What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically.

  1. The person who truly understands humans and the world is never shocked by anything.
  2. Knowledge ≠ understanding. Acquire the former; pursue the latter.
  3. If you understand fear and power, then you understand a lot about humans and the world.
  4. Approach each day as a training and learning exercise. Maintain a constant state of learning.
  5. If virtue matters, sacrifice is inevitable. Sacrifice isn’t something to fear. Accept it without complaint or resentment. The unvirtuous sacrifice even more.
  6. Self-awareness is illusive and, when it does arrive, comes only in small doses. Self-deception comes easy. You won’t know yourself as well as you think you do, for people are really bad at identifying their own instincts, biases, assumptions, limitations, flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes. But you will have no trouble seeing such things in others. Be mindful of these realities.
  7. It’s really hard to be confident and humble at the same time. But it’s important.
  8. There are no black or white hats; only gray ones. You will be tempted to think your hat is white. Don’t.
  9. The key to happiness and contentment is within; if you search the world for it, you will be disappointed. Through discipline and perseverance, you can learn to achieve mastery over your conscious experience and overcome the obstacles to happiness. But it may not be easy; in fact, it probably won’t be.
  10. People focus too much on the way they think things should be and not enough on the way things are. The should be is an escape from what is. Deal with the world as it is, not as you think it should be. And don’t think you’re responsible for more than you are. It’s not your job to save the world. Or, for that matter, to change anything.
  11. The question isn’t whether it is fair (it often isn’t). The question is, what are you going to do about it? Focus on the response, not the injustice.
  12. A sense of gratitude is essential, yet elusive. Nurture gratitude; make room for it in your life. In its absence, happiness will shrivel up and die.
  13. Truth can be found within religious stories and experiences; however, organized religion can be hazardous so approach it with care. Organized religion can teach you how to hate (as it did with me). To loathe. To be discontented. To judge — especially yourself. To despair. To be weak. Albeit under the guise of love, righteousness, and truth. But organized religion also can introduce you to some extraordinary people. And to some inspiring stories and experiences — to kernels of truth amidst the fields of falsities. And to the mysterious power of giving and the bountiful gifts of simplicity and grace. But do not underestimate the threat it poses.
  14. The Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus of Western Christianity are two different people. Don’t try to reconcile them.
  15. Humans cannot live without illusions and myths, including the illusions of knowledge and certainty. But be careful not to confuse beliefs and knowledge for truth, and don’t be overconfident in your ability to discern truth. Also be mindful of the hazards of confirmation bias. Treat every belief, construct, and prediction as provisional (a work in process). Acknowledge uncertainties. Don’t be hesitant to say, “I’m not sure.” Or “I don’t know.” But be information hungry.
  16. Become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Because life is full of both. Learn to navigate without a map. Be forgiving of wrong turns.
  17. Story (beliefs, narratives, myths, etc.) matters. More than reality. It’s easy to forget this. Or to think it’s irrational. Don’t.
  18. Expectations > facts. Don’t let your expectations blind you to reality. Or to cloud your judgment or precipitate a reactionary response. Understand that humans are often indifferent to facts. They just are.
  19. Reason is overvalued, and tradition and customs are underappreciated. Humans have strong tribal tendencies  — undoubtedly a legacy of a harsh, threatening world. The implications can be profound, both within your personal and work lives.
  20. Life is more random than people like to believe (perhaps because they fear uncertainty?). People find patterns where none exists. They take credit for things they shouldn’t. Build the strength and resiliency to survive the randomness and uncertainty of life and the adversities and calamities that are sure to come your way.
  21. Don’t confuse what you do for whom you are. Worthiness is not an achievement or prize.
  22. Life is a series of choices and decisions. Constantly work on honing your decision-making skills. Each day make better, smarter decisions; each day, take more control of yourself and your mind. As Epictetus said, “You are your capacity for choosing well.” Dissect every significant decision you make (including decisions not to do something) to determine what you got right, wrong, and missed, and the reasons why, recognizing it may be impossible to know whether a decision was for the best or not. (You may find it helpful to keep a journal.) But don’t delude yourself into believing you have more choices than you actually do. Or that you’re more autonomous than you actually are. Much of life happens to people, not because of anything they do or decide. Do not underestimate the role serendipity plays in your life.
  23. People are imitators. (René Gerard called it “mimetic desire.”) Independent thought and action don’t come easy.
  24. Extrapolation is common yet rarely warranted. Its comforts are false.
  25. Never rely on anyone’s predictions (not even your own), no matter how authoritative they might sound. Humans — even really smart ones — are terrible at predicting the future. That said, you might be able to find opportunities in observable trends that others fail to spot, while being mindful that the unexpected is sure to happen.
