LIFE IS A PROBLEM YOU CAN SOLVE!
All you need are some simple, insightful ways of looking at yourself and your world, plus frank, straightforward tools for developing your philosophy, addressing your feelings and clarifying your goals. And they’re all here for you – in abundance – in John Vorhaus’s down-to-earth guide to lofty concerns, How to Live Life. Using the plain-spoken, exercise-driven approach of his many successful writing books, How to Live Life offers no magic solutions, just practical strategies for advancing your self-awareness, acquiring self-acceptance and closing the gap between the person you are and the person you want to be. If spiritual matters matter to you, if you want to make your life rise, and if you wish to gain a better grasp of the questions that confront us all, this little book will have a great big impact on you.
CHAPTER ONE: WHERE I GET OFF
So, first question…
Where the hell do I get off writing a book called how to live life?
After all, I have no credentials in psychology, theology or any other –ology. Nor have I scholarship in philosophy, theosophy or any other –osophy. Indeed, I bear no academic qualifications of any kind, bar the lowly BA that got me my first job out of college and hasn’t done much for me since. (Perhaps you have one like this; many of us do.) Yet with this book I seem to be claiming that I know something special about how to live life.
Pretentious much? I’d say so.
But before we throw me out on my ear, I’d just like to say this: Decades ago, back when I was breaking into Hollywood, I created a class on breaking into Hollywood. I figured who better qualified to teach it than someone trying to do it?
Now here’s me, many years later, trying to live my life to the best of my ability. By that same loopy logic, who’s better qualified to write this book?
Well, you. And him. Her. That couple. These families. That church group, obviously. But equally obviously those unaffiliated agnostics over there. Everyone who pays attention. Everyone who doesn’t pay attention. All of us and each of us have the right to write this book because all of us and each of us have stories that follow the same arc: We’re born, we live, we die. We all try to make the best of things along the way. Some of us just do it out loud. That’s me. I’m one of them. I do it out loud. That’s partly where my authority comes from.
But even before breaking into Hollywood, I knew that teaching something was a great way to learn it. I’ve used this strategy many times in my life to increase my understanding of songwriting, poker, comedy, creativity, sailing (that was dangerous), archery (that was worse) and more. I have come to believe that an inspired learner makes a good teacher. So that’s the real source of my authority, such as it is: my gape-mouthed wonder at the fact of my existence, and my desire to know it more fully.
This book, then, is an intensely selfish exercise.
But I don’t think it’s all that pretentious, not really. No more than life itself is pretentious. I mean, here we are in the midst of this incredible, unbelievable experience, and something tells us that it should be even more incredible and more unbelievable. We should be… I don’t know… painting pictures, writing poems, staring at the stars, communing with God, digging life’s mysteries, getting down to the isness of it all.
But still we have to make the bed, pay the bills, walk the dog. We still have to do our jobs, sit in traffic, deal with difficult people, go shopping (or anything you hate as much as I hate shopping). All this crap. For something so profound as ever-loving life, man, much of how we spend it is pretty humdrum.
And this can be exasperating. One of the big problems I have with life – and perhaps you share this – is how it demands that I do so many things I really don’t want to do at all. For example, go shopping. For example, grow old.
For example, floss my teeth.
In the name of good dental hygiene, I floss like a mad fiend, do it all the time. I was told that this would keep my teeth from falling out, and I have to say, so far so good. But I’ll tell you one thing: The day I learn I have six months to live is the day I stop flossing my teeth.
What about you? What would you free yourself from if you knew you wouldn’t have to pay any price? It’s an old exercise, I know, the Corn King of existential reverie, but for what this book is about – plain thought and plain talk about the lives we lead – it’s as good a place to start as any. What would you never do again if you were suddenly free? Free from doubt, negative outcomes or shame; free from caring at all.
Make a list.
You’ll hear me say that a lot, make a list. I’m a huge fan of lists because lists…
Let us create without consequence
Give us hard data we can use right away
Are emotionally neutral; they don’t judge
Yield much information for little effort
Put things where we can see them
So here’s a list of what I wouldn’t do if I had just six months to live:
Deny myself a donut
Suffer a fool
Worry about money
Change my oil every 3,000 miles
Wear a tie
Pretend to like people I don’t
Press 1 for more options
And here’s what you wouldn’t do.
