7 Brutal Lessons that Ultimately Make Life Beautiful
The reason for our suffering, in all walks of life, is our resistance to the truth.
Sometimes it’s brutally hard to accept life’s greatest lessons. And yet we must!
Because it’s lessons like these that ultimately make our lives beautiful, by showing us how to thrive even through the toughest of times…
1. Happiness doesn’t start with a relationship, a vacation, a job, or money. It starts with your thinking and what you tell yourself every day.
Typically, when I ask someone “How are you?” they reply, “I’m OK.” But this morning the attendant at the gas station replied, “Oh, I am absolutely marvelous!” Her enthusiastic response made me smile, so I asked her what was making her feel so marvelous. She continued, “I’m healthy, my son and daughter are both healthy, and we all have access to clean water and food and shelter and so much more. So I don’t have any good reason not to be positive.” The difference was simply her attitude and her choice of words. She wasn’t necessarily better off than anyone else I spoke to this morning, but she sure seemed a lot happier.
For many of us, I suspect that sometime between the innocent delight that we start out with in life and the grim acceptance of grown-up responsibility, we slip into an unintentional and subconscious mindset of burden that fuels lots of negative self-talk.
Just think about how you tend to talk about your average day. Suppose you have a daily to-do list you’re working through, and a friend or colleague asks you what you are doing with your day. So you reply, “Ugh, I have to respond to these work emails… and I have to visit my new client’s office… and I have to go to my daughter’s dance rehearsal after work… etc.” Talking about your responsibilities in this way does nothing but make them feel like a drag, a heavy set of weights dropped upon your shoulders, things you have to force yourself to do – all of these burdensome “have to, have to, have to” chores.
But what if you simply changed your answers from “I have to” to “I get to”?
It’s just a one-word difference that can make a big difference in how you think, and subsequently feel and behave. Give it a try. Because the truth is, if you don’t like something, you can either change it or change the way you think about it. And the latter is often the best first step.
Each and every day, the real battle takes place in your mind. If you’re defeated in your thoughts, you’ve already lost. So why not set yourself up for a win today? Be reasonably positive.
2. If you want something in life, you have to also want the costs of getting it.
Most people want the reward without the risk. The shine without the grind. But you can’t have a destination without a journey. And a journey always has costs – at the very least, you have to invest your time and energy into it every step of the way.
So, instead of thinking about what you want, first ask yourself:
“What am I willing to give up to get it?”
Or, for those inevitably hard days:
“What is worth suffering for?”
Seriously, think about it…
If you want the sexy abs, you have to want the sore muscles, the sweaty clothes, the mornings or afternoons of exercise, and the healthy meals. If you want the successful business, you have to also want the longer days, the stressful business deals and decisions, and the possibility of failing ten or more times to learn what you need to know to succeed in the long run. But if you catch yourself wanting something day in and day out, month after month, yet you never take action and thus you never make any progress, then maybe you don’t really want it after all, because you’re not willing to suffer through the effort and work it’s going to take to achieve it.
But if you decide that you DO want it, then take a long, hard look at your daily routines and rituals, and ask yourself another question:
“Based on my daily routines and rituals, where can I expect to be in a year from now?”
This question can be helpful because if you have an idea about what you want the next chapter of your life to look like, you have to consistently DO things that support this idea. An idea, after all, isn’t going to do anything for you until you do something productive with it. In fact, as long as that great idea is just sitting around in your head it’s doing far more harm than good. Your subconscious mind knows you’re procrastinating on something that’s important to you. The required work that you keep postponing causes stress, anxiety, fear, and usually more procrastination – a vicious cycle that continues to worsen until you interrupt it with positive ACTION.
3. No matter how hard you work, you can’t have everything you want.
Eventually, most of us end up settling in some part of our life. We let go of certain ideals and dreams, we compromise, and we make trade-offs. We gradually learn that we can’t have everything we want, because not every outcome in life can be perfectly controlled. But if we pay close attention, we also learn that we can make the best of every outcome, and still get a lot of what we want in life, if we manage our time, energy and attitude appropriately.
And these realizations collectively lead to an interesting question:
When should you settle, or compromise, and when should you continue fighting hard for what you ideally want to achieve?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but when you encounter a situation that forces you to choose between compromise and fighting forward against the opposition, it might help to also ask yourself:
“Do I really need this, or do I just kinda want it?”
Being able to distinguish needs from wants is essential in every walk of life. Never let go of an outcome you truly need in your life, but be reasonably flexible on the outcomes you want but could live fine without.
In other words, choose your battles wisely, and don’t let ‘perfect’ become the enemy of ‘great.’ Remind yourself that what you pay attention to grows. So focus on what really matters and let go of what does not.
