Notes to oneself

When you’ve reached a certain age, you give up trying to be a different kind of person. You learn to accept who you are and stop making those yearly resolutions with which you used to start the new year. It doesn’t mean though that, henceforth, anything goes. Rather, you find yourself veering toward what Nietzsche calls the “great and rare art” of “giving style” to your character.

In my case, this happened just after I retired at 65. In lieu of resolutions, I started compiling what I pompously called “life’s lessons,” but which I now merely refer to as random learnings—notes to myself that hold a specific meaning because they grew out of my own experiences, or because they instantly resonated with me when I first encountered them in the writings of others.

Thus, for a change, I’d like to begin the new year by sharing some learnings I have accumulated in my mobile phone’s notes, supplementing these with those I have picked up from another writer. Here goes:

If you’re feeling tired, stressed, angry, or unwell—stop what you’re doing, look around you, focus on something else, and concentrate on your breathing. If you’re feeling nervous and unsure about yourself before an audience, pinch both ears until they turn red and warm.

Don’t carry everything in one go if you’re not sure you’ll be able to manage. Take two or more trips.

Be open to the willful surprises of the heart.

Pay attention to what you consume. Never overeat or overdrink.

Worry not if you find yourself suddenly awake before the morning light. Treat it as a precious moment: Light a candle or listen to soft music and watch the new daybreak.

Remember: Today is enough. No one knows what tomorrow may bring.

Work hard for the things you wish for in life—to the point of failing repeatedly. If achievement comes easy, you may never know the real value of your effort.

Focus on the future you seek rather than on the future you fear. Resist fatalism, and always remember that dire assessments of the future can become self-fulfilling.

Never underestimate the value of pointless fun.

Love deeply, learn to live in full awareness of the moment, and let go without regret when your time is up.

As prosaic as they may seem, it has taken me a lifetime to learn and subject myself to the discipline of these lessons. And, yes, I continue to falter. The advantage of being old is that you need not worry about disappointing anyone for coming up short. You go through these exercises mainly to see how far you can go toward perfecting a personal style.

Many others have formulated similar notes to themselves, reflecting their thoughtful aspirations to be the unique persons they believe they are or can be. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has a slightly longer list, and I can only imagine the kinds of situations and experiences from which he drew his choice of what he calls “life hacks.”

If you can’t make up your mind between two options, flip a coin. Don’t decide based on which side of the coin came up. Decide based on your emotional reaction to which side came up.

Take photos of things your parents do every day. That’s how you’ll want to remember them.

Build identity capital. In your 20s, do three fascinating things that job interviewers and dinner companions will want to ask you about for the rest of your life.

Marriage is a 50-year conversation. Marry someone you want to talk with for the rest of your life.

If you’re giving a speech, be vulnerable. Fall on the audience members and let them catch you. They will.

Never be furtive. If you’re doing something you don’t want others to find out about, it’s probably wrong.

If you’re traveling to a place you’ve never been before, listen to an album you’ve never heard before. Forever after, that music will remind you of that place.

If you’re cutting cake at a birthday party with a bunch of kids howling around you, it’s quicker and easier to cut the cake with dental floss, not a knife. Lay the floss across the cake and firmly press down.

When you’re beginning a writing project, give yourself permission to write badly. You can’t fix it until it’s down on paper.

One-off events usually don’t amount to much. Organize gatherings that meet once a month or once a year.

Make the day; don’t let the day make you. Make sure you are setting your schedule, not just responding to invitations from others.

Don’t try to figure out what your life is about. It’s too big a question. Just figure out what the next three years are about.

If you’ve lost your husband (or wife), sleep on his (or her) side of the bed and it won’t feel so empty.

You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow.

Great pieces of advice! I confirm the sublime practicality of some of them (#11 and #13, for instance), and applaud the tacit trust that underpins a couple of them (#5 and #9). No list, of course, no matter how long, can sum up an entire life. But it’s a way of achieving that self-acceptance we all desire.

Before he drew his last breath, the philosopher Immanuel Kant was supposed to have uttered just one word: Sufficit (Enough). I guess the important thing to remember is that we should never stop listening to what life teaches us, which is all the reason we need to write notes to ourselves.

Happy New Year!