By the way, I conventionally use this convention…
…to flag appropriate spots to make lists, jot notes or otherwise express your thoughts. Whether you do this or not is, of course, up to you. But I consider that the more you put into this book the more you’ll get out of it, so I hope you’ll not just read it but interact with it, either here on the page or in a notebook or other information-storage device of your choice.
Would it help if we called it homework?
Many people find that this helps a lot, this act of externalizing motivation. Any time our sense of responsibility to others pushes us past mental blocks or barriers, we’re using this tool.
Students routinely use the pressure of a deadline – the formalized expectation of others – to overcome inertia and deliver their work on time. My writing students have “done it for jv” for years and if my expectations aid their productivity, I’m happy to serve in that way. So call it homework if it helps. Mine will be the willing arm elbowing you into the future.
There’s no doubt that externalized motivation can be a positive force in our lives. To take one example, just think of all the early morning jogging partners who use each other’s expectations to motivate their butts out of bed.
To take some other examples (don’t disappoint me now)…
Externalizing your motivation is a simple two-step process. First, make a promise. Second, keep it. Simple right? And with this approach you are now using a strategy to pursue a goal. You might not be accustomed to thinking about your life in so analytical a fashion, but that’s something I hope these pages will change. Look, we’re doing it already.
Your goal is to deepen self-understanding and your strategy is reading a book.
My goal is to gain your participation and my strategy is externalizing motivation.
What if my goal were to make my life rise? What strategies could I apply to that?
Reach more people with my thoughts
Exercise and keep fit
Keep my practice of writing robust
Eat healthfully and consciously
Acquire new information
Make common cause with like-minded people
Be open and honest with others
What strategies could you apply?
I imagine that part of you really wants your life to rise – and part of you doesn’t. You’re going exploring here, into the inner unknown, and such introspection can be thrilling but also harrowing. The truths we discover about ourselves may delight us or dismay us, and we won’t necessarily know which until we get more deeply involved.
Upon going in, we may fear to go too far. Writers are quite familiar with this feeling. With every writing challenge we master, we want to tackle something tougher. But what if we’ve topped out on our talent? What if this is where I fail? That fear can cause the writing process to grind to a halt.
Or any process. Not just writing.
In the desire to self-discover it’s common to think, “I want to know myself intimately, but I am afraid.” In the act of introspection, where the emotional stakes and ego stakes couldn’t be higher, we can expect to balk a bit at going deep. Acceptance is called for here, the sense that whatever emotions we experience are fine, completely allowable, totally cool, no matter what they are. Without acceptance, we are afraid to approach ourselves. With it, we can appraise ourselves openly and honestly, without freaking out.
About a decade ago, my hip crapped out and had to be replaced. The new device didn’t quite work, but for one reason or another it was almost two years before they could carve me up and set things right. During those two years, I had to accept pain with every step I took. Not a party with candles and cake for me, but a useful and object lesson in how to experience without judging. “This is not a bad thing,” I told myself, “and it’s not a good thing. It’s just a thing that is.”
I remember thinking that this awareness would probably come in handy when I had to face something tougher, like the death of a loved one or of myself, and so it has proven to be (except not the latter part yet). I got the hang of using acceptance as a tool, and have used it thus ever since.
That’s what we’re after here, using acceptance as a very simple tool:
I see me, and it’s all okay.
Just to be clear, acceptance doesn’t mean surrender. To accept means to process information with emotional neutrality. Acceptance provides an objective perspective where nothing is made worse by the editorial judgment that this really sucks.
How wonderful to be free from the feeling of this really sucks. You can be. It’s a choice you get to make. Simply seek to acquire the habit of saying, and thinking, “I accept.”
You don’t gain acceptance all at once. It comes in stages and it comes through practice – a practice that begins with the modest decision to try.
Pick something on your list and say why you’d never do it again. If you encounter negative emotions or any form of self-reproof, try to push past these feelings with acceptance; acknowledge your reaction, then move on.
Me, personally, I’d never wear a tie again because I never liked them in the first place, and have never felt at ease in environments, especially professional ones, where ties are expected or required.
