Actionable Life Advice

Actionable life advice. Criticism/suggestions are welcome.

In General

  • To be effective, being capable isn’t enough. You must also have strong emotional drives. Because emotions are what motivate you. Only once motivated can you use your abilities to fulfill those motivations. But the motivations themselves can only come from emotion.
  • Thus, to understand what you can do, you must understand your emotions.
  • Since everyone has different emotional drives, everyone will accomplish different things (and that’s good because otherwise life would be terribly boring).
  • Thus, different things work for different people.
  • Find what works for you by seeking out experiences, talking to people, and introspecting on your emotions.
  • After an experience, introspect and think about how you reacted to the experience and why? What did you learn about yourself from the experience?
  • Ask your friends what they think about you, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.
  • On a personal level, your experiences are what matter. What you sense, perceive, and feel. That’s it. Nothing more complicated.
  • You can make plans, and then life will make of them as it will. You might have the perfect life with a clear vision of your future. But there’s always risk: of a car accident, of a recession, of getting fired, of sudden health problems, of your skills made obsolete by technology. So it helps to guard against risk by saving, by ensuring you have friends and family you can rely upon, by always learning new skills and staying relevant, and by saving.
  • Guarding against risk requires balancing long-term planning against short-term reward. As humans, we have a bias towards short-term planning perhaps because, historically, we never lived this long nor did we our decisions have payoffs in spans of years. Our brains do not easily account for horizons of 5, 10, 20 years. To fight the “time discount bias”, one needs to consciously choose long-term planning against short-term rewards. See the Marshmellow Test and the follow-up. It helps to consider 5 or 10 or 20 year horizons. Because that day will come. We live longer than ever before.
  • If you have a problem, talk to people about it in a constructive, not complaining, fashion. If you complain, no one wants to listen. Discuss problems with your friends and with knowledgeable people because, obviously, you don’t know everything. People seem afraid to discuss their feelings and problems with others but that isn’t good for their mental health. So because they can’t or don’t know how to discuss problems with friends/family, they pay money for therapy. My personal, unscientific opinion is that discussing problems with a therapist isn’t the same as with good friends. Cultivate friends with whom you can have honest conversations, and who tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. See the Friends section.
  • To feel like you’ve come of age, my experience is that you need to have challenging, perhaps painful, experiences that involve suffering. I hope that doesn’t sound silly. It could be why tribal groups sometimes enforce painful coming-of-age rituals. Because adulthood isn’t about age. You “feel like an adult” after overcoming adversity. Overcoming adversity gives you confidence, teaches you mental strength, and tells you what matters and what doesn’t.

Life Stages

  • There are phases of life, so to speak. I don’t have this section final; here’s my first brush.
  • Adolescence is about finding an identity, coping with and adjusting to peer pressure, and trying to fit in all this while.
  • Early adulthood is about moving beyond peer pressure to fully explore your interests and persona.
  • Young adulthood, or the time when you have disposable income and are finding a partner, is just that.
  • Adulthood, with kids and a mortgage, brings its own priorities.
  • Each stage has its phase. To get through the phase, you have to experience it fully so you’re ready to move on. You’ll find yourself changing as you get older and wanting different things.

