Are you happy? (My year in review)

For me, New Years Eve was never so much about resolutions as it was about drinking champagne. Sure, on December 31st I can’t help but think back nostalgically on the year that has passed, but I have always felt that the holiday was too public a time to really reflect. Besides, champagne has a way of…uh, narrowing your focus down to the moment at hand, rather than looking at the big picture.

My New Years comes on March 3rd – my birthday, and tomorrow I’m going to be 26. In years past, it’s been a time where I can flog myself about all the things I didn’t accomplish (again), and an opportunity to set outrageous, unattainable goals that ensure a proper annual flogging on my next birthday. It’s this pattern that kept me in a perpetual state of fast-forward, assuring myself that I would start enjoying my success when I arrived at some arbitrary milestone (a million dollars in the bank, a six pack, being asked to star in Top Gun 2 – you know, the usual stuff).

The truth is, these goals and milestones that we set for ourselves have little to do with actual happiness. Most materialistic goals are really just distractions that take the place of a real, meaningful aspiration – not because we’re shallow, but because goals centered around money, success, or objects are much easier to articulate.

Believe me, I’m no monk. When I could barely walk I looked at my dad and said, “when I grow up, I think I want to own my own company – like General Motors or Microsoft” (in retrospect, Toyota or Apple would have been better choices. Don’t listen to my stock tips). Financial success is extremely important to me.

But financial goals are top-of-mind because they’re tangible, easy to quantify, and, most importantly, they’re not that scary. If you set a goal of becoming a millionaire and don’t make it, it’s not crushing – it’s almost expected.

I always thought that I hated the expression “money can’t buy happiness.” I’ve realized, though, that the expression is completely accurate – it’s just commonly misused. The role of financial success in our lives is to take the issue of money off the table altogether. When you have enough money to remove it from the spotlight – when your basic needs are met and you’re saving plenty of cash – the true state of your life gets revealed. If you have an empty life, having plenty of money is going to make that more obvious – without the stress of financial insecurity, you’re left only with what’s in front of you.

Setting increasingly lofty financial goals just keeps you focused on money and distracts you from pursuing things that can really enrich your life.

I did an exercise four months ago that I learned in Steve Pavlina’s book, Personal Development for Smart People. Steve says to assign a 1-10 rating of each area of your life – 1 means you’re completely dissatisfied with it, and 10 means “you’re absolutely experiencing what you desire.”

Here are some examples that Steve lists:

  • Daily routine
  • Career
  • Money & financial security
  • Health & Fitness
  • Mental development
  • Social life & relationships
  • Home & family
  • Character & integrity
  • Life purpose & contribution
  • Spiritual development

Note: I URGE you to jot down these ratings now – before you read the sentences that follow the bullet points. After you read the paragraph after the bullet points, the exercise is pointless.

OK – done with your list? Here we go.

He says to take any rating that isn’t a 9 or a 10 and replace it with a 1. If you’re not thrilled with an aspect of your life, it’s taking away from your happiness – or, at the very least, not adding to it. Any rating other than a 9 or 10 is just a 1 in disguise – “either you have what you want, or you don’t.” In the words of Yoda, “do, or do not. There is no try.”

This exercise was eye-opening for me and helped me reevaluate and reformulate my goals. Here’s what I realized:

1. The most important things in life are relationships and personal development.

Relationships

I said in a previous post that you are – or are on your way to becoming – the sum of the five people with whom you spend the most amount of time. Repeat the above exercise with your friends in mind – write down their names and assign a 1-10 score.

Here are a few aspects to consider:

  • Supportive (encourages you in your goals and dreams)
  • Morality (treats people the way you’d want to be treated)
  • Attitude (pessimism is life-sucking)
  • Drive (shows a thirst for life and self-improvement)

If you have five “9 or 10″ valued friends – that’s incredible. For the rest of us, gently phase out people who are not going to help you become a better person and start searching for people who you can journey with towards your dreams.

“Make a new best friend” is a lot scarier than “make a million dollars.” That’s because it reflects on us as people rather than us as workers. But the only goals worth pursuing are goals that scare us.

Personal development

I’ll keep this one brief – I wrote about it a lot in another post, and I’m going to write about it again soon. Get out there and learn something. Right now, I’m learning Spanish, doing Crossfit, and I’m going to become a part-time bartender to meet new people and practice my conversational Spanish (I live in Buenos Aires, in case you’re just joining me).

Dominating a new skill is inherently satisfying and expands your mind in ways you can’t yet predict.

2. A year from now, you’ll wish you started today.

Man, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve said this.

If you had started a year ago, by this time you would be:

  • fluent in another language
  • an expert juggler
  • a seriously capable racecar driver
  • a less-embarassing karaoke-er
  • able to piss of your friends with snobbish knowledge of wine

Don’t let another year go by. Go do something and stick with it.

3. Regret is decision making in the past tense.

As a whole, we don’t celebrate enough in our successes and we perseverate too strongly on our mistakes. In more simple terms: play the highlights reel, not the bloopers.

I’ve always been confident in myself and my abilities, but I’ve also tended to be ruthlessly self-judging.

Forgive yourself of your missteps (no matter how big), congratulate yourself on your accomplishments (no matter how small). Regardless of how many times you replay that embarrassing situation or fantastic failure, the outcome isn’t going to change. Take it as a learning experience and do better next time.

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I’ll leave you with one thought that has been sitting with me for the past day or so. I’ve written in the past about strengths vs. weaknesses – I’m a firm believer that you should spend your time focusing on your strengths. Trying to improve weaknesses yields marginal improvement, while exercising your strengths yields exponential returns.

I’ve realized that weakness is really a misnomer – a weakness is better described as a tendency. I don’t have a weakness for dedication – I have a tendency to wax and wane in consistency. Maybe you consider yourself shy – but really, you just have a tendency to become quiet around strangers.

Realize that a tendency is just that – it’s a path of least resistance, a way of operating that you gravitate towards given a familiar and possibly uncomfortable situation. A tendency isn’t a rule, and don’t impede yourself by treating it as one. Work on going against your tendencies even once out of ten times, and your tendency may start to change.

Remember that everything you do – from public speaking to dating to surfing – is a function of your mind. All it takes is a little confidence and initiative and your body will follow the instructions that it is given. Limitations are illusions that are easily broken once you accept the fact that they are self-imposed.

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Let this next year be an adventure for both of us – where we break free of our inhibitions and attempt to quench an insatiable thirst for life, love, and fruition of our wildest and most unreasonable aspirations.

Happy birthday to me :)

For my birthday present this year, I’ll ask you to share this post on Facebook. It’ll help me reach my (meaningful) dream of becoming an author.

Un abrazo fuerte,

Zack