Heuristics To Live By: 2021 Edition

Sometimes advice can go a long way. Heuristics are functional advice that has become of utility.

A heuristic describes how our minds use shortcuts to perceive the world. They are strategies that are used to minimize learning time or to make learning more efficient. They can also be constitutional frameworks that help structure your thinking for a certain desired outcome.

I learned about a lot of different heuristics in 2021, most of which I disregarded pretty quickly. However, a few stuck with me. Some I had already been using unconsciously but wasn’t aware of. The heuristics I effectuated into my life this past year were ones that not only make the most sense to me but are so important they almost feel required to live a successful and fulfilling life.

I don’t like to use the word achieve when talking about success and fulfillment. The reason is that success and fulfillment are not destinations, rather they’re an ongoing way of being. You can have many successes and feel fulfilled every day—or they can be a rare occurrence, or you could lack the two until later in life. So they’re subject to change and therefore aren’t destinations. The net positive or net negative presence of the two over the span of the past couple of months or years determines if you are successful or fulfilled.

With that said, it’s important to practice heuristics you believe in. Often, people just use them as word porn; they feel a whimsical spurt of motivation from reading the sentence, although nothing is actually gained in the long-term. People who practice a heuristic can turn it into a bona fide self-improvement, like an added mental strategy or a refined character trait or mindset.

We all change with the new things we learn and the experiences we go through. So these heuristics I list below are not set in stone (which is why I mentioned the year 2021). I think it would be interesting for me to revisit this essay in five or ten years to see how my prescription for a successful and fulfilling life had changed over the years—or how accurate I was.

So basically, if I had to give someone a blueprint today for how to live a successful and fulfilling life, I would simply prescribe them these heuristics:

You get in life what you have the courage to ask for: You would be surprised at what you are able to achieve, the doors you can open, and the people you can meet if you have the audacity and boldness to ask for what you want and to persist for it. There’s an art form to it because if you’re doing this, it probably means you’re not in the right position to be asking for it in the first place. You’re either underqualified or undeserving of what you’re asking for, whether rightfully or unrightfully so. To increase your chances of receiving a yes, you must have the confidence to truly believe that you are deserving and qualified. Essentially, you need to fake it till you make it. Doing this will make your proposal much more convincing and you will be ready and prepared to receive that yes. Every successful person has either felt imposter syndrome at one point in their career or have/had a delusional amount of confidence that enabled them to receive things that they otherwise shouldn’t have been deserving and qualified to receive. This is something that is both tricky and dangerous. Tricky because it’s difficult to build that unshakable delusional confidence in yourself, and dangerous because when mastered, it could be abused for malicious intent that will get you into trouble (this is how con artists operate).

The Growth Paradox: Growth initially takes a much longer time than you think, and then it happens much faster than you ever would have thought. Growth happens gradually, then suddenly. When you fully grasp this concept, you start to do things differently with a long-term perspective. “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.” – Albert Einstein.

SIMPLICITY: Don’t overcomplicate things. When you’re solving a problem, spend ample time on the question in order to find the right answer. When you’re exploring the question, dissect the problem down to its most basic core. And when you’re communicating, don’t digress too far off the topic. Before I start any difficult task, I do quick mental calculations to see how long it will take me. If it seems like it will take me a while, then I spend some time pondering if there is an easier, quicker, and more efficient way to do it. How do I remove any friction or redundancy and how can I streamline or automate aspects of it—if not the entire task? Can it be automated and how do I do it easier and in less time (without sacrificing quality). There’s no nobility in overburdening yourself with unnecessarily hard work. Turning a difficult task into an easy one frees up some of your finite energy budget to be allocated to something more challenging or more worthy of your time and energy. Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” The axe in this situation is analogous to a strength multiplier. You can be the strongest lumberjack in the world, but with a dull axe, you are pretty inefficient. Work smarter, not harder.

Understand what everyone wants: Understand what you want. Understand what they want. One of the main points of the book, Crucial Conversations by Stephen R. Covey, is to understand your and the other parties’ intentions. This is the first and most important step to productively resolving arguments, negotiations, or any other discussion between two or more people where the stakes are high. Most arguments you, I or anyone get into start as a disagreement and then escalates into miscommunication which turns into name-calling and then an irrational altercation that has no purpose. At that point, you’re no longer angry about the initial problem, you’re angry that he called you a clown. Often in crucial conversations, both parties completely forget what they really want out of the conversation. In any situation, if you truly know what you want, then you are on a mission. You know why you say what you say and do what you do. If you know also what the other parties want, then you’re at an advantage. At the extreme level, you essentially can manipulate them. If you understand what everyone wants, then you’re in the position to tend to everyone’s needs while also getting what you want out of it. FBI hostage negotiator Christopher Voss says that negotiations aren’t won by sweet talk, rather they’re won by those who understand clearly what they want and what the other party wants, and everyone walks away happy. Speaking of happiness…

Do what makes you happy: First things first, don’t confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure is whimsical, short-lived, and it’s addicting. It’s more of a transactional thing; you do (x) to feel pleasure. Avoid lust too. Lust is an unhealthy longing for pleasure. Lust is the envious feeling you get of others. It’s the craving for luxury and status. On the flip side, happiness is a state of being. When you’re blissful you don’t need to seek pleasure. The best way to tell if you’re happy is to do nothing and then observe how you feel. There are a lot of things you can do to become a happy person like practicing gratitude and maintaining important relationships, however, you also have a lot of time on this Earth. And how you spend your time contributes to your quality of life. Greek Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, once said that the ongoing pursuit of achievement and validation withholds us from acquiring something far superior: a blissful state unchanged by the whims of unreliable outside circumstances including opinions of others. Unfortunately, society puts a lot of toxic expectations and pressure on people to be rich, famous, and to prioritize work over everything else. If you truly want to be happy, you need to do what makes you happy—it’s that simple. Not what makes you cool, what your friends or society expect you to be, or what your parents want you to do; do what you enjoy. It could just be one small quirky thing or it could be many things. What makes you happy could also change over time. The way to know if something makes you happy is if you can effortlessly spend hours doing it and it leaves you fulfilled. When it’s fun yet challenging and promotes self-growth. As long as it doesn’t harm yourself or others, it doesn’t matter what it is. If it makes you happy, spend your time on that and you will live a good life.