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Confucius once said that life is simple but we insist on making it complicated.
What’s simple about the myriad demands, dilemmas, and dealings of everyday life that push and pull on our body, mind, and soul?
What’s simple about love, success, health, wisdom, satisfaction, spirituality, and the rest of the brass rings we all strive for?
Many times, life appears overwhelmingly complex, like trying to build an airplane while in flight, or even bitterly abusive, like licking a car battery.
And understandably so.
In this age of liberty and abundance where we’re free to be and do whatever we want, we must choose tasks and responsibilities from a dizzying number of possibilities. And then, as efforts evaporate, wins elude, and penalties encroach, we realize we’re not spinning an elegant web but cobbling up a clumsy knot.
And so we sputter, skid, and spiral as our self-confidence leaks from a thousand wounds.
Many people try to escape this existential strike zone by heaving more lumpy stones into the rock tumbler of life. This only makes more noise.
What they need to do instead is, as Confucius counseled, strive for simplicity by jettisoning everything that’s unclear, unsound, and unworkable and seeking the opposite—clarity, sanity, and practicality.
Often, this means doing less but doing it better by focusing on what’s essential and saying no to everything else, by learning to do the right things, not trying to do everything right.
And in this article, I want to share with you several simple and essential laws of successful living, some of which go back thousands of years.
These principles have remained in currency because they form a robust operating system for life—one that not only helps you make smart decisions but also avoid very stupid ones, which many people fail to appreciate the importance of.
Most of my biggest wins in life have come from remembering the obvious and ignoring the esoteric and trying to be consistently not stupid instead of sporadically brilliant.
Anyway, let’s get to the laws . . .
Law #1 for Simpler and Happier Living
If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you say you won’t, don’t.
Without your word, you’re of little value to yourself and others. The fastest way to lose a friend is to show you can’t be relied on. That applies to the most important friend you can have, too—yourself.
What’s more, when you know your word must be kept, even when it’s tough, it forces you to carefully consider your commitments. How many times have you said yes to something and then flaked because it should’ve been a no?
Get into the habit of keeping your word once given, no matter what, and you will not only earn the respect of others, but more importantly, you will earn your own respect.
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Law #2 for Simpler and Happier Living
Don’t lie, exaggerate, withhold vital information, or mislead others.
Lies can be tasty, but honesty makes life easier to live.
Lies beget more lies and must be continually protected from collisions with reality. Statements of fact, however, require no further work on our part. As Mark Twain once quipped, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
By lying, we’re not only building a false world that must be guarded from inspection or introspection, we’re demonstrating how little we trust and respect others. This disengages us from life, darkens our opinion of others, and can even warp our sense of what’s real.
People aren’t as easily fooled as we might think, either. How many times have you been suspicious of someone but chose not to confront them on it? And how did this color your perception of them?
Law #3 for Simpler and Happier Living
It’s Monday morning. A guy is curling in the squat rack. You don’t make enough money. The free coffee shop wifi is too slow. It’s cold outside in January. Your friend’s Facebook status updates always have typos. Someone left the toilet seat up.
Every one of us can find an endless number of things to bellyache over, but why dig the hole deeper?
“Everything that happens is either endurable or not,” wrote the legendary Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. “If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable, then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.”
So don’t go looking for sympathy. Most people don’t care about your problems and many are secretly glad that you have them.
Don’t compromise your standards. No matter what you want to do, moderation won’t get you very far. Nothing succeeds like excess.
Don’t shirk your duties. Remember that the more you suffer voluntarily, the less you’ll suffer involuntarily.
Whatever you do, don’t whinge.
Law #4 for Simpler and Happier Living
Out-work everyone you know until you’ve made it.
If you haven’t accomplished your career or financial goals yet and you’re not working more than anyone you know to achieve them, you’re trying your luck.
It takes far too much toil and trouble to realize our ambitions to dillydally. Nothing in the world worth having comes without significant effort, pain, and difficulty, and often far more than we anticipate when we begin.
This isn’t going to change, either. The physical, intellectual, and social comforts of modernity fall like soft snow upon the harsh fact that life is a game of competition and selection, blurring the outlines and covering up the details.
The terrain is still treacherous, though, and turmoil is unavoidable. Only the toughest conquer the rigors of existence and even they have a time of it.
Remember—our forebears had to chase, fight, and kill to survive. They expected hardship. They were willing to face the worst. They embraced the fact that the universe, in all its apparent tranquility, is a carefully balanced chaos of forces we barely understand.
If we’re to bear upon its journey, we too must be a force of nature. The romantic notion that greatness can be shortcut by honeyed thoughts, candied smiles, and cloying words is nonsense.
