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


Rules as Tools

Rule #1:
Don't sweat
the small stuff.

Rule #2:
It's all small stuff.


One of the most effective tools for eager learners is one of the oldest--and one of the first to be resisted--rules.

As soon as we were able--as late as two years old for late-bloomers--we learned how to get around rules. In most cases, rules were treated as the enemy, something laid out by an impersonal (and perhaps tyrannical) world, designed to limit us, punish us, or upset us.

It's easy to see how rules could be thought of as the enemy. From a child's point of view, if there were no rules, our parents would never be upset with us. Only when a rule was violated did they withdraw their love. If those rules weren't there, our parents would always love us. Or so goes the logic of a child.

Further, it seemed as though rules were some sort of childhood curse, like chicken pox, mumps, or measles. Adults got to stay up late and watch TV. Adults got to eat two desserts. Adults got to cross the street. Adults never had to take afternoon naps. "When can I do this?" we would ask. "When you're older," we were told.

Rules, we figured, were some temporary malady--like chicken pox or siblings--we had to endure. One fine day, it would all be over. Imagine our surprise as we grew older--three, four, five--when we found that the number and complexity of rules actually increased.

Is forbidden
to steal towels, please.
If you are not person to do such
is please not to read notice.


Then came that repository of rules itself: school. After the initial shock, we gulped and, to one degree or another, accepted our fate: The rules will continue, unabated, for twelve more years. Then they will be over.

Hardly. Many of the childhood rules were internalized--they didn't go away, they just became habits. We didn't play in traffic, not because it was a rule, but because we knew the consequences of playing in traffic. We didn't stay up all night watching TV because we knew how we'd feel in the morning. We didn't have two desserts because--well, maybe we did. But we knew what it would do, and it did.

The confusion about rules when we were young was that some rules were useful to us, and some were not. We were, however, expected to follow all of them or else. In time, rules we found useful were no longer rules; they became part of us. The ones that didn't become a part of us were "rules," and we hated them (or forgot about them or ignored them or followed them for approval--or some combination of these).

Take walking, for example. Walking is full of rules. Considering the size of our feet and the height of our body, human beings have no business standing at all. Try to get a Barbie doll (or G.I. Joe) to stand up without support--especially in heels. (G.I. Joe has a very difficult time in heels.)

If we forget any of the rules of walking, gravity exacts its "punishment." It is swift, unerring, and consistent. So we learn the rules of walking, and we make those rules our own.

The same is true of language, use of our hands, general body coordination, and so on. All the things we weren't born doing, we had to learn. Each has its own set of rules. Once we mastered the rules and made them our own, we forgot the rules and just did it.

Some rules are absolute, some arbitrary. "Keep breathing" is absolute. "Drive on the right side of the road in North America" is arbitrary. There's no special reason to drive on the right side of the road--approximately half the world drives on the left. The reason it's a "good" rule is that, as long as everybody follows it, it works. We don't have to decide every time we pass an oncoming car which way to pass it. It saves time, attention, worry, and lives.

Exit according to rule,
first leg and then head.
Remove high heels and synthetic
stockings before evacuation:
Open the door,
take out the recovery line
and throw it away.


Sometimes rule-following is part of "paying your dues." You may know a better way of doing something-that is, you may have a new rule that's better than the old one-but in order to implement the improved rule, you have to follow the old rule for a while. Once you master the old rule, you are then the master-and masters get to change things. Once you're successful at something, to do it another way is considered innovative. If you've yet to master the old way, it's often seen as rebellion.

I'm certainly not saying "Conform and you'll be happy." To change rules that are already in place takes time, energy, perseverance, and a lot of hard work. You only have so many of these assets at your disposal, so choose with care the rules you want to change.

What I'm suggesting is that you change your view of rules. This book is full of "rules." If you treat them the way many people treat rules--with rebellion, unconsciousness, discomfort, or as new ways to gain others' acceptance--these techniques I'm suggesting will probably not be very useful. They'll just be more "should's," "must's," "ought-to's," and "have-to's."

As I mentioned before, I'm suggesting that you take each suggestion as a suggestion, try it out, see if it works. If it does, use it. Then it's a tool, not a rule. If it doesn't, let it go and move on to something that may. Then it's not a rule; it's just a tool that, for whatever reason, you have no use for at this time.

Here are three rules I have found to be the foundation for all the other rules I have adopted for myself. If rules is too strong a word, consider them perhaps guidelines. They're simple, but I've found that the challenges within them never seem to end.