Habits

  • Keep a “to-do” list. Write down things otherwise you will forget them.
  • Keep a calendar.
  • The world works best for those who get up early and go to sleep early. But not everyone’s body clock works that way. So find a routine that works for you, stick to it, and optimize it.
  • Figure out the work environment that works for you. Do you prefer warm temperatures? Do you need to listen to white noise? Or music? Or work in a darkened office? Whatever it is.
  • Your brain can only process so much information a day before it is tired (whether music, conversation, books, news). Choose that information wisely.
  • Avoid TV and everyday news that recycles the same headlines. Instead, read good analysis. Diversify your sources of news to know what people with different perspectives are thinking.
  • Films, media are a timesink. Minimize them. Use that time constructively.
  • Focus and work hard. Saying “I can’t focus” or “I’m not a morning person” or “I’m just bad at <task>” are excuses. That means you haven’t found what works for you. With social media and the Internet, it’s easy to be constantly distracted and unable to focus. You have to consciously cut out distractions. Turn off notifications for social media. Use browser plugins that cut-off distracting websites. Turn your phone off.
  • To decide if something is worth doing, you can try asking “Will this help me in the long run?”, and only do it if the answer is “yes”. So hanging out with a friend is a “yes” because you’re building a years-long friendship. Watching the latest movie is no since it does not meaningfully contribute to your life in a long-lasting manner. Of course, sometimes you just need to take a break and relax. But this question helps prioritize.
  • Live minimally. Throw stuff out. Delete emails. Don’t hoard. Build minimalism into your life. Stay organized with your important documents. Store documents, images, music digitally on the cloud. Minimalism and organization will simplify your life. You can’t lose things if you don’t have them. You don’t need to organize things you never bought.

Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Biases

Read up on logical fallacies and cognitive biases. These are essential to making the right decisions. See my article on Cognitive Science.

Happiness

  • Happiness is culturally determined. It helps to introspect about what cultural norms you want to accept and reject.
  • Happiness is relative. You can be rich but if your neighbors are richer, you’re not necessarily going to feel rich.
  • In that vein, happiness has a logarithmic relationship with wealth. That is, for your happiness to increase by the same amount, your wealth has to double.
  • There is research to indicate that each of us might have a natural setpoint for happiness.
  • So perhaps, happiness comes introspection and exploration, from long term planning (Marshmellow Test), and from the right psychological immune system (Harvard Study of Adult Development).
  • A psychological immune system refers to how your handle adversity. For example, if your holiday is cancelled last-minute, you can either mope about it or use the time to learn a new skill you always wanted to learn.
  • When dealing with depression, professional help can make a difference. Further, you have to put yourself in happier situations. Small steps help, like making your bed, cleaning your room, doing chores, meeting a friend.
  • Lastly, expecting to be constantly happy is incorrect and unrealistic. Negative emotions have their place, and are an inevitable in life.
  • If you view emotions as a control system that help you quickly and easily deal with life, then you realize that negative emotions are absolutely essential. They help you avoid bad situations, bring your responses back to where they should be, and help you learn from painful experiences.

Education

  • This sounds pedantic, but education cannot be underestimated in today’s “knowledge economy”.
  • Your education is a ladder from school through undergrad to grad school. Each step prepares you for the next. At the end, you should emerge highly trained and aware. You should know how to think and work with people.
  • Your skills must be complex and valuable enough that a computer cannot replace you. Anything that can be automated will be automated. Low-level intelligence will be replaced by neural networks. Concomitantly, professions that need human interaction cannot be replaced, such as healthcare.
  • Thus learn complex skills that require creativity, lateral thinking, and working with other people. These jobs are the hardest to automate.
  • To learn these skills you will most probably have to complete graduate school, or be lucky enough to find a job where you learn these skills.