  26. Many people are independent but few are freeFear is probably the most powerful and influential emotion in the universe. It drives many decisions and plays a dominant role in people’s lives. There is no more important task, in one’s quest to be free, than learning how to overcome fear. Be careful, however, not to trigger inadvertently fear in others unless you are prepared for the consequences, which can be harsh. Fear can spur people to act in cruelly. Be brave but not foolish. People sometimes confuse the two.
  27. Freedom comes not so much from means or abundant resources but from discernment of what truly matters — from lack of wantsFreedom from is more important than freedom toThe truly free person is not controlled by desire or fear and is not dependent on any other person. (I suspect I will be forever fearful and anxious. With each passing day, I hope to be less so.)
  28. Humans are not as distant from the jungle as they like to believe. Spend time with the chimpanzees at the zoo. Resist the urge to be god-like.
  29. You are less of a free agent than you think you are; everyone is influenced by biases, preconceptions, assumptions, peer and herd pressures, and other inherited and instilled traits, perspectives, and emotions.
  30. Humans are emotional beings. Reason is less powerful than commonly believed. The art of persuasion faces stiff headwinds.
  31. The power of sentimentality should never be underestimated. It can easily overwhelm reason, blind you to reality, and stifle creativity. (The sentimentality surrounding one’s college is one of the things I found hard to deal with when I was a college president. It tethers people to their pasts to the detriment of the present and future.)
  32. Endeavor to decrease emotional reactivity. (I’ve found this to be especially hard.)
  33. Respect boundaries. Accept your limitations and the right of others to think and act as they deem best.
  34. Like people and suffer fools. People are doing their best. Try to like even the unlikable ones. (This has been a hard one for me.) But avoid workplaces that embrace foolery, nastiness, and stupidity.
  35. People are willing to do just about anything for money. Don’t ever forget it. Or delude yourself into believing it’s not true.
  36. Capitalism and nationalism are America’s true religions. Even within most of America’s churches. Don’t expect otherwise. Or lament it. (Confession: I still lament it.)
  37. Be not be hostage to religion or tradition; rather, concern yourself with the search for truth, understanding, and peace.
  38. People do not always know what’s best for them. Harbor no such expectations. Do not let it trouble you.
  39. Life’s most important lessons are not taught in any school. People think school is where they go “to get” an education, but schools are best at socialization, enculturation, and indoctrination. Life itself is your best teacher, provided you are aware, discerning, disciplined, persistent, and willing to take some risks. Life’s lessons are learned through keen observation, careful listening and reading, repetitive trial and error, relentless practice (hard work), and deep thinking and reflection. Also, do not ignore the wisdom of your ancestors.
  40. Ask why you’re being told something; give more attention to the why than what you’re being told.
  41. Become a keen observer of human behavior, and listen closely not only to what people are saying but also to how they’re saying it (non-verbal signals are key), as well as to what they’re not saying. Do not be suckered by words or smiles. (The greatest hurt I’ve ever felt is from the sting of deceit from those whom I trusted. Yet I came to realize the problem was mine, not theirs. I foolishly extended trust beyond that which was prudent and, further, failed to see what was going on around me because I was too focused on myself and my own agenda.)
  42. Connect to the real world – the world of real people, nature, and the earth. Recognize that much of what people believe is an artifice — a cognitive construct or abstraction to overcome their fears and insecurities and desire for answers and control. Be authentic and seek out authenticity. The dominant narrative frequently is quite different from reality. Always try to discern reality and not be fooled by the false narrative. It is within reality that opportunities await.
  43. Life is to be negotiated. Negotiation plays a major role in everyone’s life (even if you’re not involved in a business, although most people are in one way or another). Most people aren’t good negotiators. Those who are enjoy a tremendous advantage. Work on becoming a good negotiator — a great one, if possible. (Schools are of little or no help in this regard.)
  44. Maintain perspective. Humans tend to overestimate the importance of things; they often lack perspective. (If you need help in maintaining perspective, visit a pediatric cancer ward.)
  45. No insecure person is truly free. Many people are insecure (including some bosses or clients you’re likely to have). Some need constant affirmation. People who are impressed by their titles and positions are insecure. Do nothing to exacerbate their insecurities; be sufficiently deferential if they are in a position to cause you harm. You may even use their insecurities to your advantage if you can do so without sacrificing your integrity. Be mindful of your own insecurities. If you are tempted to impress people with your titles, degrees, positions, or achievements, ask yourself why. And then go about the work of filling the void in your life and overcoming your fears.
