Aristotle defined tragedy as a terrible outcome that arises from a person’s fatal flaw. Had she corrected herself, her story wouldn’t have ended on such a discordant note.
In 1982, automaker John DeLorean was arrested in a $24 million cocaine deal. His business had fallen apart, and adding salt to injury, he took the easy way out of being involved in a drug deal to reclaim the fortune he’d lost. He later also lost his wife, and needless to say, his reputation.
DeLorean’s fall is a classic story of a brilliant man whose visions are undermined by his own arrogance, whose power takes him too far. Like in a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean drama, or of Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies.
DeLorean convinced himself that the discipline and order in his company was what held back geniuses like him. Disregarding conventional business practices and wisdom, his leadership was likened to “chasing colored balloons” — Constantly abandoning one project after another. Not only that, he kept telling himself that his way was the only right way, and often sugarcoated the truth to his subordinates.
As a result, the cars he created were just terrible. They were ridiculously overpriced, and no sooner did his company collapse. His stinky leadership eventually led to criminality and fraud, and a horrible personal life as well.
If you’re arrogant and self-absorbed enough to renounce nature’s laws of doing well in life and work, remember John DeLorean. Some of them may sound so simple, like “Have a clear goal and work towards it”, but that’s how life works, and that’s how we must play this game of life.
I recently read the investor Ray Dalio’s book, Principles : Life and Work — I still am, as a matter of fact, since I prefer taking small portions of it at a time. It’s kind of like an autobiographical self-help/business book — More towards business, actually. So I understand little when he talks about investing. But what the heck. It’s a beautifully written book.
In it, he shares the lessons he learned the hard way on getting to where he is now. He had a thing of learning from his mistakes (and from other people’s as well) and deriving principles out of them — Guidelines that he could use again and again to get the best results, or to avoid a fall.
Because life has an operating system — Sure there might be some traditional rules to break, but other than that, there are fundamental laws of nature that we have adhere to — If you want six pack abs, there are certain rules in your diet and exercise that you have to do. If you want to be successful, there are things that all successful people do. Eg. It’s no accident that they read a lot.
If you want to be a miserable hack, there are certain mindsets that you have to adopt, certain things that you have to do as well. Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? — So common that you sigh when you hear the same advice being told over and over again. But that’s what it’s telling us about what works and what doesn’t. Only the question is, are you putting them into action or not?
Dalio also urged us to keep a notebook, find our own principles and write them down as we grow through life and learn from our most painful mistakes, which is what this article is about. Here are some of mine that I picked up from my own experiences, from other people, and from my reading that I try to the best of my ability to live by.
I still have a long way to go. I’m still about 4 and a half months shy of being officially 20 years old, and no doubt, there are plenty of things that I don’t understand. But I hope that these principles can serve you in some way, and help you in finding your own.
Be Clear Of What You Really Want
Bill Copeland said, “The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”
One of the scariest things in life is regret — When you’re in your old age, sitting on a rocking chair, thinking of all the things that you really wanted to do but didn’t. Or it’s that you were busy, but not productively.
You’re chasing after this and that, you’re in a race of having the coolest _____, or being the youngest _____, because you think that will earn you some recognition. You wake up one day and you’re 60, wondering where all that time went, how your youth was spent on stupid ephemeral things, how you’re unhappy now, and how you can’t turn back the time.
So right now, what do you want to give out to this world? What is most important to you? Have you decided what your life is really about?
Entrepreneur Tom Bilyeu has a set of “bright-lines” that he doesn’t cross — They’re like mini games that he uses to keep him from slacking off. If he does them, he wins and he gets rewarded. If he doesn’t, he loses and he might have to punish himself. Some of his bright-lines are : 10 minutes to get out of bed every morning, immediately change to gym clothes after waking up and head straight to the gym, when he’s awake he’s either working or working out.
Some of mine are : During the weekdays sleep before 12 and wake up at 4, only come home from campus after 5pm (so that I don’t waste away sleeping), read at least a book a week, record what I’ve read in a commonplace book.
