop? Even though the tank wasn’t close to empty, why not keep it filled?
99% of advice about success (or getting lucky) focuses on going towards the wins: getting a raise, another round of funding, getting stronger, being faster, getting more clients, sending out more resumés, going on more dates, getting that part…
But if you only pay attention to that, you’re ignoring half of the story. It’s more important to avoid bad luck. Bankruptcy, major illness, depression, divorce, losing your home, burnout, major fallouts, going broke, losing your connections, or even just finding yourself alone and hopeless can derail you—for years, at best. (Or an hour, if it’s just about waiting for the tow truck.)
It’s possible to bounce back from a major catastrophe (and we all love a comeback story). But why do that to yourself? Taking the steps to avoid bad luck will only help you get closer to those wins. You can’t completely prevent bad, random things, but taking an “active” coping style is associated with better life outcomes, less stress, and less burnout.
Bad luck happens when we reach the end of our rope, or when we find ourselves depleted on some resource. Never miss an opportunity to keep your tank full. Stay in touch with people, and see what you can do for them—when you don’t need to ask for help. Keep your savings account padded—before you need to dip into it. Stay healthy—so you can recover from illness faster. Don’t wait until things get messy. Don’t ignore how much you have left in the tank.