7 High-leverage life skills they should teach in grade school

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They don’t need to take up too much math or science time, maybe just a single two-hour class for each, covering two a year. Plant a few seeds and leave them alone. They’ll grow, in in the minds of certain kids where the conditions are right, and their progress will be gradual but unstoppable.

These skills aren’t easy. I suck at most of them, but I know they’re all I really need to know how to do. Simply introduce them and they’ll lead a person to anything else he needs to know. In me, the seeds have germinated, no question about that. I am gradually getting better at them. They take years, so I wish I’d started in grade school.

1) Letting people misunderstand and dislike you

I used to really believe that somebody getting the wrong idea about me was some kind of problem that had to be fixed. This is the kind of fear that would prevent me from, say, renting “Heavenly Creatures” because everyone knows it has Kate Winslet’s boobs in it and the Blockbuster girl would think I’m renting it only because I’m a huge perv and not because it’s a good movie. It’s a tiny example, but that’s a genuine wall I built there. One of thousands.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to try and manipulate people’s knee-jerk impressions of you, and it makes you into a fearful, pandering creature. It’s completely impossible anyway, and there’s so little to gain even when you pull it off. Instead of someone getting a baseless negative impression of you, they get a baseless positive one.

The amount of pain suffered in vain by people trying to be liked by everyone is unimaginable. It drives people crazy. It makes people kill themselves.

Make no apologies or explanations for what you want, and let the unknown faces dislike or distrust you. Study your fear of leaving bad impressions, and practice doing what you want anyway. I bet you’ll become not just more comfortable, but more likable.

Elaine Benes: Who cares if she doesn’t like you? Does everyone have to like you?
George Costanza: Yes! Everyone has to like me!

2) Talking to strangers

School taught me strangers were at worst bad people, and at best irrelevant people. It took me a while to recognize that they were indeed people at all — that they have family members and friends to whom they are not strangers. It took even longer to realize that I am a stranger.

They had an explicit rule about it: Don’t talk to strangers! Stranger is clearly a pejorative word, and they told us to use that word to describe anyone we didn’t know. And don’t let them talk to you!

I am still getting over the idea that people I don’t know are “strange.” Some of the most rewarding moments of my life have happened while breaking this rule.

Kids can still be taught to keep themselves safe without instilling such a damaging view of the casual passer-by.

Imagine if nobody regarded anybody as a stranger, but rather a person they didn’t know. You can’t have wars without strangers. For that and other atrocities, we need a group of people so alien and blank to us that we don’t care what happens to them. 

3) Forgiving

After all this time, all its coverage on Oprah and in religious texts, forgiveness is almost uniformly misunderstood. It does not mean you are okay with what has been done. It doesn’t even mean it doesn’t bother you any more. Forgiving is deciding you will no longer attempt to justify hate or anger, because you know they are damaging to you and your life.

Those feelings will still appear now and then, maybe always, but to forgive is to decide you are done indulging in them. That means no more revenge fantasies, no more nasty remarks. Finally it can begin to recede in your mind.

I’ve experienced a lot of resentment in my life. I’ve mulled it over, wished, fantasized, rehearsed confrontations and diatribes in my head, but I have never once found any true benefit to justifying resentment. All of it is out of control, all of it is painful, all of it is addictive.

There is a comforting feeling in hatred. We imagine it protects us from getting hurt again. This fantasy gives us a spike of relief when we feel powerless, but there is no real power in it. It’s as helpful as thinking about food when you’re stranded on a remote island. Resentment feels good in a bad sort of way. It’s pure mental junk food, only it makes you powerless instead of fat.

4) Letting your moods come and go without trying to force the bad ones away

Oh wow, what a revelation this was. I was 22 before it ever occured to me that bad moods are completely normal and do not indicate that my life has gone wrong.
Bad moods seem to have hallucinogenic properties. They make you misperceive and misinterpret reality.

I’ve described bad moods as “a nasty drug that hijacks your thoughts and robs you of your intuition and perspective.” You simply don’t have access to your higher capacities while you’re in a bad mood — empathy, wisdom, objectivity and patience. They take a vacation, and they’ll definitely be back. So in the mean time don’t do anything that depends on those faculties: don’t make any decisions about your life, don’t make any statements about who you are (to yourself or anyone else), don’t criticize others, and don’t insist that you must feel good right now.

Refusing to bear the odd bout of bad feelings is what drives people to the most desperate behaviors: addictions, blame, bad relationships and crime.

Good moods are much easier to deal with and don’t require any remedial action. But it’s worth remembering that they inevitably give way to not-good moods. So if you suddenly don’t feel so hot, don’t take that as a signal that things are going wrong. It’s just a change in the wind. Moods move like weather: there are patterns, bad conditions are inevitable, and any given cell is always on its way out.

5) Doing things you are afraid of

I’m slowly learning that the best response to fear is curiosity. When the thought of doing something makes you uncomfortable, all that means is that its consequences are unfamiliar and unpredictable. That might be good. It always means there is some seriously new ground that can be broken right now.

