Friday, July 18, 2008

The Ten Commandments

Dear Son,

The problem with being a parent is that most mothers and fathers are terrible at 'leading by example.'

We want you to grow up into a happy and healthy adult and avoid some of the mistakes we made. But the reason your parents made these mistakes in the first place is because we're flawed, human and sometimes just as prone to temper tantrums as you are (and they're not as easily solved with a bottle of milk.)

So I'm going to outline the 'ten commandments' my thirty-odd years of life have taught me. I learnt them the hard way. Hopefully, if you do as I say (and not as I've done) you won't have to.

The Ten Rules

#1 Don't lie. Son, I'm going to be honest with you - which is something I wasn't altogether very good at during the formative period of my young adulthood. Little white lies always come back to bite you on the arse.

Until I 'grew up,' I often thought smudging the facts could avoid a confrontation - despite the fact that I was proven wrong time and time again. I can honestly say that almost every single emotional upset I had for a good eight year period was caused my well intentioned 'economies with the truth.'

So here's the straight up gospel. Don't lie. Telling the truth is often scary and often difficult - but telling the truth from the get-go is like tearing off a plaster/band aid quickly. It hurts for a moment, but then it's gone.

When you tell a fib, people might believe you for a little while - but the longer the lie continues, the more difficult it is to maintain and eventually your 'web of intrigue' will collapse around you and end up causing much, much more upset than if you'd just been honest in the first place.

#2 Do what you say you're going to do. Reliability is one of the great virtues. People gravitate towards people who can 'Get Shit Done.' So if you volunteer to do something, go right ahead and make sure you do it.

If anything's going to help you achieve success in life, it's this. It might take ages to establish a reputation as a reliable person - but once you do, influential people will pass responsibility and power your way because they know you'll deliver on what you promise.

But be warned. While it takes years of 'Getting Shit Done' to establish a reputation as a reliable person, it takes just one defaulted promise to destroy that reputation. Make a promise you can't keep and you'll be labelled as 'all talk, no trousers' even if you've never let anybody down a hundred times before.

But how can you make sure you always deliver on what you promise? Well, that brings me onto #3.

#3 Don't be afraid to say 'No.' A career in sales taught me one thing: Nobody likes to say 'no.' Except those people who love to say 'no.' You'll meet a few of those in your lifetime. They're normally impotent, angry, insecure gnomes and should be largely ignored.

But most people hate to say 'no.' Our most human instinct is to be liked and appreciated and we often instinctively feel we can accomplish this by agreeing to things.

But all the tough lessons I learnt from #1 and #2 on this list stemmed from #3 - my inability to say no.

Being nice, polite, middle-class and painfully English, I loved to say yes to things.

I wanted to make people happy so I agreed to things that I pretty soon realised I couldn't accomplish. And the momentary buzz of making somebody happy by agreeing to do something s quickly overwhelmed by the negative vibe generated by failing to make good on your promise.

So don't say 'yes' unless you want to and you can do. When it comes to the crunch, most people are used to hearing the word 'no' and won't hold it against you if you say it. Plus, saying 'no' sometimes avoids the problems you encounter with #4.

#4 Nobody loves a martyr. If there's one thing I've learned from painful experience, it's that you don't get a medal for being a martyr. So if you don't want to do something - if you really don't - then for God's sake, be honest about it.

Don't agree to go on a fishing trip (as an example) if you'd much rather stay home in bed. You'll be miserable - and your attitude will make everybody else miserable. This is where the expression 'misery loves company' comes from.

Do what you want to do. Because as much as you huff and puff and feel self righteous deep inside inside for selflessly sacrificing yourself to whatever task you don't want to do - I guarantee nobody else is remotely interested and there's no reward for making a martyr of yourself.

#5 Be cheerful. If I was king of the world, the first thing I'd do is round up every miserable bastard in the country and ship them off to Alaska.

At the end of the day, miserable people make other people miserable. Likewise, happy people make other people happy. So embrace life with a smile and make the best of it. I guarantee the way you experience the world (and the world experiences you) will be greatly improved because of it.

There are three major problems with wallowing in misery and self pity. First of all, it's unattractive. Miserable people are miserable to be around.

Secondly, the crazy law of attraction means miserable people seem to become magnets for more misery. It's as if providence hears your complaints and decides to teach you a lesson by delivering something you really will complain about.

Thirdly, most importantly, however bad you think you've got it, I guarantee somebody (possibly even the person you're complaining to) has got it a lot worse. Remember this famous quote:

“I cried because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet.”