Plus there’s the whole noose aspect.
Digging deeper I understand that I don’t like people telling me how to behave, and if they’re telling me how to dress, that’s telling me how to behave.
Now you, personally…
Okay, we’re underway. We’ve established our respective credentials for co-investigating how to live life, and we already have some new approaches for that. Good for us. Hooray!
Needless to say, (yet somehow said), this book isn’t for everyone.
Fundamentalists of all sorts may hate its stubborn open-mindedness, for there’s nothing here that talks about the “one true” anything.
Likewise, for those who need my opinion (or everyone’s opinion) to agree with their opinion, yeah, no, not their book.
I’m certain about uncertainty. No one’s moving me off of that. So if you’re looking for answers or absolutes, they will largely not be found around here.
Strict grammarians may recoil in disgust at the playful lack of initial caps in the title and chapter heads.
And anyone hoping for useful information on needlepoint, say, or the New York Islanders hockey team, will get no food value at all from this book.
Now I’m just being flip and – at the risk of sounding annoying – annoying. I apologize for that. Believe me, the last thing I want is an adversarial relationship with you, my partner in this voyage of discovery.
Yet it might happen. If I poke hard enough at your hidden assumptions, you may come to resent me, for no one adopts new paradigms without old ideas – perhaps cherished ones – getting squeezed or set aside. I think that’s healthy; I think it’s how we grow.
I always tell the writers I work with to make room for the new idea. Can I ask you to make room for a new idea right now? Here it comes:
Dismiss right and wrong.
For as long as this book lasts, imagine that there are no true or false answers, no good or bad ideas, no accurate or inaccurate appraisals of life, reality, anything. Say of nothing, “That’s a yes” or “That’s a no.” Say of everything, “What can I make out of this?”
This will give you a platform for examination, and upon this platform you can contemplate ideas without feeling like you have to commit to any of them in any way. Here again we find emotional neutrality; here again I think you’ll find it useful.
And I want to be useful. You know? Helpful. In some ways contentious. In all ways honest. I want to take you where strategy and honesty meet. I think it’s safe to say that that’s where I live. I can get you there, too. I’ve got it all Google-mapped. Don’t worry, I’m not going to sit on the secret. Here it comes right now.
Go off in all directions at once.
Go off in all directions at once. You’re bound to get somewhere, and in the great game of self-encounter, anywhere is as good as anywhere else. You’re never going to get to the bottom of you, so your exploration is free to be boundless, unburdened by preconceptions and shot through with acceptance.
One way to go off in all directions at once is just to ask questions. Simple questions, like what, why, when, how.
Hey, jv, what’s dear to you?
She comforts me.
When we’re sharing a bed.
By making me feel part of something. My wife is dear to me because she makes me feel connected.
Wow. In just four questions I got down to the core of why I love my wife. That’s pretty powerful. That’s a pertinent discovery for me.
And that’s how discovery happens, just as simply as that.
Discovery happens when you ask and answer some questions.
Got any questions you’d like to ask yourself? Just ask. Just answer. Explore. Don’t judge.
As you may know, I’ve written many books on writing. People have told me, and I humbly accept their favor, that those books serve by providing strategies both for writing and for having a writer’s life.
Interestingly, my poker books have drawn a similar response. Readers frequently express surprise that books which seek to explore something about poker end up exploring something about the self.
None of this is by accident, for self-awareness is indispensable to both writing and poker, and it bears close examination in those contexts.
Beyond that, though, transformation is always on my mind; transformation – being who I am and becoming who I’ll be. To me that’s where the fun is, the fun I want to share with you.
Words are my tool for sharing, and I’m asking again that you make them yours. It’s okay to just think about things, but if you really want to bring your ideas to life, take the time – okay, and the nerve – to write them down.
For instance, name some things you know you want, but maybe rarely dare to want out loud.
Writing draws out your inner desires and places them where they can be seen and acted upon. Words – simple words – can illuminate you and set you on the path to your goals.
They don’t have to be pretty words, or well organized ones. They don’t have to be “the right” words. They just have to be what they are: another tool you can use.
So be liberal with them. Don’t just read, participate. You may have bought this book for my words, but yours will be the ones that matter in the end.