For some of us, every day feels like a ladder. We start at the bottom— wondering how we’ll ever get there. We don’t even know what there means. The ladder just goes up, into darkness.
We don’t see the top, just the floor beneath us. If we’re not careful, we can forget the most important truths.
For starters, there’s no top. And no bottom, either.
We don’t want to do anything until we actually start doing it. We don’t want to climb out of bed, until we do —following that familiar pull into the bathroom. We don’t want to make coffee until we smell it in the air. Even if you don’t dwell in this state, you’ve driven through it.
Everyone goes through the motions at times, thinking there’s something wrong with them. Maybe there’s not. Maybe we just forgot how to live, and need a masterclass in the basics.
1. Love what makes you different
Some of us came into the world with nonstandard hardware — brains and bodies that don’t conform. We hardly ever think about how normal became normal. Worse, we missed the memo that upgraded normal to completely perfect. Then we did one of two things: we killed ourselves to conform; or we just accepted outsider status and let the bold, beautiful, spray-tanned, or just plain loud have our lunch. But abnormal is the real normal. What makes you weird could be worth showing off.
2. Go through the motions, if you have to
Life is full of chances we don’t want to take, vacations we don’t want to go on, parties we don’t want to attend, and dinners we want to skip. Sometimes you have to force yourself out the door, because that’s where life happens— not your phone, not some game, not another hour of Netflix. So go to that pointless mandatory meeting, and volunteer for something that sounds halfway important.
3. Think about yesterday for a minute
If today feels impossible, think about yesterday. Something turned out better than you expected. You stashed your snark and pessimism in a locker, for just a couple of hours — and you had a good time. You did all the chores that were piling up, then you got to relax. You did one thing you’d been putting off for weeks, and relief washed over you. See, you know how to live. You know that sometimes it’s not fireworks and champagne.
4. Chase the answers you don’t want to hear
We fear nothing like an injury to our egos. Half the time, we’re not even scared of rejection — just how we’ll react. We’re worried we’ll lose our tempers, or just our self-esteem. But you can’t live your life hiding from answers you don’t want to hear. You should be chasing them.
5. Always go after what you want
Few things make us feel as good — as alive — as going after what we want. These are the moments when you let go of all your expectations and fears. You’re just doing. You’re drawing on all your skills, and it’s the closest you ever get to true flight. It’s the headspace most artists and entrepreneurs live for. So can you.
6. Exorcise your phantom dreams
What we wanted as kids isn’t what we wanted as teenagers. And what we wanted in our 20s isn’t what we want now — not really. We keep trying to satisfy that 20-something, including leftovers from the 8-year-old boy who wanted to be an astronaut, or the 9-year-old girl who wanted to be an Olympic gymnast. Dreams are healthy, but phantom dreams will only haunt you. Maybe it’s time to perform an exorcism on yourself.
7. Put your friends and loved ones first when it matters
No single person should live at the center of your universe, not even you. All of us orbit a sun. We have 12 months out of every orbit, and 24 hours out of every globe spin. A meaningful life by definition means you spend some of those hours on other people. That’s what makes a friendship, a business partnership, a marriage, and a family. Otherwise, you’re just meaningful to yourself. Another term for that is first-degree narcissism.
8. Quit anything that makes you unhappy
It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a job, a relationship, or a magazine subscription. We stay mired in what makes us unhappy because we think we can’t do any better. We fall prey to fears of unemployment or loneliness. We confuse anchors for life jackets. We forget that it’s not always about trading up for a higher salary, or a prettier face. It’s about finding something or someone we look forward to every day.
9. Give up on universal approval
A handful of trolls will hate you for the same reasons someone else loves you. In your weakest moments, you’ll find yourself brooding over an insult — or pining for a seal of approval on the assumption it means something. Truth is, some people just aren’t worth it, if gaining their support means pawning off a part of yourself that’s too valuable to let go.