Law #5 for Simpler and Happier Living
Do the right thing even when it costs you something.
You don’t need a degree in philosophy to know what’s right and wrong.
We all come hardwired with a sensitive moral compass that points toward signposts like treating others the way we want to be treated and not doing things to them we wouldn’t want done to us.
Thus, in most situations in life, we instinctively know right from wrong. And if we do our best to aim our actions toward what’s right, we can rightfully expect to be repaid in kind.
That is, acting with integrity ripples out into the world and back into our lives in more ways than we can imagine. And especially when the stakes are high.
This is an old idea. In the Bible (Matthew 6:33), we’re enjoined to seek God and live righteously to receive everything we need. Indian religion calls it karma. We know it as “what goes around comes around.”
Like gravity, there’s no escaping this force, and like the Northern Star, its light is always visible to those who are willing to look.
Law #6 for Simpler and Happier Living
Always make time for personal growth.
The flashing lights, ringing bells, and junk food of today’s penny arcade culture promotes frenzied consumption as the highest and greatest good.
And so it’s no surprise that we have a dysfunctional “normal” where most people are comfortably numb. They’ve resigned themselves to what they believe they can and can’t do and change, and have accepted the rules and restrictions dinned into them since childhood.
According to various surveys and studies, they’re on average twenty-three pounds overweight, they do just three hours of real work and watch five hours of TV per day, and they’re over $130,000 in debt with less than $1,000 in savings. They sit. They eat. They watch. And they die.
If you don’t want to join their ranks, you must commit yourself to personal growth through lifelong learning. You must block out time for it every day. There’s no other way.
“Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation, and even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci.
Here’s how Warren Buffet’s business partner Charlie Munger put it: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time–none, zero.”
You don’t have time, you say? Oh, well then nevermind, the universe will grant you a special dispensation.
Quit watching TV, delete your Facebook and Instagram accounts, ditch the video games, and take another look at your calendar. See an opening or three?
What to do instead, you ask? Anything that involves learning is fair game.
Would you like to speak another language? Perfect. Start. How about playing an instrument? Awesome. Do it. Hell, even starting in on that pile of self-help books you’ve been meaning to read qualifies. Just go.
Law #7 for Simpler and Happier Living:
Don’t have debt.
After your health and relationships, getting your finances in order is the highest leverage action you can take to improve yourself because with it comes more self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-reliance, not to mention your sense of freedom, stability, and overall sense of well-being.
Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it can sure buy peace of mind and the opportunity to find and pursue what makes you happy.
As with fitness, in personal finance, the fundamentals matter the most—the things most people don’t want to do consistently. With diet and exercise, it’s energy balance, macronutrient balance, and resistance training, with money, it’s budgeting, investing, and avoiding debt.
In fact, if you get into those three habits alone—budgeting, investing, and avoiding debt—you’re all but guaranteed to achieve significant financial fitness in your lifetime. If you can routinely spend 10 to 20% less than you earn and invest the surplus in safe, appreciating assets like mutual funds or real estate and avoid consumer debt, you can be rich. End of story.
The rub, of course, is how long it takes and what you have to sacrifice to get to the finish line. In fitness, you can build an outstanding body in just a few years, but it takes most people a couple decades to achieve financial independence.
To that I say “who cares,” however, because of how terrible the alternative is. The negative ramifications of financial failure and ruination are so many and pervasive that it’s worth avoiding at any cost, like drug addiction or alcoholism.
Don’t think merely making more money is the solution to indebtedness, either.
In fact, the more money you make, the easier it gets to accrue debt because you’re offered five- and even six-figure credit limits, banks practically beg you to take out another mortgage, and while you’re at it, why not finance that boat or $100,000 sports car you want? Just sign here and it can all be yours.
This is why I buy things cash. If I don’t have the cash, I don’t get the thing. It works.
Law #8 for Simpler and Happier Living
Keep an emergency fund.
This ties into the last law. To use a nerdy Harry Potter analogy, whereas debt is the dementor of personal finance, a lack of savings the boggart.
That is, whereas debt slowly devours your soul until you’re a zombie-like husk roaming the mall in search of another trinket to make minimum payments on, an empty bank account torments your psyche with gruesome visions of having no home, no food, and no hope.
Don’t put yourself in that situation.
Live below your means so you can save up at least a year’s worth of expenses and don’t touch that money unless you absolutely have to.
You might be amazed at how your mountain of moola impacts your mood, productivity, and outlook. It’ll probably lower your blood pressure, too.