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“All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.” — Charlie Munger
As is the case with most great ideas, the beauty of this one lies in its simplicity.
Think about it. We spend so much time reading books, listening to podcasts, watching videos, and so much else — hoping to find the secret to a good life. Or looking for ways to rise above mediocrity.
But if you pause and observe the world around you, you will realize that most people are held back not because they lack some secret sauce but because they choose to walk into the same traps that have been killing dreams and destroying lives for ages.
It’s a powerful realization. One that explains why so many gifted people end up wasting their lives. And why many of the highly successful people are not the most talented.
The point is, oftentimes, talent, ability, or vision is not the defining factor. Instead, what matters most is whether or not you can stay away from the swirling vortices of destruction. If you can, extraordinary success is not too hard to achieve.
But to avoid dangers, you must first recognize them. So here are five of the most common life-traps that don’t let people build lives they can be proud of.
If you look at some of the most terrible mistakes people make, from cheating on their partners to getting tricked into some scam, there’s often a common theme—the promise of some quick and irresistible reward.
But it’s not just about the obvious and glaring blunders. In fact, it’s often the seemingly inconsequential yet bad choices people make every day that ends up causing great harm to a lot more people.
Think about it. You know it’s time to sleep but continue to remain glued to the screen. You know you are behind on your credit card bills, yet make that impulsive purchase. Or the most dreadful of all — you know there’s something important to do; still, you choose to binge-watch a show everyone’s talking about.
In each case, you know what the right thing to do is. But you just can’t get past the hurdle of instant gratification. And what happens over time?
All those trivial deviations compound to lead you somewhere far from where you would have wanted to be.
Always keep in mind the long-term consequences, even for the little things you do regularly.
Imagine yourself in the future and ask — which course of action will make you feel better about yourself? Are you leaning towards a choice you will regret later?
It will force you to consider the larger picture and deter you from walking the seductive but dangerous path. At least enough to make a significant difference.
Debt and Lifestyle inflation
“If you buy things you do not need, soon you will have to sell things you need.” — Warren Buffett
Our consumer culture wants us to believe that more stuff is the answer to all our real and imaginary problems. You are always just a few purchases away from happiness and satisfaction.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that we never have enough. As our earnings grow, so do our “needs”. Often faster.
There was a time when to afford something meant having enough money to pay for it. Today it means you can afford a loan that would pay for it. And since people are encouraged not to miss out on any luxury they can afford, they live in perpetual debt.
No wonder an overwhelming majority of people feel stressed about money.
Beyond a certain point (annual household income of about $75,000), more money doesn’t significantly correlate with happiness.
So instead of being stuck on a speeding hedonistic treadmill, it’s better to learn how to achieve happiness and fulfillment within a limited budget.
Follow these two rules regarding your expenses.
- Spend less than you earn.
- Put a ceiling above your expenses. Don’t let them chase your growing earnings.
Comfort and luxury
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to live a comfortable life. Everybody wants that.
But when you get so used to it that you start to fear or resist any change that could put your ease of life at risk, it becomes a problem.
It’s that fear that keeps people from going after their dreams. From taking the first step toward fulfilling their desire to accomplish great things — build something, make a difference, or design better lives for themselves.
More importantly, with technology changing the world faster than ever before, adaptability will be one of the most important skills for the twenty-first century. People will need to reinvent themselves again and again. Staying within the comfort zone may not be an option at all in the future.
Seek discomfort. That doesn’t mean you have to make your life miserable. Just enough to keep the fear of change or struggle away.
Travel. Living in an unfamiliar place among new people can be very disorienting. That’s what makes it a great way to develop resilience and adaptability.
Learn a new skill, preferably something you find a tad difficult. And stick with it for some time. Push past the resistance. It will boost your confidence and make you believe that you can thrive in new and challenging situations. That’s all you need.
The “special” mindset
Self-compassion is crucial for a healthy life. But accepting who you are, being kind to yourself, and feeling secure about yourself is not the same as thinking you are special or better than others.
Unfortunately, as Simon Sinek — a bestselling author and speaker — points out, the “special” mindset has been promoted all too often in the past few decades. I am sure you have heard or read things like — “oh, you are special and awesome. You are amazing. You deserve the best. Don’t ever let anyone make you believe anything else.”
But why is that a problem, you ask?
As Sinek says, a “special” mentality often makes you feel entitled. You believe you can have something just because you want it. You believe you can get away with things others can’t. You expect preferential treatment — from life and the people around you.
There’s more. You set unrealistic expectations for yourself. And then live with the constant fear or disappointment of not measuring up to them.
In short, such a delusional idea can wreck your life, relationships, everything. As reality collides with your expectations, you might begin to loathe yourself.
Remind yourself — whether you are special or not isn’t something to spend your mental energy on. It alone won’t get you anything.
In the grand scheme of life, we are all similar in a lot more ways than not. There’s nothing to guarantee you will not repeat the mistakes others have made or encounter hardships they had to go through. Accept that. It will make it easier for you to learn from their experiences and have empathy for them.
Besides, it’s actually very liberating to accept that you are just as fallible and messed up as anyone else. It takes away some of the unnecessary weight on your shoulders.
What matters is your willingness to learn and do the best you can without being too hard on yourself.
Helplessness and Victimhood
Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. — Proverb
It’s difficult for most people to accept that they share at least part of the blame for the hole they find themselves in and that it’s their responsibility to get out of that hole.
People would do all kinds of mental and verbal gymnastics to avoid doing that. They would say how others have wronged them or how their circumstances or luck prevent them from doing better.
Now there might be some truth to that. There is even some benefit in realizing it’s not all about you. That there are other forces at play. It helps you be kinder to yourself when things don’t go right and humble when they do.
But here’s the thing. You can’t deflect blame without giving away control too. If you say you must not be blamed for something, you are effectively saying you have no control over it.
Not having control means you cannot do anything about your situation. And guess what?
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” — Henry Ford
A persistent feeling of helplessness and victimhood does nothing other than perpetuating your misery.
When it comes to your own life, never assume you are helpless. There’s always something you can do. Okay, almost always.
So don’t focus on what you don’t have or what you can’t do. Instead, become resourceful. Figure out a way, seek help if you need it, but take that one little step that can make a difference, no matter how small. Then take another. Keep doing what you can until the micro-shifts have compounded into something big.
Then let the momentum keep you going.
In a Nutshell
Wise people don’t repeat their mistakes. But the wisest never make the ones they have seen others make. With that in mind, here are five tips to help you avoid the common traps that come between people and potentially great lives.
- Think about how your choices affect you in the long run.
- Be smart with your expenses. Your lifestyle doesn’t always have to catch up with your income.
- Be willing to be a little uncomfortable. Learn to thrive in tough situations.
- Accept that you are flawed and messed up — like everybody else. And that’s okay as long as we make an honest effort to do our best.
- Never believe you are helpless. Take responsibility for your life; bring about the change you desire.