1. Don't hurt yourself and don't hurt others. This begins at the physical level: don't hit people, don't steal from them, don't hit yourself on the head with a hammer. These are fairly easy to define. Then it moves to a more subtle level: don't ingest things that aren't good for you, stay away from dangerous places, never tell a man named "Killer" his nose is crooked.

It continues on the mental and emotional levels: don't judge yourself or others, worry less, enough already with the guilts and resentments. There always seems to be a subtler level at which we can stop doing harm to ourselves and to others.

The ideas I stand for
are not mine.
I borrowed them from Socrates.
I swiped them from Chesterfield.
I stole them from Jesus.
And I put them in a book.
If you don't like their rules,
whose would you use?


2. Take care of yourself so you can help take care of others. Physically: get enough (but not too much) food, enough water, enough exercise, enough rest. Mentally and emotionally: praise yourself for work well done, enjoy each moment, love yourself.

The second part of it, "so you can help take care of others," does not say you must help take care of others. It simply states the requirement ("take care of yourself") necessary for helping to take care of others should you feel so inclined. If you're not first taking care of yourself, you won't be able to help take care of others. If you don't take care of yourself, in fact, others will eventually be taking care of you.

3. Use everything for your upliftment, learning, and growth. Everything. No matter what you do, no matter how stupid, dumb, or damaging you judge it to be, there is a lesson to be learned from it. No matter what happens to you, no matter how unfair, inequitable, or wrong, there's something you can take from the situation and use for your upliftment, learning, or growth.

I'm not saying intentionally do silly things so you can learn from the inevitable disaster, or solicit evil so you can gain from it. We all do enough silly things and we have enough nastiness done unto us without having to create or invite more.

Remember the Writer's Creed: When the world gives you lemons, write The Lemon Cookbook.

There. Those three should keep you busy for, oh, the rest of your life. Explaining the many facets of these rules--and ways you can grow from them--will take me (at least) the remainder of this book.


Look, I really don't
want to wax philosophic,
but I will say that if you're alive,
you got to flap your arms and legs,
you got to jump around a lot,
you got to make a lot of noise,
because life is the very opposite of death.
And therefore, as I see it,
if you're quiet, you're not living.
You've got to be noisy,
or at least your thoughts should
be noisy and colorful and lively.


One of the greatest--and simplest--tools for learning more and growing more is doing more. It may or may not involve more activity. I'm not talking, necessarily, about action but of involvement.

When we're involved, we learn more. If you want to learn more, become an eager participant. Take part. Get involved. Plunge in. Embrace new experiences. Partake of life.

It's hard to recommend specific activities; what truly engages one person might be boredom personified to another. The clich, of course, is to recommend taking a walk over watching television. But with the video revolution-122 channels of cable, video rentals, and all the rest--television can now be as involving as anything else.

It's not so much what you do, but how you respond to what you do. Does the activity involve you in an active way? Does it engage your mind, body, or emotions? (The full engagement of any one of these is participation.) Does it challenge you? Does it make you want to do more? If so, you're participating.

"Experimentation is an active science," Claude Bernard pointed out. Experiment. Make your life an active science.

Taking Charge

The last of
the human freedoms-
to choose one's attitude
in any given set of circumstances,
to choose one's own way.


There's a lot of talk in personal growth circles about "taking charge." I often hear people exclaiming, "I'm going to take charge of that!" "Why aren't you taking charge of this?" "I'm taking charge of my life!"

Taking charge is great, but many people misunderstand what it is, exactly, they can take charge of.

As far as I can tell, the only thing you can take charge of is the space within your skin. That's it. Everything (and, especially, everyone) else does not belong to what you can take charge of.

Considering the vastness of the Universe, "the space within your skin" doesn't sound like much. But consider what's in there: your mind, your body, your emotions, and whatever sense of You you've got. That, to paraphrase Sir Thomas More, is not a bad public.

Even if we could take charge of people, things, and events outside ourselves, our first job would still be to take charge of ourselves.

What would "taking charge" be like?

You would have charge of your thoughts. You would not find yourself thinking about things you didn't want to think about. Your mind would be directed, creative, and positive at all times.

You would have charge of your body. You would be healthy, energetic, fit, glowing, radiant, exuberant, and fully alive.

I'm not
a very good
for the American
school system.


You would have charge of your emotions. You would never feel anything you didn't want to feel. You would feel joy, happiness, fulfillment, contentment, enthusiasm, or love whenever you wanted to.

I was thrown out of NYU
for cheating
--with the dean's wife.

Woody Allen

To the degree we do not have charge of our minds, bodies, and emotions, we have our work cut out for us. Do we really have any extra time to spend taking charge of others?


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