8 Personal Lessons: A Reminder of What’s Important in Life
June 3, 2022
By Keith Sones
For some reason unbeknownst to me, I have always been attracted to lists. As a kid, I immersed myself in the Guinness Book of World Records, spending hours reading about the amazing global accomplishments of both humans and Mother Nature. Encyclopedias were another source of fascination, opening the world up to me as I discovered which countries exported the most copper, which birds could fly the fastest and a plethora of other obscure but interesting facts. My favourite was simply titled The Book of Lists, a compendium of tallies showcasing the weird and wonderful, everything from the breeds of dogs that bite the most to famous people that died while…well, in the bedroom to put it delicately.
Through the course of the past decades, I have informally developed a list of things I should pay attention to. Not advice to anyone else, just personal lessons learned to keep myself out of trouble and some guidance to help me remember what’s important in life. The list has grown over time and I expect it will continue to do so. There are certainly other things that can be added, and other rules I live by, but here are my personal top eight.
1. Realize you are a bit player in the story of your success.
Like many of us I like to toot my own horn from time to time, congratulating myself on how hard I’ve worked to achieve a good life. However, I need to continually remind myself of the others that have a played a significant role, often with me taking a back seat to those that have mentored me, offered job opportunities, educated me and pointed me in a new direction when I was straying from the right path. While I do take pride in my accomplishments, I also recognize they weren’t mine alone. It keeps me humble.
2. If you can’t leave the intersection, don’t enter it.
Picture yourself in a large city, grinding your way through heavy traffic as you head home from the office or to a sports event. You’re likely getting grumpy and stressed out, looking forward to getting to your destination. The traffic light goes green, signaling you to move forward but suddenly you can’t. A car is in front of you, blocking your way as the driver tried to make a late turn and is now stuck in the intersection. You explode with anger. Don’t be that person. The one blocking the intersection. If you can’t make it all the way through the intersection, don’t enter it until you can. Being the one to block traffic is a great way get a lot of nice people instantly upset. And why would you want to do that?
3. When you have to fire someone, make it personal.
Inevitably, if you are a supervisor or manager, you may find yourself in the situation where you have to terminate an employee. There are plenty of reasons this may happen. Corporate downsizing, poor performance and soft markets are a few. You will likely read a lot of advice that tells you that it’s not your fault so don’t worry about having to do it and that the employee will be better off. I’d suggest something else. The person you let go will be shocked and upset. Their financial livelihood is shaken from its foundations. They have bills to pay and their social status is taking a big hit. Even the worst performer probably has people that depend on them.
The first time I had to fire someone was about 25 years ago and I was terrified, but in retrospect for all the wrong reasons. I was worried about what they would think of me, how they might get very upset and yell and scream. I wasn’t worried at all about the impact to them. I didn’t even think about it as I was so wrapped up in my own nervousness. But experience is a good teacher, and while I’ve been in that position several times, I try to focus on treating the person with as much dignity and respect as I can. I’m still friends with some people I’ve had to let go. Not all of course, as I’m the guy that did the damage to them. It’s a lousy part of life, but there’s no reason to be a callous jerk about it.
4. Your legacy is what people remember about you. You don’t get to write that script.
Think for a moment about a person what was part of your life and has since passed away. They may have been a close family member, neighbour, work colleague or friend. You may feel very happy to have known them if they loved and supported you, or you may have negative feelings if they were abusive and intolerant. Whatever you feel about them now, your feelings are a result of your experience with them. What they wanted you to feel is irrelevant.
Someday, hopefully many years from now, we will all be memories in the minds of others. Their thoughts about us will be formed by how we treated them yesterday, today and tomorrow. Those that remember us will write that script. Remember that as you live each day. How do you want to be remembered?
5. Family memories are better than award plaques.
In my house, I have pictures dotting every wall, counter, shelf and table. In my office, I also a number of plaques and mementos given to me over the years for speaking at events and other public engagements. There have been several dozen of these occasions over the years and while they were (and continue to be) enjoyable for me, they do tend to blend together and with a few exceptions, are difficult to remember individually.
One of the pictures is of my then young son, probably about six or seven years old. He’s covered in mud from head to toe, and I mean REALLY covered. It was on a day when our family went for a mountain bike ride and due to his age, he rode a “ride along” bike. It had a seat, bike wheel and handlebars but was connected to the back of my bike by a steel rod, so I pulled him and he rode at the same speed as me.
