Friday, September 9, 2016

Brutal Truths? Meh. Some not so brutal, some not so true

Artist unknown. (Image source: pulsslag.dk.)
In Inc.com, contributor Matthew Jones puts on the mask of the sage on the mountaintop and offers us “20 Brutal Truths About Life No One Wants to Admit”. It’s always tempting, especially in one’s middle years, to give others general advice about life you learn from The School of Hard Knocks, a school that — unlike strip-mall colleges — will never shut down. Heck, I’ve done it myself.

But I don’t admit to all of Jones’ brutal truths because they’re not all true, or at least not true as stated. Though much of what Jones says is true, and could have been taken at least indirectly from the wise Msgr. Charles Pope, there are other points where in trying to be a libertarian Zig Ziglar he depends on ideas people commonly take as fact but which are really false. Let’s go through them, shall we?

1. You’re going to die and you have no idea when.
Stop pretending that you're invincible. Acknowledge the fact of your own mortality, and then start structuring your life in a more meaningful way.

2. Everyone you love is going to die, and you don’t know when.
This truth may be saddening at first, but it also gives you permission to make amends with past difficulties and re-establish meaningful relationships with important figures in your life.

3. Your material wealth won’t make you a better or happier person.
Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who achieves his or her materialistic dreams, money only amplifies that which was already present. [I must admit this was odd to find in Inc.com, a Forbes wannabe.]

4. Your obsession with finding happiness is what prevents its attainment.
Happiness is always present in your life — it’s just a matter of connecting to it and allowing it to flow through you that’s challenging. [Especially since it generally involves paying more attention to others than to yourself.]

5. Donating money does less than donating time.
Giving your time is a way to change your perception and create a memory for yourself and others that will last forever.

So far, so good. But here’s where Jones starts to go wrong:

6. You can’t make everyone happy, and if you try, you'll lose yourself.
Stop trying to please, and start respecting your values, principles, and autonomy.

Respect your values and your principles, by all means. But if you start respecting your autonomy, you’ll be respecting an illusion. To be civilized — that is, to live in community with others — is to be interdependent, in ways both obvious and subtle, to have moral obligations to others, and to be subject to the actions of others that are often unpredictable and/or unpreventable. You can’t please everyone, granted; it doesn’t follow, however, that you shouldn’t try to please anyone … especially if the only point of your not pleasing someone is to demonstrate your autonomy.

7. You can’t be perfect, and holding yourself to unrealistic standards creates suffering.
Many perfectionists have unrelenting inner critics that are full of so much rage and self-hate that it tears them apart inside. Fight back against that negative voice, amplify your intuition, and start challenging your unrealistic standards.

Whether or not you can be perfect, you most likely can be a better person than you are. Many people have suffered at the hands of people who were quite satisfied with themselves the way they were, who were content to be 70% – 85% of “all that they could be”, and who considered sainthood an unrealistic goal. Sure, there are unrealistic goals and standards; for instance, no woman has ever had, or will ever have, the proportions of the old Barbie doll. But what’s difficult isn’t necessarily unrealistic. And some goals are so worthy to be striven for that the effort to achieve them is ennobling in itself even if, in the end, you fall short. Don’t settle for spiritual mediocrity under the guise of “being realistic”.

8. Your thoughts are less important than your feelings and your feelings need acknowledgment.
Intellectually thinking through your problems isn’t as helpful as expressing the feelings that create your difficulties in the first place.

If this isn’t bad advice, it’s at least badly written. No, your thoughts are not less important than your feelings. The stronger your feelings, the more you need to think before expressing them — especially before you express them to someone whom you can hurt, or who can use your feelings as a weapon against you. This is part of controlling your reactions, training yourself to “respond in a way that leads to better outcomes” (see #16).

9. Your actions speak louder than your words, so you need to hold yourself accountable.
Be responsible and take actions that increase positivity and love. [A little Hallmark-y, but okay.]

10. Your achievements and successes won’t matter on your death bed.
When your time has come to transition from this reality, you won’t be thinking about that raise; you’ll be thinking about the relationships you’ve made — so start acting accordingly. [The one who dies with the most toys is still dead.]

11. Your talent means nothing without consistent effort and practice.
Some of the most talented people in the world never move out from their parent’s [sic] basement.

Both statements are true, but they’re not directly connected to one another. Effort and practice by themselves do not even begin to lead to success. To succeed, you have to put yourself out in the market against competition, where factors other than your skill can make the difference between success and “not so much”. You can’t name a single person in any industry who’s made it on hard work and skill alone. To get out of the basement, you have to learn what your target market wants, then do your best to give it to them without compromising your values and principles.

