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What do you do now that you should have always done?

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About six months after I got my first guitar, I had reached a stage where I knew a lot of chords and I could play recognizable bits of songs, but I couldn’t play even the simplest song (Wild Thing?) without flubbing chord changes all the way through. It felt like I hadn’t actually begun to learn at all.

I found some comfort in online guitar forums for beginners. Hundreds of others shared my frustration, believing that they were every bit as bad as they were the first day they picked up the instrument.

One day, a slightly more experienced player thaught us a trick that makes it 100% clear how far you’ve come since you started. You rotate the guitar so that your fret hand becomes your picking hand and vice-versa. Then you attempt to play anything you know.

This puts you exactly where you were when you started — your fingers have to find entirely new positions and make entirely new motions, and you recognize how much skill and nuance you’ve gained since that first day, which is the last time the guitar felt that unfamiliar and awkward to you.

When I have discouraging moments other areas of life, I use a similar trick to remind myself how much more capable a person I’ve become.

I think about where I was exactly a year ago, or two years ago, or five years ago today — what was going on in my life and what my biggest dilemmas were. I then imagine being given a chance to deal with those issues knowing what I know now, today, as 2013 David. A lot of the time today’s Me would make short work of those problems, even if today’s Me isn’t on top of all of today’s problems.

This exercise reveals real growth, and that kind of personal growth tends to come in little breakthroughs. These little breakthroughs have two ingredients: 1) you learn something you didn’t know, and 2) as a result, you try doing something differently than you used to do it. 

Sometimes these attempts lead to lasting change, and sometimes they don’t, but they all come from some kind of behavioral experiment, either intentional or accidental. If you insist on doing things the way you’ve always done them, life will get easier and more fulfilling only very slowly, if it does at all.

So it’s reasonable to expect that people who try new approaches more often tend to grow more often, and tend to find a way to live their values earlier in life.

These breakthroughs also tend to be dramatic. You can’t believe you didn’t do it this way before. You wish you’d made this change years ago. You find it amazing others still live the way you used to.

My biggest breakthrough this year has been the way I approach money and income, and life is a lot lighter and brighter now. The Me of 2013 would make a cakewalk out of most of the financial dilemmas of my past. Almost certainly, the Me of 2014 would make short work of some of today’s dilemmas, because of some new habit I will end up trying in the coming year.

Everyone has had the experience of making a change in their behavior that gave them an immediate and lasting advantage over the rest of their lives. We’ve all know what it’s like to make a simple change that is so clearly better than the old way that we wonder how it took us so long.

I want to know what obvious-in-hindsight changes you’ve made in your life in the past year or two. What did you try that made you wish you’d done it years ago? Say so in the comments. It doesn’t have to be big — it could just be a better way of grocery shopping. All that matters is that it’s so much better than your old way that you wish you’d always done it.

Even if you don’t normally comment here, I urge you to share this time. Think of how much time and frustration we could all save each other by exchanging our breakthroughs here. Let’s trade our best in-hindsight wisdom. Share yours, then go try something that worked for someone else.

I’ll add mine later in the comments.


Photo by silentmind

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Drew June 21, 2013 at 7:09 am

Meditating (almost) everyday and making sure to take stock of all of my ‘stuff’ every 6 months or so and getting rid of things that are not needed. These two things have combined to really free me from a lot of the clinging to the physical and mental items in my life.

Elin June 21, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Great post! I´ve gotten so much inspiration from reading all the comments.

Here´s a few changes I´ve adopted during the latest five years that has transformed my life to the better. (Not that I regret my past, but knowing how awesome my life is like today I would have done all of these transitions much sooner if I could go back in time).

*Adopted a vegan diet
*incorporated A LOT of raw foods and green juices
*Made exercise a habit
*Grown a kitchen garden
*Quit gluten and alcohol
*Ended toxic relationships in favor of new rewarding ones
*Given away almost all of my stuff in favor of a minimalist lifestyle
*Moved on from a dead end job to ensuing a career in something that I´m passionate about (gardening and ethnobotany.)
*Give away 10% of what I make to charity

I feel healthy, grateful and free.