The trail we chose had borne the brunt of recent rains and was a soggy muddy mess. However, rather than go home we decided to have a contest to see who could get the muddiest. My wife, daughter and I headed out with my son right behind me. We rode fast, splashing through huge puddles and slick mud until we were worn out from riding and laughing. Since my son was right behind me, every splash of mud from my bike hit him directly and he clearly won the contest. His huge grin when we announced him as the winner made for an excellent picture.
There are many other photographs of family events, and as numerous as they were I can remember every single one of them like they happened yesterday. And they all make me smile.
6. Travel. Anywhere.
Like many people, maybe most, I have certain assumptions about what life is like in other parts of the world. These ideas are developed based on what I read or see on a TV show or newscast. In other words, I base my thoughts on what other people tell me it’s like.
My first big trip was to England at age eight. I was excited as my head filled with the thoughts of sleeping in a castle, seeing knights on horseback and meeting the queen. Once we arrived, I was surprised by many of my experiences. Not a knight in sight except for the toy store, the castles were filled with tourists (just like us) and the queen was apparently too busy to greet me personally. Despite my shattered illusions, I enjoyed the trip immensely.
Next was Australia as a young adult, a multi-month adventure to “find myself”. Once again, my ideas about life there were very out of sync with reality. Sydney did not have koalas and kangaroos in the streets. It rained. Most of the country is not a beach. And so on. Once again, I had a fabulous time but it was very different than I had imagined.
Other far flung trips occurred through the years and each time I was amazed at how wrong I was about these places. Travelling throughout my home continent, I grew to understand that relying on stereotypes and other people’s ideas could cause a person to make bad decisions. Not all New Yorkers are snobby. But if you think they are you’ll probably treat them as if they are. The best fish and chips I’ve had was on the shores of Great Slave Lake in the north, not a trendy restaurant in a coastal city. On average, rural folks want the same things as city dwellers, like a happy family, decent job and a good community to live in.
If you get the chance, see the world for yourself. It’s different than you think.
7. People aren’t complicated
One dreary wet day years ago I was heading into a somewhat formal affair that required a suit and tie. I thought I looked pretty sharp with my pressed pants and shiny shoes, and on the way into the building I sat on a bench to tighten my shoelace. Instantly I felt the cold water soak through my pants and I jumped to my feet, horrified by the large wet stain that now dominated my behind. Frantically I flashed options through head. Run away. Buy new pants. Wrap my coat around waist and keep it there.
I forced myself to continue inside, my red face as obvious as my wet pants. As I arrived inside one of my colleagues came up to me. “Hey Keith, good to see you!” he exclaimed. Reading the worry on my face, his smile disappeared as he said “What’s wrong?”
I stammered out a reply. “Umm, well, my pants are…they’re…”. I paused and turned around to show him. He chuckled. “Sat on a puddle eh? Yeah, that happened to me a while ago. C’mon in, you’ll dry”. And with that, we carried on.
In my state of fear, it hadn’t occurred to me that such a thing had ever happened to anyone else before. I figured I’d be a laughing stock, everyone staring at me and laughing. The reality – no one cared. I worried about it far more than the others. They were thinking about their own things.
Such is the case with us humans. We believe that others think about us far more than they actually do. I might be wrapped up in my own thoughts, but so is everyone else. They’re working hard to get through the day and week. I enjoy the happy moments and get anxious about the sad ones. Just like everyone else. Except that sometimes your happy time may drive head on into someone else’s grief and you can’t understand why they aren’t happy like you are. Or vice versa.
We all have heads full of thoughts, memories, concerns, guilt and things to which we look forward. I understand that I can’t even come close to knowing your story, so I’ll satisfy myself by enjoying our interactions as much as possible, knowing that you have a million things going on. I won’t worry about what they are, unless you want me to.
8. All that stuff about “it won’t be important in five years” is true
If at age 15 I looked ahead five years and tried to guess what I’d be doing then, I would have very wrong. If I did the same thing at age 20, my crystal ball would again have lied to me. And if I performed that same exercise every five years until now, you guessed it. Dead wrong. Every time. I ended up in a different job, lived in a different town, had another child, and so on, none of which I could have predicted.
When I was 20 I worried about stuff that was going on in the day. Or week. Or maybe year. Same with every year that passed. And none of it mattered five years down the road, since everything had changed. In essence, I had spent a lot of time worrying about things that never happened. A lot of time.
Now I do very little of that. I still think about the future and plan to the extent I can, but I now know things will change. Five years from now? I have no idea. And that’s just fine.
This is my list of personal life rules. It’s a work in progress, so next year I may have added one or two. Hard to say. But you know what would help me a lot? Let me know some of yours! Post them in the comments section and tell me (and others) what’s important for you. You’ll save me tons of time not having to learn it for myself.