10 Life Lessons I Have Learned

At 33 I feel like a very different person than I was at 27, 25, 19, 14, etc. Even the last year has taught me so much about myself. And I’m always on the lookout for new lessons and alternative ways of doing and thinking about things. So, I thought I’d write down a few lessons I’ve learned in the past several years that I genuinely didn’t know, understand or practice when I was younger.

I’m sure I could think of way more than ten, but these will do for now. I may come up with a whole other list soon:

  1. I must love myself unconditionally– This is a hard one. Because I was always tempted to not like myself when I did something I didn’t approve of. However, it’s totally possible to learn from my mistakes without beating myself up for my mistakes. Beating myself up never did any good. It didn’t help me learn my lessons better. It only served to make me feel bad and even discouraged. Now, I try to give myself as much love as I can. It helps a lot.
  1. Life is about how I choose to spend my time– I was cited in my senior yearbook more than anyone else. I was in fourteen organizations/clubs – a few of which I was an officer. Who gives a damn about that now? Certainly, not me. My time is limited. I don’t know how long I have to live, but I know it’s not infinity. I am now choosing to spend my time doing things I really love and enjoy as much as I can as opposed to spending my time doing things I think would please other people.
  1. Hard Work is Better Than Avoiding– I spent so much time trying to get out of working hard. I could have spent my time and energy just working hard and it probably would have come out even as far as the amount of effort given. But when I work hard on something rather than work hard on getting out of something I tend to learn something new and/or accomplish something important. It’s the classic story of the guy who spends his whole life looking for the fountain of youth. Had he just chosen to live his life, he wouldn’t need to become young again as he did a great job living the first time. I now try to look forward to working hard rather than dread it.
  1. My Feelings Can Be a Choice– I used to believe that how I felt was always due to circumstances. If my parents bought me a new toy I would feel happy. When my dog died I was sad. But I never understood that my brain is a computer. And computers can be hacked. In the same way that the Konami Code gave me nearly unlimited lives in Contra, I posses the ability to ‘cheat code’ my brain into being happy even in less than ideal circumstances. It’s not tough to do. I just continually tell myself something until I believe it. Conversely, I unknowingly chose to be sad about things even when things weren’t so bad. Happiness is not out there somewhere that needs to be found. It needs to be grown from within.
  1. Things End…And That’s Totally Okay– I used to be shocked when people would voluntarily quit or retire from an organization that seemingly was going well for them. But life isn’t about finding the best circumstance and holding onto it. Life is always changing. Everything changes all the time. Sometimes you need to move on from something for no other reason than you feel it’s time to move on. It’s okay to miss something and still want to remove yourself from it.
  1. Goals And Wishes Are Different– I’ve always hoped that one day I would be rich and famous. But I never knew how I was going to do it. I had a vague idea that I would get ‘discovered’ somehow, but I didn’t even know what that would look like. Goals are just like missions. They need to be broken down step by step into a procedure. I may get that procedure wrong at first (or for the first 800 times), but I’ll never figure out the correct one without first making an attempt. Wishing and hoping mean almost nothing without action.
  1. Greatness Is Accessible…by Working Hard – Think of every one you consider to be great at somethingJames Cameron, Bill Gates, Oprah, Aretha Franklin, Steve Martin, etc. They all have something in common with me. They weren’t born great. They were born with a modicum of raw talent, but they all worked very hard to attain the level of greatness they eventually got. With extremely few exceptions, no one just shows up and automatically becomes the best. To quote Brittany, “you gotta work, bitch.” And that’s a good thing. So, pick what you want and work hard to get it. That’s the ‘secret’ of success.
  1. “Other people’s success takes nothing away from me. My success has nothing to do with other people’s success” – I took this exact quote from my friend Dave Razowsky. I currently have three sets of friends who have their own TV shows. My instincts are to be jealous and feel bad about myself. But the truth is they’re all awesome. And I’m awesome. I’m happy for them. If I want my own show, I should put in the work to get one. I haven’t. So, how can I feel bad about that? I can if I choose to. Seems like a poor choice.
  1. Narrow My Focus – I want to be great at everything: sports, music, writing, acting,  intelligence, improv, stand up etc. It’s silly. No one is great at everything. And my life is thus far proof that I don’t have the ability to do it all – not even close. So, from now on I’m going to try (it’s going to be a struggle) to narrow my focus and get good at one or two things at a time, rather than spread myself thin and only incrementally get better at a bunch of things.
  1. Regrets/Future Tripping/Fantasizing is Not a Great Way to Live– I have spent so much of my time thinking about how life would have been different had I done things differently. I also think a lot about how great life will be once I attain certain things (money, fame, experience, etc.). I think it’s okay to play games like this (like the ‘what would I do if I won the lottery’ game), but I used to  look to this for my happiness. Now, I try to stop myself from doing this for too long and make sure that it only happens once in a great while vs. every day. My happiness doesn’t come from the potential future. It comes from me.

