Don't Be a Moron, Life Happens

I work with a number of people every week, as do most people. What's unusual at present is that most of the people I interact with have experienced significant life events that were out of their control: death of a loved one, illness, job change, career opportunity, new relationship. All of these were highly unexpected. And their sheer number reminds me of the following:

Anyone who thinks that every step in life can be planned out and executed to perfection is a moron.

Yet, that’s the messaging we start receiving at an early age:

  • Work hard and you get what you want.
  • Get good grades in school and you get into a good school.
  • Get a degree and you’ll get a good job.
  • Get a good job and you’ll get a good partner in life.
  • Keep your good job and your good partner and you’ll be happy.
  • Provide for your family (including kids, if that’s part of your plan) and life will turn out ok.
  • Plan your retirement at 65 and you’ll have plenty of time to do what you’ve dreamed of all these years.
  • Oh, and tell your kids to work hard to get what they want…


If the unexamined life [is] not worth living, [is] the unlived life worth examining?
— Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (2015), p. 31.

Yes, diligent work is a good thing to do. It’s part of building character and understanding what many of us do for a living, especially when we take the opportunity to work in a number of jobs before becoming members of the walking dead: chained to a keyboard, steering wheel, shopping cart and/or TV/smartphone for 16hrs a day.

The idea that we have control over our lives is absurd. We control nothing. Nothing.

We don’t control:

  • What others think about us. 
  • What we think about ourselves.
  • Who wants to be with us.
  • Who we want to be with.
  • What we look like.
  • What we think about moment to moment.
  • When we experience joy.
  • When we experience pain.
  • How long we live.
  • How long others live.
  • What we do for a living.
  • What we want to do for a living.
  • How long we’ll work.
  • What we remember.
  • What we forget.
  • What we’ll win at.
  • What we’ll fail at.
  • How healthy we are.
  • How ill we get.
  • How happy we’ll be in the moment.
  • How sad we’ll be in the moment.
  • How we’ll feel about decisions we make, in the short term and in the long term.
  • What we’ll regret.
  • What we’ll appreciate most.

To add to the above, we’re terrible predictors of what will make us the happiest, what make us feel most fulfilled.

Ok, I can hear you now. “That’s not true, there’s plenty I control.” Really? I would say that yes, you can influence outcomes in your favour—stack the deck, if you will—but there’s never a guarantee. Everything we are, everything we do is dependent on everything else. As much as we’d like to think we do, we don’t live in a bubble. Events that are entirely out of our control will happen, it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.

That’s why it’s so important to live in a way that allows us to pivot when necessary. To change directions when our gut tells us we need to change something, get out of or into a situation. 

We need to be able to react with relative ease when life throws us one of the many curve balls it’s likely to send our way.

We need to make sure we don’t have all our eggs in one basket. That means we:

To be happy, we have to feel that, on the whole, whatever sorrows, trials, and tribulations we may encounter, we still experience the joy of being alive.
— Tal Ben-Shaham, Happier (2008), p. 36.
There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in the moment.
— Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (2015), p. 35.
  • Appreciate what we have every day because we know it could all go away.
  • Don’t let others determine our worth; we need to know we matter.
  • Get curious about all sorts of things in life; a broad focus makes us see more of what's possible.
  • Enable ourselves to be able to change our lives around quickly by living below our means (call it “life happens” insurance).
  • Don’t live for other people without carving our enough of our energy to live for ourselves too.
  • Need to value the present and stop spending our lives planning for our future selves. There needs to be a balance, otherwise we never live our lives.
  • Understand we can only influence what we do in the moment.
  • Stop taking for granted that there will be a “tomorrow”. We can’t defer living our values, taking care of what we care about most, to some abstract future that may never come.

I’ve had many unexpected changes, unexpected pivots, as I’m sure you have as well. Being able to have the flexibility to quickly adjust to what life has hurled my way, both the good and the bad, has helped me weather the storms and see the rainbows much more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

Get busy living or get busy dying.
— Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption

We don’t control what happens to us. That’s pure hubris. We can, however, put in place what we know will make us more likely to bounce back from adversity and pounce on opportunity when it presents itself. It makes us feel nimble, reduces our tendency to worry and allows us to get on with living life, now. It can make us nearly fearless and ready to say "Bring it on". 

Because the person who's really on top of his/her life is the one who works with it as opposed to trying to control it with an iron hand. 

Image credit/copyright: marin/

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