13 Life Lessons To Learn and Relearn

These are lessons I have come across through work and in my personal life. Some of these concepts my company and I teach to our employees. Some are just good thought exercises. All of them are worth exploring.

Tell why, Ask Why

Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once said “… the more I ask why, the deeper a thing is, the more interesting it gets.” 1 Surface level understanding doesn’t get you very far. Sure, someone can teach you how to push that button. But if you don’t understand why you push that button, it has no meaning. What happens before, what happens after, how does that button fit into with the overall picture.

Ask why. Not like your 3 year old nephew does about every little thing, but ask why enough that you understand completely. “Ask why, but be thoughtful about it, and then actually listen,” says Megha Narayan.2 Conversely, tell why. Don’t just tell someone how or what, tell them why. It might just provide the context which can make the difference between understanding and confusion.

Root Cause Analysis

Find the actual cause of a problem and solve that. All of the issues caused further down the line will be stopped when the cause is fixed. A good way to find the root cause is to ask “why” until you reach the source. “X” happened, why? Well because “Y” happened before that. Why? Because of “Z.” Fix “Z” and “X” is no longer a problem. If you never fix “Z,” “X” will keep happening.

Author Paul Akers gives this example: The problem is someone who can never find their keys in the morning. Why? Because when they get home after work, they are hungry and run inside, throwing their keys aside without thinking about it. Why are they hungry? Well they take lunch at 12:00 but don’t get home from work until 6:30. What did they eat for lunch? Maybe if it was more nutritious they wouldn’t be so hungry. Or, have an apple at 3:00 to hold them over. Now when you get home, you aren’t rushing to the refrigerator and can put your keys where they need to go. The problem wasn’t the losing of the keys, it was being hungry. Solve that problem.

Image from https://upskillnation.com/root-cause-analysis/

Lateral Thinking

“In essence, lateral thinking is a method of approaching a problem by deliberately forgoing obvious methods of reasoning,” says Matt Davis.3 Most people are taught to think logically, directly from A to B. This reduces creativity because it puts you in a box. It’s like bowling vs. bocce ball. You can restrict yourself to a lane or have a huge open lawn to play in.

Lateral thinking puts “emphasis on generating many ideas while de-emphasizing the details of how those ideas could be implemented,” says Davis.3 There is a time for creating and a time for putting those ideas into reality. Some comedy writers for TV shows will sit in a room for a week throwing out random ideas for their characters. No structure, just brainstorming. They just make up jokes and generate ideas with zero thought about actually implementing these ideas in their show.

Lateral thinking can also mean taking a concept from one area and using it to solve a problem in a different, completely unrelated area. Paint your fence using philosophies from physics. Use the knowledge you have gained learning one skill to solve a new problem or learn a different skill.

Image from https://magichoth.com/6-top-classic-examples-of-lateral-thinking/

Say Thank You

James Clear writes: “… I’m starting to believe that “Thank You” is the most under-appreciated and under-used phrase on the planet. It is appropriate in nearly any situation and it is a better response than most of the things we say.”4 Say thank you more. When someone gives you a compliment, don’t play humble and brush it off. This ruins the compliment. “The problem is that by deflecting the praise of a genuine compliment, you don’t acknowledge the person who was nice enough to say something.There is something empowering about fully accepting a compliment. When you deflect praise, you can’t really own it,” says Clear.4

Say thank you to the people who, most likely, aren’t genuinely thanked often. The janitor cleaning the airport bathroom. The checkout clerk at a busy supermarket. The parking attendant. The bus boy elbow deep in dirty dishes. Thanking people makes them feel good and it makes you feel good. People are more likely to repeat right actions when they are thanked for doing them. This is easy, it is free, and it is good for everyone.

Be Nice To The Future You

Think about what happens next. Sure, leaving those dishes in your sink is easy now, but you won’t want to do them tomorrow any more than you do now. Tidy up your desk for 5 minutes at the end of the day so when you get to work in the morning you can smile. Get gas on the way home rather than having to rush in the morning. Pay it forward to yourself.

Don’t sign up for things in the future that you don’t want to do now. “In many cases, it might be best to use your present emotions as a guide for predicting your future emotions. After all, future you is still you,” writes Melissa Dahl.5 “…people tend to put off things that will benefit them in the future (like exercising or saving for retirement) in favor of things that will benefit them right now (like watching Netflix and spending too much on Seamless). But there are other ways we routinely screw over our future selves, too — by signing them up for things that we  have no interest in doing, as if future you and present you are not in fact one and the same you,” says Dahl.5

Don’t screw over your future self.

Good

Just watch this video to get some perspective.

Didn’t get the job? Good. Now you have time to build your skills and practice better for the next interview.

Your project was rejected by your boss? Good. Now you know what to do better next time.

How you respond to failure will determine how far you go in life. Thomas Edison supposedly said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Good. Keep trying.

