you gotta love yourself

The final lesson in the four-for-forty series is the hoariest, hippyest, horriblest of them all. “Love yourself” is the basic rule of all personal development, so there’s no shortage of Internet advice on how to love yourself. To me, the advice has always come across as self-indulgent babble that may be good for crackhead pop and comic treatment, but it’s succored a generation of wimps who can’t hold down a job.

The first hundred times or so I heard “You gotta love yourself,” I thought: “No I don’t.  You don’t tell me what I gotta do.” Then I began to ask “Why?” and I finally heard a reason that made some sense to me.

Loving yourself requires accepting your faults, and accepting your faults gives you more options for how to react in any situation. That’s a quantifiable rationale, testable both in theory and in practice – and as a bonus the measurement also gives guidance on whether you’ve taken self-love too far. Here’s a simplified example:

Let’s say you receive a bad outcome that is at least partially based on something you did. Here is a count of your options for how to react –

  • Self-hate: Since you will blame yourself to the exclusion of other factors, you only have two choices: (1) rigorously apply yourself to skills improvement, even though it’s likely that no amount of improvement would have given a different result, or (2) drink enough to obliterate your self-hating identity.
  • Self-love, of the over-indulgent kind: Certainly the outcome wasn’t your fault, so your choices are (1) smugly wait for the next chance for the world to properly join you in your love of you, or (1) ignore any possible evidence that your actions contributed to failure. Yes, those are numbered the same because they are the same.
  • Goldilocks self-love, the kind where you love yourself just right: You can be clear-eyed about what really happened. You can apply yourself to change, you can recognize the factors that were out of your control, you can put the outcome out of your mind in good humor and good health. You can do all of these things and you probably will.

Basically, loving yourself just right gives you all of the options of the other two conditions, with the additional optionality that comes from not being ideologically compelled to react in a way that is harmful or indulgent. You gotta love yourself just right, because the alternatives are suboptimal. Sure, that’s a particularly dry and uninspiring way to put it, but what can I tell ya, I love this way because it’s mine.

we are all authors of our own lives

I’m not against self-affirmation on principle.  Many people benefit from empowering messages that remind them of their intrinsic worth.  However, that isn’t the sort of bromide that works with my particular chemistry. I want to understand what to do, not how to feel.  Even though I might enjoy hearing that I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like me, that news doesn’t give me tactical guidance on how to live my life.

So when I tell you that “We are all authors of our own lives” – I don’t mean to trumpet the primacy of your own role in shaping your destiny, even though that’s a useful bit of affirmation.  I mean for you to think about the process of authorship, the task of writing a story from both facts and fantasy over many years.

Whether you realize it or not, you carry around a story in your head about who you are.  You draft, write and rewrite your internal explanation of the kind of person you are, the character you have, the things you will and will not do.  This work of self-conception is the greatest novel ever written, or at least it should be for you.

Early on, very little of your story is constrained by actual events, since you’re too young to have been in all of the situations you anticipate that you’ll experience.  You have the freedom of your imagination, and you write your story based on what you’ve seen in your family, friends and others in life and fiction.  You’ll imagine, for example, that you’re just like your dad, or not at all like your mom, or a bit like Al Pacino in Scarface, or a lot like Lindsey Lohan on Twitter.  Then as you grow older, your story becomes a lot more personalized to you, based more on your experiences and less on your aspirations.

You have years, maybe decades, to write your beautiful story of who you are, and then something happens. It may be one traumatic event, or a series of little events that are only clearly related in retrospect – but it’s something that happens that doesn’t fit into the story you’ve been spending your whole life on to that point. You thought you were a good guy, but then you did something that was undeniably bad.  You thought you were an honest woman, but then you’re confronted with your repeated pattern of little lies.

You race back to your story, flipping madly through the pages of the Book of You.  Who is this person in this story?  Who is this stranger living this life, holding this tattered book in shaky hands?  Can these possibly be the same person?  Faced with this disconnect between your life’s work as an author, and the actual facts of your life, you have two choices:  You can rewrite your story to fit the facts, or you can rewrite the facts to fit your story.

Perhaps this is the point where I’m supposed to say that the facts are sacrosanct, and your job as an author is to fit the story to the facts.  But no:  I said you were an author, I didn’t say you were a journalist, and I can’t presume to tell you what kind of story you’re writing. You have to make the choice that satisfies your art as the author of your own life.

Maybe you’ll just choose straightforward reporting, because you do want to match the story exactly to the facts.  Or you might be like Mark Twain, writing fiction truer than fact; or Jack Kerouac, making facts into truthful fiction.  I wouldn’t advise going full-on into fantasy, with complete disregard for any events from reality.  Not because it’s wrong, but because all of the best fantasies are rooted in something real.  As an author, you’re an artist, and art without truth is trivial, and you don’t want your life to be trivial.

