Do Hard Things With Good People (and Other Life Maxims I’ve Borrowed)

“Pet a cat when you encounter one” isn’t likely to be found on your typical list of rules for life. It was, however, in Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

The natural evolution of reading someone else’s “rules for life” is thinking about your own rules. This mental exercise was prompted even further by reading Nate Green’s “10 Short Sentences I Use To (Basically) Run My Entire Life.”

I’m certainly not self-aggrandizing enough to suggest that I can come up with my own “rules for life.” I don’t believe I’ve experienced enough to come up with my own unique maxims. However, I have developed a habit of stealing from smart people.

So, with that in mind, here are 10 maxims I’ve borrowed from other people and adopted as “rules” of sorts for running my life. They’re like guiding principles that I reflect back on often. Hopefully, they help you in some way. If you ignore the rest, follow rule #10.

#1: Do hard things with good people.

The gist is simple: Tackle difficult tasks with people that embody values you aspire to and push you to be a better person.

In context, this applies to physical challenges (GoRuck events, obstacle course races, hard workouts, etc). There’s something special about suffering through physical exhaustion alongside other awesome folks.

It applies outside of the fitness arena as well. In business, if you tackle tough problems with a great set of teammates, you’re bound to learn something awesome, and (I believe) experience success eventually.

This is a guiding principle of sorts that can be used to vet new opportunities. Will it be diffcult? Good – I’ll learn something and push myself. Will I be surrounded by awesome people? Perfect.

(I believe I borrowed this from Jason McCarthy, Founder of GoRuck.)

#2: When in doubt, pick the harder option.

More than likely, it will be the thing that differentiates you from the herd.

We’re all pressed for time. We have to be selective about the things we work on and the tasks we choose to tackle. If you’re stuck deciding between two options, pick the harder one.

I alluded to this briefly when writing about thriving in the changing workplace for Todoist. I used the example of an aspiring developer trying to build their reputation. One option is to post links to Twitter and LinkedIn. Another option is to contribute to open source projects and answer questions on StackOverflow. The latter is a lot harder than the former, and the payoff will be much greater as a result.

#3: Be like a duck.

As far as life rules go, this one is relatively popular. As the saying goes:

Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath.

Pulling this apart a bit more, it encompasses several values that I beleive are important.

First, learn how to handle stress. It’s one of the most important skills you can master, and it will impact both your personal and professional life.

Second, remain calm in the face of adversity. You’ll think more clearly and ultimately arrive at a better plan of action. Better yet, you’ll inspire others around you to remain calm as well.

Third, work your ass off when no one is watching. Work hard because you want to, not because it’s visible. (Related maxims: “Be a silent professional,” and “Hide the miles.”)

#4: Don’t argue with reality.

Simply put, if you can’t change the situation, spend your time figuring out what to do next, not trying (in vain) to change it.

Massive flight delay? No problem. Let’s get rebooked on another flight and figure out the best place to eat in the airport.

Slept through your alarm? Don’t waste your entire morning being pissed off about it. Rearrange your day and get on with it.

If you can’t change the facts, there’s no use arguing about them.

(I can’t remember where I first heard this, but I’d say it’s probably from a Stoic philosopher. Either way, it’s a really productive mindset to adopt. You get far less worked up in situations.)

#5: Invest in yourself first.

AKA: “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” Even Warren Buffett is often quoted as saying something akin to (paraphrased) “Invest in yourself…It’s the best investment that can’t be taxed or affected by inflation.”

This often comes up in the context of education. I’m a firm believer in constantly investing in your own education. Read far and wide. Pick up books, articles, podcasts, and interviews from every field (even if they’re not directly applicable) and dig in. If you don’t find them interesting, stop and move on to something else. Spend 30 minutes a day doing this, and you’ll be a better person for it.

It applies outside education as well. Health (both mental and physical), nutrition, stress management…all important areas.

This might feel like a selfish act, but everyone around you benefits if you take care of yourself first.

(Peterson refers to this as “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”)

#6: Everyone has problems. They just come in different flavors.

The grass is always greener on the other side, or so we think. We fail to realize that yes, others might not suffer from our particular afflictions, but they have problems of their own that we fail to recognize.

