Roccia’s Rules for Life

I recently had a conversation with someone where (I guess) they were impressed with some trinket of wisdom I’d picked up in my travels. And they asked me a question that I feel like I get pretty regularly: “where did you learn this?”

Usually, this question comes up not because I’m especially smart or knowledgeable, but because the stuff I do know is so esoteric and (seemingly) unconnected. Did you ever see Slumdog Millionaire? If not – it’s a movie about a kid who wins a really, really hard trivia game show. He’s not educated or anything, but for each question he gets right, the movie cuts to a flashback of the highly unusual series of coincidences that led to him knowing that particular piece of trivia.

It’s like that. Most stuff that I’ve made myself useful by knowing didn’t come from some sort of formal transfer of knowledge in an organized setting. It’s just a bunch of weird tricks that I learned, largely through trial and error.

But I’m not even especially unique in that regard. My theory is this: every day, everyone learns about a thousand things. Then, we forget somewhere between 995 and 1005. Gross learning is extremely high, and net learning is pretty flat. I maintain that I have about the same gross learning rate as anyone, but my default retention rate is slightly worse. As a result, I compensated – by writing.

Even as a pre-teen, I wrote down everything. When computers didn’t even have Windows yet, I had a text file on my computer called “RocciasRulesForLife.txt” where I took pretty much any event that occurred in my day and turned it into a general-case rule. It had some real gems in there. Some were genuinely smart, like “Always take gum if someone offers it to you.” Others were just weird, like “When life gives you lemmings, stay away from cliffs.” But the point was that I always wrote them down.

Over the years I filled notebooks with stories, I typed endlessly, and now I even have this blog. That one thing, that proclivity to convert my life’s experiences into stories, notes, and rules – that’s where I learned “this,” whatever this is. I learned it the same place you did, but when you learned it, it was fifteen years ago on a day when you learned a thousand other things and you didn’t remember it. We all experience the same number of seconds per day, for the most part. I just put a lot more of mine into words.

Pushing Through Yourself

The hardest hurdles to overcome are the ones you through in front of yourself. It’s impossible to argue with yourself and not lose – if you’re of two positions, one of them has to. So it becomes very easy, very tempting, to just pick the side you wanted anyway.

There are multiple versions of you in the future, and all of them are fishing for you. All of them are putting bait on their hooks and attempting to drag you into their particular future reality. All the time. You will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into some future. Pick the future you want.

Treasure Map

There are many ways to add value, and one of them is to just identify and categorize a bunch of ways to add value!

People don’t automatically know where the treasure is. Sure, there’s value in digging up the gold, value in shipping it, value in refining it, value in smelting and smithing it, and value in selling it. But there’s also value in just figuring out where to do all that stuff!

If you’re confused about how to add value in a given situation, probably so are a lot of other people. That means you already have the answer: you can add value by identifying other ways to add value, and sharing that information. You can add value by making the treasure map.

Careful Imbalance

While it’s important to maintain a sense of balance in your life, that doesn’t mean every day or season must be the same. It’s important to maintain a balanced diet too, but that doesn’t mean every meal has to have the exact same mix of protein and vitamins. You can have eggs for breakfast and salad for lunch and still be balanced overall.

Likewise, some seasons in your life will require that you upset the balance of things you find important for a time. It’s necessary to have the right mix of family, intellectual pursuits, meaningful work, physical activity, and interpersonal relationships in your life, but you don’t have to do those things in equal measure every day. In fact, there may be times in your life when you have to radically emphasize one of those at the expense of others. It’s okay to take time away from your work to be with a dying family member, and it’s okay to miss your workout for a dear friend’s wedding.

Be careful with your imbalances, and regress to the mean often. But don’t be afraid of the ebb and flow – that’s just the way your ship rocks along its journey.

Slow Problems, Quick Solutions

Problems are like sludge that gathers in one place. They collect and can drown you, but they don’t move quickly. Like zombies in old-school horror flicks, they’re dangerous in large numbers if you let them catch up with you.

Solutions are quick. Opportunities are fleeting, and they don’t always run toward you. You’ve got to catch them.

The upshot is: if you find you have a lot of problems and few solutions, get moving. Go to a new place, new activities, new people. You’ve let yourself get surrounded by sludge and used up all the solutions in your immediate area. But if you shake it up a little, you can give yourself a little breathing room and find some more tools.

How to Learn Anything

Remove your expectations that you “should already know this.” Don’t try to berate your knowledge into existence, and don’t lay guilt on yourself for not already having some ultra-specific piece of information. Your assumptions about what other people in similar situations “already know” are totally wrong and based on all sorts of internal biases.

Instead, just learn it like a kindergartener. You don’t know a thing? Cool, ask someone. If they don’t know, get a book – look for words like “for beginners,” or “for dummies.” Use the power of the vast and inscrutable internet to find specific answers to questions, then read books for the general case.

Watch videos. Take notes.

This is all stuff you know. You know how to learn, you’ve done it a thousand times. But somewhere along the way, you accidentally listened to some voice telling you that you shouldn’t have to anymore, that you should just know this stuff, and be embarrassed if you don’t.

That voice doesn’t know anything. If you learn to ignore it, you can learn anything.

Spectrum of Success

I think we too often set goals badly, and one of the mistakes we make is to set single-point goals, instead of a spectrum of success.