Kate Elizabeth June 23, 2013 at 8:36 am

Wow Elin, they’re really impressive changes – you’re probably a whole new person, or just a happier version of yourself! I think to some people, those changes might look unrelated – but it’s amazing when you declutter your life and your priorities become abundantly clear. It’s like a domino effect of clarity!

claire June 24, 2013 at 6:37 am

this is awesome! aside from needing to quit gluten which (far as i can tell) i have no particular issue with, this list is like totally what i’m going for too! (you’re my hero, haha). yay you.

Drew June 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Great Post David! There are a few things I would definitely do different in the last few years, that I have just started in the last year. The first would be to step out of my comfort zone, the reason I’m commenting here to begin with! Embrace challenges, as opposed to avoiding them. One of the things I’m still working on, though getting better every day, is one I learned from this blog, about living in the moment. I used to dread going to any shopping place, grocery store, but after your article ‘How to walk across a parking lot’, I find it to be a nice ‘in the moment’ activity going in and coming out. This has also reduced my anxiety and stress while both shopping and trying to get a close spot, as now, I just park way out, and enjoy my stroll in. The blogs I’ve been reading have been a huge jumpstart to these and a few other good habits I’ve established. A couple include http://www.mrmoneymustache.com and jlcollinsnh.com They are the two best financial bloggers out there! I wish I would have discovered Raptitude a couple of years ago, as social challenges still prove the most difficult. On that note “The greater the challenge, the more glorious victory”

marian June 22, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Through reading Eckhart Tolle among others, I’ve begun to take things less personally. I always knew I should do this, but I didn’t know how. Just telling myself it wasn’t personal didn’t really help. Here’s what I’ve discovered that did:

1. I now think of everyone on a consciousness/pain spectrum. Very few people are truly evil (I don’t rule out the possibility that a few are, but I don’t know any of them). When they hurt others, most people are just acting out of their own pain and doing what they believe they need to do to protect themselves, or they’re just not conscious of the effects of their actions. It really has nothing to do with me. (And happily, it’s not necessarily a permanent condition for them, either–i.e., they’re not just hopeless assholes.) I might do what another reader here suggested and try to find their positive intention–what were they trying to accomplish for themselves?–to help me get a perspective on them that isn’t so rooted in how I personally feel about what they did.

2. I’ve also come to understand a lot about different personality types through my study of Parelli natural horsemanship. There are tons of different personality descriptions out there and I think we’re all kind of aware of that fact without really thinking about what it means in action. What it means is this: two people can behave in exactly the same way but be doing it for completely opposite reasons. An introvert might read someone barging into a conversation as rude because they would more likely stay outside it until asked to join, but an extrovert would see what introverts consider “barging in” as being friendly. Similarly, the extrovert might read the introvert as being snobby and aloof rather than as hesitant to interrupt. The point is to not make assumptions about other people’s intentions. We’re all different. Instead, why not get curious about other people’s drives and motivations and ask them about themselves?

3. When people say something in judgment of you, it is almost always really a judgment of themselves. So if they open their mouths to criticize you, you just file that away as a shortcoming that they believe they have and that they feel ashamed of. Similarly, if I find myself judging and reacting to someone else, I’m probably in reality mad at myself for something I’ve done or felt and I need to find a way to be at peace with my own shortcomings so that I can forgive those things in others. In both cases, these shortcomings can be great opportunities to understand and connect more with other people, rather than to judge and isolate, because it is our weaknesses and vulnerabilities that let us relate most to each other (this is why so much stand up comedy material has to do with embarrassing scenarios).

4. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, there wasn’t a day you missed at school when everyone else was given the answer to life and you weren’t. We tend to walk around thinking that, contrary to all evidence, other people are confident and know exactly what they’re doing, but we ourselves are clueless and incompetent. What I’ve discovered is that there aren’t “right” and “wrong” ways to live life or to do things; there are simply more and less effective ways, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. And it is an unavoidable part of being alive that we’re all doing what we can with the knowledge we have, and the only way to gain more knowledge is to experiment. When you experiment, you may not get the outcome you wanted, or you may not get it in an optimal way, but that doesn’t mean you failed. I used to be very sensitive to the criticisms and judgments of others because I thought they knew the “right” way and I didn’t, or that I was always failing at things when actually I was just always trying new things. Now if someone suggests I’m not doing something the right (i.e., their) way, I’m more likely to say, “Wow, that’s a great idea, and I want to try that too, but right now I’m just curious to see if doing it this way will work” rather than getting defensive when I feel that I’m being called stupid for doing something a different way from someone else.

