Though you can learn foreign languages quite well right in your home country using free online tools like Skype, YouTube, language exchange sites like iTalki, podcasts, etc., none of these are a substitute for the transformational power of living, learning, and working abroad. Neither is short-term international travel. To get the life-changing effects (“Who the hell am I anyway and what do I really want to do with my life?!”), the minimum effective dose seems to be about 6 to 12 months neck deep in a new land.
But I realize that not everyone can just pick up and move to a new country, so I’ve put together some life lessons I’ve gleaned over the past 33 years living on the planet earth, especially the last decade living as a “stranger in a strange land” in Japan, Bangladesh, and Taiwan. I hope they offer you some vicarious expat wisdom, and more importantly, impetus to move abroad yourself.
1) Happiness is a Choice
When I first watched The Power of Myth at the age of 12 (what can I say, I have a cool mom), most of Joseph Campbell’s truth bombs about life, death, and purpose flew right over my little noggin. But as I’ve grown older, experienced difficult life trials, and been presented with ever more responsibilities and social expectations, his advice to “follow your bliss” has become increasingly powerful. Like everyone, I’ve made the mistake of getting caught up in jobs, relationships, and habits that don’t benefit myself or the world, but thanks to Joe’s advice, I’ve always managed to snap myself out of unfulfilling cycles and get back on track by asking myself, “Are you following your bliss or just doing what’s easy and expected of you?”
“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” —Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Whatever it is you truly want to do in life—whether it’s starting a new language, quitting a high paying job to do something more fulfilling, or leaving a destructive relationship—do it today. Don’t wait for the right time and don’t wait for permission; both will never come. Yes, you might piss some people off. Some people will be let down. But those that really matter will respect you for having the guts to follow your bliss and do what you’re on this earth to do.
Set aside some time everyday to do the things that really matter to you and have the greatest impact on your health, happiness, family, friends, and community. If you truly don’t have time, create it through prioritizing what really matters (see #14).
2) True Happiness Only Exists in the Present Moment
Following one’s bliss sounds great on paper, but very few of us ever experience “it” for more than a few fleeting moments before our minds rush in to spoil the spiritual party.
But therein lies a hint to why it’s so hard to capture bliss, fulfillment, happiness, peace, transcendence, enlightenment, or whatever you want to call it: this state of consciousness can only be experienced, not thought.
And equally important, this state can only be experienced right now, not at some point in the future.
Dark Helmet: “When will then be now?”
Colonel Sandurz: “Soon.”
3) Rule Your Mind or It Will Rule You
The problem is that experiencing the “now”—and through it, true happiness—is impossible when you are under the control of the ego, and almost all of us are, almost all of the time. The word “ego” here refers not to “confidence” or “thinking you are better than others” but what Eckhart Tolle defines in The Power of Now as “a mental image of who you are, based on your personal and cultural conditioning” or “a false self, created by unconscious identification with the mind”. He goes on to describe the workings of this tricky little SOB:
“To the ego, the present moment hardly exists. Only past and future are considered important. The total reversal of the truth accounts for the fact that in the ego mode the mind is so dysfunctional. It is always concerned with keeping the past alive, because without it — who are you? It constantly projects itself into the future to ensure its continued survival and to seek some kind of release or fulfillment there. It says: ‘One day, when this, that, or the other happens, I am going to be okay, happy, at peace.’ Even when the ego seems to be concerned with the present, it is not the present that it sees: It misperceives it completely because it looks at it through the eyes of the past. Or it reduces the present to a means to an end, an end that always lies in the mind-projected future. Observe your mind and you’ll see that this is how it works. The present moment holds the key to liberation. But you cannot find the present moment as long as you are your mind.”
Nick Nolte’s Socrates character explains this well in The Peaceful Warrior:
4) Wherever You Go, There You Are
“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his feet.” —James Oppenheim
In addition to foolishly seeking happiness in a future it can never experience, the ego also searches for it in an elusive there it can never find. It doesn’t understand that happiness can be experienced anywhere, anytime, no matter where you are, what you’re doing, or who you’re with. When one is controlled by the ego, you can cover the entire globe and never find the fountain of bliss. Bliss requires a change of consciousness, not zip code.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t travel. You absolutely should. But do so for the joy of traveling itself, not a foolish attempt to run away from one’s ego-driven problems. Trust me, I’ve tried. Once the excitement and jet lag wear off, your demons will be right there where you left them: inside you.
