Martha Beck shares her best words of wisdom -- which could change lives if only people bothered to give them a try.
By Martha Beck
She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it)." That's what Lewis Carroll wrote about Alice, and it's true of most people. We go through life generally getting good counsel about what's best for us—and then vigorously ignoring it. This explains why I never run out of clients. It's amazing: Intelligent adults pay me for advice so obvious worms can follow it (this, as we'll see, is no exaggeration), then fail to act on it, then pay me to advise them again.
Here and now, out of sheer guilt, I've decided to spell out the best -- and, mysteriously, most ignored! -- advice I possess. If you follow it, I guarantee the results will be positive. If you don't, at least you won't be alone.
1. What leaves you feeling bad, do less of. What leaves you feeling good, do more of.
This one suggestion is all you really need to find your destiny, form loving relationships, achieve optimal health, and have the best life story in the bingo parlor during your golden years. And it isn't hard to remember, judging by the fact that worms easily take it to heart. Put a worm at the bottom of a simple T-shaped maze, with food in the left side of the top and a mild electric shock in the right, and it will develop fervent leftist inclinations. Yet many clever humans turn repeatedly to the very things that ruin our health and happiness: artery-clogging junk food, alcoholic lovers, soul-crushing jobs.
We do this because, unlike worms, we convince ourselves that there are good reasons to do ourselves harm. We say things like "I had a hard day; I deserve this industrial-size bag of chips." Or "You always hurt the one you love." Or "But I need the paycheck!" Yet I believe all human beings -- even politicians -- are born with the capacity for suffering and joy for a reason: so that we can navigate the world as well as a worm.
Notice that I'm putting the emphasis on how something leaves you feeling, not on how you imagine it will make you feel. Worms have to experience a maze several times before they start making optimal decisions. Once the experience registers, however, they trust it. Not so with us. We overthink experience -- and end up bedazzled by the same electricity that Tasered our last relationship, or disdaining the simplicity of things that reliably nourish us.
Today, try pausing before any action you take and recall how that action made you feel in the past. For example, writing often seems frightening or burdensome to me before I start, yet as many writers before me have said, I love having written. On the other hand, while nothing seems more appetizing to me than baked goods, I know that both wheat and sugar leave me feeling droopy and queasy. Just pausing to vividly recall the past result of each action helps me choose writing over procrastination and bananas over cookies. If you think through how each action leaves you feeling, you'll find yourself more and more able to choose those that add up to your best life.
2. To achieve bigger goals, take smaller steps.
As a teenager, I often injured myself trying to run mountain trails. Then I noticed that bikers downshift to climb hills. I began mimicking them, taking steps so tiny they felt inconsequential. This allowed me to run uphill quickly without getting tired, winded, or hurt. The one race in which I actually placed was on a mountain trail where I scurried along like a mouse on a mission, zipping past runners whose gazelle-like leaps were taxing their lungs and ruining their knees.
It turns out that the tiny-steps approach applies to any difficult thing, from schoolwork to parenthood to career. The bigger the task, the smaller my steps. If I feel myself tiring or avoiding tasks, I cut my steps in half, then in half again, until each step feels easy. Between steps, I give myself a reward -- nothing huge, just a ten-minute nap in the sun, a smoothie, some online window shopping.
My clients find this shocking. They want to achieve big goals, and they love those spectacular, gazelle-like leaps. One client I'll call Roberta planned to start getting up two hours early each morning, running to the gym, and lifting weights before work. She'd had this plan for five years. She hadn't acted on it once. I suggested that, instead, she get up five minutes early, put on gym clothes, then have coffee -- full stop. She thought this ridiculous (they always do), but it worked (it usually does). Roberta's five minutes in gym clothes grew to ten, then to 15, then to a Zumba class she loved. She's still increasing her fitness, one tiny step at a time.
3. Lie down and rest for a while.
Speaking of health regimens, there's a big piece of getting fit that most of us shortchange: rest. The majority of my clients who complain of depression, anxiety, irritability, and weight gain are actually chronically tired. The problems caused by lack of rest can feel so intricate, but the solution is so simple: Lie down, dear. Just lie down.
If you've ever attended a meeting after lunch, you know the mild coma endocrinologists call postprandial dip, which makes you want to lay your head down and drool during your boss's PowerPoint presentations. And why not? Totally relaxing for just ten minutes can reenergize your body, sharpen your mind, and make you much less likely to weep when you can't find a stapler.
In many cultures, it's customary to lie down during the day. In ours, it's emphatically not. To get used to the idea anyway, try a yoga class or the Alexander Technique, which you can do on the floor -- any floor, even at work (instructions available online). If all else fails, just channel your inner worm.
