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33 Things I Stole From People Smarter Than Me

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Last year was the first year I really forgot how old I was. This year was the year that I started doing stuff over again. Not out of nostalgia, or premature memory loss, but out of the sense that enough time had elapsed that it was time to revisit some things. I re-read books that I hadn’t touched in ten or fifteen years. I went back to places I hadn’t been since I was a kid. I re-visited some painful memories that I had walled off and chosen not to think about.
So I thought this year, for my birthday piece (more than 10 years running now—here is 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, and 32), I would revisit an article I wrote several years ago, which has remained popular since I first published it: 28 Pieces of Productivity Advice I Stole From People Smarter Than Me.
I’m not so interested in productivity advice anymore, but I remain, as ever, focused on taking advice from people smarter than me. So here are some of the best pieces of advice—things I try to live by, things I tried to revisit and think about this year—about life.
Enjoy. And remember, as Seneca said, that we are dying everyday. At 33, I don’t say to myself that according to actuary tables, I have 49 years to live. I say instead that I have already died three and one-third decades. The question is whether I lived those years before they passed. That’s what matters.
George Raveling told me that he sees reading as a moral imperative. “People died,” he said, speaking of slaves, soldiers and civil rights activists, “so I could have the ability to read.” He also pointed out that there’s a reason people have fought so hard over the centuries to keep books from certain groups of people. I’ve always thought reading was important, but I never thought about it like that. If you’re not reading, if books aren’t playing a major role in your life, you are betraying that legacy.
  • Another one on reading: in his autobiography, General James Mattis points out that if you haven’t read widely, you are functionally illiterate. That’s a great term, and one I wish I’d heard earlier. As Mark Twain said, if you don’t read, you’re not any better than people who can’t read. This is true not only generally but specifically on specific topics. I am functionally illiterate about many things and that needs to be fixed.
  • Sue Johnson talks about how when couples or people fight, they’re not really fighting, they’re just doing a dance, usually a dance about attachment. The dance is the problem—you go this way, I go that way, you reach out, I pull away, I reach out, you pull away—not the couple, not either one of the people. This externalization has been very helpful.
  • The last year has certainly revealed some things about a lot of folks that I know or thought I did. But before I get too disappointed, I think of that beautiful line from F. Scott Fitzgerald at the beginning of The Great Gatsby (discovered on a re-read): “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
  • I’ve heard this many times from many different writers over the years (Neil Strauss being one), but as time passes the truth of it becomes more and more clear, and not just in writing: When someone tells you something is wrong, they’re almost always right. When someone tells you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.
  • It was a French journalist who was writing a piece about Trust Me I’m Lying who happened to tell me something about relationships. LOVE, he said, is best spelled T-I-M-E. I don’t think I’ve heard anything truer or more important to my development as a husband or father.
  • A few years ago I was exploring a book project with Lance Armstrong and he showed me some of the texts people had sent him when his world came crashing down. “Some people lean in when their friends take heat,” he said, “some people lean away.” I decided I wanted to be a lean-in type, even if I didn’t always agree, even if it was their fault.
  • When I was in high school, I was in this English class and I shared something with the discussion group we were in. Then later, I heard people use what I had said in their essays or in presentations and get credit for it. I brought this up to the teacher later, that people were using my ideas. The teacher looked at me and said, “Ryan, that’s your job.” I’m very glad she said that and that I heard it at 16.
  • Another thing about being a writer. I once read a letter where Cheryl Strayed kindly pointed out to a young writer the distinction between writing and publishing. Her implication was that we focus too much on the latter and not enough on the former. It’s true for most things. Amateurs focus on outcomes more than process. The more professional you get, the less you care about results. It seems paradoxical but it’s true. You still get results, but that’s because you know that the systems and process are reliable. You trust them with your life.
  • Speaking of which, that distinction between amateur and professional is an essential piece of advice I have gotten, first from Steven Pressfield’s writings and then by getting to know him over the years. There are professional habits and amateur ones. Which are you practicing? Is this a pro or an amateur move? Ask yourself that. Constantly.
  • Peter Thiel: “Competition is for losers.” I loved this the second I heard it. When people compete, somebody loses. So go where you’re the only one. Do what only you can do. Run a race with yourself.
Tim Ferriss always seems to ask the best questions: What would this look like if it were easy? How will you know if you don’t experiment? What would less be like? The one that hit me the hardest, when I was maybe 25, was “What do you do with your money?” The answer was “Nothing, really.” Ok, so why try so hard to earn lots more of it?
  • It was from Hemingway and Tobias Wolff and John Fante that I learned about typing up passages, about feeling great writing go through your fingers. It’s a practice I’ve followed for… 15 years now? I’ve probably copied and typed out a couple dozen books this way. It’s a form of getting your hours, modeling greatness so that it gets seeded into your subconscious. (For writing, you can substitute any activity.)
Wyatt Earp:
What makes a man like Ringo, Doc? What makes him do the things he does?