And I am not saying that environment doesn’t matter. While you certainly can find and practice joy in rush hour traffic, it’s a lot easier on a remote mountaintop in Taiwan. Stack life’s deck in your favor by carefully choosing where you spend your time and who you spend it with, but at any given moment, know that you can experience bliss right here, right now.
5) Don’t Confuse Your Options With Your Choices
Whenever we find ourselves stuck in a rut, feeling bad about life and our place in it, the first human instinct is to blame our woes on other people and external conditions. We feel imprisoned, believing we can’t be elsewhere or do otherwise. In reality, there are almost always myriad choices about what to do in any given moment if we are in the proper frame of mind to see them, with many paths out of our personally created—or at least maintained—hell. But even when choices truly are slim and the external reality truly grim, we always have a choice about how we respond. We always have a choice about what state of consciousness we bring into this world.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” —Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
“Whatever you cannot enjoy doing, you can at least accept that this is what you have to do. Acceptance means: For now, this is what this situation, this moment, requires me to do, and so I do it willingly… If you can neither enjoy nor bring acceptance to what you do—stop. Otherwise, you are not taking responsibility for the only thing you can really take responsibility for, which also happens to be the one thing that really matters: your state of consciousness. And if you are not taking responsibility for your state of consciousness, you are not taking responsibility for life.” —Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
6) No Amount of Having or Doing Can Create a Lasting Sense of Being
Stuff, stuff, stuff. Tasks, tasks, tasks.
They fills our minds. They fill our days. They fill most people’s entire lives. But having more stuff and doing more things will never make you truly happy. Buying that shiny new _____ (fill in whatever you’ve been lusting after) might make you feel good today, but any happiness it provides will be fleeting. And though doing certainly trumps having, it too can only provide temporary happiness. You can’t buy or act your way out of unhappiness. True happiness is a state of being, not a consequence of owning more stuff or doing more tasks.
Now there’s nothing wrong with having nice things or good tools, planning out your day, or carefully managing a project. But it’s imperative to remember that no amount of having or doing will ever provide a sense of being. Not that this stops brands from trying to convince us otherwise, or stops our ego from believing them.
“The ego identifies with having, but its satisfaction in having is a relatively shallow and short-lived one. Concealed within it remains a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction, of incompleteness, of ‘not enough’. ‘I don’t have enough yet,’ by which the ego really means, ‘I am not enough yet.'” —Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
7) Mindful, Love-Filled Action Changes the World, Not Prayer
“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, ‘Oh, it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything,’ and an optimist who says, ‘Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyway.’ Either way, nothing happens.” —Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia
Although I am usually a cheerful, optimistic person, I am not a big fan of the “just think positively” form of optimism. It strikes me as highly selfish that some people genuinely believe they can affect the outcome of events just by “praying hard enough” or “sending out positive feelings into the universe”. If prayer or meditation makes you feel better, great. Do it. They are both powerful tools for calming the mind, lowering stress, and increasing focus. But be aware that it’s the mindful, love-filled action and interaction that happens after you pray or meditate that really changes the world, not the warm fuzzy feelings themselves.
One major caveat: In the face of death, whether coping with loss of a loved one or preparing for one’s own exit from the material plane, I completely understand the need for prayer and will surely do so myself when the time comes. But again, I really don’t believe that the prayers themselves will change anything other than my state of mind.
8) Ignorance Plus Arrogance is the Most Dangerous Combination
“A truly blind person is not one who cannot see but one who chooses not to.” —Unknown
Despite unprecedented access to information, I am constantly disappointed by how many people demonstrate a combination of ignorance and arrogance.
I used to think that Americans had a patent on this blend of blind, passionate belief, but after traveling and living abroad, I now know that this dangerous cocktail can be found the world over. No matter the country, it’s easy to find ignorant, insular, prejudiced, archaic points of view, and people who believe everything they read in their newspapers or religious texts, and everything they hear on television or at church. This is not to say that the daily newspaper or nightly news doesn’t contain facts. It certainly does, but “fact” is not the same as “truth”.