Constructive Criticism

Businessterms.org defines this as “… providing feedback in a manner that acknowledges both the positives and where there is room for improvement instead of solely focusing on the negatives. The focus of providing constructive criticism is offering useful advice that can be implemented for better results.”6

“Even work that really needs improvement has something about it that can be praised,” writes Shaunta Grimes.7 Your ability to both give and receive criticism constructively can have a major impact on improvement for yourself or your team. Resist the urge to jump into defending your idea, your writing, or your plan without actually listening to the criticism. “The best thing you can do when you’re receiving feedback is just listen. Take notes. Nod and smile when it’s positive. Say thank you. And take that positive feedback to heart,” says Grimes.7

Delivery or receipt of criticism is critical. Don’t be a dick.

Leave It Better Than You Found It

“Things that aren’t your fault can still be your responsibility,” writes Conor Barnes.8 Just because you didn’t make the mess doesn’t mean you can’t clean it up. You have the choice to impact the world in positive or negative ways and leave the world better or worse that you found it. “Even the small things add up over time: not cleaning up after yourself in a public bathroom, not throwing out your trash at a friend’s place, ending an argument on a negative note, littering at a park or nature preserve, only putting in the minimum amount of effort at work, or borrowing something from someone and not taking proper care of it,” says Steven Handel.9 Our actions have a real affect.

Shola Richards writes “The real challenge in life is finding the inner strength to be positive enough to make the world a better place, even in the face of unrelenting negativity.”10 When you see someone throw a coffee cup from their car window, how does that make you feel? Like people suck? What a negative thought. But what if you were stopped at a red light and saw a person walking down the street reach down, pick up a piece of trash from the street, put it in a garbage can, and keep walking? Be that person. The person who picks up a piece of garbage they didn’t drop. On a street they have never been on before. In a city they are visiting for the first time.

No matter how small the action feels in the moment, each time you make the decision to leave something better than you found it you are becoming more forward thinking, more aware of your own actions, and reinforcing the idea that your actions can have a real impact on the world around you. Do something where there is little to no chance of personal reward.

  • Pack a plastic bag in your backpack and pick up garbage you find while hiking in the woods.
  • When you see the checker at a grocery store stressed out, ask them how the day is going. Ask them what they are doing after work. Say thank you, and that you hope they have a great rest of their day.
  • When you go to the bathroom in an airport, pick up the paper towel that someone attempted and failed to put in the garbage. The janitor will never know you did this, but you will know that you made someone else’s life easier.
  • When you have dinner at a friend’s house, refuse to let them do all of the dishes by themselves.
  • Take your co-worker out for a beer after they have a tough day.

Leave <insert here> better than you found it.

Lake Como, Italy

Take Care Of It Now

Bestselling author of Atomic Habits James Clear writes on his blog that the problem of putting things off until later “… is so timeless, in fact, that ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia. Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control.”11

Clear says that the human brain tends to “value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.”11 We have both a present self and a future self. “When you set goals for yourself — like losing weight or writing a book or learning a language — you are actually making plans for your Future Self. You are envisioning what you want your life to be like in the future,” writes Clear. But your present self “really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.”11

“So, the Present Self and the Future Self are often at odds with one another. The Future Self wants to be trim and fit, but the Present Self wants a donut. Sure, everyone knows you should eat healthy today to avoid being overweight in 10 years. But consequences like an increased risk for diabetes or heart failure are years away,” writes Clear.11

Become a long term thinker. Find the appropriate balance between your present self and your future self. If you can develop the ability to recognize the things you do now as bringing you benefit you later, you can give a payoff to both your future and present selves. You will feel good about doing something that you would normally put off, because you have taught yourself there will be a payoff later on.

Everything Has A Place

This lesson is two separate parts.

Part one is physical items. Everything should have a place. If it is taken from that place to be used, it gets returned to that place once work is finished. Every time you have to look for something, you are wasting time, motion, brain power, and energy. Jay Harrington writes “In college, I worked as a prep cook at a restaurant. The chef had French training and emphasized the importance of ‘mise-en-place’—a French term for ‘everything in its place.'”12 My Dad is a chef and I grew up working in his catering business, restaurants, and British double-decker bus that served as a food truck before food trucks were cool. Growing up in the kitchen, everything had a very specific place. Restaurants often go through rushes and lulls. A lunch rush followed by the low before the dinner rush. What you do during the slow times determines how successful you are during the rushes. This includes cleaning and organizing, putting things back. Knowing where things are is critical during busy times because looking for the correct pan or spatula could be the difference between nailing the perfect meal and burning something. It could be the difference between a satisfied customer and a negative Yelp review.

Time spent looking for things is a complete waste. “The simple fact is that life works better when you know where your things are. It’s very frustrating having to hunt for something you know you have…” writes organization consultant and author Karen Kingston.13 The psychological benefits are obvious. Looking for something that isn’t where it should be is frustrating, and could be the difference between you starting a project with a good attitude or slightly pissed off.

Author of The Lazy Genius Way Kendra Adachi writes that “Clutter might not have much to do with what you have but more where it goes. Use your given limits, prioritize a place for the most important things, and eventually you’ll see what doesn’t belong in your home simply because it doesn’t have a place to land.”14 Putting things in a specific place not only reduces looking, but it exposes those things that do not have a place. It is likely you can get ride of those.

