Some things work for me, and some things don’t, and I try to do the things that work. If I was going to try to tell you how I know one from the other, I probably couldn’t make a really solid generalization but I would end up telling a story, another true story, which may or may not end up as a book.
There are difficult ways and simple ways to approach most things in life, and in general, I go for the simple ways.
I failed Russian my second year at Harvard, (that was doing it the hard way). After I was out of Harvard, I took Russian at night in a course by Professor Alexander Lipson of M.I.T., and studying Russian Lipson’s way, I learned basic Russian in ten months (that was the easy way).
My Uncle Manuel told me, “Elias, the shipping business is an easy business.” If someone says something is easy, I always pay attention. Either he knows nothing about it, which clearly was not the case with Uncle Manuel, or he knows a lot. But if he says it’s easy, you know he’s not going to spend time making it seem very difficult to show how smart he is.
I can summarize some of my strategies in a few points. Click on each one to explore it further or leave them all open and find out how all these are combined, see the whole picture.
In 2005, in the class notes of the Exeter Alumni Magazine, I wrote that my philosophy had become “accommodation and compromise, at best resulting in partial victory.” When my wife died when my daughter was six, and I was terrified of what lay ahead for me, being a single parent, I read a book by Bruno Bettelheim called A Good Enough Parent. “Try for 70%,”Bettelheim said, and that was an important thing I needed to learn. I didn’t need to be a perfect parent. I didn’t need to get 100%. Going for 70% was enough. As a result, I calmed down. I stopped being afraid of the job and I actually realized I might be good at it. I was good enough.
But to be satisfied with 70% I had to overcome a lot of what I had learned. Learning is often unlearning. In general I feel that my schooling valued excellence most of all and conversely it valued what was less than excellent hardly at all. Nowhere in our school day did we ever hear that we should be satisfied with 70%. That was why I wrote about accommodation and compromise to my classmates, not to provoke them or to be gadfly which I once was, but because I thought I had learned something in my life that Exeter hadn’t taught us and I wanted to tell them about it.
Living in the moment was something else we didn’t learn, for we were all striving for our separate goals, some to be on the hockey team, others to get high honors, others to be head of the school newspaper, I maybe to become Class Orator. I was over forty when I wrote in a questionnaire that one of the things I enjoyed in life was the weather, and I added, “And mind you, I didn’t learn that at Harvard.” We were too busy achieving, getting somewhere, to notice what kind of a day it was.
A lot of learning is unlearning. To be happy, you have to unlearn the things that hold you back. For me the process of discovery has largely meant unlearning much of what I learned in my first twenty years. I’m not saying that my Exeter education was not good for me. In some ways, it was the best thing education I could have had. I have written somewhere else that Exeter was “Food in a famine found.” But like everything in life, particularly in one’s early life, it brought with it lessons that had to be unlearned. What had to be unlearned? (continue reading)
You have to leave yourself alone, to allow some space to remain empty to find out what you want to fill it with. When I started out in business, I used to make lists. That was one reason my late wife Lucy thought I would be good at business. “I’ve seen how you make lists and then go down the list until everything is done,” she said. Making lists is evidence of an orderly mind, particularly if the things you have to do are numbered A through C in order of how important they are for you to do them. There is even a technique of not doing things that you don’t want to do but feel you have to – make them a C and never get around to doing them. That makes it all right because you put them on the list.
But there comes a time when making lists actually gets in the way of discovering what you want. For me that time was when I had already been successful in business and I wanted to find out what else I wanted to do with my life. Did I want to paint, to write, to act? You can’t answer questions like that by making a list. You have to leave yourself alone, to allow some space to remain empty to find out what you want to fill it with. If every day you have a list of things you want to do, all your space is always full and there is no room to put in anything else. I liken it to a room with too much furniture in it, where the beds are all facing the wrong way and there’s no room to move. You can never find out what else you want to do with your life because you can’t even turn around. You’ve got to make some empty space.
But by that time you are conditioned against doing that. Empty space may actually seem to be a threat, one you protect yourself against by making a list. The list may seem to protect you from wondering what to do. But with a list there can never be any surprise, or any discovery.
When you’re at school, whatever school you go to, there’s usually very little empty space in your life. You have classes, sports, extra-curricular activities. Every moment of your day is planned and accounted for.
And when you’re out of school, often your tendency is to live the same way as you did when you were in school. That’s the way you have learned to be. The wife of one friend of mine complained that he got up on Saturday morning and made a list of all the fun things he wanted to do that day. That was making having fun into an assignment, a duty.
The task is to keep some space empty, and to do that you’ve got to take something out of the room. Put your satchel down with all the books and magazines you want to read before lunch, and enjoy not carrying anything around with you for a while.
Anxiety is the cutting edge of change but in order to change, you’ve got to live with the anxiety that precedes it. “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” Thomas Jefferson said. One thing you may never have done is to live with the anxiety of not knowing what it is you want to do. But you’ve got to live with that. You may even have to get up on a Saturday morning and not know what you’re going to do on your day of rest. You’ve got to leave the time free and not put down anything ahead of time but just see what you do.
That means sometimes you have to reject reasons that seem logical. To find your intuition, you’ve got to leave the logical world and go somewhere else. It takes courage to do that, and you will usually find that people won’t help you that because they are stuck in the world of logic and they’ll think you’re crazy. Some people have a lot of trouble with that. When my daughter was very young and I took her to a diner, sometimes she asked me, “Should I have a hamburger or a club sandwich.” I answered, “Well that depends on whether you’re in a hamburger mood or a club sandwich mood.” What I was really saying was ‘Follow your gut,’ and I tried to say that in a way a six year old would understand. My mother sometimes asked my father questions like that, and he would say in effect, “Have a club sandwich.” But someone gives you the answer—if you give yourself the answer—you will never find out what you really want. Even now, when I can’t decide which of two dishes I want to order in a restaurant, I close the menu and wait to see what I say when the waiter comes.
Let others criticize you, but don’t help them. Instead, take notes on things you have done well, and when you’re feeling discouraged, read over the list.