A simple guide to a life well-lived

NOTE: This essay was originally published on Medium.com on July 26th, 2013.

Lessons I hope my daughter learns sooner than I did…

Since the birth of my daughter, I’ve harbored delusions that I could teach her everything I know.

After all, I’ve figured out the best way to load a dishwasher (bowls together!), the right way to brush a cat (with the fur), and how to reset a smoke alarm (furiously wave a dish towel while jumping and cursing). Surely she can benefit from the cornucopia of my accumulated knowledge?

Recently I’ve come to appreciate that pretty much everything I thought I could teach her she will perceive as essentially worthless. I certainly ignored 99% of what my parents tried to teach me, as has every child for the entirety of history.

Yet I have realized a few key things that I really wish I could pass on. Simple things that once learned—and adopted—fundamentally change life for the better.

#1. Health is simple

There’s nothing more important than your health. You can’t do much of anything when you’re sick. Health stems from three simple things: food, activity, and rest.

Eat meats, fruits and vegetables, and minimize everything else. I’m not saying don’t eat doughnuts and give up alcohol, because then life would suck. I’m saying, don’t eat doughnuts every morning and drink alcohol every night, because then your health will suck.

Move every day. Lift some heavy weights a couple times a week, work up a good sweat once in a while, and do a lot of walking. Don’t sit around for 8 hours a day; if you land a desk job, stand up while you work.

Get plenty of sleep. Ignore people that brag about how little sleep they get—they are not healthy. Minimize TV and the amount of time you stare at a glowing screen. Learn to control your stress. Stretch out those joints and muscles after all your activity is done.

#2. Money is simple

Making money is simply offering something of value and receiving value in return. The challenge is figuring out what value you can and want to provide, the elusive intersection of what you are good at and what you enjoy.

Regardless, making money is work, and nothing is really work unless you’d rather be doing something else. Be careful about trying to find work—real work—that you are “passionate” about. Instead, find work that interests you where you can add value and then focus your career on building that value.

Spending money is where a lot of people get into trouble, mostly because they spend more than they make. Simple: don’t do that.

Live as inexpensively as you can and save as much money as you can. Money in the bank is freedom and security. Debt is servitude and fragility. Spend money on things that will dramatically change your life for the better, not just on things that are nicer (a car goes from point A to B whether it costs $20,000 or $80,000).

#3. Happiness is simple

Everybody searches for happiness, not everybody finds it, and nobody has it all the time. Happiness is a temporary state that comes and goes like nice weather, and sometimes the weather is lousy. Improve your happiness forecast by cultivating simple things like:

  • Events with friends and family
  • Time outside, exposed to nature
  • Gratitude for what you have
  • Hobbies to pursue your passions

And avoiding:

  • Lack of autonomy (especially at work)
  • Stress
  • Illness (see #1)
  • The news

Although we can’t choose to be happy (happiness happens), we do get to make choices that can affect it. In fact, most of how we approach life is up to us. We don’t have to do anything, at all, ever. Every situation we encounter, we have decision making ability, and each decision has a ramification. Don’t want to do your homework? No problem, you don’t have to…but if you don’t, you might fail the class. Don’t want to go to work? No problem, you don’t have to…but if you don’t, you won’t get paid. And so it goes.

Simply put: we get to make choices on our actions and reactions, and even if all the options have undesirable outcomes, we still get to chose. Make choices that cultivate happiness.

© Gillian Carlin Photography http://www.gilliancarlinphotography.com

© Gillian Carlin Photographyhttp://www.gilliancarlinphotography.com

#4. Love is simple

Love is simply a choice: a choice to sacrifice your hopes, dreams and plans in order to put ahead of them the combined hopes, dreams and plans of you and the one you love.

If you have a child, you know exactly what this feels like. It is immediate, unconditional, everlasting and all encompassing.

But in a romantic relationship, the choice isn’t easy. At first, when new love burns hot under the fuel of novelty, you haven’t made the choice yet. The choice comes when early passion cools, revealing the foundation of love, compassion.

The choice to foster compassionate love, to honor your partner’s perspectives on the big issues (children, money, religion, sex, family), to love them for—not in spite of—their faults and weaknesses, to help them achieve their dreams… that choice requires maturity. John Steinbeck wrote: “A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed.” Applicable to both genders, it means until you grow up, the choice will be difficult if not impossible.

Tremendous heartbreak occurs as we learn to love and what that choice means. Timing is essential. Many a person has made the choice, only to find that their lover has not. For love to work, the choice must be mutual.

Many a person believes they made the choice, but on the expectation that they can change their lover. That isn’t love at all because they have chosen to love a figment of their imagination, someone their lover is not. People don’t change unless they want to, and they rarely want to.

And while the choice is simple, you must make it again and again, non-stop, for the entirety of your relationship. It takes work, effort, time, vulnerability, patience and courage.

But when you experience it, it is something that you never knew you were missing. And when you lose it, it leaves a hole that won’t ever get filled in the same way again.

Simple, but not easy

It’s hard to avoid yummy junk food, to get yourself to the gym, to turn off social media and go to bed. It’s hard to become an expert in a valuable niche, to spend less money than you earn, to not keep up with the neighbors’ fancy stuff. It’s hard to cultivate happiness and not give in to stress. It’s hard to accept someone and their faults, to foster a love that will last a lifetime.

Just because these life lessons are simple, doesn’t mean they are easy. Just because I’ve learned them, doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with them every day. Health, money, happiness and love are lifetime challenges for everyone.

But the sooner these simple lessons are realized, and an appropriate lifestyle is adopted, the better chance you will have for achieving a rich, full life.

That’s what I want for my daughter.

That’s what we all really want, isn’t it?