How to Muddle Through in Life

In the end, life is about muddling through as best you can. Most self-help books (and I read a lot of them) will advise you to find your “life’s purpose and passion,” but that’s like telling you the secret to success in business is to found a good company and make lots of money. The devil is in the details.

If I had to summarize all that I have learned about making your way on the path of life, however, I think it would come down to just a few core principles.

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1. Put a priority on education. No one ever got very far, or became very happy, by being dumb. Stupidity is not a virtue, no matter what Hollywood tells you. Of course, by education I don’t necessarily mean college… although for most people, that is what it means. If you want to be an actor, fine… but learn everything you can about acting and about everything else you’re interested in. Read every acting book there is. Get the best training you can find. Ask questions constantly. Be curious. Be the geek who stays after class, asking followup questions. If you’re a mechanic, get advanced training. Sign up for courses. Take distance learning courses. Go to graduate school. Keep learning, keep studying. Become a perpetual student. Fill your home with books… and read them. Subscribe to as many magazines and journals in your field as you can afford. Take notes. Get a journal and write in it. If you’re in high school or college, make it your mission to learn everything you can… whatever it takes. If you’re already in the work force, make it your mission to learn everything you can about your profession, or your job, or your business. Become the “go to” guy or gal in your office, the expert the boss looks to for answers. Don’t be a smart ass about, don’t show off, just be knowledgeable – in your own quiet, unassuming way.

2. Try a lot of different things… especially things you don’t think you’ll be good at. I think this is good advice for young people but even better advice for old people. The infinite power that created galaxies and us gave us all talents and magic powers we don’t even know we have so the purpose of life, and especially when we’re young, is to experiment to discover what they are. The only way to do that is to try different things. In high school, if you’re a chemistry whiz and the math geek, try out for the football team. You might be surprised. You might, to your amazement, find you actually like tackling people. Similarly, if you’re a jock and a natural athlete, show you really have guts and try out for the school musical. Learn to play an instrument. Take up a new foreign language – like Chinese, perhaps. A few years back, there was a wonderful movie with Jim Carey called “Yes Man.” It was about a man whose life was utterly transformed when he went from saying “no” all the time to automatically saying “yes” – yes to volunteering, yes to learning Korean. Remember the old proverb: Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. It doesn’t matter if you’re lousy at something or don’t really know what you’re doing. If you were good at it, it wouldn’t be something new… and therefore wouldn’t test or stretch your abilities. I’m not particularly good at taking my own advice but I have tried to do this a little. I worked at a lot of different menial jobs when I was younger – fry cook, delivery boy, warehouse man. I learned a lot from all of them. When I was forty, I took up Aikido – a strange Japanese martial art that is derived from jujitsu. Change is good. Do different things. Never stop experimenting.

3. Make a solemn, lifelong vow of kindness. In Mahayana Buddhism, this is called the Bodhisattva Vow, the commitment to work for the salvation of all sentient beings. In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, this is choosing the standard of Christ. In essence, you make a lifelong and solemn commitment to be kind – to your family, your friends, strangers you meet, animals, the earth. If it’s not kind, you don’t do it. It’s that simple. Be the one kid in class who sticks up for the underdogs, the new kids, the kids who get taunted and mocked. Be a decent human being. Make it a conscious choice. Decide to become a Knight of the Round Table. Defend the innocent. Stand for justice. Be courteous to all, especially to people who don’t deserve it. I don’t really believe in karma, but when it comes to “random acts of kindness” I’ve always found that it’s true. Even from a selfish, self-interested perspective, kindness almost always pays off in unexpected ways. It’s something we never think about but it’s a foundational principle for a successful life and general happiness.

4. Serve a higher purpose. One of the tasks we are actually performing, as we flop about in our twenties, thirties and forties, looking for something to do with our lives, is searching for a cause or mission worthy of our commitment. To be truly happy in life, we have to serve something bigger than our own bellies, we have to work for a noble cause. For many, if not most of us, that cause can be something as simple as our own families. To raise and educate children in modern society, and keep them safe and strong and thriving, requires sacrifices and work most people have no clue about – until they actually face it themselves. Oftentimes, service to the higher purpose of our children requires us to work in hum-drum jobs just to earn money – even hum-drum jobs like law or medicine. As a result, we should realize that is what we are doing and make it a conscious choice rather than something we drift into by default. I am deliberately trying to sell more life insurance than any other salesman in my town because I have three children to get through college. Of course, it helps if we can combine our high purpose and our work, if our work serves our higher purpose… and that is the subject for another chapter. But even if we haven’t figured out how to pull that off, even if we have to work as a house cleaner or a computer programmer, we can still serve a higher purpose. This is essential to our happiness. Find that higher purpose in your life. Keep thinking about it, refining it. Read books on mission. Find a “failure is not an option” mission and commit to seeing it through.