  46. Employment offers little or no security (unless you’re a federal judge or tenured professor at a financially strong institution). Often employees (whom employers call “headcount”) are treated merely as production unitsprofit centers, or overhead. Accept the reality of the situation; don’t delude yourself by believing you mean more to others than you actually do. Further, be mindful that, with the aid of new technologies, further reductions in headcount are coming, for both blue and white-collar jobs. Therefore, it’s prudent to manage your affairs and the risks accordingly. It helps to have the mindset of an independent agent or contractor (self-employed person) as opposed to an employee (which implies a relatively secure, long-term relationship). Build your reputation and value. Keep learning. Nurture relationships. Develop options. Always assume your relationship with your employer or client could end tomorrow, and be well prepared when it does.
  47. The ability to adapt and evolve is essential. The world is constantly changing. Be mindful that change is driven by new technology, so keep a close eye on technological developments. Don’t allow yourself to fossilizeThere are many jobs that will be destroyed by technology. Don’t find yourself in one of them, and don’t find yourself in an industry, company, or institution that is dying a slow death due to creeping stagnation. A stagnant or decaying environment will promote decay within you; avoid it like the plague.
  48. An element of traditional employment is submission and forfeiture of freedom. That bothers some people (like me); it doesn’t bother others. At the very least, gain greater freedom by excelling at what you do and playing the game well (i.e., being a skilled political animal, which, contrary to what I had been led to believe, is not a bad thing so long as it is done with integrity). And refuse to cede control of your consciousness to outside events; learn to control your inner experience. Consider alternatives to traditional employment. Or at least a profession or skill set which affords you greater autonomy and independence. (I sometimes regret not having started my own law firm or business.)
  49. Caged animals are never truly happy. Even the ones who fail to notice the bars.
  50. Prisons come in all shapes and sizes. Some are constructed of beliefs and dogma. Some are constructed of desire. It is easy to become a prisoner in a jail of your own making.
  51. There are can-do people, and then there are bureaucrats and naysayers. Many people are the latter. They’re probably not going to change. Don’t expect people to be something they’re not, but don’t allow them to pull you into their orbit. Endeavor to do something difficult and worthwhile. Do not succumb to the temptations of triviality and banality. Activity in its own right has no inherent value.
  52. An achievement and goal-oriented mindset is potentially dangerous, as is ambition. Process and love of your work are more important. Let your work and contributions stand on their own. Focus on what you can control and influence and don’t be obsessed with your adversaries, competitors, or standing. Take care of process and everything else will take care of itselfTrue feelings of self-worth come only from within; there is nothing relative about it.
  53. Simplicity is undervalued. In all things. Keep it simple. The simplest solution is often the best one. The simplest life is often the best one. Yet respect the complexity of systems. Don’t find dichotomies where they don’t exist (people tend to do that). Consider second and third-order effects and unintended — indeed, unforeseeable (Black Swan) — consequences. Systems are complex and highly interrelated. Resist the urge to oversimplify the world as well as the urge to overcomplicate solutions or your life.
  54. Busy is an excuse or weakness (a sign that you lack either the discipline to say no or the wisdom to prioritize).
  55. “No” is an underused word (except among small children). Don’t be shy about using it, but be prudent in using it with people who have power over you.
  56. No one owes you anything. Not a job. Income. Recognition. Security. Respect. Happiness. Love. Not even time. Never allow yourself to feel entitledvictimized, resentful (even if it is justified), or sorry for yourself. Do not give others, or your biological needs and genetic programming, that much power over you. Unless you break free of the mindset you are owed something, you cannot be self-sufficient or free.
  57. Be grateful for what you have, and never think you have earned or are entitled to everything you have. (When I hear someone say, “I earned everything I have,” I know the person may have a lot, but he doesn’t have wisdom.)
  58. Do not live in a cognitive and socioeconomic bubble. Search out knowledge and opinions different from yours. Negative feedback is crucial; don’t live in an echo chamberSpend time with people who have less; share with themThe act of giving is powerful and life enriching (one of life’s great mysteries); the act of taking is not. But never think of giving as sacrifice, obligation, or opportunity for recognition. Yet understand that there is no such thing as an entirely pure motive; it’s an illusion perpetrated by religion.
  59. Live in the present moment. For selfish reasons, society trains people to live in the future. And our fears take our minds there, too. While concern for the future cannot be ignored (your physical needs are real), strive to live in the present. Endeavor to control the racing thoughts that pull you elsewhere. (This is much harder than it sounds. I’m still working on it; it doesn’t come easy for me. Meditation can help.)
  60. Everyone fakes it to some extent; no one is completely authentic or transparent in every situation. But some hide more than others. Some hide even from themselves and, indeed, fool themselves. Reveal what is prudent and no more. (I was too transparent and, frankly, too naïve when it came to power and politics. I also was too resistant to learning because of a basic misunderstanding of morality and ethics.) Play your part well as the situation requires, but always be honest.
  61. Conviction of one’s principles is admirable; stubbornness isn’t. Often, the two are confused. Recognize the difference. Recognize if and when principles are rooted in myth versus truth (reality). Resist hubris. Embrace compromise and collaboration.