Doc Holliday:
A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of himself. And he can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.
Wyatt Earp:
What does he want?
Doc Holliday:
Revenge.
Wyatt Earp:
For what?
Doc Holliday:
Bein’ born.
  • Steve Kamb told me that the best and most polite excuse is just to say you have a rule. “I have a rule that I don’t decide on the phone.” “I have a rule that I don’t accept gifts.” “I have a rule that I don’t speak for free anymore.” “I have a rule that I am home for bath time with the kids every night.” People respect rules, and they accept that it’s not you rejecting the [offer, request, demand, opportunity] but that the rule allows you no choice.
  • Go to what will teach you the most, not what will pay the most. I forget who this was from. Aaron Ray, maybe? It’s about the opportunities that you’ll learn the most from. That’s the rubric. That’s how you get better. People sometimes try to sweeten speaking offers by mentioning how glamorous the location is, or how much fun it will be. I’d be more impressed if they told me I was going to have a conversation that was going to blow my mind.
  • I’ve been in too many locker rooms not to notice that teams put up their values on the wall. Every hallway and doorway is decorated with a motivational quote. At first, it seemed silly. Then you realize: It’s one thing to hear something, it’s another to live up to it each day. Thus the prints we do at Daily Stoic, the challenge coins I carry in my pocket, the statues I have on my desk, that art I have on my wall. You have to put your precepts up for display. You have to make them inescapable. Or the idea will escape you when it counts.
  • Amelia Earhart: “Always think with your stick forward.” (Gotta keep moving, can’t slow down.)
  • I was at Neil Strauss’s house almost ten years ago now when he had everyone break down what an hour of their time was worth. It’s simple: How much you make a year, divided by how many hours you realistically work. “Basically,” he said, “don’t do anything you can pay someone to do for you more cheaply.” This was hard for me to accept—still is—but coming to terms with it (in my own way) has made my life much, much better. It goes to Tim’s question as well: What would it look like if this were easy? Most of the time, it means getting someone to help.
  • ”No man steps in the same river twice.” That’s Heraclitus. Thus the re-reading. The books are the same, but we’ve changed, the world has changed. So it goes for movies, walking your college campus or a Civil War battlefield, and so many of the things we do once and think we “got.”
  • ”Well begun is half-done” is the expression. It has been a long journey but slowly and steadily optimizing my morning has more impact on my life than anything else. I stole most of my strategies from people like Julia Cameron (morning pages), Shane Parrish (wake up early), the folks at SPAR! (no phone in the AM), Ferriss (make before you manage), etc. (You can see more about my morning here.)
  • ”Your last book won’t write your next one.” Don’t remember who said it, but it’s true for writing and for all professions. You are constantly starting at zero. Every sale is a new sale. Every season is a new season. Every fight is a new fight. If you think your past success guarantees you anything, you’re in for a rude awakening. In fact, someone has already started to beat you.
David French: “Human beings need forgiveness like we need oxygen—a nation devoid of grace will make its people miserable.”
  • Dov Charney said something to me once that I think about a lot. He said, “Run rates always start at zero.” The point there was: Don’t be discouraged at the outset. It takes time to build up from nothing.
“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them—work, family, health, friends and spirit … and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls—family, health, friends and spirit—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same.”
There is no party line. That’s what Allan Ginsberg’s psychiatrist told him when he asked for the professional opinion on dropping out of college. This is good advice for life. There is no party line on what you should or shouldn’t do. And if you think there is, you’re probably missing stuff.
James Altucher once pointed out that you don’t have to make your money grow. You can just have it. It can just sit there. You can spend it. Whatever. You don’t have to whip yourself for not investing and carefully managing every penny. The reward for success should not be that you’re constantly stressed you’re not doing enough to “capitalize” on that success.
  • At the same time, I love Charlamagne’s “Frugal Vandross.” The less expensive stuff you have, the less there is to worry about.
  • I’ve talked before how I got my notecard system from Robert Greene. Only later did I realize—to steal a concept from Tyler Cowen—that doing notecards is an effective way to “do scales.” Meaning: How do you practice whatever it is that you do? What’s your version of playing scales or running through drills? For me, it’s the notecards. That’s how I get better at my job. Do you have something like that?
Ramit Sethi talks about how you can just not reply to stuff. It felt rude at first, but then I realized it was ruder to ignore the people I care about to respond to things I didn’t ask for in the first place. Selective ignoring is the key to productivity, I’m afraid.
  • Before we had kids, I was in the pool with my wife. “Do you want to do laps?” I said. “Should we fill up the rafts?” “Here help me dump out the filter.” There was a bunch of that from me. “You know you can just be in the pool,” she said. That thought had not occurred to me. Still, it rarely does. So I have to be intentional about it.
Who better to close another year, another piece than with the Stoics. “You could be good today,” the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote. “But instead you choose tomorrow.”
That quote haunts me as much as it inspires me. And it does a lot of each. It’s worth stealing if you haven’t already.