5. Be flexible. Precisely because I’m not a particularly flexible person, in both a physical and a psychological sense, I know something about flexibility and its importance. I’m naturally rather stiff. It’s kind of a running joke in my Aikido classes. My ironic nickname is Gumby because I move like Frankenstein’s monster. But flexibility is something you have to consciously work on. You have to stretch regularly. You have to breathe, bend, get out of the way. This is why Aikido is so good for you. The essence of ukemi, the Aikido practice of “welcoming” attacks, is flexibility. Say someone throws a punch at you or tries to kick you. In karate, you would typically just block the attack, hard. In Aikido, you move out of the way and “blend” with the attack, actually trying to ride it the way a surfer rides a wave. This requires great flexibility as well as balance, timing and lightness on your feet – all great attributes to have when facing the blows that life throws at you. It’s helpful throughout life to remain flexible. You have a plan but you have to adapt. You take advantage of opportunities you didn’t expect and you recover from setbacks you didn’t see coming. Of course, you can’t be so flexible you just fall down. That doesn’t help you, either. Someone who “goes with the flow” too much ends up over the waterfall. In Aikido, the trick is to be flexible yet “buoyant,” maintaining contact with your attacker with an ongoing energy. You don’t just collapse. It’s the same thing in life. You have a direction, an energy, an intention. You have ideals and moral principles. You’re more flexible about means than ends. You know approximately where you want to go but realize there are a variety of ways of getting there.

6. Have a plan. It helps to have a plan, to think a few moves ahead. Most people don’t. You can overdue it, of course. There was a character in the old Australian TV series McLeod’s Daughters who had this elaborate flow chart of her life, with every contingency anticipated, every step outlined. It filled an entire wall of her room. The Master Plan both fascinated and horrified her friends… as well as viewers. But all things being equal, having a plan is better than not. You can have a plan for getting through college and/or graduate school… for landing a job… for your career… for meeting and marrying the love of your life… for your business… for retirement. They say that the single reason why most businesses fail is because the owners didn’t take the time to write up a business plan. Whenever I’ve struggled in my life, usually in business, I’ve written up a Plan for how I am going to get through things… and then tried to follow it. Things usually work out. Without a plan, I flop around like a fish on a dock, desperate and in a panic. I even try to plan my day a little – not too much, but enough so I know what I want to accomplish. I also find it’s very helpful to write things down. I buy expensive leather-bound Italian journals, fill them with my plans, and take them with me everywhere for constant review.

7. Have fun. These “macro” imperatives for life reflect my own values, of course, but I think they are fairly universal. What’s the point if you don’t have fun? That applies to every stage of your life – high school, college, your jobs, your marriage, raising kids, your business, retirement. One of the things I most admire about the late conservative writer and publisher William F. Buckley, Jr., was his enormous capacity for and dedication to having fun. Unlike many conservative political activists, Buckley believed in having a good time. He and his wife hosted dinner parties, cocktail parties and receptions. They spent a full two months every year in Switzerland, skiing and writing. Buckley was a passionate sailor and was constantly organizing expeditions and trips. He enjoyed life, good friends, his wife and son. I think we should all strive to have more fun. As the saying has it, we should work hard and play harder. By all means, go to medical school… just make sure you take spring break off and head to the Bahamas. That’s my advice for my overachieving children.

8. Realize the path is the goal. That’s the title of a book by Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master and founder of the Naropa University in Colorado. He was talking about Buddhist meditation but I think it applies equally to life. You know what they say, life is what happens while we’re making other plans. It’s human nature, I think, to have big goals… big plans… and to assume that once we reach them, we’ll have it made, be happy. But we should all be mystical enough to realize that, in a very real sense, we’re already there, life itself is the goal. The kingdom of God is among us, right now. Everything we could want in the universe is already ours. “Everything I have is yours,” the father tells the prodigal son, who never realized the gifts he had right under his nose. We should make big plans, struggle hard to achieve our goals, suffer the disappointments of failure, and yet maintain what the Mormons call an “eternal perspective” and realize that the path is the goal.

Robert Hutchinson is an writer and essayist. He latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible.

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