“Archaeology is the search for fact…not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.” —Indiana Jones, The Last Crusade
I’m not saying that religious texts don’t contain truth. They do. But religions can only point to the truth like signposts; they must not be taken to be the truth themselves.
“It’s like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!” —Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon
Whether speaking of matters of fact or faith, those with the least information tend to argue most vehemently for their limited points of view, while those with the most often get lost in their knowledge and never act upon it. In our pursuit of scientific and spiritual truth, we must always question, confirm, and verify what we can, but then use what we’ve learned to better the world. Blind belief is no worse than apathetic inaction.
“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world, the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” —Bertrand Russell
9) Myths are Powerful Devices, But Devices Nonetheless
Though I am not a member of any particular organized religion, I do find value in many of their core teachings, especially when they are stripped of their dogmatic overtones and interpreted within their historical, pragmatic contexts. Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), we can learn a lot of sage life lessons from the earth’s various religious texts and practices. Each of them represents a given culture’s attempt to explain our world and our proper place in it, evolving within particular historical, geographical, and socioeconomic contexts that shaped their teachings.
“Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.” —Joseph Campbell
10) Religion and Science Can Both Be Twisted to Serve Any Purpose
The Crusades. Witch hunts. Slavery.
Human history is full of horrific practices justified by the prevailing religious texts of the time. It’s easy to look back now and say that these are but cases of ignorant bigots “citing scripture for their purpose”, but what about today? The same exact thing is still happening! Fundamentalist Christians are fighting to block gay marriage because “it’s in the Bible”. Before you use religious dogma to justify your homophobia, why not actually ask yourself that question on your WWJD wrist band. Do you really think Christ, the paragon of love and acceptance, would be against two loving, committed individuals joining in holy matrimony?
“Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
But just like religion, science too can be manipulated for nefarious ends. Those with the means can fund studies to show that their products are safe, get politicians and agencies to look the other way or pass legislation in their favor, and pay for ad campaigns to sway public opinion.
The distortion of science for the sake of profit can be found in all industries, but it is especially rampant in the world of health and nutrition. So whenever you hear “studies show…”, beware of the funding bias and consider who paid for the studies before deciding, for example, whether a particular drug is safe or whether GMOs are fit for consumption.
11) “Consensus” is Not the Same Thing as “Truth”
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” —Mark Twain
The more I read, learn, experience, and experiment, the more I realize that most people are wrong about most things. I am not saying that people are stupid. On the contrary, I believe most human beings are capable of amazing feats of intellect and creative problem solving if they have the guts to question what they’re told and stand alone when necessary. The problem is not a lack of brains but balls.
You don’t have to look that far back into history to find numerous commonly held beliefs that we (or at least most of us) now know to be nonsensical, ignorant, bigoted, or verifiably untrue. But hindsight’s 20/20. Imagine that you lived in 1491:
- Would you have sailed across the Atlantic even if all your friends told you that you’ll fall off the edge of the earth?
- Would you have decried slavery, segregation, racism, and white ethnocentrism even if it meant being ostracized by everyone you know and love?
- Would you have fought against the tyranny of religious dogma even if it meant imprisonment or death?
On the flip side, many ancient truths have been replaced by modern myths. A brief reflection upon the American political, financial, educational, and health systems, for example, quickly reveals myriad fallacies, mistruths, and blatant lies that serve corporate profits and political power at the expense of our well being. Perhaps the most dangerous of these are the many falsehoods about nutrition. Consider this: we keep getting fatter and sicker despite most of us following the very advice that is supposed to keep us healthy (i.e. eat less animal fat and eat more “healthy” whole grains). Why? Well, contrary to what mainstream medicine and media keep telling us, it turns out that:
- Fat doesn’t make you fat; sugar does!
- Cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease; inflammation and oxidative stress do!
- Grains are terrible for you!
So with so much misinformation thrown at us every day from the supposed experts, how can we ever know the truth? Simple: use your own rational assessment of the facts and observed phenomena, test things out yourself (using appropriate metrics to track success or failure), and never allow yourself to succumb to intellectual peer pressure, group think, or fear-based decision making.