Don’t give up 50% of your life working 50-hour weeks at a day job that makes you absolutely miserable. Don’t abandon your sanity for the wrong reasons. Don’t neglect lifelong goals and dreams that have withstood the tests of time, and still bring incredible meaning into your life.
If you really need something, fight hard for it!
But for everything else, let go a little. Loosen your grip, compromise… settle.
Settle on less of the unessential, to get more of what you really need and want in life.
4. Your fantasies are your biggest enemies.
The older you grow, the more quiet you become. Life humbles you gradually as you age. You realize how much nonsense you’ve wasted time on.
The biggest nonsense creator of them all?
Your mind… and the fantasies it likes to project into every facet of your life. You’ve likely fantasized your way into headaches and heartaches hundreds of times in the past! And you aren’t alone either.
We all stress ourselves out… because of fantasies.
We all procrastinate to the point of failure… because of fantasies.
We all get angry with others, with ourselves, and with the world at large… because of fantasies.
We all miss out on many of life’s most beautiful and peaceful moments… because of fantasies.
This might seem hard to believe at first, so let’s look at some super common examples…
- When we wake up and immediately start fantasizing and worrying about all the things we have to do, we aren’t really doing anything but adding stress to an otherwise pleasant morning.
- When we fear the potential of failure, and we procrastinate in response to our fear, our fearful fantasies force us to miss great opportunities for success.
- When someone upsets us, this is often because they aren’t behaving according to our fantasy of how they “should” behave. The frustration, then, stems not from their behavior but from how their behavior differs from our fantasy.
- When we think about making a healthy change in our lives (like getting in shape), we are initially inspired by the fantasy of what life will feel like while we’re getting healthier, but… that’s not reality. So when the reality of working hard to exercise and eat right surfaces, and it doesn’t match up with our inspiring fantasy, we give up.
- When we’re having a conversation with someone, we’re distracted with fantasies of how this person views us, or we’re distracted by our propensity to fantasize about how to respond before they even finish talking, and thus we miss the opportunity to connect more deeply with them.
- When we move through our days, our minds are stuck fantasizing about other times and places, and so we miss the pleasant surprises and simple pleasures surrounding us.
- And the list goes on…
Of course, sometimes we get out of our own heads long enough to focus on the present and make the best of it, but it’s NOT often enough. So remind yourself, as often as necessary, to see the moment for what it really is, not what you think it should be. Accept it, so you can make the best of it.
Move through each day and practice seeing life as it is…
Do what you have to do without worrying and fearing the worst, lamenting about what might happen, or obsessing over how difficult your work is. Just begin, take it one step at a time, and do the best you can.
See others for who they are, and accept them, without needless judgments. Choose not to allow their behavior to dominate your thoughts and emotions. Just be present and accepting. Then decide if you want to spend extra time with them. If not, part ways peacefully.
Carry your presence with you wherever you go. Appreciate the little moments. Remind yourself that there are few joys in life that equal a good laugh, a good conversation, a good morning walk, a good afternoon hug, or a good deep breath at the end of the day.
In the end, we can fantasize all we want, but it doesn’t improve our reality.
So let’s replace our fantasies with full presence…
And invest our best into what we’ve got, right here, right now. (Marc and I build actionable rituals for making the best of the present with our students in the “Happiness & Positive Living” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
5. Everyone and everything in life is limited.
You can never read all the books you want to read. You can never train yourself in all the skill-sets you want to have. You can never be all the things you want to be and live all the lives you want to live. You can never spend all the time you want with the people you love. You can never feel every possible color, tone and variation of emotional and physical experience possible in life. You are incredibly limited, just like everyone else.
In the game of life, we all receive a unique set of unexpected limitations and variables in the field of play. The question is: How will you respond to the hand you’ve been dealt? You can either focus on the lack thereof or empower yourself to play the game sensibly and resourcefully, making the very best of every outcome as it arises, even when it’s heartbreaking and hard to accept.
In the end, what matters most is to focus on what matters most. By doing so, you get to truly experience the various sources of beauty and opportunity in your life while each of them lasts.
Let’s take a moment and revisit the notion of being limited by the reality of not being able to spend all the time you want with someone you love. When someone you love passes away too soon, that’s undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking limitations to cope with, and the general principles for coping with this kind of tragic limitation is universally applicable to less severe situations too…
Imagine a person who gave meaning to your life is suddenly no longer in your life (at least not in the flesh), and you’re not the same person without them. You have to change who you are – you’re now a best friend who sits alone, a widow instead of a wife, a dad without a daughter, or a next-door neighbor to someone new. You want life to be the way it was, before death, but it never will be.
