As I have mentioned previously, at one point while working on Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind, I started writing down distinct lessons I had learned that ultimately totaled around 400. To make them less unwieldy, I grouped them in more than a dozen categories. Earlier I have posted some of my favorite lessons in areas such as fund-raising, nonprofit management, building a great governing body, effective public speaking, being a contributing member of society (outside of work), travelling smart, and facilitating meetings. These are areas where I have experience and arguably, some hard-won wisdom to share. While some of these lessons appear in the book – and a few are spun out with illustrative stories – many of them were “left on the cutting room floor” so to speak. In all cases, these were mindsets and techniques that I used consistently for years, rather than simply things I had read about or observed others practice.
There were some additional lists on topics that I arguably don’t have any special professional expertise or training in, but that nonetheless felt meaningful for me and potentially useful to others. I have extracted sixteen of my top lessons that were originally grouped into one of the following categories: getting and staying healthy, financial well-being, and managing setback/crises.
1. Spend money liberally and without guilt on a few things that bring you joy, and be frugal in all other areas of your life. Periodically reevaluate whether the things you have been splurging on still bring you joy. If they don’t, scale back or discontinue spending freely in those areas, and splurge on other things that bring you more pleasure and satisfaction.
2. Start saving for retirement early. Max out your contributions to your 401K/403B retirement plans, IRAs, and other tax-free or tax-deferred vehicles. If you can’t do that, put away as much as you can. Make it an automatic deduction from your salary if possible, so you don’t have to think about it each month.
3. Exercise aerobically as many times per week as you can. Try to build up to working out six times per week for 45-90 minutes each time. Invest in a well-designed, comfortable and hardy stationary bike or treadmill for your home if that will help you maintain this during times when the weather makes it challenging to exercise outdoors. Once you have made exercise more convenient and habitual, you will probably experience stress relief and many other health benefits. Combine your formal exercise with as much walking, stair climbing, and other light activity as possible.
4. Add at least one new healthy habit per year, or break one unhealthy habit.
5. Spend as much time as possible around people who admire you, whom you learn from, and/or who make you laugh. Give yourself time to recover if you must spend time with people who are on the other end of the spectrum (i.e., they drain your energy, stress you out, or are otherwise unpleasant to be around).
6. Identify a primary care physician and stick with him or her unless you move or are dissatisfied. Have your doctor give you a full physical as often as he or she recommends. The same goes for seeing your dentist for regular cleanings. Push yourself to practice as much of what they recommend as possible, without falling into the trap of excessive self-reproach.
7. Don’t forget that the human body is a peculiar thing. Sometimes it aches or feels strange or does not respond as you are accustomed. Don’t panic, as it will probably right itself fairly quickly. Worrying only prolongs the episode. Obviously, if discomfort persists, see a trained health care professional.
8. Even if you aren’t a confident in the kitchen, learn to cook at least a few things that are reasonably healthy. Make big batches on the weekend that you can eat throughout the week. Realize that each time you make a dish, shopping for the ingredients, doing the prep work, and cooking it becomes easier, especially as you discover patterns and short-cuts. You don’t have to be a master chef to have 4-5 dishes you know how to make easily and that you and the people you live with enjoy. You’ll save money and be healthier, and cooking may become something of a meditation for you, a way of shifting from the pressures of the workday (or even weekend day) to a more relaxing evening with loved ones or alone.
9. Despite what some people may tell you, there is no “right” way to vacation, though not taking vacations at all makes no sense, especially for those who have demanding jobs. Find your favorite way or ways to vacation to replenish yourself, and then apply what you learn. What works as a vacation in one phase of your life may not work as well in other eras.
10. When you learn about what appears to be a setback, even one that feels significant, take a deep breath and recall some example of things in the past that initially appeared to be setbacks but that either (a) turned out to have been blessings, (b) were much less problematic than you initially imagined, and/or (c) turned out to be profound learning experiences. Then consider the possibility that this could be another one of them before getting too stressed out or responding prematurely and potentially unwisely.
11. Before delving into self-pity when faced with a crisis or setback, think about others who are impacted by it, or who may feel responsible for causing it. Then think about what you can say to them, do for them, or signal to them that will make them feel better, and ultimately more motivated to help address the situation. They will likely remember you turning your thoughts to them in that charged moment when others were thinking only or mainly about themselves.
12. Develop list of things you do or people you can be with that help replenish or support you after a setback, and then do things on (or spend time with those people on) that list when you experience one. Figure out what you did to cause the setback and let me people know that you recognize that you played a role, even if others were more responsible for it than you.
13. In a crisis, begin by taking at least one immediate step to improve or resolve the situation. This will give you a sense of agency and progress, even if what you are doing is not necessarily the most strategic or impactful thing that needs to be done to set things right. (Your reason for avoiding those more essential actions may be that you have not figured them out yet, or that doing them will be too draining or taxing for you at that early stage.) Give yourself time to discern what the most strategic things are and prepare to undertake them, even while you are making modest but tangible progress by doing whatever you decide to start with.
14. In stressful situations or crises, take deep breaths and do your best to remain calm. Observe your environment and quickly assess your options, rather than panicking. Resist the temptation to over-react by taking some dramatic, high risk action to resolve the situation in one fell swoop, or go to the other extreme by under-reacting, becoming passive (or even paralyzed).
15. When you find yourself in a crisis, quickly develop hypotheses about how you can survive it and then test those hypotheses however you can. Try to avoid doing that in ways that commit you to any particular course of action or that unnecessarily alarm people or build up their hopes unrealistically.
16. Congratulate yourself for any progress you make in resolving a setback or crisis, even if in small ways. Resist the temptation to rebuke yourself if you do something that temporarily makes it worse. Surround yourself with people who can practice these disciplines with you. When you have made progress in resolving the crisis, let people know – don’t assume that they recognize that the situation has improved.