This presents itself most commonly in the money arena. Wouldn’t it be great to have a $200k salary? Sure, money is great, but it comes with it’s own (unforseen) challenges that we often ignore. To quote Seneca, “slavery dwells beneath marble and gold.”

Let’s look at Mike Meru, recently brought into the spotlight in a Wall Street Journal article. He’s a dentist making well over $200k a year. He drives a Tesla, lives in a home with panoramic mountain views, and goes on awesome vacations with his family. Sounds great right?

Until you realize he has over $1 million in student loan debt. (That he’ll likely never pay back.)

The point isn’t to play some game of “my problems are worse than yours.” It’s to realize that yes, everyone is fighting battles you know nothing about. Before you envy their position, understand that it likely comes with challenges you’re completely oblivious to.

(I borrowed this from Ryan Holiday.)

#7: Change your base assumptions.

Our base set of assumptions impacts how we interpret and react to situations.

For example, if you believe that everyone is selfish and out to get theirs, the person that cut you off is a jerk. They saw you in traffic. They cut you off on purpose to make you late for your meeting. Same with your colleague that was late sending over the update. They knew you would have to stay late at work to finish everything up!

Now, let’s start from a different set of assumptions. Let’s assume that everyone is trying their best. They want to feel valued and have a postiive impact.

That person cutting you off was having a hell of a morning. If they’re late one more time, they might get fired. They feel terrible about jumping in front of you, and they apologized loudly although you couldn’t hear them. That colleague that forgot to send over the update? A project spec was changed at the last second, but they got it over as soon as possible.

You walk into every situation with a set of base assumptions. If you change them from the negative (Everyone is out to get me) to the positive (Everyone is trying to do their best), I promise you’ll have better outcomes.

(Follow-up: This does not mean everyone has good intentions. Assholes do exist. This doesn’t mean you should be naive and get taken advantage of. Assume the best until proven otherwise.)

#8: It’s probably your fault (at least pretend).

If you’re running into an issue, it’s your job to step back and recognize how you’re contributing to the problem. Simple.

(I borrowed this from Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in their popular book Extreme Ownership. The talks about ownership in a leadership context, but it applies across every discipline.)

#9: Care (just a little bit) more.

Two mindsets often hold us back from tackling big problems:

  1. It’s not my problem (See rule #8)
  2. Even if I could help, I can’t do it all so why try even a little?

To illustrate the second piece, let’s look at charity. Bill Gates is one of the richest men on the planet. He’s also incredibly philanthropic with his money, donating millions of dollars to curing malaria in third-world countries.

One takeaway then might be that if you can’t pony up a million plus, you should just sit back and let everyone else take care of the problem. If you can’t finish the race yourself, why take the first step?

The real answer is that a malaria net costs $2.00 and helps two people so you could effectively help out 100 individuals for $50. The best charities work this way (and it’s what we tried to do with Drink for Pink) – they demonstrate how your individual efforts can contribute to the larger picture and have a big impact.

The mental fallacy is that a big impact requires a grand gesture. In reality, the small gestures matter just as much.

Care just a little bit more. Walk your cart back inside at the grocery store. Pick up trash when you see it. Take tiny steps in the right direction. It makes a difference (and you might just inspire someone else).

(I pulled this together from a few rules in Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.)

#10: Build your own set of rules.

How meta!? It’s like using your only magic wish on a hundred more wishes.

I adapted this from Julie Galef, writer, podcaster, and entrepreneur focused on how to help people make better decisions. She had one of my favorite quotes from Tribe of Mentors:

When something goes badly, I don’t automatically assume I did something wrong. Instead I ask myself, “What policy was I following that produced this bad outcome, and do I still expect that policy to give the best results overall, occasional bad outcomes notwithstanding?” If yes, then carry on!

The only way this works is to build your own set of policies or rules. To evaluate and learn from your decisions, it helps to understand why you made them in the first place. What beliefs dictate how you act? What ideas or philosophies guide your thinking?

You don’t have to write them down, but I’ve found it helpful. They’re also not set in stone. No one is saying you can’t change your mind later on.

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I hope you found some of the rules above helpful. I ended my list saying you should write your own list. Please don’t just copy mine. They probably won’t apply directly to your situation. Take some time to think it over and create your own list. If you do, please share them with me!