Work

  • To choose an occupation, understand your emotions and find a job that fits. So if you like science and writing, choose technical writing. If you enjoy learning and like helping people, become a doctor. If you can’t stand the idea of going to med school, become a nurse practitioner. It isn’t as simple as this. In reality, you’ll have to try a number of different things and talk to a bunch of people. But it does help to continuously introspect about the direction you’re going in and what fulfills you.
  • On a job interview, reply to emails immediately. Do not stop being professional even over the course of several emails. For example, use a salutation and sign off appropriately.
  • If they ask you for something, reply promptly. Hiring is a process, and getting your reply in before other candidates is a good sign. You will get your in-person interview done faster, meaning if they like you they can just hire you without looking at other people.
  • Grades are important because they prove your willingness to focus and get stuff done, even though passing preset exams by studying prepared material may seem silly.
  • Build goodwill. Because eventually you will make a mistake (you’re human) and that’s when goodwill comes in use.
  • When hiring people, the person doing the hiring is practicing a degree of risk aversion. They are stuck with their choice and have very little time to make that choice. Which is why interviews are such conservative environments. You want to appear like a safe choice.
  • At work, always be positive in public. Never criticize your boss. In private, never be directly negative. Always stick to the facts.
  • At work, you need to build relationships. Ensure you are viewed as approachable by always being friendly.
  • Imagine your colleagues are customers. If you think of your colleagues this way, you’ll always build relationships with them.
  • The only way to get something done is to do it yourself. But this can be your chance to take initiative, own a project, and deliver it well through hard work.
  • Hard work alone isn’t enough. You need to work hard on the projects that will get noticed. Not only that, you have to build relationships with people who matter.
  • A sign of success is when you become the “go to” person for a particular skill/area.
  • You should ask the people you work with for feedback so that 1) you can improve and 2) that they feel heard. This is how. You say something like “We have worked together for a while. I was wondering if you have any feedback for me?”. Most crucially, you cannot stop here. If you do, then you put them in the difficult position of wondering if you actually want feedback, and how much they can criticize you. So you must continue talking and criticize yourself to make them feel comfortable. Something like “Because I know I have missed details in the past.” OR “I know I need to work harder on making people feel comfortable”. Provide an example to back up your self-critique like “I know that in team meetings I often miss details”. This tells them that it’s okay to critique you since you yourself have provided them with a starting point in the discussion. Now, when they start talking you must let them keep talking and finish. You must agree with them as much as possible and not defend yourself. This is not the time. If you do it right, then they will finish criticizing you and then feel the need to compensate for their criticism. Which means you’ll actually get some praise. So just agree with them.
  • Mentors are vitally important. I cannot emphasize this enough. Seek them out and cultivate them.
  • Seek advice from those older than you. They have experiences you do not.
  • Learn to work with people and adjust to their needs. Again, everyone is different.
  • As you advance in your career, the number of positions that can accommodate your skills/experience sharply decreases. If you get fired you could be in trouble. Save and prepare for this by learning new skills and thinking about alternate positions.
  • If you plan to have children, then make the most of your child-free years by learning skills and working hard. You’ll never be able to do this again. This is when you have the time and energy.

Health

  • You absolutely must exercise regularly. Everything else is priority #2.
  • Walk or bike or take the stairs instead of driving, transit, or elevators.
  • Stretch after exercising. If you don’t stretch, your muscles become tight and can snap as you get older. Conditions such as Illotibial Band Syndrome can occur.
  • Eat healthy food. Avoid added sugar. Cut your salt intake. Eat fresh food and avoid fast food.
  • Learn to cook. It’s the best way to know what goes into your food.
  • It’s easy to treat symptoms with medication. Popping pills is simple and makes you think you fixed the problem when you only addressed the symptom, not the cause. Doctors have little incentive to not prescribe medication because patients expect a prescription and then doctors look like they took action. Obviously, sometimes you do need medication so let me provide examples. If you have a cold, you fix it by staying warm, drinking fluids, and resting. Popping pills isn’t going to change anything. Another example: if you have mental health problems, maybe you need to use pills but maybe you simply need to exercise, introspect on the causes, build better relationships with those around you or get therapy, and become better at talking about your feelings.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Alcohol only in moderation.
  • Listen to your body. If your body needs sleep, then sleep instead of staying up and drinking coffee.
  • Read about REM cycles. Get 8 hours of sleep. Stop using phones and computers 30 minutes before sleeping. Use apps such as f.lux to remove blue light from your screens.
  • Pay attention to any chronic issues you experience that others do not seem to. Discuss these with your doctor. Such as a constantly runny nose, tired eyes, cold hands etc. Such symptoms are easy to ignore but can be fixed.
  • You have to own your health. When you’re young, it’s easy to ignore health. But we live longer than ever and ignoring your health carries risks when older.

