LIFE 101
Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life In School -- But Didn't


Be wiser than
other people,
if you can,
but do not
tell them so.


Life is, if nothing else, a persistent teacher. It will repeat a lesson over and over until it is learned. How does life know we've learned? When we change our behavior. Until then, even if we intellectually "know" something, we haven't really learned it. School remains in session.

The good news is that we learn all we need to know--eventually.

For some, however, eventually is not soon enough. If there's something they can learn that will eventually make their lives happier, healthier, and more productive, why not learn it now? That brings happiness, health, and productivity to us sooner--and it avoids a lot of (perhaps painful) lessons along the way.

Others aren't content with learning only what they "need" to know. "Getting by" is not enough. They want more. They are the "eager learners" who read books with titles such as LIFE 101.

Someone once said that the only two things that motivate an enlightened person are love and curiosity. I can't speak for my state of enlightenment, but I can say that, considering my level of curiosity, it's a good thing I'm not a cat.

What a wonderful
day we've had.
You have learned something,
and I have learned something.
Too bad we didn't
learn it sooner.
We could have
gone to the movies instead.


Anatole France pointed out more than a century ago, "The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards."

But what if we have questions that seemingly can't be answered? When faced with this quandary, I like to comfort myself with this thought of Emerson: "Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy."

"Life was meant to be lived," Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her autobiography, "and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life."

This section of the book contains a series of tools designed to keep curiosity alive and thriving. These same tools can also be used to find satisfying answers to the questions you may be curious about. These techniques are designed to accelerate the process of learning.

All of these tools, by the way, are optional. To learn the necessary lessons of life, no one needs to know or use any of them. So there's no need to struggle--thinking that if you don't master them your life will be a failure. Experiment with these techniques. Play with them. Have fun.

Also, there's no need to teach these techniques to anyone else--much less insist that people relate to you as though they've already mastered them. These skills are electives in the school of life. If you choose to use any or all of them for your accelerated learning, that's fine; but please don't expect--and certainly don't demand--that others accelerate their learning too.

Before we start, let's take a look at why human beings spend so much time struggling against learning; why we, as a species, seem so opposed to the exploration of new things.

Haven't you been curious about that?

Why Do We Resist Learning?

The only reason I always
try to meet and know
the parents better
is because it helps me
to forgive their children.


If we're here to learn, and if we have this seemingly in-built desire to learn (curiosity), why do we resist learning? The classic example is the argument: "Listen to me!" "No, you listen to me!" "No, you listen to me!" And so on.

It seems that somewhere around eighteen (give or take ten years), something in us decides, "That's it, I've had it, I'm done. I know all I need to know. I'm not learning any more."


Let's return to the idea of the small child being taught about life by his or her parents. Parents are like gods to little children--the source of food, protection, comfort, love.

Also, parents are BIG! They're four to five times bigger than children. Imagine how much respect (awe? fear?) you'd have for someone twenty to thirty feet tall, weighing 500 to 1,000 pounds.

Let's imagine a child--two, three years old--playing in a room. The parents are reading, the child is playing, all is well. After an hour or so, CRASH! The child bumps a table and knocks over a lamp.

Where there once was almost no interaction with the parents, suddenly there is a lot--almost all of it negative. "How many times have we told you." "Can't you do anything right?" "What's the matter with you?" "That was my favorite lamp!" Shame, bad, nasty, no good. This verbal tirade may or may not be reinforced by physical punishment.

I have found the best way
to give advice to your children
is to find out what they want
and then advise them to do it.


What does the child remember from an evening at home with the folks? Does the child remember the hours spent successfully playing (i.e., no broken anything) while Mommy and Daddy read, or does he or she remember the intense ten minutes of "bad boy," "nasty girl," "shame, shame, shame," after the fall?

The negative, of course. It was loud and it was frightening (imagine a pair of thirty-foot, 1,000-pound gods yelling at you). It was, for the most part, the only interaction the child may have had with "the gods" all evening. (Especially if being put to bed early was part of the punishment.)

When a child's primary memory of the communication from his or her parents ("the gods") is "no, don't, stop that, shouldn't, mustn't, shame, bad, bad, bad," what's the child being taught? That he or she can do no good; must be alert for failure at every moment, and still will fail; is a disappointment, a letdown, a failure.

In short, a child begins to believe that he or she is fundamentally not good enough, destined for failure, in the way. In a word, unworthy.

There is very little in the traditional educational system to counteract this mistaken belief. If anything, school etches the image even deeper. (If we learned all we needed to know in kindergarten, it was promptly drummed out of us in first grade.) You are taught you must perform, keep up, and "make the grade," or you aren't worth much. If you do work hard at making the grades, some authority figure is bound to ask, "Why are you studying all the time? Why aren't you out playing with the other children? What's wrong with you? Don't you have any friends?"

