Life Lessons

How many have you learned?

The other day, one of my Twitter or Facebook friends linked to a blog post titled “10 Life Lessons People Learn Too Late.” I clicked over to it and gave it a quick read. And I realized two things:

  • I had already learned many of these life lessons.
  • The lessons I’d learned defined who I am and how I conduct my life.

(I also realized that while I’d already learned most of these lessons, my soon-to-be ex-husband had not. In thinking this over, I realize that this was part of the reason we’d grown apart over the past few years. I was motivated by many of the the lessons I’d learned in life; he was not. (Actually, I’m not sure if he was motivated by anything.) But since there’s nothing to be done to help him, enough said.)

In this post, I’d like to explore these ten life lessons, how I learned them, and how they affect my life. Maybe it can provide some insight for people who still need to learn. I won’t duplicate that blog post here; you should read the original either before or after you read what follows here to fully understand what the author was talking about. I’ll just list the first line of each bullet point as a discussion heading.

1. This moment is your life.

Carpe diem. This reminds me that I really need to re-watch The Dead Poets Society. Seeing that movie might have been when I first became familiar with the concept of “seizing the day” and making every moment count.

What does this mean to me? It means not wasting time with meaningless crap when you can be doing something better. The opening lines of one of my favorite Pink Floyd songs, Time, comes to mind:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t make the most of every moment of my life. I don’t think anyone can. Life is too full of the piddly bullshit that we need to do just to get by. Not every moment can be perfect, something worth remembering forever.

But understanding that each moment of your life is your life is the first step to having a better life. And if you approach each moment with that in mind, each moment will be better.

2. A lifetime isn’t very long.

Ticking away the moments
That make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours
In an off-hand way

Kicking around on a piece of ground
In your home town
Waiting for someone or something
To show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine
Staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long
And there is time to kill today

And then the one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun

And you run and you run
To catch up with the sun
But it’s sinking

Racing around
To come up behind you again
The sun is the same
In a relative way
But you’re older

Shorter of breath
And one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter
Never seem to find the time

Plans that either come to naught
Or half a page of scribbled lines

Hanging on in quiet desperation
Is the English way

The time is gone
The song is over
Thought I’d something more to say

Time lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., T.R.O. INC.

I always knew this, but the knowledge of it didn’t become a driving force in my life until 2008. That’s when my friend Erik, at age 56, was diagnosed with cancer. Erik had everything going for him — a family, financial security, and a helicopter business he really enjoyed. But a year later, Erik was dead.

What did this teach me — in no uncertain terms? Not only is life short, but it can be taken from you at any time. Why would anyone put off life goals to some later date — or retirement? Erik never had the opportunity to retire. If he’d put off any life goals until then, they were goals he’d never achieve.

If I had to make a list of the top 10 things that affected my life, Erik’s illness and death would be on it. That’s how profound it was to me. From that point forward, I began thinking about how I wanted to enjoy the rest of my life instead of working my ass off to save money for a future I might never see. I turned down book projects that I didn’t want to work on. I got my spending under control so I wouldn’t need to work so hard. And I started planning a future that included plenty of leisure time to travel and just have fun.

As for “bucket lists” — well, I don’t believe in them. Although it’s nice to have an idea of the things you want to do, building a long list of “things to do/see before you die” so they’re stored for some vague time in the future is pretty silly. Want to go skydiving? Do it this weekend. Want to see the pyramids? Plan your trip for your next vacation. Keep your list short by crossing off things on it as soon as you can.

3. The sacrifices you make today will pay dividends in the future.

Wow. Does this one ever hit home. I learned pretty early on that in order to move forward, you had to pay dues — or make sacrifices. Just coasting along wasn’t going to help you get ahead in life.

Sacrifices come in many forms, but for me they usually come in the form of time or money. I’ve made many investments in my personal life that have paid off for me.

I bought my first decent computer in 1989 for a whopping $8K and spent hour after hour teaching myself to use it. That, combined communication skills I already had (through time spent reading and writing) made it possible for me to make a good living teaching others to use computers — in classrooms and in books and even in video training material.

I spent thousands of dollars and many, many weeks of my life learning to fly helicopters. I took a low-paying tour job in 2004 to build experience — when I could have stayed home and worked on various book projects that paid out fast. The experience I built made me a better, more confident pilot and helped me get the skills I needed to build my own charter business.

And over the past five summers, I lived in a trailer, parked on the dirt so I could be close to my cherry drying clients and their orchards — when I could have stayed in a more comfortable condo or even stayed home, satisfied with the occasional hot summer charter. The good service I provided to my clients earned me their respect — and more business.

These are just three examples. I think my life is full of sacrifices — along with their eventual benefits.

4. When you procrastinate, you become a slave to yesterday.

Although I’m often guilty of procrastination, I understand how completely idiotic it is. If you have something to do, do it. As soon as possible. You’ll be glad you did when it’s done.