12) Walk The Line Between Perseverance & Acceptance
“Be present. Accept the moment as it is.” Yah, great advice in theory, but doesn’t this lead to apathy and laziness? Absolutely not.
That is just another psychological weapon wielded by your ego to keep it’s hold on you and prevent you from being truly alive in the moment.
Being present does not mean you can’t make plans, work toward goals, or stick to a higher purpose. The key is to put your present reality and future dreams in accord with one another, with neither sacrificed for the other. It’s no easy task, and one that I struggle with every single day, but when I look back on the times I was most happy, most fulfilled, most productive, it was when I had attained balance between accepting where I was at the moment while at the same time (almost paradoxically) aiming toward a goal I had yet to achieve.
13) Have Low Expectations
Before you mislabel me a pessimist, check out this awesome TED Talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz in which he posits why having high expectations (enabled by today’s unprecedented range of choices) has actually made us less happy.
“The reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in—we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation—the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be. You will never be pleasantly surprised because your expectations, my expectations, have gone through the roof. The secret to happiness—this is what you all came for—the secret to happiness is low expectations.” —Barry Schwartz
Or as Louis C.K. puts it so well:
“Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.”
“It seems like the better it gets, the more miserable people become. There’s never a technological advancement where people think, ‘Wow, we can finally do this!’ And I think a lot of it has to do with advertising. Americans have it constantly drilled into our heads, every fucking day, that we deserve everything to be perfect all the time.”
14) Most Things Make No Difference; Focus Only on What Does
“Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action…It’s easy to get caught in a flood of minutiae, and the key to not feeling rushed is remembering that lack of time is actually lack of priorities.” —Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek
Like everyone else, I find myself feeling spread too thin at times, sacrificing things I want to do for things I feel I must do. But almost without exception, the tasks and projects that felt extremely urgent at the time (and led to sacrifices in sleep, nutrition, exercise, and time with family and friends) proved to be unimportant, and often meaningless, a short time later.
While I still fall into the “urgency” trap now and again, before I stay up all night or skip a workout because something “has to be done today or the world will end”, I test the task or project at hand against the following criteria:
- Is it inline with my core values and goals?
- Is the sacrifice of time, energy, or money worth it?
- Will I still think this is important in 5 years?
15) There is Enough Time to Do What Really Matters
“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” —Bruce Lee
Though I am fully aware it is a silly first world problem, one of the most common stressors in my life centers around the realization that I don’t/won’t have enough to acquire every last language, visit every last town on earth, try every last exotic dish, learn every last skill, read every last book, follow every last blog, listen to every last podcast, or watch every last documentary, movie, or TV series.
Luckily, this anxiety can be quickly quelled by being fully present in the moment and being grateful for whatever I do happen to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or experience. While you never know when you’ll exit this world, on any given day, at any given moment, there is enough time to do what matters: following one’s bliss and being truly alive. And while learning and experiencing new things is one avenue for me to my bliss, I try to remember that I needn’t read every book to feel this. Just a book.
16) There’s No Replacement for Motivation & Discipline
“Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There’s plenty of movement, but you never know if it’s going to be forward, backwards, or sideways.” —H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Just as the best book is worthless if it sits on the shelf, the best productivity tools matter not if you’re not motivated to use them. The key is motivation, and when it inevitably waivers, discipline to do the things you know you should even when you don’t feel like it. Truth be told, this is one of my greatest individual weaknesses and one that I continually strive to overcome. While I may appear to some to be a highly motivated, disciplined person, they cannot see the gap between what I aim to do every day and what I actually accomplish. And they aren’t aware of all the times I choose lesser tasks that I feel like doing over greater tasks that really matter.
I try to remember this lesson every time I find myself on Amazon.com or at Barnes & Noble searching for a new how-to book, thinking that a new resource will somehow make up for a lack of motivation. While the right tools certainly can increase efficiency and efficacy, they can never create motivation where it doesn’t exist, or instill discipline where it lacks.
