1. Detachment (Being okay when life sucks)
We flip a coin. Heads, you get $100,000. Tails, you get nothing. Or, I give you $10,000, no questions asked. Do you flip the coin or take the money? Most people would pick the $10,000, saying it’s “the obvious choice,” but it’s not. It’s just more certain — and humans love certainty.
The math of the coin toss is that you have a 50% chance to walk home with $0 and an equal chance of winning $100,000. A statistician would say, “This gamble has an expected value of $50,000.” If we replayed this experiment endlessly, choosing the coin toss each time would maximize your earnings.
As a one-off decision, however, the element of uncertainty makes the gamble less attractive — so much so that you’re willing to sacrifice $40,000 of the expected payout just to get a sure outcome. The $40,000 is called risk premium — the additional return you can expect for bearing uncertainty — and even though the numbers are contrived, you’ll often get similarly outsized rewards in life if you hang on a little longer when the future is unclear.
Facebook didn’t sell to Yahoo! for $1 billion, now it’s worth $500 billion. Tarantino sold one of his screenplays early on and hated the resulting movie so much that he vowed to produce all of his films on his own from then on. If you give the hesitant person the benefit of the doubt at the start of your relationship, maybe, they’ll end up being the one you marry. All of this requires bearing risk and uncertainty.
The reason most people are incapable of accepting them is that they lack the skill of detachment. As a result, they spend their entire lives chasing certainty. Regardless of how big their dreams, how huge the potential payoff, their desperate craving for sure outcomes will determine all of their choices in advance — long before life even presents them with multiple options.
Detachment is the art of removing yourself from your many expectations. Instead of hoping life will pan out a certain way, you accept you don’t have control. Stop waiting for what you think “must surely play out like this.” Let go of this sense of entitlement, and you’ll be okay even when life sucks, when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’re not sure if things might get worse before they get better. Detachment allows you to do great things.
You only get one life. You want to swing for the fences. You can’t do that when you’re stuck in the status quo, stuck in the hamster wheel of trying to preserve every little thing you have without ever risking anything. Sure, sometimes, you’ll have to take the safe route. Most of the time, however, you’ll do it not because it’s necessary but because it’s comfortable.
It’s a great irony: Caring a little less will let you get more out of everything you care so much about. Don’t settle. Don’t play life too safely. Demand more, ask for the best, and when someone offers you a coin toss, tell them to flick it.
2. Assiduity (Persistent personal attention)
“Work hard” is good advice, but “be assiduous” is better. What sounds like a fancy word for a simple thing is actually an enhanced, more varied definition of showing up to your work when it matters the most.
Charlie Munger once said about assiduity, “I like that word because it means: Sit down on your ass until you do it.” That’s one side of the coin. The other is remaining in your seat until it’s done. “Staying power” is a good way to put it.
Assiduity is more than brute-force philosophy. Working hard is part of the deal, yes, but it also includes a level of selectivity. Assiduity is doing the right thing at the right time and then doing it all the way. Not doing all the things all the time when most of them don’t matter.
Assiduity also includes a level of detail-orientation that usually gets lost in the noise of “you gotta hustle!” Merriam-Webster has a brilliant, three-word definition: persistent personal attention. Yes, you continue to show up for the things that are important to you, but you also approach them from a creative angle, an angle only you are able to take. You also show a love of the process, an eye for detail, and you care about the results and people involved.
Assiduity doesn’t just make your work better, it makes it more fun. You’ll stop feeling threatened by every difficult problem, put on a smirk as you roll up your sleeves, and take it as a challenge to finish what you’ve started.
3. Strategic Flexibility (Take one-off chances)
An interviewer once asked Bill Gates: “What was the worst day of your life?” Bill said: “The day my mother died.” That’s a sad day for anyone who loves their mother, but with Bill, you could tell there were some unresolved issues.
It seemed he didn’t wish just for more time, he wished for another chance, a chance he’d never get. There he was, an all-rich, nearly all-powerful man, unable to do something about his regrets. It reminded me of that scene in Iron Man where fellow prisoner Yinsen tells billionaire Tony Stark about his family and asks what he looks forward to once they escape. Tony stays silent, and so Yinsen goes: “So you’re a man who has everything — and nothing.”