There's an often unheard third line to that one.

"And the man with no feet quickly realised he didn't have it so bad when he met a man who had no legs, had just had the bank foreclose on his house, was diagnosed with a terminal disease and had his wife leave him (taking the dog.)"

Hopefully, you'll always go through life with far more to be thankful for than not thankful for.

#6 Never talk about somebody behind their back. Oh gossip, you are such fun. There's really nothing more satisfying than sitting down with a good friend and having a total bitch about a mutual acquaintance.

But you know what? As fun as it is, no good ever comes from talking about somebody behind their back.

Sure, there's the obvious reason. The reason I learnt my lesson. The subject of your slander could find out and that would expose you as being petty and malicious!

But even if that person never suspects that you and your friends love to bitch about them behind their back, think what it says about you...

Most obviously, it reveals that you're two faced - because almost everybody who back-talks about somebody will be nice to them to their face. Duplicity is never an attractive characteristic.

Secondly, it leaves everybody wondering what you say about them when their back is turned.

Kid, stick with the age-old philosophy: 'If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.' And if you do have to open your trap about somebody - be man enough to never say something about somebody behind their back that you wouldn't tell them to their face.

And that neatly brings me onto #7:

#7 Sometimes, it's worth keeping your trap shut. There's another old saying: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."

Basically: "If you don't know what you're talking about, maybe you shouldn't be talking."

Now, I'll contradict myself and suggest that a comprehensive competency in the age-old art of bullshit is probably a good knack to master - but sometimes you'll appear much wiser by staying schtum when you're not sure about what you're talking about.

Back your facts up - or preface opinion with the words: 'I think..." Or, say nothing as all, narrow your lips, wrinkle your brow and look very thoughtful. People will promptly grow concerned that you're thinking about what they said - and be more concerned that you realise they're talking rubbish than thinking that you might.

But just as importantly as saving face, the art of silence is one of the greatest tools a charming communicator has in their armory.

Son, let me educate you about a universal truth: Everybody loves the sound of their own voice.

I consider myself a fairly friendly, likable and charming person and it all stems from doing one thing. Shutting up and letting the other person talk.

If you can cultivate the qualities of being a 'great listener' you will reap the benefits for the rest of your life. People love to talk - and if you listen to them, you'll do more than learn lots about them (without having to share personal details about yourself.)

You'll appear more attractive to the opposite sex (listening to the ladies is sexier to them than six-pack abs or Chanel cologne) and more capable at work (middle management always fancy themselves as Donald Trump and won't hesitate to promote you so they can continue telling you why.)

People who listen - who ask questions - who appear genuinely interested - will always swim effortlessly through social circles.

On the other hand, people who won't shut up - who throw their ill-considered opinions angrily into any and all conversations - are jarring, abrasive and difficult to like.

You'll meet plenty of people like this - I'm afraid opinionated people are even more prevalent in the United States than Great Britain. You'll spot them instantly by the way they can divert all conversations back around to stories about themselves - or seem to fancy themselves as experts in whatever subject you're talking about.

Just do the opposite of what these harpies do and you'll do fine. And, son, if you must have angry opinions about things, just do what I did. Start a blog!

#8 Be excellent at something. Nobody wants to be a 'Jack of all trades, Master of none.'

One thing I've always regretted is not being excellent at something. I mean, I have skills. I can ride a horse and shoot a gun and drive a car with a manual transmission. I speak French marginally better than Tony Blair. I even get paid to be a writer, so I've apparently fulfilled Stephen King's cynical definition of 'talented.'

But I've never truly been excellent at anything.

Son, the world is a great big confusing mess and I suspect the only way to survive with your insanity intact is to develop a passion and excel at it. Because a passion gives your life focus - and being excellent at something gives you pride, confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

Trust me - the few times I've actually been capable at something (at least, in comparison to those around me) I've felt a buzz that could become quite addictive. I guess this is why some people get manically competitive.

Being overly competitive is pretty tragic - but being capable and competent in something (at least, more so than the general public) will reward you and impress others more than I can explain in words.

It does matter what it is. Oil painting. Pottery. Fixing cars. Playing the guitar. Anything but writing (the people who consider themselves talented aren't and the people who are 'talented' realise that they've pretty much sold out.)

Just be good at something you enjoy. I promise it'll make you happy.

#9 Learn. Everything you can. Only the truly stupid (and religious fundamentalists) embrace ignorance. However, scarily enough, one increasingly popular movement in both England and America seems to be a celebration of stupidity.

