Your parents were wrong
You can’t ignore your DNA. The worst thing you can do is deny who you are, try to be someone or something you’re not, and live a life bent and molded by others. As Oscar Wilde put it, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Ouch.
You can be a musician, an accountant, or a sexy, powerful, creative beast—but you have to be yourself first. You have to follow that star. Others without the grit and guts will have to be satisfied with becoming president.
Have a damn opinion
There’s an American gospel song with the powerful refrain, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” We all have that little light. It’s lit by our upbringing and our childhood. It’s our history, our travels, the things we love, and the things we fear. Our little light is our opinion—and it begs to be illuminated.
Sadly, most of us don’t let our light shine, for two reasons: It’s too easy and it’s too hard.
Your voice is the story you put into everything you do. It’s what sets you apart and makes you and your work memorable. It frees you from following trends or begging for ideas, asking, “What do they want?” Now your most powerful tool is asking yourself, “What do I have to say?”
The things that made you weird as a kid make you great today
Professionally, weird is a benefit. For some fields, it’s a damn prerequisite. Any “successful” actor, chef, musician, athlete, or comedian, when asked what contributed to their success, will answer, “When I was a kid . . .” Pop-culture icon and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson remembers looking up into the night sky as a child and says, “The universe called me.”
When you accept your weirdness and believe in your gifts is when things get really weird. That’s when your cause inspires others. When people see their own struggle reflected in yours, you create the potential for shared humanity. Your weirdness speaks to them. That’s when you find those people who accept you precisely because you’re weird and different. Ultimately you’ll hear that glorious refrain: “Oh, you’re weird, too? I thought I was the only one!” This is how you form relationships and businesses. This is how you find your audience.
Accept it: You’re weird.
The success of failure
The first step down any path is most likely failure. Most great tales of success begin rather grimly. Failure is a teacher—just not always the kindest teacher. Its lesson is to not quit and run in the opposite direction, but to learn from failure, to follow its lead. Failure is a test. Its purpose is to weed out those of us who don’t want things badly enough. It presents a choice—you can stay down or you can get up and try again. Failure is a shepherd who’s smarter than you.
Because of our reluctance to accept the hard lessons of failure, most of us fail even bigger—and don’t even know it. We slip into a mediocre life. We quit our goals, lose our “crazy” aspirations, and choose the “easy way.” The consolation prize is a flat screen TV and a bag of chips. From the outside, this looks like success, but it’s actually settling for less—comfort disguised as success.
The path to success is marked by failure. Not just once, but again and again. Accept it and learn. Reject it and . . . well, fail. I still teach beginners how to ski, and my best lesson is still, “If you’re not falling, you’re not skiing.”
There ain’t no rules
Adults love rules. We actively look for them, and use them like a handrail to find our way around. We want to know where we stand. We seek structure to our floppy lives, so we ask, “What are the rules around here?” What we find are actually just strong suggestions of what you can and cannot do to fit within polite society. These are not really rules, but society’s habits, handed down and unconsciously agreed upon so everyone can play nice and avoid mayhem. When we do splurge and break the rules, we feel as though we’ve gotten away with something—when in actuality we have only taken what freedom was ours to begin with. Most rules are an invisible fence; they exist because we believe they do.
The problem with the rules is that they’re generally unisex and one-rule-fits-all. They promote conventional, business-as-usual thinking and don’t allow for the concepts of individuality or play. Rules like “Stay within the lines,” “Don’t rock the boat,” and even “Be nice” seem innocuous enough but are creatively stifling.
Even in the commercial practices of architecture, film, theater, and business, there are rules about how things are done. Only when we see those rules beautifully ignored do we come to a new, higher realization of what is possible.
People are too concerned with the idea of perfection. We crave it at an ironfisted-control-freak-Martha-Stewart level in our lives. And we nearly kill ourselves—or let others kill us—pursuing it at work. Perfection is a head game we play with ourselves—no one outside of our heads really cares about the nitpicky details we stress over. It works like this: Set unobtainable goals; then, when you don’t achieve them, drive yourself into depression. You can give it a fancy name like “True Perfectionist,” but I prefer “Self-Hating Narcissist.”
On its surface, perfectionism seems like it would be a professional advantage, a creative accelerator. But really, as a driver, it hits the brakes more often than the gas. Perfectionism stops you from starting projects—or even relationships—because you are not ready. It stops you from finishing projects because they are never quite right. “When it’s perfect!” is our defense, but this habitual overthinking leaves us stymied, unable to get over ourselves and just move.
Should you strive for excellence? Of course. Pay attention to the details? Yes. But never let “perfect” stop progress. You know what’s better than perfect? Done. Done is better than perfect.
Kill the critic
We all have critics. You can hardly make a move without bullies, haters, or your family voicing an opinion on it, ready to point out your mistakes and elbow you back into the fold.
But there are crueler critics than your friends or society, inner voices that cast doubt over your career and life choices. Voices that steal your determination and replace it with fear and flaws.
Where your attention goes, you go. If you focus on your flaws, they’ll flourish right in front of you. Your work will pale in comparison to others’. Your life will be less shiny. If you look for trouble, you’ll find it; and the critic will always be right.
To kill the constant, nagging thoughts of failure, we have to be defiant and take command of our lives and our choices. We have to focus on love and gratitude toward ourselves. We have to focus on our gifts and talents. Kill the critic and get back to work.
Brave and scared shitless
As an emotion, bravery never runs solo. It always has a chaser of fear. No firefighter, athlete, daredevil, or speaker at the podium is actually courageous without an equal dose of cowardice charging through them. You can be brave and scared shitless at the same time. As a matter of fact, you have to be. Bravery puts you into the game; fear keeps you from doing something really stupid.
Your fear should never keep you from doing what you need to do. It’s just a reminder that it won’t always be easy. It’s also a reminder that that’s the way life works. With courage comes fear. With change comes reticence. C’est la guerre.
The next time you need to ask for more money, move up in rank, or present your idea to the clan, remember that the fear you are feeling may have a little bravery mixed in it.
Love something other than your selfie
By most accounts, the keys to happiness and longevity include the freedom to express your feelings, a sense of usefulness, and friends. Though the modern trend to these goals is through drugs, therapy, or meditation, you may have better luck getting a dog.
Caring for something or someone other than yourself is understanding that there are bigger things in the world than your ego. It’s also the beginning of finding a purpose in your life and work.
A purpose gives your life meaning. It’s a reason to get out of bed. With a purpose, your life is no longer about you and your needs, but about serving a larger community. It’s about making work that matters and that directly affects the lives of others. It’s about doing work out of love and a sense of belonging, not because we have to.
The knights, the samurai, the Boy and Girl Scouts, and even the movie-mythic Jedi all have a moral code of decency to live by that centers around serving others. Let them serve as your example. Love something other than yourself. Help, teach, lead, or perform unrewarded good deeds.
How to change the world
“You can’t change the world, but you can clean up your room.”
Like most mom-isms, this one took a few years to untangle. It came whenever she sensed my confusion at the way the world worked. At first I thought it was an admonishment to ignore the facts and get busy with the vacuum. Later I realized it was my mother’s way of saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Mom was telling me that I couldn’t help others or make them happy until I could do these things for myself.
You may call it being the change or leading by example, or just doing your best. But if you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself. Real change starts with your education, your empathy, and your awareness of the world around you.
The better you take care of what is within your reach, the farther you can reach. This is how you affect others. This is how you change the world.