How's the water?

About the most useful thing I've ever learned

Fun fact: I can pinpoint the single most useful thing I ever learned.

Seems unlikely, right? As my wife so helpfully pointed out the other day, by now I’ve lived “a lot of days” and -- though she didn’t say this part, strangely -- by extension I’ve learned a lot of things. So to be able to pinpoint just one of them as most useful seems like a long shot. But bear with me…

If I told you (without exaggerating) that I’d learned something that has the propensity to…

  • Apply in every single waking moment

  • Help with all outcomes in life

  • Help even more with the experience of everything

...that would be about as useful a thing as there is to learn, right? I mean, what else could a lesson do -- besides help with all the things, all the time -- to be more useful?

By the way, all the spiritual or tactical life advice that you come across, including the things I think and write about here at Unachievement, is likely nothing more than some specific application of this lesson I’m talking about. In other words, once you’ve learned this Very Useful Thing, you’ve got a sort of cheat code in your possession that can save you a lot of effort in trying to keep track of all the specific bits of good advice out there.

Here’s the (Very Useful) Thing: that you have the ability to choose what meaning you assign to experience.

See, without this Thing, your default brain is in the driver’s seat and will automatically assign meaning to experience for you. And once you realize (and start to practise) that you have the ability to switch off of autopilot mode, you’ll find that there are often more productive ways to assign meaning to experience than what your default brain offers.

What does it mean to “assign meaning to experience”? Well, we’re talking about the story you tell yourself -- your interpretation of...everything. When the second scoop falls off the perch of your ice-cream cone and smashes on the sidewalk, the story you tell yourself could be a) that for as much ice cream as you eat, this was bound to happen eventually; no big deal, you probably didn’t need the second scoop anyway, orrrr b) that the universe is out to singularly ruin your entire existence. Your default brain might (and often does) choose the latter, and this Very Useful Thing is about the fact that you can choose to overrule it.

Here’s what happens if you take advantage of your ability to consciously choose what story you tell yourself:

  1. It changes what you think, which changes what you feel, which changes your entire experience of things.

  2. It changes what you think, which changes what you do, which changes all the outcomes in your life.

And assuming you’re making productive choices (i.e. more helpful ones than your default brain goads you into), we’re talking about far better outcomes and experience. A pretty Useful thing indeed.

If you know me closely, you know that I’m retelling the lesson that’s much better presented in this commencement address (known as “This is Water”) by the late writer, David Foster Wallace. I’m coming up on the five-year anniversary of when I stumbled across it and, after picking my jaw up off the floor, started practising my ability to choose what story I tell myself every day. I’m not perfect or even great at it (it’s one of those forever-a-work-in-progress deals), probably, but I can tell you that it’s helped me -- a lot.

If you haven’t seen/heard the speech I linked to (and even if you have), block 23 minutes in your calendar and listen closely. 

It may be the most useful thing you ever learned.