After 45 Birthdays, Here Are '12 Rules for Life'
Yesterday was Jan. 29, meaning that Oprah Winfrey and I are each a year older: 64 and 45.
Forty-five is somehow a very definite year; there is no question that you are middle aged.
At 45 one takes stock. The building years of your life are over, and what you are now is pretty much what you are going to be. Soon it will be what you were.
You can no longer tell yourself that you might move to Lisbon, learn Portuguese, and take up the guitar. You cannot learn Portuguese at your age. You can’t remember new words anymore; you can’t even remember where you have left your keys.
So it seems a good opportunity to do two things. First, to wish Oprah Winfrey a happy belated birthday. And second, to address this “12 Rules for Life” meme that you young whippersnappers have got up to on the social medias. I am probably more than halfway through my life now; I ought to have some rules.
- Be kind. Mean is easy; kind is hard. Somewhere in eighth grade, many of us acquired the idea that the nasty putdown, the superior smile, the clever one liner, are the signs of intelligence and great personal strength. But this kind of wit is, to borrow from the great John Scalzi, “playing the game on easy mode.” Making yourself feel bigger by making someone else feel small takes so little skill that 12-year-olds can do it. Those with greater ambitions should leave casual cruelty behind them.
- Politics is not the most important thing in the world. It’s just the one people talk about the most. That’s because everyone shares the government; only you are married to your spouse, and can knowledgeably expound on their habit of mashing up soft-boiled egg and ketchup into a disgusting paste; this makes it hard to have much of a dialogue with your friends on the subject.
But your spouse and others around you matter more to your happiness than the government does. You will notice, as you go about your day, that many, many important things are riding on your spouse, things that will have immediate costs and benefits to you. Very few of the things that irritate you or bring you joy have anything to do with the government. So keep some perspective about politics. It doesn’t matter as much as the real people around you, and the real things you can do in the world. If you have to choose between politics and a friendship, choose the friendship every time.
- Always order one extra dish at a restaurant, an unfamiliar one. You might like it, which would be splendid. If you don’t like it, all you lost was a couple of bucks. If you can’t afford to order that one extra dish, then the restaurant is too expensive for your budget and you should find a cheaper one.
- Give yourself permission to be bad. You know what you’re really good at? Things you’ve done many times before. Mastery is boredom. Unfortunately, we like feeling like masters; we hate feeling like idiots. So we keep ourselves bored in order to protect ourselves from feeling stupid. This is a bad trade. (Trust me, I wrote the book on this.)
- Go to the party even when you don’t want to. Nine times in 10, you’ll be bored and go home early. But the 10th time, you will have a worthy experience or meet an interesting person. That more than redeems those other wasted hours.
- Save 25 percent of your income. No, don’t tell me how expensive your city is; I have spent basically my whole life in New York and Washington, DC. You can save if you want to; what you really mean is “There are all these things I want more than financial security.” And you’re right: You do want them more than financial security right now. But when you’re comparison shopping brands of generic dog food, or begging your parents for a loan, you’ll wish you’d saved the money. So cut out the things in your life that matter less than the financial freedom that will let you take important risks while sleeping easy at night (which is to say, almost all of them except the people) and save more money.
- Don’t just pay people compliments; give them living eulogies. Tell them exactly how great they are, in how many ways. Embarrass them. Here’s a funny thing I have learned by being just a little bit internet famous: it doesn’t matter how many times you hear them, the words “You are amazing, and here’s why” never get old. They do not go out of style. You will be wearing them to your 80th birthday party, along with a dazzling smile.
- That thing you kinda want to do someday? Do it now. I mean, literally, pause reading this column, pick up the phone, and book that skydiving session. RIGHT NOW. I’ll wait. Pixels are patient.
Don’t wait until you have the time to really relax and enjoy it. That will be approximately three decades from now, and it's highly possible you won't be able to enjoy it. I will never forgive myself for passing up a chance to go to trapeze school in my late 20s. I figured I could always do it later, little suspecting that in my early thirties my lower back would decide to take up amateur dramatics. At least somebody got to perform.
- Somewhere around that same eighth-grade mark where we all experimented with being mean, we get the idea that believing in things makes you a sucker -- that good art is the stuff that reveals how shoddy and grasping people are, that good politics is cynical, that “realism” means accepting how rotten everything is to the core.
The cynics aren’t exactly wrong; there is a lot of shoddy, grasping, rottenness in the world. But cynicism is radically incomplete. Early modernist critics used to complain about the sanitized unreality of “nice” books with no bathrooms. The great modernist mistake was to decide that if books without sewers were unrealistic, “reality” must be the sewers. This was a greater error than the one it aimed to correct. In fact, human beings are often splendid, the world is often glorious, and nature, red in tooth and claw, also invented kindness, charity and love. Believe in that.
- Don’t try to resolve fundamental conflicts with your spouse or roommates. The only people who win marital arguments about bedrock values are divorce lawyers.
I mean, you wouldn’t say “I have a free hour; I bet I could solve the Israel/Palestinian conflict and still have time for a spot of tennis!” So why do you try to use the same hour to convince your spouse that potato salad should have pickles in it?
If you want pickles in your potato salad, chop up some pickles and put them on the side so you can add it to your dish. If you have radically differing ideas about tidiness, eliminate meals out and make the old car do for another few years so that you can have someone in to clean a couple of times a month. If one of you wants skim milk and the other drinks whole, don’t settle for a sad compromise on 2 percent; buy skim milk and heavy cream and mix your own whole milk as-needed (here are the proportions, if you need them).
Not all conflicts can be resolved this way, but a surprising number can. You should never, ever argue with your spouse about anything that could be solved with a proper application of money or ingenuity. As for the rest: unless it is an existential threat to your future (out-of-control spending, wants/doesn’t want kids, abuse, substance problem, infidelity), leave it alone. On your deathbed, your spouse will be there, holding your hand. The dream house you’re dying to buy will not be.
- Be grateful. No matter how awful your life seems at the moment, you have something to be grateful for. Focus on it with the laser-like, single-minded devotion of a dog eyeing a porterhouse.
You have been granted 2 billion seconds on this planet, give or take. You are a billionaire! Many billionaires, however, squander most of their fortune on bitter recriminations about how unfair everything is. Many of them are right, and it really is unfair. But you won’t get a refund from the universe for the time you spent brooding about the unfairness. You lose them just as surely as a second spent experiencing joy, only they don’t even give you something nice to remember them by.
- Always make more dinner rolls than you think you can eat. For some reason, dinner rolls loom much larger in our imaginations than in our stomachs.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org