Part two is situational. There is a time and place for everything. A good sentence at the wrong time can cause problems. A good product brought to market at the wrong time can fail. Words of encouragement can seem condescending in the wrong context. Good can be bad with the wrong timing.

Image from https://www.fastcap.com/product/kaizen-foam

Extreme Ownership

Read Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Willink writes that Extreme Ownership “is the number one characteristic of any high-performance winning team, in any military unit, organization, sports team, or business team in any industry.”15 The concept is that you own everything in your world and all responsibility for success or failure rests with you. It is about taking responsibility for your actions. Take personal responsibility for everything and figure out what YOU can do better to succeed, rather than placing blame or making excuses. Taking responsibility is liberating because it puts the power in your hands to make the changes needed. That often includes other people or whole teams, but the point is that you focus on what you can bring to the table to help the team succeed. If every person on the team does this, the entire team succeeds.

Placing blame is a slippery slope to failure. If no one takes responsibility for failures, you can’t start trying to fix the issue. What can you do to fix the problem if you blame someone else for it happening in the first place? Pierre-Yves Hittelet writes “How to apply “Extreme Ownership?” Count the number of times you put the blame on somebody else or an external circumstance, and instead of complaining, actively look for how you could solve the problem.”16

Sphere of Influence

Everyone has a sphere of influence. You do not need to be “the boss” to have influence at work. Everything you do influences the people around you. Your attitude, your emotions, your helpfulness all influence how your coworkers act around you. The little things add up. Be a positive influence. Be the person that people can go to for help. Be the person people rely on for information and advice. This type of person will grow their sphere of influence. The opposite is also true; if you are negative, not willing to help, or shoot down every idea your team has, no one will want to work with you and you will have very little influence.


Your influence grows by listening, observing, helping, being part of the solution, hard work, and by humility. Your actions give you influence. Doing these things give you more influence than a title. Would you rather listen to a peer who knows what they are talking about, or a boss who tells you what to do just because they are the boss? 

Image from https://medium.com/@chrisjmoss/https-medium-com-chrisjmoss-agile-advice-extending-your-sphere-of-influence-b3e21dd1ec4f

Start with Yourself

If you want to change the world, start with yourself. My boss Steve says “It is easier to see faults in others than it is to see them within yourself. But you can’t control other people, you can only control yourself. Start with improving yourself; your procedures, processes, and actions. You will be VASTLY more successful and happy by doing it. If you show that you are working on yourself, you will gain more respect from your boss and peers and you will be given more responsibility and more ability to change the things that bug you.”

Don’t be the person that constantly points out what is wrong with other people while doing nothing to improve yourself. It all starts with you.

As always, keep the conversation going. Please like, comment, share, or contact me. Let’s keep learning and growing together. We are all changing, so let’s change for the better!

-Tyson Simmons

Sources

  1. Richard Feynman on Why Questions, https://fs.blog/2012/01/richard-feynman-on-why-questions/
  2. Why you should ask why, by Megha Narayan, PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 21, 2019, https://www.atlassian.com/blog/teamwork/why-you-should-ask-why
  3. Lateral Thinking, by Matt Davis, 14 October, 2019, https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/lateral-thinking?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1
  4. Make Your Life Better by Saying Thank You in These 7 Situations, by James Clear, https://jamesclear.com/say-thank-you
  5. Why You Keep Signing Your Future Self Up for Stuff You Don’t Actually Want to Do, by Melissa Dahl, FEB. 24, 2016, https://www.thecut.com/2016/02/stop-signing-your-future-self-up-for-stuff-you-dont-actually-want-to-do.html
  6. Constructive Criticism, by BT Editors, https://businessterms.org/constructive-criticism/
  7. How to Accept (and Make Use of) Constructive Criticism, by Shaunta Grimes, Feb 23, 2020, https://medium.com/the-write-brain/how-to-accept-and-make-use-of-constructive-criticism-71dca827df0f
  8. 100 Tips For A Better Life, by Conor Barnes, December 22, 2020, https://ideopunk.com/2020/12/22/100-tips-for-a-better-life/
  9. Leave It Better Than You Found It, by Steven Handel, https://www.theemotionmachine.com/leave-it-better-than-you-found-it-01/
  10. BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT, by Shola Richards, https://sholarichards.com/better-than-you-found-it/
  11. Procrastination, by James Clear, https://jamesclear.com/procrastination
  12. Create Structure and Routine to Be Effective Amid the Chaos, by Jay Harrington, January 21, 2021, https://www.law.com/2021/01/21/create-structure-and-routine-to-be-effective-amid-the-chaos/?slreturn=20210106092709
  13. A Place For Everything And Everything In Its Place, by Karen Kingston, 8 January 2017, https://www.karenkingston.com/blog/a-place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place/
  14. When Everything Has A Place, by Kendra Adachi, https://nosidebar.com/when-everything-has-a-place/
  15. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, ST Martins Press, New York, ebook, https://www.amazon.com/Extreme-Ownership-U-S-Navy-SEALs/dp/1250067057
  16. Navy Seal Leadership Lessons, by PIERRE-YVES HITTELET, https://www.inc.com/pierre-yves-hittelet/navy-seal-leadership-lessons.html

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