  62. Be aware of that which is happening around you, and of anyone who might be hatching plots against you. Duplicity is the norm; it’s present in nearly all workplaces, neighborhoods, churches ,and, sadly, in some families. Places of radical transparency and honesty are rare. Do not expect otherwise, and do not fall for feigned openness and honesty.
  63. In matters of trust, do not be naïve. Never assume malice, but never assume the absence of deceit, either. Never forget that people do what they perceive to be in their interests. Guard against unintentional harm. Never assume you are the target. More often, you just happen to be standing in the way.
  64. Kindness and politeness (being nice) are frequently mistaken for each other (especially in Southern culture). They’re not the same thing. Nice can be disingenuous and manipulative. Some people are quite skilled at being nice in this way. (Few things are worse than a nice, duplicitous person wrapped in a cloak of religiosity.)
  65. There is nothing more precious than someone you can trust. Indeed, it may be the best thing about a good marriage. Don’t squander it. (I am fortunate, Vera: I can trust your grandmother unconditionally.)
  66. For some people, their word is their bond; for most people, it isn’t. Seek never to utter an untruth, while being mindful that radical transparency is not always appropriate or in your best interest. Endeavor to speak clearly with your actions and never to allow gaps to open up between your words and actions. Trust and reputation are the world’s most valuable currencies. Treasure and protect them.
  67. Do not be overly troubled by the hypocrisy of others (or your own, for that matter); it is part of the nature of humans. Minimize your own by speaking less (especially about opinions). Sharing feelings and sharing opinions are quite different things. Be mindful of the difference.
  68. Patience is undervaluedBut it is different from — although sometimes mistaken for — inertia, complacency, passivity, and timidity. Don’t feel the need to force your timetable onto the world; give things time to unfold. But don’t be timid or complacent.
  69. Opinions are overvalued, especially our own. Do not mistake your opinions for fact or truth. Keep yours to yourself when disclosure could harm you. Seek not to impose your opinions on anyone, and take no offense at theirs. (After a lifetime of forming opinions and being inundated by them, and living through a period when so many of my fellow citizens have been using their opinions to bludgeon others, I am just about tapped out on opinions. And preaching.) But do not allow your suspicion of opinions to close your mind to new insights and different perspectives. Seek out knowledge and diverse perspectives. Every person experiences and sees the world just a wee bit differently.
  70. There is strength in diversity. Yet most people want to associate only with their own tribe. If you associate only with those who share your perspectives and, indeed, your defects, they will reinforce everything that holds you back. Seek diversity of thought and perspective (cognitive and experiential diversity). (I believe in the value of diversity so much — indeed, its essentiality to an intellectually vibrant community — that it was one of my priorities when I served as the president of Bridgewater College [see my inaugural speech]. In the end, however, I came to appreciate how a community can feel threatened by diversity and came to doubt the wisdom of trying to change a community that was content with what it was. I realized my mistake and moved on.)
  71. If feasible (it’s often not), avoid attending a college that lacks a diverse faculty and student body. These colleges, of which there are many, tend to be provincial and intellectually stagnant places focused more on indoctrination than on free thinking and discovery. If you’re stuck in such a place, then seek diversity in other ways. Resist the temptation and conceit of provincialism.
  72. Ideologies have an anesthetic quality to them. Don’t bother trying to convince an ideologue he is wrong. Only reality can. Everyone is an ideologue to some extent. Be the smallest ideologue you can possibly be.
  73. Laissez-faire capitalism isn’t good at addressing everything. That should be obvious, yet apparently it isn’t. Good government is essential to freedom for people who live in community (which means everyone sans hermits and recluses). Do what you can to support and promote good government. Do not be grotesquely selfish or hyperindividualistic; contribute to the common good. And recognize that the idea that business is inherently good and government is inherently bad was a bill of goods sold to a naïve population by those who had much to gain from the sale.
  74. Corruption is a fact of life — a reality that will never go away. America is far more corrupt than most people realize when they’re young (me included), but it’s naïve to think society can or will be free of corruption. Conflicts of interest detrimental to the person being served is a form of corruption. Yet conflicts of interest are everywhere. Look for them, for few will be voluntarily disclosed. Think of corruption and conflict as a challenge to be navigated and not as something that can ever be expunged.
  75. Lawsuits are a terrible and prohibitively costly way of settling disputes. They should be a last resort, and there should be better options, especially for people of limited means. Lawsuits always take an emotional toll. Think long and hard before suing anyone. (I never have and don’t think I ever would.)
  76. People think they’re better at lying than they really are, and everyone thinks they’re better at spotting lies than they actually are. You may be certain someone is lying, and you may learn the techniques for telling whether someone is lying (you should). But don’t ever delude yourself into believing you can be certain someone is telling the truth.