Family

Your family doesn’t exist to share your philosophical, political, or other views. You are not necessarily going to agree with your family. Unlike your friends, you did not choose your family. Your family is there as a backup, to provide emotional support, resources, and security. Family bonds are built on personal life experiences and not on shared worldviews. Talk about your personal, daily life with your family. Don’t try to convince them of your life philosophy. If they start talking about philosophical matters that you sharply disagree with, then simply nod and mutter inconsequentials. Turn the conversation to everyday experiences and emotions. If you do fully see eye-to-eye with your family, that’s great. Everyone has a different relationship with their family.

Friends

  • Good friends are important. Good friends are people who tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.
  • Cultivate good friends. Money cannot replace or buy friendship. Money cannot replace trust. You need friends you can trust because money cannot solve all problems.
  • After a certain age people will stop correcting you no matter what. So 1) work to make people comfortable with you and 2) analyze your behaviour and how others respond.
  • Talk about your emotions with your friends. Talking out your emotions 1) makes you feel better and 2) Leads you to realizations about your emotions.
  • It’s worth repeating that you should discuss family, money, career, relationships and other intense emotional experiences with your friends. And when your friends discuss these, you should listen well and offer perspective where appropriate.

Self Improvement

  • Constantly introspect. How could you have handled that situation better?
  • If necessary, talk to a friend.
  • Introspect on your childhood and life experiences so far. Pay particular attention to negative experiences. Extremely negative experiences always leave their mark on you. It takes a lot of work to get rid of that mark.
  • If you live comfortably, the lack of adversity can make you lazy and unable to appreciate the reality of life. Instead, you understand life better and also explore your potential if you treat life as a challenge/struggle and make it a challenge/struggle.
  • If you life is not challenging, then you’ll never understand what poor people go through and why their lives are the way they are. Nor will you learn what really matters in life and what doesn’t.
  • Every trait has a pro and con. Impatient people get things done but might rub others the wrong way or do things too fast. Optimistic people might be good at making the most of situations but might take unnecessary risks. Conservative people won’t take risks but will miss opportunities. Ecetera. You can balance out your traits by working with people who have complementary traits.
  • When someone takes the emotional energy to constructively criticize you, always thank them. Constructive criticism is the greatest gift someone can give you. Honesty is harder and harder to come by as you grow up, and you must always encourage people to keep being honest with you.
  • Self improvement never ends. You are always improving, whether at 20 or at 70.
  • Self improvement is everything from getting up earlier in the morning, to switching from qwerty to colemak, to giving up processed sugar, to cultivating friendships.

