Ian’s Guide To Life, Volume 1: Eat dirt and change the world

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Dig in!

By Ian Tingen

I am lucky enough to have had a number of wonderful students across the years.  Mentoring is one of the most fulfilling things that I have done with my life. Even so, it is not a charge that dissipates with the mere passage of time – I believe the work of a mentor is never done. As such, when my students ask for advice, I try to help them out as best I can. Today’s Intersection 9  is a fulfillment of one such request. I was asked to condense down a few life lessons that do not have the pomp and circumstance of ceremony and song, but rather are just naked truisms I have come to appreciate.

So, without further ado – the first five steps in a (possibly?) one-article series: Ian’s Guide To Life.

1) You will fail.

You’ve heard a million axioms about failure: “Success is falling 9 times and getting up 10”; “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever”; “blah blah blah”. There’s a kernel of truth in these bits of folk advice, but they do approximately zero when you fall face first into the turf.

It’s a guarantee that you will eat dirt at some point in your life. Sometimes it will be because you’re inexperienced, or because you’re too timid. Sometimes it will happen because you’re too eager, or you overestimate your abilities. Sometimes it will happen through no fault of your own.

Regardless of the reason, failure is not the end. Not to sound too cliche about it, but failure really is about mindset – the repercussions are 99 percent attitude. Sure, if you burn the kitchen down while boiling water, it might seem like you’re a grade-A screwup. Even if you are, it does no good to revel in failure. Accepting responsibility for failure is more than saying you did poorly – it also engenders taking steps to rectify the breakdown. Embrace your failure – the quicker you do, the quicker you can let it go.

2) Be honest with yourself.

While I’m writing this article, I am fumbing across phrasing, punctuation, and flow. I guarantee if you saw the first draft, you’d likely wonder how long I had been off of my medication. I know that, as a writer, despite the best efforts in layout and outlining, I can be clumsy as hell with my words.

And that’s okay. I’m still a writer, and you’re reading this – I must have gotten something right. I also know that I have strengths, which I try to leverage: my experience dealing with people, working in industry, and as an academic psychologist are all plus-factors.

Radical self-honesty about your skills is important: it amplifies your ability to execute successfully, and is a prophylactic against the pain of failure. Practice knowing yourself, and don’t be shy to include others in your revelations when it’s called for. They will appreciate you for your honesty, and (unless they’re jerks) might even respect you for your candor.

3) Accept, but do not indulge, your shortcomings.

Once you’ve gotten the entire honesty thing down, what do you do? Many humans find it’s easy to go from saying “I realize that I need to work on X”  to “I am crippled by X”. Granted, some X’s are harder to work on than others, but theres no reason to think that your rough edges can’t be smoothed out some.

How do you do this? First and foremost, the internet is a fantastic resource. Be choosy with your sources, though – not all information is created equally. Scientifically-sourced self-help is generally preferable to folk advice. (Yes, I do realize the irony of a list on a blog offering this idea up.) After looking on the internet, you might try searching out people who are exceptional at doing the things you want to improve on. Reach out to your network, too: asking others for help can lead to all sorts of opportunities. It also helps to make a plan to improve – something I will discuss shortly.

4) Indulge, but do not accept, the status quo.

There’s a dirty secret to success that nobody tells you when they’re filling your head full of sparkly dreams: your mileage may vary. Not everyone will be trying what you do, when you do it, and how you do it. Many of you might want to change a system: make it more just, more free, more functional.

Even so, you need to learn to respect the status quo: the people who are your coworkers, bosses, and so on are trying their hand at this thing called ‘life’ too. Disrupting the system wantonly, while sometimes making for great stories, is not going to win you many friends or opportunities. Learn about the environments you find yourself in – immerse yourself in them. Try to understand the perspective of those around you. To you, it might look like your job or your chosen environment is a horribly-organized and arbitrary set of rules. You likely will be right in some regard. Even so, there is a reason those rules and structures exist. Respect the structure of what is while thinking about what could be.

What about this ‘do not accept’ thing?

I think my dad summarized it best in this question-and-answer he drilled into my head from my earliest days:

Q: “What’s the best way to (change / hemorrhage / better) a system?”
A: “From within.”

I’ve always found it a very insightful quip, one whose hidden message is even more powerful than the explicit one: in order to most effectively change something, you must be able to interact with it undetected first.

It’s easy to lose sight of this, especially if you’re burdened with the optimism of a recently completed degree or training. It’s easy to come out, guns blazing, thinking you’re going to change the world.  You likely will, if you want to. In order to be successful, though, you need to learn about the systems you’re trying to impact. Social change, like personal change, is started best from within: so learn to get in.

5) Work towards manageable goals.

One of the trickiest things about experience of all kinds is that if often requires a framework to become meaningful. This is particularly true of failure: without a ‘big picture’ to put individual instances of failure in perspective, it becomes easy to focus solely on your miscues.

Having a goal-related context in which to understand your experience, for good or for bad, also gives an added benefit: direction! If you have a goal in mind, and suffer a setback, you still have a direction to push in. Without a goal, you can get bogged down in a mire of “I suck”, wandering aimlessly and losing steam.

So now that we know why we need goals, how do we make them?

Believe it or not, there’s an art to goal setting. If you want to achieve something, it should be well-defined, realistically-implementable, and measurable. Say your goal is to build a house: that’s great! But every grand vision has smaller steps to implement: before you can build a house, you have to design it. You have to pick a location for it. You need to figure out what you will build it out of. Any time you have a goal, you should keep breaking it down until you can’t break it down further.

Once you’ve got your list of subgoals, it’s time to start working on them. While there are any of a number of tricks you can use to gently coerce yourself to get stuff done, I recommend the PAVE system (with special thanks to Dr. Neidert for teaching it to me years ago):

P – Public – the best goals are ones that are made public so others can cheer your victories, and keep you accountable. Tell a friend, post on Facebook – share your goals!

A – Active – the best goals are those which are engaged with regularity, and not left to tend themselves. Have a plan to work on your goals regularly.

V – Voluntary – the best goals are ones which you undertake willingly. Choose growth!

E – Effortful – the best goals require exertion. If you can achieve something easily, then you need to set your bar higher.

Okay, this list is all well and good, but I want to dream!

If you’re of a dire mind you might be wondering where there’s room for hope in the list. The short answer is: EVERYWHERE. None of what’s covered above is anathema to hope or aspiration; in fact, the list doubles as a guide to the care and feeding of dreams. Everything is achieved incrementally, and quickest attained by those who work as easily with  grounded reality as they do cultivating their dreams.

Now get out there and kick some ass.


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