Life is a whole lot of things all smooshed together, and there are some harsh truths that it's easier not to notice as you go about your day.
Life is cruel, beautiful, harsh, joyful, mysterious and a lot more besides. Sometimes it smells like herb roasted chicken. Other times it stinks of piss and vinegar. Sometimes it’s just hilarious and you want to keep laughing until your jaw aches, but it’s also a real bitch who’ll slap you hard in face without warning and then tweet to the whole world a red-faced picture of you in tears, with the comment “Stop attention seeking you prissy little cry-baby.”
I’m all for prodding into dark corners, so let me take some of the harsh truths of life you'd rather not accept—and smoosh them all up in your face.
You’re not immortal
Well done. You’ve lived long enough to read this article. But the harsh truth is that today could be the day you keel over, emit your last pillow of intestinal gas and keel over.
We go about our lives as if they’ll just keep on going, day after day after day. And for the most part they do. Until it doesn’t any more.
You know you’re going to die someday, of course you do, but the reality of your own mortality is one that your brain has a really hard time processing. Think of it like Justin Bieber trying to understand how the Large Hadron Collider works, or the Large Hadron Collider trying to collide particles of Justin Bieber together to discover how he got here.
Your brain can’t really fathom your own mortality, so it feels like you’ll be around forever. You assume that there’s time for things to work out. You think that there’s time to hit your stride. You think that there’s time for your life to come into focus.
The harsh truth is that time is literally running out. You know how quickly the last five years raced by? The next five will be even quicker.
While this sense of being around forever is an illusion engineered by your brain, there is a genuine opportunity to create a life that's rich with texture, and to make the kind of difference you want to make while you’re here.
You don't have to fret or panic about whether you’ll have a legacy that lasts for eons, and you don't have to change the world.
All you have to do is your best, with the time you've been given.
You’re not that important
Even though you’re the protagonist in your own story, cast as the lead and seeing the world as only you can see it, you’re just one among 7 billion others, each of whom are doing exactly the same thing.
Wake up, do stuff, go to sleep. Whine about things. Laugh at people on YouTube. Worry about ageing. Feel pain. Make sweet love. Eat pudding. Sometimes all those things at once.
The harsh truth is that people are wrapped up in their own lives, and what you do, what you think and what plans you have don't matter as much. They’re too busy with their own lives to notice.
Sure, there will be people close to you who care about you, but even those people have their own stuff going on that's the very centre of their experience.
You carry around this sense of “I”—that you're the centre, and that's just fine in some regards. It’s the thing that stops you jumping off the side of the bridge you walk over or chopping off your own fingers to make pinky sausage.
But with it can come self-importance, the very thing that the Buddhists and Eckhart Tolle’s of the world seek to let go of in order to find a more universal truth.
So here’s the universal truth...
You’re not important. But even so, you can always create value and make an impact that matters.
You make all your decisions
There are easy choices, like what to have for breakfast, where to live, what job to take, and how to take care of yourself.
Then there’s the stuff that’s a little more complicated. Like who to love, or what to do when you've been laid off, how to deal with grief, or where to go for help.
Sometimes stuff happens to us in life, sure it does, but you always get to make a decision about how to respond. Every event in life offers you a choice.
Every single one.
I have an incurable, chronic, debilitating illness, for example. It's tough, it's frustrating, and I'd much rather not have it. But I made the choice to partner up with it like we’re in some kind of Walter Matthau / Jack Lemmon caper movie, rather than struggle and fight against it.
You get to choose how you deal with grief, how you deal with people, how you see your story, and a million other things.
Sometimes, the fact that you own every single choice is terrifying, because it means there's nowhere to hide. That's the harsh truth of it.
And of course, letting somebody else decide for you, or the decision not to make a choice are still your decisions, even though it’s easier to think they’re not.
Making decisions is the mechanism for living a life full of texture and colour. And if that makes you uncomfortable about the choices you’ve already made or scared about the choices yet to come, then good.
They’re all yours. Don’t fight them.
You'll never have all the answers
There’s so much value placed on getting the right answers, and let me take a moment to apologise on behalf of the personal development industry for our part in that. Sorry. We fucked that up a bit.
Answering questions like how do I know what’s right?, what if I choose wrong? or how can I be sure? become goals, and we pursue answers to them like reaching for a mythical cherry atop an imaginary cake.
As a human being, you're hungry for the certainty that answers provide. There's safety in knowing. But hunting for answers gets in the way of living, and sometimes life simply needs you to move without knowing.
The harsh truth is that testing and learning and evolving is more important than finding answers.
So let’s hear it for exploration without having answers.
You'll never "make it"
Over the last few decades, success has been elevated in the West to the point where it’s idolised and worshipped.
You may have heard of the classic Yale University Class of 1953 study, where researchers surveyed the graduating seniors to determine how many of them had specific, written goals for their future. 3% of them had done just that. Twenty years later, researchers polled the surviving members of the Class of 1953 and found that the 3% with goals had accumulated more personal financial wealth than the other 97% of the class combined.
Since then, industry has sprouted up around the notion of success (Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracey, Anthony Robbins and many more all quote the Yale study in their work) and people are hungry for it. If I can just make it, then I’ll be set, people think.
Only, the Yale study is complete bollocks. It never took place.
Yale University Research Associate Beverly Waters carried out an exhaustive search of the archives and found no evidence that such a study had ever been conducted. Says Waters, “We are quite confident that the ‘study’ did not take place. We suspect it is a myth.”
Being vehemently anti-goal myself, I can’t tell you how pleased I was to discover this.
“Success” and “making it” imply an end point to your efforts, a point at which everything pays off when you can lie back and have your staff feed you grapes, wash your feet in champagne and tell you how gorgeous you look while you wallow in smug self-satisfaction.
But no matter how impactful you become, how many dollars are in the bank or how many lives you touch, you’re still you. Your issues are still your issues and your shit is still your shit.
For all we know, Oprah’s terrified of odd numbers, Richard Branson has intimacy issues and George Clooney hates his feet.
Those things probably aren’t true (or are they?), but you’re never “done” and you can’t outrun your issues. This is why Hollywood stars and sports stars come crashing down after "success", and why it’s widely found that winning the lottery has no impact on long-term happiness.
So, fuck success and to hell with “making it”.
Don't focus on those things, because the harsh truth is that they're amorphous, fictional notions. The real gold, is in engaging and connecting in ways both meaningful and nourishing.
And to me, that sounds like a hell of a lot more fun too.