4. When you don't know what to say, try the truth.
I won't lie: Investing in resting can cause social awkwardness. For example, an acquaintance I'll call Jill recently asked me to drive an hour (each way) to meet her for dinner. I was exhausted, and though I like Jill, I've learned the hard way that when I put politeness over basic needs, I end up feeling resentful, which damages the relationship.
When I suggested that Jill and I take a rain check, she frostily asked what could possibly be more important than a chance to connect with her. I tried to invent a fictional business trip or convincing symptoms of bird flu, but my perfidious mouth blurted the truth: "I want to lie down."
I felt Jill's outrage as she absorbed the fact that on my priority list, getting some rest outranked dining with her. Truth often has this effect, but despite the initial sting, it makes for stronger relationships. If I'd lied, I'd have misled Jill and angered myself. I want friends who want what's best for me, and Jill can either accept that or find someone who's willing to dine under duress.
No matter what your truth may be -- about political views, movie preferences, the desire to live "off the grid" eating roadkill -- calmly expressing it cuts a clear path through the jungle of social connection.
5. Free yourself from dysfunctional people by refusing to try to control them.
You don't even need to say it -- I can already hear you thinking: If I tell the truth in every awkward situation, there will be hell to pay with my mother/husband/sister/coworker/book club! I get it: There are people in your life who, for various reasons, don't want your truth. You may think you have to change those people to live in total authenticity. Don't even try.
I labored for decades to make sad people happy, rigid people flexible, aggressive people empathetic, and so on, before finally noticing that (1) this never worked, and (2) it drove me insane. Then I read codependency expert Melody Beattie's advice on how to deal with dysfunctional people: "Unhook from their system by refusing to try to change or influence them." This felt totally alien and absolutely right, and it works. The key, I've found, is to stay the heck away from the idea of "making" someone do, feel, or think anything. This is not your job. Your job is to maximize your own happiness, kindness, and health. Let others choose whether to follow.
At this point, I should note that Alice in Wonderland did take some of her own advice. She remembered, for example, that "if you drink much from a bottle marked 'poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later."
You've already had enough life experience to notice when a situation, a person, or a task is marked "poison." Remember how much that situation hurt the last time, and choose one that feels better now. Take small steps, lying down often along the way. Tell the truth and stay in your own business. Anything else is poison. And if you actually use this seldom-followed advice, you may one day wake up and realize that your life has become a wonderland.
Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild World (Free Press).
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'Have No Regrets' --Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group
"The best advice I ever received? Simple: Have no regrets. Who gave me the advice? Mum’s the word. "If you asked every person in the world who gave them their best advice, it is a safe bet that most would say it was their mother. I am no exception. My mother has taught me many valuable lessons that have helped shape my life. But having no regrets stands out above all others, because it has informed every aspect of my life and every business decision we have ever made." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Keep Listening' --Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable
"... I had access to the best guidance available: We all do. In the era of blogging, many of the leading thinkers in the web industry were publishing their thoughts online for free. I learned about venture capital thanks to the insights of Fred Wilson, and got my first look at the world of digital marketing thanks to Edelman’s Steve Rubel. Charlene Li of Forrester Research was unknowingly my mentor in the realm of web trends. Now many of these industry experts have moved to newer platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where they continue to distill their invaluable advice and insights to the world. And everyday (sic), without knowing it, they are actually giving me the best advice: Keep listening." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Take Time To Get To Know People' --Beth Comstock, Chief Marketing Officer, GE
"Moving fast and being organized were my strong suits. The more there was to do, the more I felt alive." Who better than me, then, to land a plum assignment working for Jack Welch, Mr. Speed and Simplicity. Imagine my surprise when he called me into his office that day and admonished me for being too efficient. My zeal to do everything on my to-do list — along with my reserved, even shy nature — made me come across as abrupt and cold. I started every meeting by jumping right in and left with every action under control. 'You have to wallow in it,' he said. 'Take time to get to know people. Understand where they are coming from, what is important to them. Make sure they are with you.' I heard Jack loud and clear. But honestly, it took a long time for the impact of his words to sink in, and even longer to change my behavior. After all, those same attributes had led to my being in the role in the first place." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'You Can Do Anything You Choose' -- Martha Stewart, Founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia
"The best advice I’ve ever received was from my father when I was 12 years old and willing to listen. He told me that with my personal characteristics, I could, if I set my mind to it, do anything I chose. This advice instilled in me a great sense of confidence, and despite the fact that sometimes I was a little nervous, I stepped out and did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I think it really often is up to the parents to help build confidence in their children. It is a very necessary part of growing up." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Sit On Your Own Bottom' --T. Boone Pickens, Chairman of BP Capital Management