Catch-22 never had it so good.

Naturally, we can't go around feeling unworthy all the time. It hurts too much. So we invent defenses--behaviors that give the illusion of safety. Soon we notice that others have not only adopted similar defenses, but have taken their defenses to new and exotic extremes. The school of limitation is in session.

I was thrown out of college
for cheating
on the metaphysics exam;
I looked into the soul
of the boy next to me.

Woody Allen

We begin hanging out with other members of the same club. We are no longer alone. In fact, we start to feel worthy. We have comrades, companions, confidants, and chums.

The club? Club Let's-Hide-Away-From-The-Hurtful-Unworthiness International has four main chapters:

The Rebels

The rebels like to think of themselves as "independent." They have, in fact, merely adopted a knee-jerk reaction to whatever "law" is set before them. They are prime candidates for reverse psychology. ("The best way to keep children from putting beans in their ears is to tell them they must put beans in their ears.") They conform to nonconformity.

MOST FEARED FORTUNE COOKIE: "A youth should be respectful to his elders."

SLOGAN: "Authority, you tell us that we're no good. Well, authority, you're no good."

MOTTO (minus the first two words): " and the horse you came in on!"

If the ones who tell you you're no good are no good, then, somehow, that makes you good. Somehow.

The Unconscious

These are the people who seem to be not all there because, for the most part, they're not all there. They're not dumb, mind you; they're just someplace else: a desert island, a rock concert, an ice cream parlor. They are masters of imagination. With authority figures, they do their best to appear dumb, drugged, or asleep. The powers that be then become frustrated and leave them alone--precisely what the unconscious want. Very clever.

FAVORITE FORTUNE COOKIE: "To know that you do not know is the best."

SLOGAN: "You can't expect much from me, so you can't criticize me because, uh, um, what was I saying?"

MOTTO: "Huh?"

The more the world criticizes them, the more they retreat to a fantasy world beyond criticism.

A boy becomes an adult
three years before
his parents think he does,
and about two years after
he thinks he does.


The Comfort Junkies

All that is (or might be) uncomfortable is avoided (unless avoiding it would be more uncomfortable), and all that might bring comfort (food, TV, Walkmans, drink, drugs, and other distractions) is sought after (unless the seeking after them would be more uncomfortable). In their youth the comfort junkies scarf french fries, then mature into couch potatoes.

MOST FEARED FORTUNE COOKIE: "The scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar."

SLOGAN: "Comfort at any cost! (Unless it's too expensive.)"

MOTTO (taken from Tolkien): "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

They memorize as much of their motto as is comfortable.

The Approval Seekers

The best way to prove worthiness is to have lots of people telling you how wonderful you are. Approval seekers work so hard for other people's approval they have little or no time to seek their own. But their own doesn't matter. They, after all, are unworthy, and what's the worth of an unworthy person's opinion? These people take the opposite tack of the rebels: rebels deem the opinions of others unworthy; approval seekers deem others' opinions too worthy. Approval seekers would run for class president, but they're afraid of a backlash, so they usually win treasurer by a landslide.

MOST FEARED FORTUNE COOKIE: "Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue."

SLOGAN: "What can I do for you today?"

MOTTO: "Nice sweater!"

Without such people, homecoming floats would never get built.

I'm an experienced woman;
I've been around. . .
Well, all right,
I might not've been around,
but I've been. . .nearby.


You've probably been able to place all your friends in their respective clubhouses. If you're having trouble placing yourself, you might ask a few friends your approval.

If you reject the idea that you could possibly fit into any category, you're probably a rebel. If you accept your friends' evaluations too readily, you may be looking for approval. If you forget to ask, you're unconscious. If you're afraid to ask, you may be seeking comfort. If a friend says, "You don't fit in any of these; you seem to transcend them all," that person is probably looking for your approval.

Most of us tend to pay some dues to each chapter at one time or another, about one aspect of life or another. We may, for example, be rebels when it comes to speed limits, unconscious when it comes to income tax, comfort junkies when it comes to our favorite bad habit, and approval seekers in intimate relationships.

These are also the four major ways people avoid learning. The rebels don't need to learn; the unconscious don't remember why they should; the comfortable find it too risky; and the approval seekers don't want to rock any boats. Most of us have our own personal combination of the four--a little of this and a little of that--that has perhaps kept us from learning all we'd like to know.

How to surmount these ancient barriers? Tools, techniques, and practice, practice, practice. Where do we find these tools? The rest of this book has quite a few.


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