Let’s consider a sales rep in a pretty standard sales office. Meeting quota – making the minimum number of required sales in a given time period – is absolutely one kind of success. Another is being in the top 20%. Another is being at the top of the leaderboard that month. Another is setting a new record.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition – aim for that record! But don’t make that your only goal, and the only way you define success for yourself. Set up “stretch goals,” so that you can react to the conditions you see. Define success in a range so you can gather data without telling yourself that you’ve failed.

This doesn’t mean that you should define your spectrum of success so broadly that you essentially don’t have goals at all. I’m not a fan of participation trophies. But it means that you have to run half a mile before you can run a mile anyway, so you should set some targets in between and make “growing” a big part of your definition of success.

Wealthy & Wise

Nobody wants money. People think they want money, but that’s like saying you want flour, eggs, and an oven. No, what you want is cake. Money is just a method, a tool. But it’s a tool that, like flour, eggs, and an oven, can create many different things. If you don’t know why you want money, then you often chase the wrong things. You mess up the recipe, and you don’t get what you want.

Look, let me be clear about my position: money is good. Money is a resource, and having more resources is, all else being equal, a good thing. There’s no shame in wanting more resources as fuel to pursue your ends. The ends themselves can be bad or good, but money isn’t different from any other tool in that regard. And I posit that most of the bad stuff people do with money tends to come from not realizing what they’re actually after.

As near as I can figure it, when people think they want money, they actually want some combination of these five other things: freedom, security, influence, status, or legacy. And there’s almost always a primary one – the main driving factor.

Some people want money because money buys them freedom. They don’t like doing what other people tell them, they don’t like being tied somewhere. They don’t want to have to work, but they don’t want to suffer for not working. They want to opt out of the value exchange system of society, basically.

Other people, often people who grew up or lived a long time in a resource-poor environment, want security. They don’t care if they have to work, but they want to know that their food, shelter, place in society and general lifestyle are well-insulated from undesired change. They want to live away from fear.

Some people want power, plain and simple. Money is a way to get it. They want to be able to enact change, often on a grand scale – to exercise their will via the influence money can buy. People can absolutely use this power for good, but it’s hard. If you’ve ever wondered why someone like Jeff Bezos still works when he could easily just lounge for the rest of his life, remember that he’s not motivated by these other things, or he would.

Some people want to be admired, adored, or even just paid attention to. They want money because money lets them roll up in fancy cars, have a great time, and attract attention. It can be admiration, jealousy, desire – doesn’t matter, as long as the focus of their society is on them. They want to be elevated in the eyes of their peer group. This is, evolutionarily speaking, super duper understandable!

And some people want money because they have some specific long-term project they want to see come to fruition, and money can get them there. This can be as simple as “the best life for my kids,” or it can be something like a foundation that fights the disease they lost their sibling to, or any number of other things.

At the core, I don’t think there’s anything about those five motivations that makes a person detestable or immoral. I think all of those are very rational in their own way. I think all five of them can manifest in immoral ways, but I also think all of them can take shape in a healthy soul, too.

If you won the lottery today and got an extra million bucks, what would you do with it? The answer speaks to your true motivations. Would you immediately turn it into a “nest egg” and get rid of all your debt? Then you’re probably security-motivated. Would you take a bunch of wild trips and explore the world? Could be freedom, but if you’re taking a lot of selfies for the ‘gram while you’re at it, it’s probably status.

Whatever your true motivation, it’s good to be aware of it. It affects your attitude towards money and how happy you’ll be with different approaches to it. Someone who is legacy- or security-minded is perfectly fine working every day of their life, as long as the motivation is being satisfied. So they’ll be happy in stable jobs or with low-risk investments. Someone who is freedom-minded won’t be, no matter how much “financial sense” a stable job and a 401(k) make. A high-risk venture or entrepreneurship will appeal to a freedom-minded person. A status-minded person might be more likely to take a “stable” job, if it’s something that commands a lot of respect, like a doctor. In fact, a status-minded person is more likely to choose a high-profile job that pays less over something lucrative but unglamorous like the trades.

Notice the pattern? Dissatisfaction stems from not being true to yourself. Everyone wants money – but no one does. If you always think “more money is good” as the ultimate measuring stick, you’ll make choices that make you unhappy, spin your wheels, burn out, and end up with less money. You’ll maximize your resources by figuring out what your real motivation is and pursuing it with every available tool, not just cash.

Different People

Most of the wonderful things in your life will be as a result of crossing paths with other people. Most of the terrible things, too.

Two puzzle pieces are allowed to not fit together without either of them being “bad.” The puzzle pieces didn’t do anything wrong, they just belong in other parts of the puzzle, with other pieces. We all fit together eventually.

That means if you find yourself mismatched with someone, you shouldn’t automatically look to blame one person or the other. You shouldn’t expect a fix. You shouldn’t internalize it as your own fault or something you could have done differently.

You should just take it as wisdom to learn more about the shape of yourself, and the shapes of different people in your world.

People are funny, and they’ll frustrate you. They’ll save your life and they’ll make it hell. They’re wonderful and complicated and damaged and silly and cruel and hurt. And so are you.

Doesn’t make them bad. Just makes them different. Find your different people, the ones with the shape that fits with yours – and remember that almost never means they’re the same shape as you are.