"If I had to single out one piece of advice that’s guided me through life, most likely it would be from my grandmother, Nellie Molonson. She always made a point of making sure I understood that on the road to success, there’s no point in blaming others when you fail. Here’s how she put it: 'Sonny, I don’t care who you are. Some day you’re going to have to sit on your own bottom.' After more than half a century in the energy business, her advice has proven itself to be spot-on time and time again. My failures? I never have any doubt whom they can be traced back to. My successes? Most likely the same guy." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To' --Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn
"As a child, I can't recall a day that went by without my dad telling me I could do anything I set my mind to. He said it so often, I stopped hearing it ... It wasn't until decades later that I fully appreciated the importance of those words and the impact they had on me." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Plan Your Pricing From The Target Customer's Perspective' --Shai Agassi, Founder of Better Place
At a conference in 2006, President Clinton gave Agassi some advice on pricing for market disruption: "'By the time you will convince the rich folks in Israel to try it, then get the average folks in Israel to try it, then bring it to the U.S. for our rich folks ... the world will run out of time. You need to price your car so that an average Joe would prefer it over the kind of cars they buy today — an 8-year-old used gasoline car, selling for less than $3,000. As a matter of fact, if you can give away your car for free, that's a sure way to succeed.' Pricing for market disruption is very different than pricing for a few early adopters. You have to plan your pricing from the target customer's perspective, within the boundaries of your costs." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Don't Correct People When It Matters Little' --Craig Newmark, Founder of Craigslist
"I'm a nerd, seriously hard-core, and sometimes that translates into being a know-it-all. People got tired of that while I worked at an IBM branch office in Detroit in the eighties. My boss told that that it had become a real problem with about half my co-workers. However, he said that my saving grace was my sense of humor. When trying to be funny, well, didn't matter if I was funny or not, at least I wasn't being an a**hole. The advice was to focus on my sense of humor and worry less about being exactly right. For sure, don't correct people when it matters little." It took a while to get noticed, but it did get noticed, and some tension got less tense. That felt pretty good. Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Feed The Eagles And Starve the Turkeys' --Nilofer Merchant, Founder of Rubicon Consulting
"When I was 20-something ... I walked into my boss’s office, the division leader ... I told him that I felt like on any given day I was facing a tsunami of things I could pay attention to, and there was no way I could work any harder to make stuff happen. I was asking for more resources, as the answer. And he sat me down as he might one of his many kids and gave me this advice: Feed the Eagles and Starve the Turkeys. Feed the Eagles. There are only a few things that matter. Know what they are. And place your energy into them. They aren’t always right in front of you so you need to look up and out more. Starve the Turkeys – lots of things are right in front of you … pecking around, making noise, and demanding attention. Because they are right in front of you, it’s easy to pay attention to them most and first. Ignore them. They will actually do fine without you." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'You Are Not Required To Finish Your Work, Yet Neither Are You Permitted To Desist From It' --Michael Fertik, CEO at Reputation.com
"'You are not required to finish your work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.' This is from Pirke Aboth, or “The Ethics of the Fathers” ... a collection of wisdom from the Jewish Talmudic sages, in this case, Rabbi Tarfon. This particular instruction has resonated with me for years. It’s something I think about nearly each day, and I find myself applying it to everything: My day job, my family life, my long-term hopes, even my sense of responsibility as a citizen. It’s a beautiful concept. It says you have an obligation to labor, to continue trying and making your way through the world, in essence, making a difference. At the same time, the instruction also focuses you on the effort, not the outcome. The main idea is the project, not the success." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Never Travel Away From Your Wife For More Than 10 Days At A Time' --Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo
"I received one of my most valuable and sustaining pieces of advice from my mentor Bill Moggridge soon after I started working with him in the late 1980's. He had something called the '10 day rule' that he applied religiously to his own life and suggested strongly that I did the same to mine. The 10 day rule dictated that he was never allowed to travel away from his wife, Karin, for more than 10 days at a time. He would go to whatever lengths necessary to make it back home within the 10 days even if it meant flying the next day to another client meeting. His view was that this design constraint made him more efficient with travel and also reminded him to keep a balance between home and work life. I have found both of these to be true and have applied the 10 day rule throughout my career. I am convinced it has helped me maintain a great relationship with my own wife, Gaynor, for the last 27 years." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'When You Want Something From Someone, Give Them Something Instead' --Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Local
"My father-in-law, the Honorable Steven W. Fisher ... taught me this essential business paradox: when you want something from someone, give them something instead, with no strings attached or expectations. Ask how you can be of service. Act like a true friend, even before you’ve established a friendship. Are you guaranteed to be able to leverage this later? Absolutely not. But that’s not the point – the point is that when you act unselfishly – when you behave as you would to a great friend – trustworthy and trusting, respectful and kind – then more often than not, good things will come in the relationship." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Follow Your Instincts' --Michael Moritz, Chairman of Sequoia Capital