Finally, be aware that we are all engaged in these acts of authorship.  You can get very far in understanding other people if you think about the story they’ve written in their own heads, and observe what they do with facts that don’t match the story.

many goods are incommensurable

There are many simple ways of saying things pretty similar to what I’m saying here, such as:

  • To each his own.
  • One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
  • It’s apples and oranges.
  • It’s all good.

But I don’t like these easy sayings, because it’s not all good – what I’m trying to get across is hard to understand and hard to live, and has little relation to the soft-headed permissiveness implied in those easy clichés.

This happens to be the only life lesson that I actually learned in a classroom as the direct subject of a lecture, and this lecture justified a year of college tuition all on its own.  “Incommensurability” is a simple enough concept – it just means that there are things that do not share a common standard of measurement, like the proverbial apples and oranges.

Apples aren’t oranges, could anything be simpler?  But it struck me as a thunderbolt to understand how this affects the search for the good life.  I’d always thought that the task of living a good life was largely about understanding the difference between good and bad.  Maybe I’ve got a moral compass that doesn’t have a reliable fix on true north, but that difference hasn’t always been obvious to me.

As life goes on, it has become easier to tell the difference between good and bad – or rather, it’s become harder to delude myself into believing that that there isn’t a difference or that I can’t see it.  Now I can see that choosing between good and bad was simply the entry-level exam for the good life.  The hard task of living a good life is to choose among things that are good that can’t be compared with one another.

Choosing among incommensurable goods is sad because you are by definition choosing not to do things that are good.  You know that the choices you make will sacrifice things that you would also like to have.  The good things you choose may be vastly outnumbered by the good things that you gave up.  And yet, your choices are a triumph that isn’t second-best to any other set of choices.

One of the great things about understanding this is that you won’t be limited, as many people are, to only having friends who have generally made the same moral choices that you have.  You’ll be able to see that others chose among the same set of incommensurable goods that you did, and even if they made different choices, they are still people who share a common sense of good with you.

Just to make sure that this isn’t interpreted with a mushy morality that I actually despise:  This doesn’t mean that everything and everyone is all good, it doesn’t mean that any set of choices is as good as any other, it doesn’t mean that you can be friends with anyone, it doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between good and bad.  It just means that many goods are incommensurable, and you should think carefully about what that means as you make your choices for a good life.

intelligence is a crutch

Being smart is a good thing, as any smart person will tell you more times than you care to hear. And being really smart is like some kind of weird superpower. If you’ve ever been at the head of your class, or the smartest person in the room, or even just the subject matter expert in conversation with the uninitiated, you know what it feels like to not only have every answer but anticipate every question – it almost seems like being able to bend space, time and reality to your will.

Now, maybe you’ve never had that superpower smartness – that’s also a good thing. Because that means you may have had a chance to observe really smart people at the height of their powers, glorying in their intelligence and in love with their knowledge of the world. And you may have achieved a striking insight that is beyond the understanding of many smart people, a special insight that seems to routinely escape the most massive intellect. This insight is painfully obvious to everyone else: Smart people suck.

Intelligence is a largely genetic trait that is also substantially influenced by environment and circumstance. In this way, it’s a lot like height. So before we talk more about smart people, let’s talk about tall people for a bit. Tall people get some pretty nice prizes from winning the genetic lottery. Tall people make more money and find more attractive mates. Height provides some advantage in many sports, and is a virtual requirement for success in some. So being tall is overall a good thing.

And here’s the point: Tall people know they’re lucky. They know that they have an advantage in life that others don’t have, and they know that they did very little to secure this advantage. They also know that to maximize their advantage, they have to add their own efforts – if they want to make the team, get the job, get the girl or guy – they have to eat right, work out, study hard, take care of their skin, hair and personality.

Not so with smart people. Even though smart people are generally aware of the genetic, environmental and circumstantial contributions to their intelligence, they rarely think of these as luck. Instead, smart people tend to think they’re better than other people because they’re smart, not because they’re lucky. And smart people often think that the world owes them something merely for being smart, as opposed to being diligent, sincere or personable. Smart people think that being smart should be enough, where tall people know that being tall is just a start.