17) Use Daily Routines, Rituals & Habits to Maximize Creative Output
Even more powerful than motivation and discipline (because both are finite resources) is the less fallible power of daily routines and rituals. The beautiful power of routine is a rather recent discovery for me as I’ve committed to writing as a profession instead of a mere hobby. Since I work on my own from home (all the while acting as a full-time “manny” for my 4-year-old nephew), I no longer have the confines or benefits of a traditional work place and all the routines that go with it. I must create them myself, and inspired by Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, I have done just that. Contrary to stifling my creativity, following my self-imposed routine has actually boosted my creative output and freed my heart and mind from the paradox of choice.
“The word [routines] connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resource: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.” —Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
Despite being a life-long “night owl”, one of the most powerful daily rituals I’ve begun of late is waking up with the dawn. Not only do I get to enjoy the beautiful sunrise now, but I also end up getting a lot more done each day even if I am only awake the same number of hours (i.e. waking up later and going to bed later).
18) Perfectionism is the Enemy of Productivity & True Happiness
“Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.” —Gustave Flaubert
I am a recovering perfectionist. Unfortunately, they don’t have 12-step programs for kicking perfectionism, but there probably should be. If I am honest with myself, the foolish pursuit of “perfection” (which is usually unattainable, and almost always undefinable) has held me back from a more prolific career and a more enriching life. Though the drive to get things done is starting to win out more and more, I still catch myself putting off projects until “the time is right”. The perfect time of course never comes and many of my ideas have remained just that: ideas.
In the language learning realm, I often miss opportunities to harness “hidden moments” as Barry Farber calls them (e.g. going through a few flashcards while waiting in line at the store), putting off my studies instead until I am back home with my ideal tools or materials on hand. And perhaps worst of all, I sometimes catch the “Grass is greener” brand of perfectionism in which I try to pursue more perfect experiences or environments, all the while missing out on all that ever will be: the present moment.
19) Take Life “Bird by Bird” and “Brick by Brick”
It is all too easy to get intimidated (and depressed!) by the myriad steps required in big undertakings like learning a language or transforming one’s body. The key is to focus not on the distance between here and your final goal, but on just one—and only one—step at a time.
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.” —Will Smith, The Charlie Rose Show
20) Learning How to Learn is Life’s Most Important Skill
This quote belongs to Tony Buzan, author of over a dozen books on mastering your memory and employing more effective learning strategies. Sadly, I didn’t discover his works until long after college where they would have saved me a great deal of frustration and study time. Oh well, better late than never. Here are a few of his key techniques that can help you in just about any endeavor, including language learning:
21) There is a Huge Difference Between “Studying” and “Learning”
“Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.” —Clifford Stoll
Studying something does not necessarily equate with “learning” it. Just because you finish a book doesn’t mean you’ve actually internalized its lessons and can apply them in your life.
To be clear, I LOVE reading and believe that books are one of the most important human inventions of all time, but we have to remember that the real “learning” happens out in the world, not on the page or in a classroom. We all know people who are book smart, yet street foolish. Knowledge alone is nothing until transformed to wisdom through life experience and personal experimentation.
This is especially true for the domain of foreign languages where learners often mistake “studying a language” for “acquiring a language”. The two are very different things. You can spend your whole life studying Japanese, for example, and acquire very little. This is because languages are not a set of facts to be memorized, but a complex skill that arises through physical, cognitive, and psychosocial practice, not academic study. My favorite analogy is that trying to learn a language through formal study alone is like trying to learn how to drive by reading the car’s owner manual.
“Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, deployed without awareness of its underlying logic…” —Stephen Pinker, author of The Language Instinct
22) Wisdom = Knowledge + Experience
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” —Mark Twain
We have—or at least think we have—all the answers when we’re young. This is especially true for the highly educated, but lightly lived. The belief system of an early twenty something is nice and neat because they have yet to encounter outliers that disprove their theories, endure soul-crushing loss, or live through high-stakes professional or romantic failure. But as we experience more of life’s ups and downs (which seem to hit for most of us in our late twenties to early thirties), our datasets gets larger, and we have the potential to draw a more accurate “best fit line” through what we’ve learned and experienced.
This is not to say that the accumulation of years and knowledge automatically lead to wisdom. We all know older folks who ignore life’s lessons and fall back upon comfortable—but untrue—beliefs about the world, or who become more and more bitter, insular, and risk-averse with each each passing year.
