Creating Impeccable Structure for Your Life

There’s a strange contradiction in most of our lives:

We deeply feel the messiness of our lives. We feel it in all areas of our lives, which stresses us out and causes us to shut down, feel overwhelmed, run to distraction and comforts. It creates tremendous uncertainty for us.

But …

We resist sticking to structure and routine. We want to have a great order to our lives, but when it comes to actually following it, we struggle. It feels too rigid, too constricting. So we immediately toss the plan aside and start free-forming it, answering messages and going to distractions and reading or watching things online. This creates even more uncertainty, not being able to stick to structure.

This contradiction might not be universal, but it’s present for a lot of people. I would guess that a majority of people reading this feel a struggle between these two things.

Now, I don’t think you can get control and order over everything in your life — life is inherently messy and uncertain, and all attempts to make it ordered and certain are fundamentally futile. It’s often more helpful to practice mindfully with the uncertainty rather than try to control it.

That said, this is not an all-or-nothing choice. We can create structure and practice with uncertainty. We can even create structure for our uncertainty practice. And we can learn to be unattached to the structure, so that if we have to do a day or week without it, we can be perfectly OK.

Two Reasons to Create Structure

There are two major (interrelated) effects that we feel from this struggle with structure and messiness:

  1. The messiness of our lives causes us to be messy. When we have a huge mess around us, it’s hard to be impeccable. It’s hard to be focused. It’s hard to really put our best effort into our meaningful work. We are greatly affected by everything around us, and by any kind of messiness in our lives. That doesn’t mean we should strive for perfection, but instead that we should recognize the effects of this messiness on us.
  2. Lack of structure creates a lack of trustability. When our lives are completely unstructured and messy, it’s hard for others to trust us. If you were to go into business with someone whose office and life were a huge mess, vs. someone whose office and life seemed to be in impeccable order … all other things being equal, who would you choose? This messiness is felt by our spouses or partners, felt by friends and other loved ones, felt by our colleagues and bosses, felt by our clients, even if they can’t completely see it. And we feel it ourselves, and it erodes our trust in ourselves.

None of this is reason to freak out or beat yourself up. It’s just bringing awareness to the effects of lack of structure. And maybe resolving to create more impeccable structure with time.

Creating Impeccable Structure

Once we’ve resolved to create structure in our lives, it’s important to recognize that this is a process, not a destination. You never do it and then are done with it — it’s an ongoing process.

What does that process look like? Here’s what I do:

  1. Recognize when a part of my life is messy and could use more structure. I list some of those areas below, but the important thing is to notice the feeling of messiness in an area, and resolve to try to create better structure.
  2. Contemplate a structure that would give you a feeling of trust. For example, if you are not staying on top of your emails, you could create a structure as simple as, “Check email at 10am, 1pm and 5pm only, and process each email out of the inbox to empty, or as close to empty as possible in 20 minutes.” If this would make you feel a sense of trust that emails would be taken care of, it’s a good structure. You may need to test it out (see below). Take a little time, disconnected and in solitude, to contemplate this structure.
  3. Write out the structure, then put it somewhere you’ll see it. Once you’ve give it some contemplation, actually write it down — either on paper or in a text document. Make sure it’s somewhere you’ll see it when you need it. If you write it down and then forget it, it’s of no use.
  4. Put it into action, as a practice. This is the key step — actually test out the structure by using it. See if it works. See if it makes you feel a sense of trust. See where the flaws are, and adjust as needed. Do this structure not as a chore, but as a practice, seeing if you can relax into it, surrender to it.
  5. Revisit and revise on a regular basis. Even if the structure is good, you’re not done. It’s like a machine, humming along — eventually it will break. It needs maintenance. You need to adjust as your life changes and you change. You’ll need to make it more impeccable when your life demands it. Every month or two, revisit and revise. At the very least, revisit every 6 months (set reminders in your calendar).

I’m constantly revisiting my structures, and revising them, especially when I feel it’s needed.

Examples of Structure

Some areas of your life that might be messy and in need of structure:

  • Daily structure. How do you want to structure your day? It doesn’t have to be super planned out and rigid, but you might have something simple … for example: a simple morning routine, then a block for important tasks in the morning, email, important tasks, admin tasks, email, work closing routine, exercise, meditation, evening routine. For others, a more detailed structure might be important. For others, an even looser structure might be better. Or one that is different on different days.
  • Financial structure. How do you stay on top of your finances? Create a system so that you are tracking your spending on a regular basis, and have a plan for how to spend it.
  • Communication. How are you handling email and messages? You might carve out time in your regular schedule so that you’re on top of email and messages, without being overwhelmed by it or doing it all day long.
  • Relationship(s). How are you working on your relationship? Do you have regular dates or time you spend each day together? Do you have counseling or getaways to focus on you as a couple? Maybe you’re not in a relationship — how do you stay in touch with your closest friends and family? How do you make sure you stay close to them, or go even deeper?
  • Health. How will you stay active? What will you eat to give yourself a thriving healthy life? How will you stay on top of both of these areas?
  • Household & personal maintenance. How does the laundry get done? Groceries and menu? Cleaning the house? Taking care of yourself (grooming, etc.)?
  • Physical surroundings. How messy is your house, your office? Is it cluttered? How does all of this affect your mental state?