Mission Above Self
“The decision is yours, Mr. President. My wishes have nothing to do with the matter”, said George C. Marshall when he turned down President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s offer to command the troops on D-Day — Even though that was his biggest dream, and Roosevelt made it clear that the job was his if he wanted it.
Marshall didn’t put his personal feelings above his purpose : the well-being of his country. He thought that maybe there was someone who was more capable of leadership than he was — And there was. So the glory in history went to Dwight D. Eisenhower. But really, behind the scenes Marshall was just as much of a hero than Eisenhower was.
You Only Suffer When You’re Obsessed About Yourself
Things seem depressing when you’re focused on yourself — “Why is this happening to me?” “Why me?” — But when you look at the big picture, things make sense, even when you don’t know the whole story yet. A tiger killing a deer might seem barbaric, but not when you consider how it balances the ecosystem.
Some scholars have said that it’s even a sunnah to recite Surah Yusuf when you’re feeling down (because it was also revealed during Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s most challenging time of his life). It reminds you that you’re in good hands. If the seemingly horrible things didn’t happen to Prophet Yusuf (as), not only wouldn’t his life change for the better, his nation would be in a far worse state as they wouldn’t have a leader of his caliber.
Be obsessed about adding value to people’s lives. Instead of thinking “Why me?”, think, “Because of what I went through, I’m in a better position of helping others”.
It’s Okay to Not Be Happy All the Time
Anger, frustration, grief, annoyance — They’re part of being human. Sometimes you just have to appreciate every emotion in the spectrum of life. Because they serve as signals, they tell us that there’s something not quite right in ourselves that we need to address. Listen to what your own self is trying to tell you.
Everything Can Be Learned
Don’t be intimated by the fear of making mistakes, because mistakes are an essential part of the process. Adopt a “growth mindset”, and discard whatever you have left of your “fixed mindset”. You can become good at anything, as long as you’re willing to place yourself in situations where you can be wrong, and work hard. If you’re afraid to take the first step, tell yourself that everything’s gonna be alright, because if you do screw up, you can learn from it and become better.
Character Over Personality
Imam Ghazali (ra) once shared a story of a teacher and his favorite student. The student was more pious than the others, and so caused the jealousy of his other pupils. One day the teacher gave them each a live chicken to slaughter, with the condition that it must be done in a place where no one can see. So some hid in a room, and whatsoever. Everyone came back with a dead chicken in their hands, except that one student, who carried a cage with his chicken still alive in it, and said, “Dear Teacher, I can’t find a hidden spot anywhere, because Allah is constantly watching me.”
Character is who you really are when no one is looking. Personality is how you present yourself to other people. Both are important, but character is what brings real greatness.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say, Don’t Say Anything At All
Seneca once reflected, “When I think of all the things I’ve said, I envy the mute”. I’m a highly sensitive person, and I admit that. But I try to use my sensitivity outwardly. There’s a reason why our Prophet (pbuh) adviced that backstabbing is tantamount to eating the rotten flesh of another person. You know better than to speak ugly of another person, even if she is a public figure, like a politician. When you feel like doing that, imagine if you heard someone saying those things about you behind your back. Or think of how that act reflects on you as a person. Because really, who the hell are you to say such things? Like you’re any less human than the person you’re backstabbing.
Remind Yourself of What’s Not In Your Control
Viktor Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”.
If you saw a person yelling in a car because the traffic light turned red, what would you think? — Isn’t that a fitting metaphor for dealing with things we have no control over? — Annoying people, the weather, an illness, unexpected circumstances. It’s not always easy to tell yourself that you don’t have control over those things, and that you do have control over how you react to them, but it makes a huge difference. You won’t exhaust yourself ad infinitum in the endless cycle of getting upset over things you can’t change.
On a higher level, you can turn those circumstances into something beautiful.
Cat Stevens was in the hospital, on the verge of death, battling tuberculosis when he wrote the song Moonshadow.
Just as he sang,
“If I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land
If I ever lose my hands, I won’t have to work no more
And if I ever lose my eyes, if my colors all run dry
Yes if I ever lose my eyes, I won’t have to cry no more”