23) Measure What Matters; Ignore the Rest
“What gets measured gets improved.” —Peter Drucker
Whether trying to learn a new language or transform your body, it is imperative that you set realistic goals and track your progress on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. This can take the form of an accountability blog, posts on social media, using an app like Lift, or just periodically checking in with a friend trying to accomplish the same goals.
But what you measure is important. Smartphones and quantified-self apps make it easier than ever to track just about anything you want, but this also makes it all too easy to capture too much data, leading to paralysis by analysis and stalled progress.
Pick just a few key indicators to track and ignore the rest:
- For language learning, I suggest tracking how many minutes you spend listening, speaking, reading, and writing each day.
- For fat loss, measure your belly circumference at the navel once a week (at the same time, on the same day) and snap a photo of yourself once a month. Weigh yourself if you want, but realize that the scale is a measure of weight loss, not necessarily fat loss.
- For overall health, performance, and happiness, track how many steps you take a day using an app like Moves (shoot for at least 10,000 a day) and track both the quantity and quality of your sleep using an app like Sleep Cycle.
24) Respecting a Culture Does Not Mean Liking or Agreeing With Every Part of It
“In history, truth should be held sacred, at whatever cost…especially against the narrow and futile patriotism, which, instead of pressing forward in pursuit of truth, takes pride in walking backwards to cover the slightest nakedness of our forefathers.” —Col. Thomas Aspinwall
I am a serious Japanophile. But my love of Japanese culture, history, martial arts, food, anime, manga, literature, architecture, gardens, and music do not blind me to the country’s many modern problems and past atrocities. Appreciating and respecting a culture does not mean liking or supporting every part of it. The same exact thing is true for my home country, the United States. I love the creativity, ingenuity, and strong individuality found in American culture, and am proud of our many contributions to the arts and sciences. But this pride doesn’t mean I must ignore:
- How physically and financially unhealthy the American lifestyle has become
- How much environmental devastation is caused by this lifestyle
- How quickly so many Americans rushed to “give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety” in the wake of 9/11
- How easily so many Americans bought the lie that we were invading resource-rich nations to “fight terrorism” and “spread democracy”
- How our media has become part of the military-industrial complex
No, I can’t ignore these, nor should any true patriot.
25) Foreign Languages Open Doors You Didn’t Even Know Were There
“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” —Frank Smith
Speaking Japanese and Mandarin (even with plenty of mistakes and heaps of as-of-yet unknown words and structures) has opened so many doors in my life that would have otherwise remained shut. Or perhaps more accurately, the ability to understand and use these foreign tongues has made doors visible that I wouldn’t even have seen otherwise. I have been under-qualified or even unqualified for many of the jobs I have landed, but got my foot in the door (and ultimately, got the job) because of my language and cultural skills. And once on the job, the ability to more easily communicate with—and translate between—different languages, cultures, and ways of doing things has been tremendously helpful even in work that has no overt connection to foreign languages.
26) Non-Standard Language is Not the Same as Sub-Standard
As I’ve traveled the world—and even different pockets of my home country—I have witnessed countless cases of people being treated better or worse based on their native tongue or regional dialect.
Some of us are lucky. I won the linguistic lottery simply by being born to parents who speak the current language of world commerce (English) and growing up in a region that uses the same dialect of English used on the nightly news. I never had to learn to speak a special way for job interviews. Not so for friends of mine who grew up speaking African American Vernacular English (AAVE), for example. They have had to learn to speak a different way if they want to gain employment and be perceived as educated professionals. But why must this be so? Contrary to what many crotchety grammar mavens claim, AAVE is not “improper” English; it is a full-fledged language system with a consistent structure, a rich vocabulary, and even the ability to express grammatical subtleties lacking in Standard American English (SAE).
To me, making judgements about someone’s character, intelligence, or trustworthiness based on the specific vibrations of their vocal chords is just as bad as judgements based on their skin pigment.
