Based on ancient philosophy, modern psychology, and common sense
I have realized life is complicated. When I was little, I thought I would have things figured out by now. Unfortunately, I am still quite clueless. Sometimes I think I am close to discovering how things work, but then one little event makes this ivory tower of impressions come crashing down.
At times, I have felt powerless. Humans want to feel in control. When this sense of power over things slips away, much distress can occur in the mind. My life has been severely marked by a depression which stems from this. Some people might label it as just “sadness” because of the fact I don’t need meds to dampen it. Nevertheless, it has had quite an impact on my life.
What helped is when I started to try make sense of things. As psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl noticed, people need meaning in order to overcome all the challenges life throws at them. Reading, exploring, and later writing have helped me cope. Turning to philosophy, psychology, and science have aided me in my quest to find answers, and guide me on my path.
In a way, I started to view my life as a hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell, who spent his life studying ancient mythologies, discovered that the stories contained within followed a certain structure. An ordinary person is living in an ordinary world, when suddenly something awakens them from their slumber.
Often, these stories contain a mentor. He guides the hero on their path, instructing them, and giving them wisdom. Unfortunately, just like most people, I have never chanced upon this mentor. What I have done is construct one of my own.
Reading about different philosophies, history, and all kinds of other subjects, I noticed that there are a lot of lessons you can take. I started to pay closer attention, trying to find things which I can apply to my own circumstances.
There are two types of people in this world. Ones who like to follow scripts, and ones who like to pick and choose, cooks and chefs if you will. The cooks of this world prefer to take a cookbook, and follow the recipe step by step. These are the ones who select a particular philosophy and follow it to the letter.
On the other hand, the chefs like to sample different ingredients and then mix and match them to create their own dish. I am not a Stoic, nor an Epicurean. I am not a Buddhist, nor a Taoist. Instead, what I have done is try to choose things that suit me from each of these philosophies, and apply them to my life. I am a chef. In following this approach, I have put together 11 simple rules that I guide my own life by.
11 Rules I guide my life by
Here are the 11 simple rules that have helped me navigate through life. While I am a chef and like to pick and choose, even those cooks that like to follow recipes to the letter can benefit from them. These are some of the most poignant lessons I took from reading philosophy, psychology, and other subjects. Most of them are common to different philosophies from across times and places.
Rule 1: Realize what is up to you, and what isn’t
Rule 2: Life has its strange twists and turns, and sometimes you just need to go with the flow
Rule 3: Your ego can lead you astray
Rule 4: You win or you learn
Rule 5: Know yourself
Rule 6: Learn about the world
Rule 7: Keep an open mind
Rule 8: Always be striving to improve yourself
Rule 9: You won’t discover how things work by sitting on your ass, go out and explore
Rule 10: Compassion
Rule 11: Don’t waste time talking about being a good person, just be one
How to apply
It all starts with the realization that there are some things in this world you can control, and a lot of stuff you have no power over. This is the crux of Stoic philosophy as defined by the ancient sage Epictetus. While these words might sound simple and common sense, very few people actually apply them in their lives.
Separating things that you can control from those you can’t, is the key to getting back the agency you feel you have lost. Often people despair over things they can’t control. It gives them much grief. Yet, it’s pointless. You can’t control what happens, you can only control how you respond.
Let’s take the example of the current Covid-19 pandemic. It’s here. It’s dangerous. You can’t do anything about it. Instead of freaking out, try to figure out what you can do in this situation. Protecting yourself and your loved ones is common sense, but there are also other things.
This is where going with the flow comes in. Usually it’s much easier to go with the current than against it, as the old Taoist metaphor likes to say. Stuck at home? Go with the flow. Try to find things you can do in this situation. Read, exercise, find a side hustle. If your family circumstances prevent you from doing that, use it as a way to bond with your loved ones.
The third rule on your ego is the key to many of the other rules. Your ego is often the source of many of your problems. The different strains of Buddhism try to get rid of this overfocus on yourself. When I was younger, my need to always be right prevented me from learning. It was when I read the book “The Art of Learning” by Joshua Waitzkin that I discovered what I had been doing wrong. Being introduced to the concept of a “beginner’s mind” changed my mindset completely.
Tied to this is the concept of accepting failure and learning from it. You win or you learn. I have failed countless times in my life. That’s not important. What is important are the lessons I have taken away from what happened. In time, these lessons have helped me overcome challenges that came after.
Failures are also a great way to learn about yourself. The ancient adage “know thyself” was pasted atop the Oracle at Delphi. Socrates used it to guide his own life. For me, it has proven crucial. If I want to achieve something, I need to learn about myself first. There are some strengths that I have, and some weaknesses. Analyzing this has given me a view on what I am good at, and what I still need to improve.
Self-improvement, this often maligned word is at the crux of my inner self. While recently most people have started focusing on accepting themselves or “loving” themselves, I have kept the spotlight on changing myself. For me, I never understood this acceptance trend. Since for a lot of people this means staying in place, often an unhealthy one. While for a time these affirmations can help, after a while cognitive dissonance will set in and things will come crashing down.
Instead, I strive to change things about myself I don’t like. My goal is to create a new me. Here my guide is David Goggins. David was a man who was close to being down and out, yet one day he invented who he wanted to be. I was quite inspired by that mindset. While I do realize that I might never become that person 100%, it’s more about the journey than the destination. Working hard to try to achieve something great is what life is all about. This is what gives me the greatest meaning.
Yet, of course you also need to take a step back from time to time. Remember principle 3. While working on improving yourself, don’t let ego get in your way. Your ego can not only stop you from following the best route, but it can also make you self-absorbed. This is where compassion comes in.
Marcus Aurelius spent hours reminding himself that he is just an insignificant cog in a huge machine of the universe. This is the first step in what Hierocles the Stoic called enlarging your circle of concern. Most people care about themselves first and foremost, then come wider circles, which include their families, friends, countries. For Hierocles, what is important is enlarging this one circle you have around yourself, and having it encompass all the other circles.
Feeling compassionate towards others is the key to building a better world. You can’t pick in-groups and out-groups. It’s about enlarging your circle to encompass all groups. For the Dalai Lama, compassion is also a fundamental prerequisite for feeling well. You help others, but also yourself by doing that.
This is probably the most important rule to take away. Be a good person, one who doesn’t just care about “you”, but one who gives a f**k about others too. However, it’s not the words that count. Actions are where it’s at. Inspired by the words of ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, I try to spend very little time talking about being a good person. Instead, I strive to be one by doing good things.