If you don’t want to end up like that, with a mountain of accomplishments that’ll be sadly overshadowed by a mountain of regrets, you have to take one-off chances. Certain opportunities in life really only present themselves once.
Some of these chances are big, like accepting a rare job offer, finding the timing to start a company, or saying yes to the person you’ll marry, but many of them are actually really small. As important as it is to work hard and wholeheartedly dedicate yourself to your goals, if you don’t stop to celebrate the little moments, to spend time with the ones you love now, to enjoy the moment, the sunset, the cup of coffee in front of you, you won’t get another another shot at those either.
Strategic flexibility is about knowing which of the small and big crossroads matter right when you reach them. This requires projecting yourself into the future. Think about the long term consequences of today’s choices. What will you regret in five years if you don’t do it now? And what will you regret not stopping sooner?
Life won’t always give you the chance to do what’s right at a convenient time. Strategic flexibility is about putting aside your ego and stepping up to what’s most important now so you can feel content and satisfied with your life later.
4. Mental Lingering (Play dumb & you’ll see you are)
There’s a great quote by German writer Kurt Tucholsky: “The advantage of wisdom is that you can play dumb. The opposite is more difficult.”
It’s meant to be a funny quip, but it holds an ounce of truth: Sometimes, it’s best to keep your mouth shut, even when you think you already know everything you’re about to be presented with. This applies everywhere in life, but especially in conversations, particularly those you hold with people you only met recently.
In a video about love, Will Smith said: “Listening is a magnificent superpower. Really deep listening. And we can’t listen if we’ve got something that we want to say.” It echoes a quote by Roy Bennett: “The greatest problem with communication is we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply.”
Imagine this scenario: Jack and Jane meet for a first date. Jane knows Jack is a car geek, and she’s proud to know quite a bit about them too. As she tries to explain why the Porsche 997 Turbo S is her all-time favorite, Jack cuts her off: “Aw yeah, man, what a machine, 530 hp, 700 Nm, lighter than the standard, it rocks!” At this point, all Jane can do is nod politely and die a little bit inside.
Now, imagine Jack had simply closed his mouth as he drew his breath to interrupt her. Maybe, Jane would have told him that it wasn’t just the fastest production car ever built at the time, but that some car magazines measured the 0–60 time as a mind-blowing 2.6 seconds — more than 20% faster as advertised by Porsche themselves. She might even have told him about the hilarious “race” Top Gear once did, where they dropped a VW beetle from a helicopter to see if the Porsche could reach the impact line faster than the beetle would drop from the sky. At this point, all Jack would do is collect his chin off the floor and be damn glad he kept his mouth shut — unfortunately, that rarely happens.
Patience in conversations is a virtue. You can think of it as mental lingering. Even when you don’t expect to hear anything new, you show curiosity. You wait. And you might learn something new regardless.
Don’t hijack conversations because you can, even when you’re excited. It’s okay to be. It’s awesome when you can contribute a lot and, in time, you will. But right now, let them finish talking. Talking is easy, but most of the time, listening is the right thing to do.
Every person you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t. Play dumb, and you just might find: in a way, we all still are.
All You Need to Know
If you want to live your best life, don’t obsess so much about getting every step of the way exactly right. Remember that being your best is as much about the things you don’t do as it is about the things you do. Try cultivating these underrated traits and attract more into your life through the power of less.
- Detach yourself from your expectations to be okay even when life sucks.
- Work hard, but obsess more about doing the right thing than doing everything.
- Be strategically flexible, take important chances as they appear so you won’t have big regrets at the end of your life.
- Hang around mentally and give people the benefit of the doubt — most of the time, you’ll learn something new.
Niklas Göke writes for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. His writing on self-improvement, philosophy, and productivity has appeared on Business Insider, CNBC, Fast Company, and many more publications. He is also the owner of Four Minute Books, where he’s published over 500 non-fiction book summaries to date.
This article first appeared on Medium.