  77. Don’t assume people (or yourself for that matter) want to hear the truth. Tell people what they want to hear and you can be wrong without repercussion. Tell people what they don’t want to hear, even if you’re right, and you run the risk of repercussions. Be careful about confronting people with facts and reality; it is often better to keep certain things to yourself.
  78. Culture matters. Align yourself with a culture that allows you to flourish and avoid cultures that diminish you. Never attempt to change a culture; instead, if the culture diminishes you, leave if you can. Yet do not avoid different cultures. Often that’s where the most growth can occur.
  79. Ethics wane with distance from family and communityMany people — including upstanding, churchgoing people (some of whom may be friends or acquaintances) — cheat and defraud and don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, especially if it’s the government (i.e., other taxpayers) or insurance company (i.e., other insured people) that’s being cheated (e.g., cheating on taxes, Medicaid eligibility, insurance claims, eligibility for workers comp or disability, etc.). But most wouldn’t dream of cheating or defrauding their close friends or family. (For the Japanese, the community that warrants ethical treatment extends beyond blood relatives; for the Chinese, it doesn’t. In this regard, Americans have drifted more to the Chinese cultural norms and have gravitated away from the Japanese. Or perhaps the Americans were always that way. I’m not sure.) In any case, never completely trust anyone, especially if they’re outside your family.
  80. Do not give numbers more credence than they deserve, as people are apt to do. People fudge numbers. All. The. Time. Even people who are otherwise honest and ethical. Auditors should do a better job; they should always assume a deceitful intent on the part of their clients. Better yet, auditors should be hired by and report to the S.E.C., not the management of the companies they audit. Colleges, hospitals, and governments fudge numbers, too, in order to mislead students, patients, citizens, and others. Look for clues that might reveal which numbers are suspect. Often, the clues are in plain sight. But people believe what they want to believe, so frequently no one is looking for the clues.
  81. Academics are some of the nastiest people (only a generalization, of course). If they engaged in some of their petty, backstabbing practices in the real world, they’d be smacked alongside the head (metaphorically speaking). (Apparently tenure [essentially, guaranteed lifetime employment] brings out the worst in people). Academics also can be incredibly intolerant of ideas, belying their reputation for intellectual curiosity and tolerance. And they adore virtue signaling and the warm feeling they get from that. If you pursue an academic career, watch out for the sharp knives lest they end up in your back.
  82. The insidious nature and risks of debt are underappreciated. Be very careful with debt. Do not become a debt-serf. Use debt sparingly (preferably, only for income-generating purposes and, if necessary, a reasonable home mortgage) and never for consumption. Strive to be debt-free. (I have been debt-free for quite some time; however, in retrospect, I should have been debt-free much sooner. I regret borrowing for anything other than my law school tuition and a house.)
  83. Save. Save a portion of every dollar you earn (from day one!), and gradually increase the percentage each year, with age and income. Keep your retirement savings off limitsLive below your means. You will have an easier time saving, and will become more financially independent sooner, if you’re secure in whom you are and don’t have the need to show off.
  84. The best investment you can make is in yourself. As for financial assets, invest 100 percent in equities early in life (except for the times they’re overpriced), always keeping a six-month to one-year safety fund in cash or other highly liquid, low-risk fixed-income assets. The ratio should change with age. (My inclination has been too conservative. I wish I’d understood more about risk and volatility when I was younger.)
  85. The group is very different from the sum of the individuals comprising it. In the world of humans, 1 + 1 ≠ 2. The mob is often — perhaps always — brain dead. Mad. And dangerous. Yet the collective is often right. Don’t be a contrarian for contrarian’s sake.
  86. Those who run with the herd will do no better than the herd. Separate yourself from the herd in ways that are beneficial, both to yourself and others. And remember that the herd will often miss big things — things that are in plain sight, that should be abundantly obvious. This will present opportunities for you.
  87. Never think you are the principal concern of anyone else. You’re not; you are not the center of the universe for anyone except yourself. But it’s hazardous to think you are the center of the universe. (Perhaps the best thing about believing in a god is the admission you are not the center.)
  88. Incentives are everything; you get what you incent. If you don’t understand the incentives that are embedded in a system, then you really don’t understand what’s going on. If you’re designing a system, pay close attention to the incentives you’re creating, including the inadvertent ones.
  89. Follow the money. You will learn much.
  90. People who try to change things — even for the best — are messing with power. If you mess with power, be prepared to fight. Have a sound strategy and plan. And be prepared for harsh reactions. (I wish I’d been more of a fighter and much better at understanding the game of power. It is a matter of allowing one’s expectations to cloud one’s vision of reality.)