Relationships

  • To set context, I divide relationships into two: 1) traditional and 2) modern relationships. The first occurs in societies with imperfect justice systems where agreements are based on relationships and trust. There, marriages are more alliances between families to the benefit of the families. The wants of the marriage parties themselves are secondary. The second occurs in well governed, resource-rich societies where families don’t need to use marriage to shore up their security. Here, we’re free to marry as we choose.
  • Traditional relationships have clear expectations of both parties. They have social expectations to keep the marriage in place. Hence, there isn’t much to say about them and they aren’t discussed here. The points below are aimed at modern relationships.
  • The most important rule is to be honest. Be honest about your feelings, your expectations, your fears, your unhappiness. If you’re not honest, it inevitably leads to drama and someone getting hurt.
  • For a relationship to be possible, you must share the same values.
  • For a good relationship to occur, you must respect the other person. Sharing the same values is not good enough. Because only when you respect someone do you put in the effort to communicate with them and care about them.
  • For a good relationship to last, communication is key. You must communicate constantly. Without communication, you drift apart.
  • It’s really hard to say no when you meet someone who’s almost right but not right. You have to be honest with yourself about what you want.
  • It’s okay to acknowledge that you’re feeling a certain way but you’re not sure why.
  • Conversations should never get to the point where you shout. If things reach that point, take a break from talking and get some perspective, or realize it isn’t going to work.
  • There’s no connection between a person’s behavior as a friend and their behavior in a relationship. People are less rational and more emotional in relationships (seems obvious).
  • You can have great friend chemistry with someone but terrible relationship chemistry with them. And, presumably, the reverse.
  • If something annoys you about your relationship, you must bring it up and, if necessary, have a minor fight about it to blow off steam and let yourself be heard. If you don’t have a discussion/fight then you simply repress your irritation and it will boil over one day.
  • When breaking up with someone, if they ask you why, don’t get into specifics. It’s impossible to get into specifics without sounding critical. If you have fundamental differences (such as wanting to have kids versus not) that’s okay to say but don’t pick out specific traits. It seems obvious; however, when someone pressures you for a reason it’s hard to not give them a reason.
  • Relationships are a two-way street. You need to articulate your feelings and wants, and actively work on the relationship.
  • Personal-choice marriages are more complicated because there are no pre-ordained roles. Both parties must agree fully on the range of issues.
  • Before getting married, you need to discuss
    • Money
    • Children
    • Pets
    • Where you want to live
    • Life goals
    • And anything else that’s important to you
  • The wedding is just the beginning of the challenges of married life. Discussing the points above acknowledges that.
  • With kids, it’s helpful to restrict distractions like TV, phones, video games. These can contribute to the common complaint that my “child has ADHD and can’t focus”. Of course, that’s not to say that ADHD isn’t legitimate. But modern life’s constant distractions don’t help. Unfortunately, restricting distraction is hard work. It’s much easier to hand the kid the phone and keep them occupied.
  • Married people tell me that before children, you are your own top priority. You have a career and freedom. After children, suddenly you are not your own priority. Depending on where you live in the world, your stress levels will vary. But stress is inevitable. And depending on the work-life balance, there is also doubt about being a good parent. Further, your career now suddenly has a competitor in the form of a child. Balancing a career with kids is very difficult and stressful, but people don’t acknowledge it enough. From what I’ve seen, women’s careers are affected more than men’s. Women hear about how they should have a strong career and be independent, but my impression is that no one talks about the challenges of balancing a career with kids. There are only 24 hours in the day and you can’t give both the career and kids those 24 hours.

Money

  • Start saving early and maximize your contribution to your 401(k) or equivalent retirement plan.
  • Get multiple credit cards early, and never close an account. This helps build your credit score. See my article on building credit scores.
  • Spend money on memorable experiences that leave an emotional impact. This could be an amazing vacation. Or for some people it could be clothes they’ve always wanted. Everyone is different. But likely spending money on a fancy TV is not a memorable, impactful experience. Spend your resources wisely.
  • Start saving for a house early. Try to buy a bigger house that you can rent out to cover mortgage.
  • To save, calculate how much you need a month, and start putting away that much every month the moment you get your paycheque. Then, live off the rest.

Scientific Thinking

  • Scientific thinking is important because it helps solve your problems.
  • Scientific thinking is about learning the scientific method and not about memorizing science facts.
  • Understanding the scientific method and how to find answers lets you solve problems in your life. Problems such as “How do I invest my money?” or “How much exercise do I need?”
  • To solve a problem, first start with a hypothesis. Then look for observations to support or refute the hypothesis. It’s easy to make the mistake of starting with observations and trying to look for patterns which easily leads you down the wrong path. Instead, first analyzing the problem and forming a hypothesis helps reduce bias from observations.
  • Further, better conclusions are found via group discussions. Find people with the opposite opinion and discuss the matter.
  • An important part of solving problems is to research what others have done. Problem solving is not done in a vacuum. Understanding other approaches and why they failed is essential to building intuition, to avoiding repeating mistakes, and to get inspiration.

Conclusion

This is meant to be actionable life advice, as opposed to the “you can do anything / just believe in yourself” advice. Criticism and suggestions welcome.

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