5. It is not other people’s job to read my mind or to make me happy. If I really need something, it’s up to me to understand what that thing is and communicate it, but I also need to be prepared to do what I need to do for myself if the other person doesn’t or can’t at that time care about what I’m communicating. This sounds kind of selfish, but I’ve realized how much more generous I can be to other people when I take care of myself as my main priority because I’m not wasting energy judging others for not intuiting or caring about my needs. I also feel proactive and empowered by doing what I need to do for me, and that sense of empowerment then spills over into helping others.

6. This is a cliché, but there are a lot more people in the world. I may be very attached to someone specific, and I may think about how much it would hurt if they weren’t in my life, but the more I can remember that there are a lot of cool people in the world just waiting for me to meet them, the less I’m likely to put as much pressure on that one person, or interpret everything they do in terms of what it says about the health of our relationship. It’s useful in this context as well to remember that I am quite capable of being completely happy when left alone to pursue my own interests and passions–I don’t *need* someone else to share those things; it’s simply very nice when they do. This sort of goes with #5: I don’t need other people to make me happy. Truly believing that lets me interact with them in a much more genuine and caring way instead of being concerned about getting them to meet my needs.

Markus June 23, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Great, practical points you shared there with everyone!
I used to be concerned about setting my ego as top priority but as you explained it’s only a gain for not only yourself to proceed that way. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance shines through that observation.
What a unique community this site has generated!

marian June 30, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Thanks, Markus. I loved Emerson in college and have been meaning to re-read Self Reliance. So I’ll take that as a huge compliment and get on with my plan to re-read it. Cheers!

Sarah July 6, 2013 at 10:26 pm

# 5 = brilliant, true, and inspiring!

Ged June 24, 2013 at 4:36 pm

I have managed to curtail my porn/jerking off habit of 13 years by about 92% since late February. There, I’ve said it.

jolanda June 24, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Deactivating my facebook account 3 months ago. I missed the days when I didnt think of things I was experiencing as possible status updates. Bumping into friends is so much more fun now as a hear news straight from them without saying “oh yeah I read that”.

Brian June 25, 2013 at 6:25 am

Thanks David for you blog! I have never though about creating a list like this before but these are some new things I have done since I stopped working in an office job 3.5 years ago….(long list, sorry, it’s three years!)

Went to the amazon jungle an tried ayahuasca
Became a vegetarian (eating just fish)
Started a yoga class
Wrote a screenplay
Explored forests
Went on two silent retreats in the mountains in Spain
Planted and ate my own vegetables
Became a skilled photographer
Became a skilled video editor
Planted herbs
Planted nut and fruit trees
Camped in the woods
Qualified in permaculture design
Climbed huge oak/beech trees with ropes and harness
Rock climbed on sea cliffs
Managed to surf proficiently
Studied the mysteries
Meditated daily
Rented out my apartment
Chanted in a kirtan
Do volunteer work regularly
Qualified in Horticulture
Understand the beauty of nature
Daily yoga practice
Mountain-biked through forests
Swam naked in lakes at dawn
Swam with a wild dolphin
Fell asleep bedside a fire next to a lake
Picked wild flowers
Ate wild food
Met a spiritual master
Got spiritual healing outdoors in sacred places in Ireland
Went to a spiritual healing workshop
Got my palms read
Did some magic
Hugged people
Lived in cob house
Started a blog
Killed a blog
Set-up websites for others
Create/manage to do lists
Write down thoughts in notepad
Saved a dying hawk of the road
Went to a acrobat/circus class
Finished a 13 week course on Roiscruicianism
Planted a forest garden
Went to African dance classes
Painted an abstract painting which is on my wall
Wrote some poems
Now a full vegetarian (no fish)
Learned about sleep paralysis
Overcome my sleep paralysis
Awareness of synchronicities
Stopped watching TV programs
Rarely watch movies
Rarely drink alcohol
Stopped worrying so much
Catch myself worrying and stop it
Use affirmations
Daily gratitude list
Dream diary
Started and deactivated facebook
Slowly overcoming my shadows traits
Make a veggie smoothie every morning
Buy part of my food at a local market
Observe my rigid reactions/rigid intellectual opinions
Try to remove this rigidity
Qualified as yoga teacher and held classes
Swam over 1km in the sea
Better management my ankylosing spondylitis condition
Accept doctors have limited knowledge and are human
Stopped driving my car
Live on less money
Accept help, without resistance
Give help when asked, without resistance
Respect for people’s choices
Wish everyone the best
Try to love more

I still say no to so many things….mainly due to fear, a lack of spontaneity or excuses I come up with. This makes me guilty sometimes as I know that I should doing more…..working on not feeling the guilt!


chacha1 June 25, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Something I started last year that I should have been doing all along: taking my writing seriously. There was graduate school and all its writing, and then there was Lots of Life for twenty years and nothing got done.