Maybe I’m being dense, but I don’t exactly get the “slave to yesterday” concept. When you procrastinate, you simply add more things to your to-do list. It’s only by doing things — not procrastinating — that you get things done. So my lesson in procrastination is that you can get a lot more done when you don’t procrastinate.

5. Failures are only lessons.

This is another really good lesson that a lot of people just don’t get.

Too many people — and I can name a few that have touched my life — are too afraid of failure to attempt some things that can take them forward in life. I am not like that. In fact, I’m the opposite — sometimes I simply try to do too many things.

My record speaks for itself. I’ve succeeded at many of the things I’ve tried to do: building three successful careers, getting published (back when that actually meant something), investing in real estate, building a helicopter charter business, learning to ride motorcycles and ride horses and fly helicopters. I can list dozens of things I’ve tried and succeeded at.

But I can also list plenty of things I tried and did not succeed at. Being a landlord is one example — it was probably the most grueling and unrewarding thing I ever tried. Failing to do as well as I wanted to was quite a learning experience. I learned that residential real estate is a bitch to rent, that good tenants are few and far between, and that certain tenants need you looking over their shoulder all the time just to make sure they don’t trash your place. I also learned that it simply wasn’t worth the headaches to me.

There’s no reward without risk. In other words, if you don’t try to do something, you can’t succeed. I live by this creed. And I’ve learned that sometimes success has all kinds of great rewards.

But the main point is this: even when you fail, you learn something that you can use to guide you in the future. Failures are lessons.

6. You are your most important relationship.

This particular point refers to feeling good about yourself and not needing anyone else’s approval. I learned part of this lesson — I’ve been my own person for a long time and don’t really care too much what my peers think of me. I have a lot of confidence in my capabilities and, with confidence, comes self-esteem.

Unfortunately, however, I did care what my spouse thought. And since he apparently didn’t think very highly of me in the final days of our relationship, my personal self-esteem took a bit of a beating which, in turn, began to affect my health. Once I was away from him at my summer job, I was able to recover. (And now I obviously don’t give a damn what he thinks of me.)

Still, this is a lesson I need to remember on a go-forward basis. Living a relatively isolated existence — as I am now, waiting for my life “reboot” to finish so I can start the next chapter — makes it easy to forget my self worth.

7. A person’s actions speak the truth.

Sad to say, this isn’t something I learned until recently. I can thank my soon-to-be ex-husband for teaching me this one.

For most of my life, I’m afraid I was very trusting. No — I was too trusting. Silly me — I thought that when someone told me something, it was the truth or that they actually meant it. And when it was someone I’d been living with for 29 years — well, how could I possibly not believe that what he was telling me was true?

But the actions did speak the truth. When I discovered the betrayals, I learned the real truth. Needless to say, this was a valuable — although painful — lesson. I’m a lot more careful about who I trust now. And there’s one person I will never trust again.

8. Small acts of kindness can make the world a better place.

How can someone not know this lesson?

You’re walking up to the post office door, arms laden with packages to be mailed. Someone walking by — not even walking into or out of the post office! — changes course to open the door for you. A small act of kindness. Doesn’t it make you feel good? And don’t you think it makes the other person feel good when you say thanks?

Or you’re in the supermarket and a vertically challenged woman is having trouble reaching something on the top shelf of the aisle you’re walking down. You offer to get it down for her, she accepts, and you hand it to her. A small act of kindness. Don’t you think it makes both of you feel good?

These are tiny things. But they really make a difference. Do ten of these things a day and you’ll feel great — while making others feel good, too. The world can be a better place.

9. Behind every beautiful life, there has been some kind of pain.

Until recently, I felt “blessed.” Mind you, I don’t mean that in the religious sense. I just mean that throughout most of my life, things have gone very well for me. It wasn’t luck — I worked at it and made a lot of good decisions. But it mostly worked out and things were good. You could argue that I had (and still have, for that matter) a beautiful life.

I guess I shouldn’t have expected the run of good fortune to last forever. Things are different now. Losing the man I loved was a huge heartbreak for me, one that I’m still struggling (with professional help) to deal with. There’s a lot of pain in my life right now.

There’s also been some pain in the past. Losing loved ones, including cherished pets, leaving behind parts of my life that I wished I could retain.

But pain is part of life. If you’re fortunate, the good times far outweigh the bad.

10. Time and experience heals pain.

This is something else I’m just learning now. My grief counselor would argue this point — she’s given me a “workbook” full of exercises to help me deal with my loss and resulting pain. But I do believe that time and experience are the primary healers — as long as you’re open to be healed. I’m getting there.

What Do You Think?

Which of these lessons have you already learned? How did you learn them? How do they affect your life? Share your thoughts in the comments for this post. It would be interesting to get a good discussion started.

What do you think?