"'Follow your instincts' was the terse, three-word suggestion I received 25 years ago from Don Valentine, founder of Sequoia Capital. 'Follow your instincts' shouldn’t be confused with 'trust your gut,' 'ignore reality,' 'rely on your sniffer' or 'go for glory.' The rough translation is 'do your homework well, analyze things carefully, assess the options but eventually trust your judgment and have the courage of your convictions – even if they are unpopular." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Don’t Be A Perfectionist' --Ilya Pozin, Founder of Ciplex
"Most of us are trained to believe that practice makes perfect; but the best advice I've ever received preaches the exact opposite: Don’t be a perfectionist. Today I embrace this, but when I first heard this 7 years ago, I refused to accept it." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Pack Half As Much Stuff As You Think You'll Need, And Twice As Much Money' --Hilary Mason, Chief Scientist at Bitly
"I've heard and read quite a lot of good advice, most of which I've probably ignored, but one thing that I did internalize was a bit of advice about, oddly enough, travel: pack half as much stuff as you think you'll need, and twice as much money. The more I travel this way the more I bring the same attitude to every new project. You can't know what's going to happen, so don't worry — just take what you need, and jump in." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Take The Blame When You Deserve It' --Gretchen Rubin, Author and Blogger
"My father: 'If you’re willing to take the blame when you deserve it, people will give you the responsibility.' This was perhaps the best advice for the workplace I ever got." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Losing Doesn't Matter' --Nicholas Thompson, Senior Editor at The New Yorker Magazine
Thompson's former soccer coach, Bruce Cochrane, told him that losing doesn't matter: "It sounds like a trite lesson now: another version of 'it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.' But it was much more powerful. He was explaining that there was a certain artistry to what we were trying to do, and a certain dignity that we had upheld even in defeat." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'Are You Happy?' --Jeffrey Selingo, Columnist and Author
"The advice came from Clint Williams, an editor at the paper. Near the end of the summer, many of the fellows were figuring out where to focus our job search or weighing job offers. Many of us didn’t know what to do next. What would make us happy? Clint had a rule of thirds for happiness in life. He told me to ask three questions: Are you happy with your job? Are you happy where you live? Are you happy who you’re with (depending on your circumstances that could mean friends, spouse, partner, etc). If you answer Yes to at least two out of three, you found your spot for the moment. If not, you need to make a change to one of them." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
Evaluate Your Career Every 18 Months --Charlene Li, Founder Partner at Altimeter Group
"In my second year at Harvard Business School, I took a career management course because I had no idea what I was going to do upon graduation. At the start of the course, the professor gave me the best advice: That the most important asset I would ever manage would be my career and because of that, I should give it the proper time, attention and investment that it deserved. No other asset I would ever manage would ever come close to the net present value of my career." His specific advice was to evaluate my career status about every 18 months. It's 18 months because that's about how long it takes for a person to master a job — and begin to look for new challenges. Either you find those challenges in the existing job or you have to and find new opportunities. Regardless, that regular evaluation keeps you honest about managing your career, rather than passively going along with the situation that you are currently in." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
Listen To Feedback From Your Team --Jim Kim, President at The World Bank
"... I received some great advice from Marshall Goldsmith, one of the preeminent authorities in the field of leadership. He told me this: 'If you want to be an effective leader, listen to and accept with humility the feedback that comes from your team.' The most fundamental commitment you have to make as a leader is to humbly listen to the input of others, take it seriously, and work to improve. Again, it sounds simple, but it’s not easy. Leadership, as Marshall always says, is a contact sport, and one has to constantly ask for and respond to advice from colleagues so you can improve." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
Ignore The Chattering Crowds And Set Your Own Course --Sallie Krawcheck, Former President of Merrill Lynch
"One day, after some petty humiliation, I came home in tears. My mother sat me down and told me, in a voice that I thought of as her 'telephone voice' (meaning, reserved for grown-ups), that I should ignore the girls [from school]; the only reason they were treating me poorly was because they were jealous of me. Therefore I should ignore the chattering crowds and set my own course." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
Never Show How Upset You Are --Peter Guber, CEO of Mandalay Entertainment
Pat Riley, President of the Miami Heat, told Guber to never visibly show how upset you are: "You are going to lose a lot! A lot! Get used to it! It’s a crucial part of the process! That behavior doesn’t help you or your team. You’ve got to always remain visibly positive! Managing losses is a challenge you must be up to! You can never give in to it!" Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>
'You're Never As Good As Your Best Review, And Never As Bad As Your Worst' --Vivian Schiller, Chief Digital Officer at NBC News
"You're never as good as your best review, and never as bad as your worst.' I was given this advice by a former boss, and it has since stuck with me as a guide for getting through the best of times and the worst of times. Looking back on my career and all of the places I’ve been, there have been incredible highs and lows at each point along the way. What I’ve come to learn is that life is cyclical and the best way to stay focused is to ignore the swings and instead focus on the long run." Source: <a href="http://www.linkedin.com/today/se/bestadvice">LinkedIn</a>