The problem with intelligence is that it does, to some extent, make up for the absence of other admirable qualities. Smart people can get the same or better results as others even when they work less, care less and cooperate less. Intelligence is a crutch. And a smart person who leans on that crutch to the detriment of other important traits can become a monstrously malformed person. Intelligence is used worst when it’s used as a crutch to escape the hard work of being human.

four for forty

I’m four days from my fortieth birthday, and thinking hard about what I’ve learned over the past four decades. Over the next four days, I’m going to write about the four lessons that were hardest for me to learn – these are not necessarily the most important, or the most valuable, or the most insightful. They were just goddamn hard to learn, and in fact I’m still struggling to get them right.

People who give advice usually believe that some particular experience has given them an authority that others might want to regard seriously. That isn’t the case with me: although I’ve had many instructive experiences, I don’t think my historical record is what makes me qualified to give advice, and I don’t think everyone should take my advice seriously. Instead, what makes me qualified to give advice is that I am spectacularly bad at taking it.

I’ve had the great good fortune of having many wise people tell me many wise things, and my usual practice is to squander that good fortune by refusing to take even the best advice at face value. Instead, I question, I doubt, I criticize, I experiment, I delve down dark alleyways of impulse and instinct – and in the end I painfully find that I should have listened to the wisdom of my betters.

The problem with wise advice is that you have to have wisdom to appreciate it beforehand. And if you had the requisite wisdom in the first place, you wouldn’t need the advice so badly.  I never understand good advice until I’ve had the opportunity to fail to follow it. Only by living the bad consequences first-hand can I understand the underpinning that upholds solid wisdom.

Let’s hope that my misfortune is your bounty in these next four posts.

  1. Intelligence is a crutch.
  2. Many goods are incommensurable.
  3. We are all authors of our own lives.
  4. You gotta love yourself.

career two by four

Lately I’ve had occasion to give advice to a few people who are early in their careers.  I always find myself amusingly inept at this activity – the more actual experience I have, the more young people think I have something useful to tell them, but the further I am from the time when I was actually making the decisions they face, so the less accurate my recollection is, and the more my advice is colored by soft nostalgia rather than rooted in hard facts.  The wisdom of experience turns into the banality of platitudes.

Of course, none of this stops me from spouting on and on about how to manage your early career.  One set piece I often relate is that there are only four personal characteristics that can advance your success: Intelligence, Diligence, Personality and Mentality.  Many people get very far early on with just one of these characteristics, and so they begin to believe that this characteristic is the most important or even the only important one.  When they begin to fail, they double down on the characteristic that they believe in, which only deepens their failure.

To understand why this is true, consider the other side of this same advice, which applies to people just learning how to manage teams.  There are few things as destructive to a team as the person who has one of the characteristics in spades, but lacks any useful amount of the others.  The brilliant genius who can’t get along with others, the guy who works terribly hard but always on the wrong things, the “people person” who plays politics rather than solves problems, the hard charger who plays to win at any cost – these are all different forms of the same cancer, and they must be excised from the team as soon as they are identified.

So development of the four characteristics rules both sides of the management divide.  And on either side, you have to have great strength in more than one of these characteristics, and you have to understand how all of them contribute to success.

the iron quadrangle

I was talking with a friend tonight about “The Iron Quadrangle” – my name for a concept that I’ve read about and pondered over the years.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I first saw it; happily, we agreed that this means I can restate it without attribution . . .

So here is the rule of the Iron Quadrangle:

Friends, family, work and health are the four most meaningful areas of pursuit in life.  The very best that most people can achieve is to be outstanding in two areas, mediocre in one, and barely tolerable in the last.

Be wary of any advice that rigidly proclaims to know which combination is best for everyone.  For example, a lot of well-meaning homilies put family and health above all other values.  But the Iron Quadrangle means that all four values are connected; activity in any one informs all of the others.

Keep in mind that health includes physical and mental health; and that work includes all vocation, whether in pursuit of profit or pursuit of a cause.  Meaningful and lasting friendships are a critical contributor to lifelong health.  Pursuit of your true calling in work should be both emotionally enriching and intellectually revitalizing.

So maximizing your pursuit of family and health, to the exclusion of full effort with friends and work, can limit your achievement in the areas you would want to advance the most.  Would you have given all that you could to your life partner and your children if you never tested your mettle with the greatest challenges at work, or failed to develop rich friendships outside of your family?

Some will try to argue for picking work and family, or friends and family, or health and friends.  Some would claim that the limitation to two outstanding areas is false.  But in my experience and observation, the Iron Quadrangle is pitiless and brooks very few exceptions – and what exceptions I have seen are more a result of extremely fortuitous circumstances than the result of thought and effort.

This isn’t a pessimistic message, but rather a reflection on avoiding regret.  Many high-achieving people in every area look upon their accomplishments with regret for the areas in which they did not excel.  I think regret is only appropriate where people made choices while lying to themselves about the consequences for the other areas.