27) Every Act of Communication is an Act of Translation
This profound observation is from If This Be Treason by Gregory Rabassa, which I first heard about in Chris Bliss’ wonderful TEDxRanier talk, Comedy is Translation. In the talk, Chris makes a poignant connection between comedy and translation, showing that the best comedy and satire “translate deep truths for a mass audience”. He goes on to say:
“Comedy travels along a distinct wavelength from other forms of language. If I had to place it on an arbitrary spectrum, I’d say it falls somewhere between poetry and lies. And I’m not talking about all comedy here, because, clearly, there’s plenty of humor that colors safely within the lines of what we already think and feel. What I want to talk about is the unique ability that the best comedy and satire has at circumventing our ingrained perspectives—comedy as the philosopher’s stone. It takes the base metal of our conventional wisdom and transforms it through ridicule into a different way of seeing and ultimately being in the world. Because that’s what I take from the theme of this conference: Gained in Translation. That it’s about communication that doesn’t just produce greater understanding within the individual, but leads to real change. Which in my experience means communication that manages to speak to and expand our concept of self-interest. Now I’m big on speaking to people’s self-interest because we’re all wired for that. It’s part of our survival package, and that’s why it’s become so important for us, and that’s why we’re always listening at that level. And also because that’s where, in terms of our own self-interest, we finally begin to grasp our ability to respond, our responsibility to the rest of the world.”
His point really hits home when he discusses the effectiveness of Jon Stewart’s political satire on the Daily Show:
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is by far the most well-documented example of the effectiveness of this kind of comedy. Survey after survey, from Pew Research to the Annenberg Center for Public Policy, has found that Daily Show viewers are better informed about current events than the viewers of all major network and cable news shows. Now whether this says more about the conflict between integrity and profitability of corporate journalism than it does about the attentiveness of Stewart’s viewers, the larger point remains that Stewart’s material is always grounded in a commitment to the facts—not because his intent is to inform. It’s not. His intent is to be funny. It just so happens that Stewart’s brand of funny doesn’t work unless the facts are true. And the result is great comedy that’s also an information delivery system that scores markedly higher in both credibility and retention than the professional news media. Now this is doubly ironic when you consider that what gives comedy its edge at reaching around people’s walls is the way that it uses deliberate misdirection.”
28) Proper Nutrition & Exercise Are Force Multipliers for Everything You Do
“Typically, people who exercise, start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.” —Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Everyone knows that eating right and getting enough exercise are important for vitality and longevity, but what we eat and how much we move our bodies also affects our ability to code and recall memories, increases or decreases our confidence levels (a highly under-appreciated component of language learning), and fosters or extinguishes motivation to do the things we know we should but don’t always feel like. I know from personal experience that when I succumb to bouts of gluttony or sloth:
- I am far less motivated to study or work on projects.
- Less of the material sticks if I do muster the motivation to crack a book.
- I get serious writer’s block and hate whatever I do manage to vomit on the page.
- I feel awkward in social situations and am less likely to make meaningful connections.
On the flip side, when I move my body (heavy weights, Wing Chun, and long walks) and eat the right things (pasture-raised meats, wild caught fish, and in-season organic fruits and vegetables):
- I am excited to spend time with foreign languages and work on projects.
- I understand and remember new words, structures, and concepts with far greater ease.
- My fingers have a hard time keeping up with the flood of ideas coming forth while writing blog posts or books, and I am usually happy with what ends up on the page.
- I feel confident in social situations, talk up perfect strangers, and find myself surrounded by serendipity wherever I go.
This is not just a matter of psychology. Eating crap and sitting on the couch significantly affect your endocrine system, screwing up the proper balance of key hormones like testosterone, estrogen, growth hormone, insulin, leptin, ghrelin, and cortisol. These hormones control myriad physical and cognitive functions, affecting everything from confidence to the size of your waistline.
29) Money Can’t Buy Happiness, But It Can Help Make the Down Payment
“Money can’t buy happiness, but it can help make the down payment.” —Jack Saad
Jack Saad is one of my all-time favorite teachers. While much of his teaching fell on deaf teenage ears, miraculously, he sometimes got even the dimmest high school students to ponder the subtitles of historical events and modern social issues. One of the most important lessons he taught us is the power of money. Like all tools, he said:
- It can be used for good or evil (all too often for the latter as history shows)
- There are other tools that can be used in its place (time, influence, relationships, etc.)