  91. Never seek to be a hero or martyr, but always try to be courageous. For the right reasons. Which isn’t courage at all. It’s love.
  92. Stop comparing yourself to others; it does far more harm than good. And is not the sign of a truly free person. Of course, this is easier said than done, for competition and ranking will be instilled in you by your educational systems.
  93. Be realistic about what you’ll encounter in the business world and, especially, in large corporations. Corporations in American have become unbalanced as the laissez-faire market ideology of recent years (especially since Reagan) has rendered the common good and societal values subservient to individualism and greed. Many American corporations are now all about shareholder value, to the detriment of other stakeholders and resulting in all semblance of humanity and civility being squeezed out of many of them, loss of job security, and control of labor through fear. Do not overestimate the value corporations can bring to your life.
  94. If you work for the government, seek to maintain the heart of a public servant. And don’t stay too long. If you do, the odds are high you will become a bureaucrat.
  95. Firing people is worse than you can imagine. Even when it’s the subordinate’s fault. But particularly when it’s merely due to a mismatch (gap between needs and abilities) or the fault of the person who did the hiring (their bad decision). Nonetheless, you can’t be a good manager unless you’re willing to do it. (I got to a point where I was no longer willing to do it. It was the worst aspect of my professional career.)
  96. If you ever become a CEO or other high-level manager, make sure your direct reports are willing to support your agenda and priorities and are competent. If they’re not, they’ll undermine you, either intentionally and deceitfully or unintentionally. Clean house at the outset; don’t put it off. Never accept a CEO position unless you’ve been given authority to implement such decisions. The worst position in which to find yourself is having the responsibility but not the authority.
  97. If you’re ever responsible for an organization, hire and develop teams, not individuals. As a manager, your hiring decisions will be the most important decisions you make.
  98. The position of president and CEO may be the loneliest job in the world. (Perhaps not for everyone.) (People have a hard time being honest and open with superiors. Everything is filtered or guarded. I hated that.)
  99. Company executives never live downwind from their chemical plants and steel mills and neither should you. (I made this mistake once. Fortunately, without incident. Don’t expect realtors to alert you to this risk; it’s on you.) Living near train tracks entails substantial tail risks, too. Avoid them. The kill zone around tracks is larger than most people realize.
  100. People are easily duped and are quick to dupe. People believe what they want to believe and they see what they want to see. The easiest person to fool is yourself. And then you dig our heels in (confirmation bias). Mark Twain was right: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” Endeavor not to be credulous in the first place. And don’t be surprised by some of the stupid things people believe. Don’t be surprised by some of the stupid things you once believed. And if you don’t think you ever believed any stupid things, then you haven’t been learning; you’ve been squandering your time and are now merely fooling yourself.
  101. Propaganda and disinformation campaigns work and are easier to pull off than most people realize, in part because people are emotional beings and in part because their parents and educational system do a really bad job of teaching kids how to distinguish opinions and ideologies from facts and reality. People are exposed to a plethora of propaganda during their lifetimes (although it will never be labeled as such). Hone your B.S. detector. Don’t be deferential to tradition, conventional wisdom, and the herd mentality. Resist the promises and spells of charlatans.
  102. Answers are overvalued, and questions and asking are undervalued. Most people (including me) are uncomfortable asking. It pays to ask.
  103. Listening is vastly undervalued. True listening is an active activity. It’s really not easy to listen well. Hone your listening skills. And be sure to listen closely to what the silence is telling you.
  104. Schools imply it’s what you know that counts. They couldn’t be more wrong. Wisdom and sound judgment are far more important than knowledge or native intellect. And far rarer. Don’t confuse the two. (I can already tell you’re smart, Vera. But whether you will be wise will be up to you.) Every day, seek to be wiser than you were the day before. Wisdom requires self-awareness, curiosity, and humility.
  105. Labels are meaningless (at best); at worst, they’re misleading and deceptive. Don’t be fooled by the labels others embrace  (e.g., Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Republican, Democrat, libertarian, conservative, liberal, patriot, hero, scholar, Dr. [Ph.D. variety], reverend, etc.). Avoid labeling yourself. And resist the labels others try to stick on you.
  106. You may experience the indescribable. The unexplainable. If that happens, don’t force a meaning or interpretation grounded only in your experiences and knowledge. (Twice in my lifetime I have experienced the unexplainable. Was it the Divine [as it seemed to be]? Or was it a manipulative brain? I can exclude nothing nor can I have a conviction about anything, except that it was a mystery accompanied by what some may call a miracle.)
  107. Read daily, but be discriminating. Realize most books shouldn’t have been written. Or should have been essays instead. Don’t ever think you have to read the entire book. If you find you’ve purchased an essay disguised as a book, cut your losses. Great books are ones that are reread. Read the great ones. Often.