12. Now is the only time that matters, so stop wasting it by ruminating on the past or planning the future.
You can’t control the past, and you can’t predict the future, and trying to do so only removes you from the one thing you can control — the present.

[BUT:]

13. Nobody cares how difficult your life is, and you are the author of your life’s story.
Stop looking for people to give you sympathy and start creating the life story you want to read.

So … start creating a life story the ending of which I can’t choose? First, if no one cares how difficult your life is, you’re one lonely SOB. If you have friends and family, you have people who care how difficult your life is. Second, as I said under #6, we’re interdependent; other people’s actions impact our lives in ways we can never fully know, let alone control. You may be the primary author, but you’ve got countless co-authors. What Jones means, obviously, is that sympathy won’t get rid of the difficulties, so put on your big-boy britches and deal with them … which is what he should have said, instead of giving us the “captain of my fate” crap.

14. Your words are more important than your thoughts, so start inspiring people.
Words have the power to oppress, hurt, and shame, but they also have the power to liberate and inspire — start using them more wisely.

One way to use your words more wisely is to THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY! Seriously, does Jones really believe speaking is — or should be — disconnected from thought? When people don’t think about their words, how the listener may interpret them, other people get hurt, offended, and shamed. When people don’t pay attention to what falls out of their mouths, or onto their word processors, other people may not be inspired so much as amused or bored. I’m afraid Jones simply hasn’t given sufficient thought to thought itself.

15. Investing in yourself isn’t selfish. It’s the most worthwhile thing you can do.
You have to put on your own gas mask to save the person sitting right next to you.

No, actually, the most worthwhile thing you can do is risk yourself to help someone else. Even enlightened self-interest, at the end of the day, is still self-interest, and isn’t capable of the generosity of spirit — magnanimity — that characterizes the true hero. And many a mother will wait until her child’s mask is in place before she puts her own on. I don’t discount (*ahem!*) investing in yourself; but that’s a pragmatic choice, not anything particularly admirable or meaningful.

16. It’s not what happens, it’s how you react that matters.
Train yourself to respond in a way that leads to better outcomes. [This is why you don’t let your emotions dictate your reactions (see #8).]

17. You need to improve your relationships to have lasting happiness.
Relationships have a greater impact on your wellbeing and happiness than your income or your occupation, so make sure you give your relationship the attention and work it deserves. [Agreed once, a thousand times agreed. I just hope you have more than one relationship, since relationship can mean anything from passing acquaintances to parents.]

18. Pleasure is temporary and fleeting, so stop chasing fireworks and start building a constellation.
Don’t settle for an ego boost right now when you can delay gratification and experience deeper fulfillment.

Could you be less specific, please? Generally, when people speak of “a life of pleasure”, they mean a life of debauchery; however, the world is full of simpler, more innocent pleasures that you can enjoy without losing your soul or wrecking your body, and which you need not avoid for fear of “chasing fireworks”. I think what Jones is trying to say is, “Don’t sleep around;” however, he’s phrased it so indirectly he could just as easily be talking about practical jokes or buying milkshakes at Denny’s. By all means, wait until you find that special someone with whom you want to build a life and a family before you have sex. But don’t wait until then to smell a rose, or walk in the rain, or play golf with your friends.

19. Your ambition means nothing without execution — it’s time to put in the work.
If you want to change the world, then go out there and do it!

I’m sure we all get what Jones is saying here, and I’m not contradicting it. But I think the world would become a better place much quicker if more people started with changing their own lives instead of changing everyone else’s. This is what the words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi — “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words” — means in a practical sense. If you want to change the world, start with the little corner of the world where you live.

20. Time is your most valuable asset — you need to prioritize how you spend it.
You have the power and responsibility to decide what you do with the time you have, so choose wisely.

*          *          *

One particularly brutal truth is one Jones never states; in fact, some of his “brutal truths” are written in ignorance of it. That truth, simply stated, is this — you are not the center of your own universe. Other people matter as much as you do, if not more. The strength of your relationships directly depends on your ability to put others’ needs before your own, your ability to sacrifice for the sake of others. This is why heroes and saints aren’t people who put their own masks on first; this is why you need to think before you react; this is why we try to please others even though we can’t please everyone; this is why you need to give more of yourself than you give of your wealth.

This brutal truth — that life is not “about” ourselves — is the truth people are least willing to admit.