10. Think beyond happily ever after
You’re not a book. You don’t have a last page that says, “The End.” You have more of an expiration date — a day you’ll go sour. You might satisfy all your ambitions well before that day. Then what? You have to find new targets on the horizon. They don’t have to be selfish ones. You could devote yourself to a cause. None of us live simply to satisfy our own wants and whims. We live for each other.
11. Learn your own blind spots
Turns out, we think we’re most right when we’re most wrong. We make our worst decisions when we’re angry, but also when we’re euphoric. We all fool ourselves. We give into biases and prejudices. We think we’re doing better or worse than we actually are. The antidote? Plain self-awareness. You can build it in a journal, through meditation, in therapy sessions, or by calling that friend who always tells the truth. You can write down a list of your own personal fallacies, and stick them on a wall.
12. Save yourself from dumb mistakes
A gremlin lives in our brains, a little monster that just can’t help but screw everything up. That’s why we don’t buy an external hard drive, even if we know better. We leave for work five minutes later than we should. We don’t pack for a trip until the night before. Why? A part of us just wants to see what we can get away with. It insists that simple habits don’t matter — because it doesn’t want to believe that a good life is that easy. So learn to call yourself out a little. It makes a difference.
13. Focus on what you can control
There’s always a hundred what ifs waiting to take you down. They’ll swarm, blinding you to what you actually have power over. We can’t make anyone do what we want. We see unfairness and injustice everywhere, on global and deeply personal levels. Beneath all of this lies how you react to it, and what you can actually do. Pretending to have control over something you don’t, or obsessing over it, only leads to epic misery. Besides, managing your own house is plenty of work.
14. Remove debris from you life
Maybe your life exploded, or it’s about to. Maybe you lit the fuse yourself. Or maybe it just caved in quietly over years and years of neglect. Now there’s rubble, and you can’t rebuild until it’s gone. Anything can count as debris — a sweatshirt from college, a friendship, or a promise you can’t deliver on. Our lives are a series of controlled demolitions.
15. Learn how to say nothing
Nothing is what you say to someone after everything else. It’s what you say to someone who never listens, or never hears. We waste endless hours on the same old arguments with the same people, raising the same complaints at meetings, and making the same overtures to friends who see us as expendable. You don’t have to keep fighting and struggling for their attention. You can move on. Let silence do all the hard work.
16. Learn how to do nothing
Nothing is what you do after exhausting every possibility. It’s the hardest decision. We’re built for doing. We want immediate action. We want closure. We want resolution. But sometimes, you can’t do anything just yet. The closure will come — just not today, or tomorrow. Patience means you sit in the waiting room of your boldest ambitions and deepest desires. You find it in the space between trying and giving up.
17. Learn when to quit
Also know that maybe the person or thing you want most in the world isn’t coming, or barely knows you exist. You can pick from thousands of other people and opportunities out there.
18. Keep yourself in check
We all feel like shit some days. We all think nothing’s going our way. Someone slights us, or cuts us off in traffic, or misspells our name on our five-dollar cappuccino. A friend shares big news about a promotion, reminding us that we haven’t gotten a raise in years. All you have to do is not flip off that bad driver. Smile and tell your friend congratulations. Enjoy your drink. We keep ourselves in check because, while these things irritate us, they don’t matter. Overreacting does nothing but turn us into a meme.
19. Draw your own lines
Most of our decisions happen in the fog between law and sin. Nobody knows whether it’s okay to cheat on your fiance, quit your job without notice, or stand up a friend. Plenty of people will pretend to know what you should do, or what you should’ve done. Thing is, nobody has lived through or seen what you have. So barring big no-nos like murder and fraud, develop your own ethics. Don’t give anyone the pleasure of judging your actions without wearing your skin.
20. Always try to outdo yourself
You don’t need to imagine a perfect, unattainable self. You just need to imagine a you that knows a little more than today, a you that manages their emotions a little better. We all inch forward in life. We climb one rung at a time. When you feel tired, remember how many inches or rungs you’ve come. Don’t worry about the ones ahead. You don’t know where the top is. You’ll never reach it, and that’s probably a good thing.