  108. Do not fall for the illusion of meritocracy. America is far less of a meritocracy than people care to admit. Yet merit still counts. It helps not to be distracted by, or feel resentment toward, those who were born on third base. Life isn’t fair; don’t expect it to be. Focus on yourself and that which you can control. Harbor no resentments. The distraction will hurt only you.
  109. Hiring people to teach in colleges who have done nothing but be students all their lives is a bad idea. If you desire to teach, be sure to gain some meaningful life experiences first. If you’ve never left the university, you’re not ready to teach.
  110. In college, your choice of professor is more important than your choice of course. First-class teachers can make a difference. Try not to waste your time with poor teachers. Value your time; it is too precious to squander.
  111. In general, our schools and colleges are doing a terrible job. They all say they’re teaching critical thinking, but few are. Instead, they’re doing data dumps, indoctrinating, teaching compliance and conformity, and fostering the illusion of knowledge. The model is obsolete. Don’t rely on it for your education, but don’t squander what it has to offer, either.
  112. Most colleges have no idea whether or not they’re doing a good job. And they don’t try to find out. They’re afraid of what they might learn. And they should be. When they do undertake such assessments, they keep their findings from students and parents (for obvious reasons). Indeed, in the world of higher ed, deceit often hides within a mountain of lofty rhetoric. It is impossible for a student (or parent) to judge the quality of a college, so focus on its alumniIf a college has had a positive impact on people, it should be revealed in the lives of its former students. Find out where they are, how many of them graduated (vs. commenced their studies at that particular college), what jobs they have, how much student-loan debt they incurred and their default rates, what they’re doing, what kind of people they are, and what contributions they’re making.
  113. So much of what takes place in K-12 and college (undergraduate) is pointless and boring. But you’re expected to play along and are penalized if you don’t. Recognize the system for what it is. Play along to the extent necessary, but don’t allow the school’s priorities to become yours. And don’t allow the system to extinguish your curiosity and interests. True learning isn’t boring; if you’re bored, you’re not learning (and the school or teacher is doing more harm than good).
  114. Wise people take charge of their own learning; they don’t outsource it.
  115. Don’t mindlessly use new technologies. The poor ways PowerPoint® is used (filled with text instead of charts, pictorials, and videos), resulting in mass boredom and shallow thinking, is a reminder that new technology can be abused. Technology should serve you; you should not be a slave to it. That said, it’s imperative to keep current with new technologies.
  116. Areas of study that serve people well, regardless of their job or career field, are accounting (basic is sufficient), micro and behavioral economics (don’t waste your time with macro unless it’s required), psychologystatistics, finance (basic), history, religion (you can’t understand people, or the world, without understanding their religions and beliefs), computer science (basic), and negotiating skills. (I wish I knew Mandarin, but feel the time to learn has passed me by. I also wish I’d taken more math and some computer science.)
  117. Smart people can believe some really stupid things. And frequently do. And make bad decisions. And miss many obvious things. So don’t ever assume someone is right just because they’re smart. Or possess a particular degree or hold a particular position. The same goes for you.
  118. Thanks to the internet, educational institutions no longer have a monopoly on knowledge; however, they maintain — at least for the time-being — their monopoly on credentialing. The signaling value of academic institutions (credentials to present to the world that are essential in gaining access to certain opportunities) is important. Prospective employers and clients don’t know you; they rely on signals. Therefore, choose the college that will provide the most valuable signal and that is affordable. (The signaling value of a college is far more important today than it was when I graduated from college.)
  119. Don’t over-invest (time or money) in a bachelor’s degreeIn many fields, today’s bachelor’s degree is yesterday’s high school diploma. And be mindful that no degree counts for much in the long run; it’s what you can do and contribute that count.
  120. Stoke your children’s curiosity and help them explore and discover — places, things, people, and ideas. Appreciate the limitations of abstract learning and the importance of experiential learning. Being a great parent means being a great explorer, teacher, coach, and mentor. (I regret not having been a better parent. Perhaps I can be a better grandfather.)
  121. When first out of college, when launching your career, consider moving to a hub (preferably, the hub) of activity for your industry (for instance, Silicon Valley for tech, NYC for law or finance, Houston for oil and chemicals, L.A. for entertainment, Washington, D.C. for public policy and international affairs, etc.). When you’re 30, you can always move to or near a smaller city if it’s more compatible with your desired lifestyle. Wherever you land, use your 20s to gain the maximum experience possible and to learn from the best in your field. In your youth, have the mindset of an apprentice.
  122. Changing industries is hard, so be thoughtful when choosing an industry (or sector). Over the long term, your choice of industry and sector may be more important than your choice of employer.