I don’t feel bad about it, because the delay meant Create Space and Kindle publishing became available, and that meant the whole submission/rejection circus was not a factor.

I didn’t care about whether the things I wrote last year had a “real publisher.” I just wanted to publish them – and I did. A few people have even read them! :-)

Genevieve Hawkins June 26, 2013 at 12:49 am

I am in the process of making a visa for my Thai husband to come to America. This has been gut wrenching, and is still a work in progress. But in my stacks of paperwork from the US Embassy and the Thai Immigration, I have learned the following lessons:
1: Honesty gets me farther than mountains of documents built on a foundation of BS ever will.
2: Don’t be ashamed of your past. Both me and my husband have to be clean, financially, criminally, personally. Admitting to past errors in judgement on any and all of those and moving on gets me a lot farther than pretending they didn’t happen.
3: Trust and openess is the key in any relationship. Making this process so hard is its own legitimacy check.
4: One or two years of drama is not that much if you’re planning a lifetime together.
5: You can complain about it, or learn from it. A business associate of mine called me this morning. He’s trying to make a fiancee visa to come to America. I realized how much I have learned in the past year in talking to him. I could write a book about it at this point. Does anyone have visa questions? Ask me.
6: You learn by doing things. Not by watching them on television, by reading about them, or by passing them off to someone else. Make your life a grand adventure, a series of first hand experiences and moments. Accepts faults and setbacks as opportunities to grow. In the 15 years since I was an 18 year old college freshman, I feel like I have done nothing but evolved. It’s like I started in Ohio and walked to California, 2500 miles away, all in a series of steps. I might have went off the trail a few times, maybe even went a few miles backwards here and there. But it would be impossible for me to devolve into the person I was 15 years ago without going back through 2500 miles of steps backwards. For people who have played it safe their whole lives, I suspect that journey back to their starting point is much closer. But its still very hard. And Ohio has changed since they last lived there, making it impossible to actually go back to that past point. We are always growing.
Your recent post about not being self conscious was very timely to me. 1-2 years ago I was planning on moving to a foreign country (Thailand) and marrying my husband. I received a lot of negative feedback from my family, and sometimes intense objections. I did find (as one other person in the comments noted) that people were projecting their own hopes, dreams, and fears onto me. I had staunch support from those who “always wanted to do something like that” and opposition from those who “always played it safe.” In the end I found their comments had very little to do with me and everything to do with their perspective on the world. This fact has helped me greatly in moving past my worst fears of rejection.
Keep on writing David. It’s food for my soul.

Ingrid June 26, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Learning to recognize when my intuition about what is right for me , is right. Then just follow it, and quit discussing and making compensations which will eventually make me lose later anyway.

But most, just don’t be so hard on myself about pleasures. We all want to have fun, we all want to enjoy stuff, and we want to be liked and do things we enjoy doing. Makes my money now last longer, giving me more. Believe it or not.

Adriano July 8, 2013 at 9:46 am

Being honest the most I can. Avoiding even the whitest of the lies. this helps myself to be honest with myself, hence I can exercise facing reality all the time. I should have started earlier.

TravelBug-Susan July 16, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Writing a blog because I enjoy writing so much. It’s a good record of what we’ve been doing and feeling.

Walking and hiking 4-6 miles at least three times per week.