For example, the Brits made a celebrity of Jade Goody - the grotesque chav who thought Saddam Hussein was a boxer and that East Anglia was 'abroad.'

In America, the religious right are trying to repress the teaching of Darwin's theory, come up with sham science to deny global warming and even keep their children in ignorance by only teaching them 'abstinence only' sex education (is this the first generation that actively tries to make their own children more ignorant than they are?)

Son, there's nothing smart about being dumb. Promise me you'll keep an open mind and learn at every opportunity you get.

Read. Learn. Think for yourself. Compare facts, accounts and opinions and draw your own conclusions. Let me make one thing absolutely clear - the moment you think you've got all the answers, you've just admitted you know none of them.

So read books. Watch the news. Study other people and listen to what they tell you. Just be wary of people who try to inform you what the 'truth' is.

If there's one wisdom your deeply unwise father can give you, it's this: [And you stole it from Indiana Jones - Editorial Bear]

"There is no such thing as 'truth.' There are only facts. If it's 'truth' you seek, enroll in a philosophy class."

#10 Do what makes you happy. That's paraphrasing singer Jeff Lang.

You only get one shot at life and by the time you turn 25, it screams past. So let me give you what might possibly be the most important bit of advice I can.

Do whatever makes you happy.

Maybe I covered this in #3 and #4, but even if I did, it's worth repeating. If you don't do what makes you happy, nobody else is going to do it for you.

Please, don't ever do 'the right thing' for the sake of it. If you spend your whole life dutifully doing something you don't want to because you felt 'it's what you ought to do' than I can promise you only one thing. You won't get a medal for it at the end.

At the end of the day, the only person who is truly in charge of making you happy is YOU.

Your Mother and I want you to be happy, sure. But we aren't you. We'll just do what parents have done since time immemorial and try to guide you into doing what would have made us happy (since logically, if it would have made us happy, surely it would have done the same for you.)

No, you have to decide what you want out of life and it's up to you to pursue it (religiously, although hopefully it won't be religion.)

Seriously, son. The years go by like lightening. I remember at 18, I was boasting that I'd have my first book published by 21. Here I am, twelve years later and all I've got out of it is a couple of rejection slips. Life goes by too fast! Hopefully you won't do what so many people do: Get to thirty five and realise that they didn't want to be an Insurance Salesman after all.

Nothing will give your life more meaning than a sense of purpose. At the very core of it's being, ambition is the reason successful people spring out of bed in the morning. When life is at it's darkest and most dreary, sometimes that unfulfilled accomplishment will be the only light you have at the end of the tunnel (and explains the greatest piece of advice anybody ever gave me. When it comes to the hard times: 'The only way out is through.')

My ambitions might seem dumb. Since I was a teenager, I'd wanted to move to America and write a novel. But sometimes, when life's seemed impossible, it was the thought of those two ambitions that kept me going and forced me to maintain a 'stiff upper lip.'

Son, decide what you want out of life. Choose what you know will make you happy. Set your ambitions high. Don't worry if your goals seem impossible. Remember what Josie Bisset once said: “Dreams always come a size too big, because we'll grow into them.”

But if you'll only listen to one piece of advice I give you, make it this one:

At the end of the day, be happy. Because that's all your mother and I could possibly want for you.


Coffee Bean said...

Awwww... what a wonderful letter from a father to his son (even if I don't agree with some of it... it is your son and your letter). I hope you've backed it up so you can't lose it!

Kitty said...

Amen to all that. x

April said...

I loved this Roland. Regardless of religion or beliefs, these are truly words to live by. I am going to pring them out and read them to my kids. :)

The Chemist said...

I have broken some of your commandments before and have ended up regretting it. Good advice in general. Especially about learning stuff, that has always served me well.

Now I just have to stop being such an insufferable know-it-all.

Anonymous said...

I command (er, ask) everyone to read MacPherson's Yahoo piece entitled "Dangerous Radicals of the Religious Right." Sally

pamokc said...

What a fantastic posting. This should be printed in magazines and newspapers and books everywere. Great job of summing up how an honorable life should be lead. PAM

Suki said...

Thinking about abbreviating this a bit and putting it up in my room. Thanks! :)

Meghan said...

Thanks for reminding everyone of the commandments. I know your son will grow from this, as well as others (and myself)

Matt Jaworski said...

In America, the religious right are trying to repress the teaching of Darwin's theory, come up with sham science to deny global warming and even keep their children in ignorance by only teaching them 'abstinence only' sex education (is this the first generation that actively tries to make their own children more ignorant than they are?)