  123. Place matters. There is a difference in culture between the states east of the Mississippi and those west of the river. Discern your own preferences and locate accordingly, but don’t underestimate the value of family and relationships. (Colorado is the best place I ever lived, but deciding to live near you, Vera, and your parents in Indiana was a good decision.)
  124. Spend time outdoors. In nature. And less time in cars. Online. Watching TV. And spectating. (I wasted too much of my life commuting, in front of screens, and spectating [mainly, collegiate and professional sports].)
  125. Much of the money people give to nonprofits is wasted. There is much self-interest at work in the nonprofit world; the mission often is no longer a priority despite the lofty rhetoric; and there is often little or no accountability. Frequently, there are better ways to help people. (I regret squandering so much money on nonprofits, thinking I was doing more good than I actually was.)
  126. Be generous. Many service workers are not paid living wages. Your gratuities may be more impactful than contributing to most nonprofits.
  127. Thank people. Not perfunctorily, but sincerely. If they interview with you for a job, get back to them even if they aren’t receiving an offer, and thank them for their interest and time. If they perform an important task or work long hours, thank them. If they serve you (a meal or whatever), thank them. Etc. Etc. Etc. Not because it is required, but because it is the decent thing to do. And the world is in dire need of decency.
  128. Don’t mistake correlation for causation (as many people do, including many academics, CEOs, journalists, and policymakers). Know the difference. (It’s not that hard.) Moreover, recognize that correlations are usually spurious. People also frequently mislead others with averages (sometimes intentionally, sometimes out of ignorance). Always be mindful of what the average is telling you, and what it isn’t.
  129. Surround yourself with talented, inspired, ethical, caring people who are really good at what they do. Moreover, security comes, in part, from being great at what you do and avoiding the people, systems, and pursuits that hold you back or, worse yet, pull you down. An organization cannot be great unless it has people who care deeply.
  130. Don’t waste your time working any place that doesn’t have a collegial culture. Humans are at their best when they collaborate. Competition is overrated. And potentially toxic.
  131. The freedom to leave is liberating; strive to be freeOne of the best things you can do for yourself, if you find yourself working with or for people whom you don’t trust or respect, is to leave. (Unfortunately, I had to do this once.) It’s essential if you are to avoid serfdom and loss of self-respect. If you ever feel you can’t leave, the job (your employer, your boss, your income, your client, your customers, etc.) or your fears own you.
  132. Do not try to change people. Endeavor to understand them. And to model the behaviors you would admire in others. But not to change them.
  133. Learn how to spot and deal with passive-aggressive behavior. You’ll frequently encounter it.
  134. Humans have an incredible capacity for suffering, sacrifice, giving, creativity, ingenuity, and courage; however, humans also have a limitless capacity and willingness to inflict suffering on other humans, as well as on other animals and the earth. Never underestimate how low people can go — how utterly cruel, predatory, and destructive they can be. Humans are both civilized and barbaric.
  135. Rich people understand how to wield power (it’s probably why some of them are rich) and instill fear; people who aren’t rich often don’t. Seek to understand the ways people wield power. Learn how to navigate the politics of life. Never think politics is bad or avoidable; you would be deluding yourself.
  136. There is no such thing as a just society. People tend to be blind to the injustices within their own society. And to their own complicity. Practice justice. But understand there will always be victims. And oppressors. You get to decide whom to stand beside.
  137. Everyone has secrets. People would be shocked if they knew some of the salacious tidbits about their friends, relatives, colleagues, leaders, and pillars of the community that their priests and lawyers know about them. If only priests and lawyers, who are bound by obligations of confidentiality, could write tell-all books: they’d all be rich. Try not to live a life that would make for a scandalous best seller. Assume everything that’s private will someday be public.
  138. Position yourself so you can retire early. At 30. 40. Or 50. (I suggest nothing later than 50.) The earlier, the better. Retirement doesn’t have to mean not working or inactivity (being put out to pasture). Rather, it can mean having the freedom to do those things you want to do but that might not generate income or build wealth. In other words, retirement can mean, “I retire from having to work.” Or “I retire from a certain job or career.”
  139. Grace is undervalued. There is no greater gift. Either to give or receive. (The peace and grace I experienced following my serious auto accident in 2017 were indescribable.)
  140. Love or the lack of it is at the root of everything. (Fred Rogers) If there were only one lesson to be learned, it would be this one.

P.S. It is not fair to characterize all of the above as lessons learned. It would be more accurate to call them lessons being learned. Moreover, it’s quite possible I may never fully learn some of these lessons; in fact, it’s highly probable I will continue to make mistakes and commit errors of judgment. But there is something else I learned along the way: Do not be discouraged by failure. Each failure is an opportunity to learn and grow, in the full realization that life isn’t something to be conquered or perfected; rather, it is something to be experienced, in all its fullness, with both laughter and tears.

3 thoughts on “What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

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