In the last few months, I’ve been musing on what it takes to live well, and I thought I’d float 1 Great Truth here. It isn’t the truth, or even the Truth, and it certainly isn’t THE GREAT TRUTH, but it is a truth, and I think it’s a pretty important one.
I find myself fortunate in my living situation – not simply that I do not have to pay rent or worry about job security, but in the people around me; I live with thinkers. We love constantly talking about things other people don’t talk about very much, we love discussing philosophy, theology, culture, politics, education, psychology, and cooking. Growing up in an environment which constantly questions life and how to live it better has been very healthy for me.
It is not uncommon for a discussion around our family dinner table to float from the history of Communism and Fascism to the origin of rum to the politics of the day to whether or not chocolate-chip cookies are racist to why Freud is largely considered wrong by modern psychologists… possibly wrapping up by discussing some pre-Nicene heresies of relevance to some previous point.
We like to think of ourselves as amateur experts in many of the previously listed fields, simply for the amount of time we’ve spent reading, discussing, or practicing them. For example, rumor has it that people are doing more cooking than ever* at home – 50% of Americans only going out to eat one to three times a week. *’Ever’, here, being a word which means ‘since, like, we were at war with Germany or something’.
Whereas my family’s outward venturing often falls in the less-than-once-a-month category. Sometimes it’s less-than-once-in-three-months category. While we aren’t eating out, that doesn’t mean we aren’t eating well, as four out of seven of the members of the clan here have worked as professional chefs (though none of us went to culinary school, either). Just because we don’t get out, doesn’t mean we don’t eat five-star meals. Just because we aren’t all theology majors doesn’t mean we can’t discuss eschatology with the best of them. And so on.
So I had a well-rounded childhood, a diverse and full educational experience, a storied array of hobbies, had a training in three trades, and a healthy amount of savings by the time I was 23 (because I had started working when I was 7). By measuring against most American women my age (in debt, still finishing college, unsure of the job market), I am successful – albeit in fairly peculiar ways. I am happy.
However, this puts me in a unique position of often being asked for advice regarding everything from the use of essential oils to calligraphy to podcasts to devotionals to recipes. While I do not mind being asked my opinion, there is often an unspoken part of the question: what is the shortcut to being successful (and therefore happy)?
Well, there are three problems to that question, but to my way of thinking, it all stems from the misunderstanding of 1 Great Truth of living a Successful Life.
Problem 1: Success and happiness are not dependent on one another. Happiness is a choice, success is an achievement; conflating these basic principles is a sure way to be miserable and unsuccessful.
Problem 2: If you’re asking for a shortcut, you aren’t interested in success, you’re interested in happiness. Stop thinking about achieving happiness like it’s some kind of cheat-code in a video game.
Problem 3: You didn’t actually ask this question, did you? You asked about what kind of skin-care regimen I have for my face or how to draw a horse’s ear or how to get good at calligraphy. The answer to all of them is the same. It is a Great Truth.
Success doesn’t have to be hard. Success doesn’t have to take a long time. Success always follows the same pattern (except for child prodigies – I don’t have an explanation for them); it follows the pattern of 1 Great Truth: becoming an expert at anything starts with doing something small, doing it repeatedly until you can do it well, and then growing into doing it on a larger scale. This is how life works.
If you want to have John Hancock’s penmanship, start by being able to form the right shapes on the paper, in the right order, with the right pressure. Maybe even start with writing an ‘a’. Then do it over again. And over again. Aaaand over again. You must study, learn, experiment, repeat. Success will follow.
Health is often a matter of experimentation, finding the right fitness, skin care, dietary restrictions, and supplements for you. Research is great, but there is no miracle pill which will make you eternally young. It’s about habit. Eating that salad more than once, setting up a schedule so you take those vitamins every day, or putting your yoga mat where you trip over it so you are forced to do a pose or two each day.
A habit starts with doing something small and then doing it twice. Repeat. Whether it’s saving that dollar or that paycheck for something bigger, whether it’s doing that sit-up or that hundred-day fitness routine to turn into a life-long routine, whether it’s throwing paint on a canvas, ink on a page, or words into a story… the principle will always remain.
This is 1 Great Truth: Success is not one achievement, but rather sits atop a series of thousands upon thousands of minor victories which have outweighed minor setbacks until they have built a tall and beautiful monument. Sometimes those victories are accidents, sometimes they look more like mistakes, but the more you make, the taller your monument becomes.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if you don’t start with one push-up, one yoga pose, one quilt square, one calligraphy session, one essential oil, one practice session on the violin, one side-dish for a family meal, or one book that’s just a little outside your comfort zone – you won’t reach success.
That’s my advice, that’s my shortcut. Start. Take action.
If you aren’t happy that you aren’t as good an artist, as fit a person, or as well-rounded an individual, then do something about it. But you can’t start at the height of achievement: the people who are already there did it brick by brick.
Pick the book up and actually start reading it. Try that healthy tea your sister-in-law’s been on about. Open that kit you bought at that art store ages ago with ‘good intentions’. Sit down and pray like you’ve been meaning to for weeks, or maybe months. Make your first mistake, then another, and another. Before you know it, people will be asking you for advice.