Thanks, y’all!

Rich

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How to Disarm Harmful Thoughts in Seven Steps

Prior to six months ago I did not realize that I was living most of the days of my life getting bombarded by negative thoughts. I was like a planet getting hit by a plethora of asteroids varying in size from the relatively small to the humongous. I didn’t realize it  because I had been living that way for so long that I didn’t notice it. I believe that whenever it first started (college? childhood? mid twenties?) it probably started slowly. Just one or two small asteroids every few weeks or so. But over time they got gradually bigger and more plentiful. And without noticing the incremental increases in negative feelings I had gotten to the point to where they were overwhelming.

My girlfriend was at her wits end with me. She loves me, but she said my negativity, general sadness and short temper was really weighing her down. She strongly suggested I seek therapy. I went kicking and screaming.

The therapy wasn’t at all what I expected. I assumed we’d be talking about my childhood and my failed relationships and other pieces of my history. But instead she told me to change my thoughts and my responses to my thoughts. I was skeptical to say the least. You can’t change your thoughts anymore than you can change your height I believed. You’re thoughts are a part of you…aren’t they?

Plus, why do I care about changing my thoughts? I don’t have a problem with my thoughts. I have a problem with my feelings. I would often feel hopeless, sad, stressed, panicked, angry, etc. Those were my problems. And this lady was talking about my thoughts and self talk. I didn’t see the point. I thought this whole therapy thing might be just another failed attempt to change the unchangeable.

But I stuck with it. And eventually it clicked. I realized that my thoughts were not necessarily me. They didn’t always feel like me. I didn’t always agree with them. They felt like they belonged to a friend with a very moody personality. And a lot of my bad feelings seemed to be caused by those renegade thoughts.

Think of your thoughts like animals. If a kitten shows up, I’m not going to feel fear. I’m going to get all gushy and wanna snuggle it. If a see a snarling wolf, I’m going to likely faint and lose control of my bladder. Some of the thoughts that appear in our brains cause a happy response. Some cause negativity. Are we doomed to live at the mercy of our emotional reactions to our thoughts? I used to believe the answer was unequivocally yes.

The thought oft training myself to not feel fear in the face of a wolf seems impossible. However,  I have the power (as does everyone else) to change my vision of the wolf. I have the ability to photoshop the image of a wolf in my mind’s eye. I can do whatever I want in my mind. I can draw a funny wig on it. I can give it a word bubble that reads, “I’m a wimpy wolf.” I can even cover the original photo of the wolf completely with a white paintbrush tool and draw my own animal. At first my mental drawings were barely stick figures. But now, after months of practice I’m a much more skilled mind-artist.

Below are the steps I went through to combat the onslaught of negative thoughts that constantly whiz by my head like the bullets on the Normandy Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. They helped me. I hope they can help you too.