Miroslav August 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm

I tore myself out of the school-videogames-sleep routine which I acqired in my elementary and high school days, and which costed me about a decade of life. It was gradual, about three years, but I’ve grown semi-adult and least in the process. I became that way due to the “prisoner” mentality that I developed in school: “Just X more years memorizing useless crap and trying to maintain my sanity being locked in a sardine can full of bored, annoying teenagers every day, and then I’m free, off to the college shining in the distance, with rainbows, unicorns, useful learning material, and inhabited by people with IQ over 90, yay. I have no idea which college it should be, or what I want to do in life, but that’s okay, I’ll figure out once I get out of here. It surely must be the school causing all this, right? Hmm, I don’t have to be there righ now, so I’m spared of the torment for a while. Well, let’s slaughter some goblins and elves(I’ve never been much of a social or sports person, and I live in a far off area.) before crashing to bed. Yawn… X more years…”

Now, I’m filling my free time with studying. Mostly programming and math, I didn’t catch much of either in school, so now I have to make up for it. If I’ve only been doing this all those years. If I only took interest in something useful sooner, and started working on it. If I only found the willpower and a way to skip classes and get out of that hellhole ASAP, into a college-level program…

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Maja November 9, 2013 at 6:51 am

Dancing. Not ‘real’ dancing, or even good dancing, just moving around in a way that feels good when I’m alone in my kitchen and no one can see :)

A while ago I just couldn’t dance at all. I didn’t get it. I had taken dance classes when I was a kid and the teacher was horrible, so I ended up thinking of dancing as a sequence of movements to be memorized, that should look good to be good. I’ve gone to a lot of metal concerts and always enjoyed the mosh pits. I’m the type of person who think concerts should feel in the morning, or I’m not doing it to the fullest. SO when I stumbled on a folk metal band during a festival, I was a little surprised to see that people weren’t moshing, but actually dancing. And.. well, heck, I needed to move. So I did. And I finally got it. Dancing isn’t something to be memorized, but something that comes from within :)

I discovered just how stiff my body was that day, so when I came home I kept going at it in order to get a little more flexible. But eventually I just started doing it for fun. And it was a catalyst that triggered the insight that a LOT of things you do should just come from within, rather that taken from the outside and re-shaped in some way. That’s a huge difference for me.

David Cain November 10, 2013 at 8:43 pm

I finally got it too, just a year or two ago. I wrote about it here:


Darren November 19, 2013 at 6:00 am

I tried Kung-fu. Didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I’d hoped, but it gave me the confidence to try something else I’d been interested in (and wouldn’t have been able to try first): tap dance.

I don’t do tap dancing anymore either but I do do ballet, contemporary, and modern jazz now two nights a week. I’ve also met someone special through pursuing dance. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t gotten into Bruce Lee films and Kung Fu. Pretty cool.

Darren November 19, 2013 at 6:01 am

I tried Kung-fu. Didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I’d hoped, but it gave me the confidence to try something else I’d been interested in (and wouldn’t have been able to try first): tap dance.

I don’t do tap dancing anymore either but I do do ballet, contemporary, and modern jazz now two nights a week. I’ve also met someone special through pursuing dance. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t gotten into Bruce Lee films and Kung Fu. Pretty cool.

Nicole December 1, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Two and a half years ago, I was very judgemental of both myself and others, and the world at large. I saw myself as the moral authority of the world, in almost the same way as a religious fundamentalist but without the religion.

It was this that made me see the negative in everyone around me, friends and strangers alike. I made a big moral deal of it, mentally if not verbally, and it angered me. I ended up pushing away a lot of people away I had been close with.

When my ex broke up with me, I suddenly felt free to admit to myself that my critical and judgemental attitude was doing a great deal of harm both to my social life as well as to my mental and emotional well-being. I came to realize that my standards of behaviour were just as arbitrary as anybody else’s, and that they came from an emotional part of me that was struggling to find a place for myself in the world.

All the while, I had been judging others because I was resentful and jealous that they had strengths and traits I wasn’t born with. I felt badly about what I lacked, and underneath it all I began to blame others for having things that I didn’t, and made a moral issue out of it to feel better about myself.

When I realized that this was what had been happening all along, I suddenly understood why people judge and condemn one another. I realized what a negative impact this kind of judgment inevitably had, both on the judger and judgees. I realized this is a large part of what holds humanity back. And I was able to admit to myself the things that I actually wanted but didn’t have, instead of being in denial. And that has been the #1 biggest step yet towards truly knowing myself and what I want from life, and what I can contribute. I have been steadily improving since, in all aspects.

Thanks for yet another brilliant post, I have not yet read a post by you that didn’t seem like a realization of something I knew all along.

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