Marc and I have dealt with the loss of siblings and best friends to illness, so we know from experience that when you lose someone you can’t imagine living without, your heart breaks wide open. And the bad news is you never completely get over the loss – you will never forget them. However, in a backwards way, this is also the good news.
You see, death is an ending, which is a necessary part of living. And endings are necessary for beauty too – otherwise it’s impossible to appreciate someone or something, because they are unlimited. Limits illuminate beauty, and death is the definitive limit – a reminder that you need to be aware of this beautiful person or situation, and appreciate this beautiful thing called life. Death is also a beginning, because while you’ve lost someone special, this ending, like every loss, is a moment of reinvention. Although sad, their passing forces you to reinvent your life, and in this reinvention is an opportunity to experience beauty in new, unseen ways and places. And finally, of course, death is an opportunity to celebrate a person’s life, and to be grateful for the priceless beauty they showed you.
6. Not everyone you trust will be trustworthy (and you’re better off without some relationships).
“It was just a mistake,” he said. But the really painful thing was, it felt like the biggest mistake was mine, for trusting him.
Can you relate in any way? I’m sure you can.
Eventually, every one of us suffers from some kind of heart-wrenching betrayal. And in a backwards way, it’s what unites us. When it happens to you, the key is to not let one person’s despicable decisions destroy your trust in everyone else. Don’t let them take that from you.
Trust is essential to building and maintaining deep and meaningful connections – it is the foundation for all healthy relationships. Rebuilding trust after betrayal, of course, is not easy, and sometimes not even appropriate with the person who betrayed you. But regardless of the details, and what you ultimately decide to do with that particular relationship, the most important decision is who YOU decide to be after a betrayal.
Do your best to be resourceful.
People will come in and out of your life for different purposes and periods of time. Every one of them can be a teacher if you are willing to learn. Some lessons are far more painful than others, but all have the power to add to your strength of character.
By processing a betrayal resourcefully, you are mining that experience for the pearls it holds so you can let go of the rest.
The bottom line is that some people will only be there for you as long as you have something they need. When you no longer serve a purpose to them, they will leave. The good news is, if you tough it out, you’ll eventually weed these people out of your life and be left with some great people you can count on.
Just keep doing your best to spend time with nice people who are smart, driven and like-minded. Relationships should help you, not hurt you. Surround yourself with people who reflect the person you want to be. Choose friends who you are proud to know, people you admire, who love and respect you – people who make your day a little brighter simply by being in it. (Marc and I discuss this in more detail in the “Relationships” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
7. Owning your truth can be hard, but not nearly as hard as spending your life running away from it.
“I don’t think others like me. They like versions of me that I have somehow spun for them… versions of me that they have invented in their minds… versions of me with only the characteristics that are easy to like. But that’s not who I really am. And it scares me. After all, who’s going to like the guy that can’t stop second-guessing himself? The guy that cries? The guy that’s losing control? The guy that hides from his problems? The guy that keeps pushing everyone away? Who’s going to like the real weakness in me… who’s going to like the real me?”
I wrote those lines in my journal fifteen years ago when I was struggling through a mild bout of depression. What gradually healed me was my willingness to own my truth and be openly vulnerable about it. Doing so, of course, isn’t easy. Being vulnerable means accepting who you are and having the courage to share it with the world. To show up, not as who you think you should be or who you want people to think you are, but as the real YOU, and to be open and welcoming to however the world responds. It’s risky, but not nearly as hazardous as giving up on true love and honesty and acceptance – the priceless experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the dark corners of ourselves will we discover the hidden power of our inner light.
So please remember, no matter what age, race or sex you are, underneath all your external decorations you are a pure, beautiful being. You have light to shine, and missions to accomplish. Celebrate being different, off the beaten path, a little on the weird side, your own special creation. If you find yourself feeling like a fish out of water, by all means find a new stream to swim in. But don’t deny yourself… embrace yourself!
Be YOU in a world that’s trying to influence every move you make.
Take the road less traveled when it feels right under your feet.
Do more than just exist.
We all exist. The question is: Do you live?
Own your truth. Learn from it.
Closing Thoughts… on Making Life Beautiful
If you only remember two words from this whole article, let them be: “Learn” and “Believe.”
Learn: As in… learn through experience. Learn from others. Remain humble, open-minded and teachable. Put yourself out there and let it all sink it. Push yourself to the edge of your comfort zone, so you can expand it and grow a little more confident every day.
Believe: As in… believe in yourself and your ability to succeed. Believe in your intuition, especially when you have to choose between two good paths. Believe that the answers are out there waiting. Believe that life will surprise you again and again. Believe that the journey is the destination. Believe that it’s all worth your while. Believe that you are confident enough to see it through.
If you’re feeling up to it, we would love to hear from YOU.
Which lesson mentioned above resonates with you the most today, and why?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
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