How the world works

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.” –Joseph Tussman

We are not strangers in a strange land. Sure, mystery is all around. But we are solidly a part of it—emerging from it, not dropped into it.

A recurring lesson from sources as far flung as Taoism and Stoicism is the notion that an excellent life is one that is in accord with nature, in harmony with the reality of the way the world works.

Observe how the natural world moves with ease, how nature unfolds without fussing and straining.

Don’t force. Don’t resist. Have a beginner’s mind. Let the world teach you.

Big picture thinking

“Without a meaningful, believable story that explains the world we actually live in, people have no idea how to think about the big picture. And without a big picture, we are very small people.” –Nancy Abrams

I need the big picture, the “Why”, the zoomed out view, before I can drill down into the “What” and the “How”.

When I feel like I’m drifting, I remind myself of what a grand story I get to be a part of.

I may be small and insignificant in the big scheme, but I am in the game. I’m alive and aware in a dazzlingly complex and overwhelming mystery of a universe.

The big picture enlarges my perspective and my possibilities if not my ego.

Making excellence a habit

“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives —choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” –Aristotle

Plan to be excellent. Winging it only takes you so far.

Craft routines and habits that obligate you to take action regularly on your plan.

Determine what’s most important, then be determined in consistently making that your priority.

Be awesome on purpose.

Energy crisis

“To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” –Bertrand Rusell

The know-how may be less crucial than the want-to and the get-up-and-go. The will to action can be tough to summon. But it’s often the first step—the leap, the getting up and getting started—that stalls us.

Even if you don’t feel like it, just get started in some small way on your grand plan for making the world better or on your humble dream to be a better version of yourself.

Fake it if you have to. Act like you already are who you want to be. Forward movement builds momentum and renews energy you didn’t know was there.

Don’t wait till you’ve got it figured out to get started. You’ll never have it figured out. It’s only in the doing that the thinking can take flight.

Feeling a bit hopeless? In despair? Just start.

Change happens

“Change leads to insight more than insight leads to change.” –Milton Erickson

We overestimate, especially in January each year, how much we can, or, more accurately, will initiate change. Best intentions of a new and better you usually remain merely intentions.

But some kind of change is going to happen—likely change you can’t foresee, much less desire.

Be prepared, then, to use whatever may come as an opportunity for new insight and growth. Embrace everything—everything—that happens to you as if you had chosen it. (This approach doesn’t exactly come naturally. Some hard mental jujitsu is necessary. I’m still a white belt here.)

But resistance to what already is is futile, so it would make sense to accommodate yourself to changing circumstances rather than getting flattened by them.

Paraphrasing Darwin, it’s not the strongest or most intelligent that survive. It’s those who are most adaptable to change.

Change is inevitable, it’s relentless, and it’s coming. At least use it to propel yourself forward.

On noticing when you’re happy

From a 2003 speech to college students by the author Kurt Vonnegut:

And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Wouldn’t it be great to have an Uncle Alex around to regularly remind you to notice happy moments?

Or maybe you should be Uncle Alex, reminding others and yourself to notice the usually unnoticed small delights and kindnesses of daily life.

We are surrounded by wonder and deep mystery and the potential for little bits of joy that mostly get passed by in our dazed distraction or overwhelmed by the crush of complaints and worries that seem to consume our attention.

It’s easier to find something if you’re looking for it. Look for these moments. Notice when you’re happy.

Remind others, too.

“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”