Of all these skills, this is the one I’m worst at. Yet I keep discovering the same encouraging thing whenever I do it — once you walk right into it, the fear part gives way pretty quickly. It’s like a thin shell you thought was a wall. The rewards are always way closer and more accessible than I think.

The sequence unfolds the same way, nine times out of ten. One moment it’s “Oh man I am never doing that.” Then you take that first step — and it literally is a step, a movement of the leg. You watch yourself moving into it in the first person and the mind is saying “Holy shit, this is it, I’m nuts.” Then you’re in the middle of it, saying what you need to say or doing what you need to do. Then you realize you’re on the other side, making things happen in a place you thought was forbidden to you. Then you’re giddy and grateful the rest of the day.

In the cradle of civilization, almost anyone can heed almost all their fears yet still survive in reasonable comfort. So some people never make a point of this.

Although I sometimes wish it weren’t true, this seems to be law:

How often you do things you’re afraid of is a reliable barometer for how quickly you’re becoming a more capable person.

6) Watching the moment unfold as it will and letting go of your need to control it

Whenever I even mention this idea, people panic. “But we can’t just let things happen! What if terrible things happen?!”

The truth is your life is a steady stream of mostly unpredictable stuff, and there is ultimately very little control to be had over it, other than what you do in response. The best responses are always conscious and calm.

We can learn to be smarter about the risks that we take, but most of what fate has in store for us could never be predicted. Once it’s happening, it’s happening. If you need to do something about it, you still can. But your action doesn’t have to arise from this place of rejecting reality. Planning, preparing, insuring, deciding — all of it can be done at the same time as you let happen what is indeed happening.

You won’t be able to let it all go at once, but it’s amazing what happens when you give yourself a mission to do it for five minutes. Can you let everything unfold as it will for five minutes? Sure you can, and it’s exhilarating. If something happens that has you itching to react, let it be, and when the five minutes is up, you can get right back to trying to stop the world from turning, if you think it’s worthwhile.

7) Noticing attraction and aversion as soon as they appear

We’d all like to think that we’re driven primarily by wisdom and rational thinking, but the truth is the majority of our actions come from very short term attractions and aversions that happen mostly under the radar in the moment. These are the greatest forces driving your life, and if you’re not aware of where they’re leading you, nobody else is either. Trust them at your peril.

This is how we “end up” in careers we don’t like, suffering from compulsive behaviors, or getting into debt. We don’t choose these outcomes consciously, we just follow the little trail of cookies throughout life, and they can lead us to dark places. It’s a simple, thoughtless mechanism designed only to get us from birth to procreation to death, and it drags us along kicking and screaming over rocks and coals, if we’re not aware of how it works.

There is so much to gain from noticing the feelings of attraction and aversion the moment they arise, thinking about what you’re really looking to cling to (or escape from) in that moment, and making sure your action is conscious. No matter how we rationalize our motives, if you observe them you’ll invariably find they almost always consist of a pull towards some kind of promised gratification, or a push away from some kind of promised discomfort.

Imagine if you could feel these pushes and pulls acting on you, then decide what’s actually in your best interest, then do it.

Mastering it is the work of a lifetime, but all you need to do is notice what it feels like when attraction arises, and notice what it feels like when aversion arises. Know what “cookie” it is you’re attached to here, and when it’s no good for you, defy it and see what happens.

***

There. A few more seeds in the ground.

Photo by Naosuke II

Learn to live in the present

Everyday mindfulness has transformed my life, and has for countless others. You can use it to reduce stress, deal calmly with trouble, and experience joy and peace throughout each day. Making it a habit is easier than you probably think. Learn how.


{ 58 Comments }

Vanessa December 15, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Reading this post was really great for me. The lesson on forgiveness is the most relevant to me at this time in my life; it was both insightful and comforting to come to understand forgiveness in the way you explained it above. It’s also interesting how all of these ideas overlap. I’ll have to come back every now and then when life gets confusing so I can take another look at these, rethink things, and tend to the garden you’ve planted in my head.

David December 19, 2011 at 7:27 am

Thanks Vanessa.

Ann December 27, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Hi, David…a friend just sent me your writing and I am very grateful. Can you please say a little bit about #7 in relation to our instincts? I have learned often not always that the “gut feeling” is produced for a reason..protection as well as grace. Are you describing instinct with #7 or maybe I’m not reading it thoroughly? Thank you

David December 28, 2011 at 8:30 am

Hi Ann. Whenever we notice something new (you learn a new piece of news, someone new walks into the room, something falls and breaks) we have an immediate feeling reaction — either attraction to this new development, or repulsion. This happens all the time and often we suffer when we are attracted to things we don’t have, or are repulsed by things we do have.

I wrote a whole article about it here:

http://www.raptitude.com/2011/02/we-check-email-17-times-a-day-because-we-like-to-get-high/

Kim Patron January 8, 2012 at 1:35 am

“Strangers are friends we haven’t met yet. :)

Jaiper Feliciano November 6, 2013 at 8:50 am

It’s good to read this information from your post. You have an interesting way of drawing people in. Keep up the good works..

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