The steps:

1. Admit that some of your unhappiness is the result of negative thoughts 

In order to do this you have to believe it. Don’t believe it because I’m saying it. I don’t know your mind. Analyze your own thoughts and see if you agree with this statement. If you don’t, then the following steps won’t help you. If you do believe it, read on.

2. Isolate one of the bad thoughts.

The thoughts go in and out of our head like a car goes through a tunnel. If  a negative thought appears in your mind and then leaves it could do some damage and be gone. Then you’re stuck with the damage without realizing the cause. So, write down the thought before it goes out of your mind undetected. Look at it like a detective would look at a bullet removed from a murder victim.

Isolating thoughts may seem impossible like catching flies with chopsticks. But practice and meditation (yes the stuff that crunchy hippies also do) made that process easier for me. Meditation helps you to see your thoughts as something separate from your ability to observe them and react to them. If you need help with this (and I recommend you do get help) I highly recommend the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Now for me the thoughts have slowed to a crawl and isolating them has become less like catching flies and more like picking up turtles.

3. Debate that thought.

Even if you agree with the negative thought try to pretend to be someone who doesn’t agree with it. Put yourself in the shoes of a lawyer or a scholar or whatever helps you to see the other side of it. Write down why the thought is not true. Elaborate as much as you can as to why it’s not true.

4. Determine the truth or falsehood of the thought

Look at what you wrote down and ask yourself honestly which side you believe? Did the arguments against the thought convince you that it was untrue? If not, then are their other arguments you can use? If not, then I would suggest getting help from someone (a friend, a therapist, etc.) to get their view on it. Find a way to make yourself truly believe that the negative thought is bullshit.

5. Remember that it’s false

If you’re like me, most negative thoughts you get will not only strike once. My negative thoughts strike on a fairly regular basis. But after I’ve debunked a thought I no longer need to worry about it. I look at a negative thought in much the same way that I look at a bad argument. I would never take someone seriously who says the sun revolves around the earth. We know for a fact that’s not true. So, I just ignore them and go on with my day. Whenever a negative thought hits me that I’ve already proven is untrue then I don’t let it affect me negatively, because I’ve done the work already to disarm it.

Now, just because you’ve already proven it’s a false once thought doesn’t mean you’re impervious to it’s power. It’s perfectly okay and even recommended to repeat step 4 about a bad thought as much as you need to. And don’t be ashamed of doing that. A lot of amazing ideas throughout history were not accepted the first time they were proven. It’s your journey. Take the time it requires.

6. Dismiss the recurring thoughts faster each time.

The thought, “You’ll never be successful” hits me multiple times per day. Even though I know it’s untrue, I still have to devote some time to reminding myself of that. But the more I do it, the more the process becomes automatic. It’s like learning to play a song on the guitar. Learning it takes a while. Playing it after learning it still takes some time as I have to mentally go through the chords and timing in my head. But after doing it over and over, I can pick up the guitar and play the song without devoting much mental energy to remembering how to do it. The process becomes nearly automatic. The same will be true of how you dismiss these negative thoughts.

7. Repeat steps 2-6 about every bad thought you have.

I get a huge variety of bad thoughts, but the number is not infinite. Now, I’ve noticed that the majority of the bad thoughts I get are ones I’ve gotten before. It took time to work through so many of them, but now it takes almost no time. It’s like setting up a spam folder on your email. Most of my bad thoughts automatically go there now. Occasionally I get one in my inbox, but even those are easy to deal with because I’ve done the work so many times on all the others.

If you think there’s any possibility whatsoever that you are unknowingly being bombarded with asteroid-esque thoughts, please do yourself a favor and take the steps necessary to change that. If you don’t use the technique I’ve used, please do yourself a favor and try some technique. The mind is a muscle and when it’s damaged it needs to be healed. You don’t keep walking on a broken foot. Please don’t keep living with a hurting mind.

Thanks, y’all!

Rich