My past week has been dramatically different from most that I can remember. I am known for having a very predictable routine, consisting mostly of toiling away, alone in my office for hours on end. Every now and then I decide that there is a “special occasion” that justifies time spent in a social setting. With this attitude, I recently ventured out to enjoy one last casual evening with a friend of mine that was preparing to move away to start a career. In perfectly translucent fashion, I’m conveniently avoiding identifying the characters involved in this story. But if you and I are connected, the details can easily be discovered. If we are not, then we should be, and perhaps that is the theme herein.
What unfolded was four of the next six days involving some of the most meaningful conversation that I have had with anyone. We do not agree on everything, and it is likely that I came away with different insights than the other person would have wished. But here are the life lessons that we have all heard, but that are really beginning to sink in for me.
1: Be flexible. Spontaneity is not my strong suit. I may not be big on planning, but I do prefer predictability. I am content with being boring and alone most of the time because I am less likely to be inconvenienced, and very likely to maintain control. There are countless reasons why you should get out of your comfort zone, but my point is more about how receptive you are once you are in an unfamiliar situation. New acquaintances, old friends, close family – they all have the potential to shape an experience. And moments in these relationships are what life is all about.
2: Be present. You could say that this lesson is the most difficult for me to apply, or maybe just the one that I understand the least. I yearn for efficiency and productivity, which do not appear to result from meditation, relaxation, or any other excuse for procrastination. Supposedly there is a lot to be said for working smarter instead of working harder, but I would rather work smarter every waking hour than only during half of them. Therefore I am blatantly guilty of multitasking and rarely granting my undivided attention to another person or even an experience. While I am not yet in agreement that I will gain from being present, I do understand that the other person will lose if I am not.
3: Ask for help. My aforementioned friendship simply would not have evolved as it did if I had not been asked for help. That is not to say that I am particularly capable, but that I put myself in the right place at the right time, and that my friend was willing to ask. Many people achieve a certain level of happiness from helping others (despite what Ayn Rand might say on the subject of altruism and self-scarifice). By refraining from asking, you are depriving someone else of making their own decision about whether or not to help. If you are the person being asked, be willing to say no. I contend that when either party is in doubt, it is better to take the risk.
4: Accept past decisions. I struggle constantly with the fact that I “wasted” years of my life when I could have been learning so much more, and potentially contributing something of value to the world. A concrete example of this is the fact that I grew up during one of the most transformational times in human history, when the PC and the internet changed the way we communicate, learn, work – and I settled in as a consumer of this technology rather than a producer. In my case, this was an issue of perspective and discipline, resulting in a multitude of small decisions that I regret. My friend made a conscious effort to pursue a life that involved a very long, complicated path of hard work and sacrifice. We cannot focus on whether or not the these choices were the best. Our previous decisions were made with the best information that we had at the time. Accepting our current position and owning it is the only way to move forward. This does not mean that we are stuck and cannot begin anew, but that we would not have been any happier on the alternative path. There will always be a question of what might have been. The answer is in the future, not the past.