- It can be used deftly for greater effect (e.g. investing in the right things at the right time, buying high quality products that last a long time, etc.) or sloppily for minimal effect (e.g. foolish investments, buying expensive junk you don’t need, or being penny wise, pound poor).
These lessons have come in handy as I’ve jumped around the wealth spectrum. When money has been more plentiful, I realized that I can save a lot of time and energy through buying the right tools and paying others to do things I’m not good at or don’t enjoy. But I realized, too, that most of the real challenges in my life could not be spent away. No number of zeros in my bank account could buy me a “satisfied mind” as the late great Johnny Cash sang.
And speaking of “losing every dime”, it’s not nearly as scary as most people believe. I’ve been completely (and I mean COMPLETELY) penniless a few times now, and to be honest, it wasn’t that bad. I no longer fear scarcity. On the contrary, being broke has taught me to appreciate what truly matters in life, and make better financial decisions when I do have the dinero.
30) It’s Never Worth Sacrificing Your Health or Happiness for Pay
“Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.'” —U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas when resigning from his Senate seat after being diagnosed with cancer in 1984
I’ve learned (and relearned) this lesson the hard way. As much as I value my family, friends, and health, I have foolishly sacrificed them all in different ways in the past as I pursued various professional or academic endeavors. Luckily, my wake up calls have been fairly benign: seeing an increasingly chunky guy in the mirror and spending time with spreadsheets on holidays instead of friends and family. As opposed to getting the message too late: having a heart attack and dying alone. But I know that both are real possibilities for the workaholic in me if I let my work life supersede my personal life.
31) Put On Your Oxygen Mask First
“In the event of an emergency, please put on your oxygen mask before assisting others.”
While at the PaleoFX 2013 conference in Austin, I saw a wonderful talk titled “Put On Your Oxygen Mask First” by Sarah Fragoso, author of Everyday Paleo. The gist of the talk was that you cannot help others lead more happy and healthy lives if you yourself are not happy and healthy. Many folks, especially parents, feel guilty when they carve out time, energy, or money to eat right, get enough sleep, or take vacations, choosing instead to channel every second they have and every penny they earn to their children. Sacrifice is a noble thing, and we should all do our best to serve, but you can’t help anyone when your physical, psychological, and emotional health are falling apart. Being healthy is not selfish; it is the greatest gift you can give your family, friends, community, and world.
32) Question Everything
Never assume something is true just because you hear it:
- From your parents
- From your close friends
- From your boss
- From someone with “Dr.” in front of their name or “PhD” after it
- From an “expert” or “guru”
- From a blogger (including yours truly)
- From an anchor on the nightly news
- From yourself!
Nobody has all the answers, and even the answers we think we do have often end up being debunked or disproven when more information is presented later. When in doubt, just follow the money trail and observe the ego in yourself and others. Most of what we’re told (and tell others) is motivated by attempts to solidify one’s egoic identity and amass greater wealth, not truth.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to be an asshole. It takes practice, but it is possible to disagree and question in a tactful, respectful way.
33) Don’t Save the Best for Last
I guess this makes me a hypocrite because this is the last lesson in my list and is probably the most important. ; )
If you want to learn a language, don’t wait until you “have more time”. If you want to quit your job, don’t wait until “the right time” or when you have a comfortable financial buffer saved up. If your relationship sucks, don’t wait until a big fight forces a break-up. Decide what it is you want to do with your life (your “bliss” as it were) and start today. Right now. Seriously, what are you still doing on this blog!? Go out and get living!
As Tim Ferriss shares in The 4-Hour Workweek:
“For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job? The stars will never align and the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn’t conspire against you, but it doesn’t go out of its way to line up all the pins either. Conditions are never perfect. “Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. Pro and con lists are just as bad. If it’s important to you and you want to do it ‘eventually,’ just do it and correct course along the way.”
Note: This post was inspired by inspirational articles from two different Benny’s: Benny the Irish Polyglot’s post 29 life lessons learned in travelling the world for 8 years straight and Benny Hsu’s 34 Life Lessons I’ve Learned in 34 years of Living. Both are great fellas making a living doing what they love and I highly recommend their blogs.