These are some important examples, but you might have other areas in your life that feel messy. Wherever you’d like to feel more trust and order, that’s a place to contemplate & write out some structure.

Practicing with Uncertainty Within and Without the Structure

Once we’ve created the structure, there are two ways to practice with it:

  1. Working with the uncertainty & resistance of having structure. If you feel yourself rebelling against having structure, you can practice with the uncertainty of that.
  2. Working with the uncertainty when we’re not in the structure. You won’t always be able to stay within your structure — some days will go sideways, other things will come up. In those times, you can practice with the uncertainty of not being in your structure.

Let’s first talk about working with resistance to having structure.

Resistance to having structure: When you set up a structure for yourself, it might sound nice … but then when it comes time to actually doing it, you might feel constricted. You might feel uncertainty about whether you can do it or if it’s the right structure. Or if you should be doing something else instead. This is uncertainty & resistance of having the structure itself.

This is actually perfect! The structure, instead of eliminating uncertainty from your life, gives you a space to practice with the uncertainty. Instead of letting yourself flop all over the place (without structure), you’re asking yourself to courageously confront your discomfort and uncertainty.

The practice is to stay in the discomfort of having structure, and play with it. Feel the resistance, but don’t run. Let yourself open up to the feeling, be immersed in it, be mindful of it in your body. And find a way to appreciate this space, be curious about it, grateful and even joyful in the middle of it. Then play with whatever you have set for yourself to do! Instead of running from the structure, relax into it. It’s an amazing practice.

Uncertainty when we’re not in the structure: If you are used to having structure, what happens when you can’t use it? For example, maybe visitors come over and you can’t do your regular routine? Or you travel, have a crisis at work, have a crisis at home, or have social functions to go to that disrupt your regular schedule and structure?

This is also perfect! It’s an opportunity to practice letting go of the need for structure, and be present in the moment, deciding what’s needed next.

For example, you might be traveling, and your structure is out the window  … but you wake up and decide you still want to meditate, so you meditate for a few minutes in your hotel room. Then you decide you need to do a little work, and you do that before you head out for the day. You find a window at lunch time to catch up on messages. Before you go to bed, you find a window to do some writing. You are flowing, but not just letting everything go, you’re finding focus and purpose in the middle of chaos.

The same could apply if you are in a crisis, have visitors, etc.

This doesn’t mean it’s better to have no structure — for most people, a default structure is going to be helpful, but it’s not helpful to only be able to work and function when you have structure.

Adjusting & Learning with Structure

All of the above is great, but setting up structure once isn’t a “set it and forget it” type of deal. You are going to work with this structure on an ongoing basis.

You will learn as you work with the structure whether it works for you, whether you have needs that aren’t met by the structure, whether you forgot to include things.

For example:

  • A client created a schedule for himself but then discovered that he was very tired, because his structure didn’t include enough time for rest. So he could adjust it so that he has a sign-off time to ensure he gets enough sleep. Or he could build an afternoon nap period into the structure.
  • Another client discovered that she was overloaded with too much on her task list. So she learned that it’s better to pare down her expectations of how much she can get done.
  • I personally have found that the landscape of my day is constantly changing, not always very consistent. So I have a structure for when I have a wide-open day with only one or two meetings, but otherwise I create a structure at the beginning of the day depending on what I have going on that day … or I figure things out on the fly if my day is shifting during the day.
  • You might find that you need to move something to the morning to give it more focus. Or move exercise to the afternoon to conserve energy. Or have a different structure for different days.

The point is, you learn and adjust. It’s an ongoing refinement. You can make it better and better, and more and more impeccable, with some care and attention.

Structure is worth the effort, because you can learn to relax into the structure. The people around you can trust you more, and relax into your structure as well. And the structure becomes a way to practice with the uncertainty, resistance and discomfort that inevitably arises in your life.

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How Government Programs Ruined Childhood

An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” offers disheartening data about childhood depression and anxiety, closely linked to school attendance, as well as the disturbing trend away from childhood free play and toward increasing schooling, standardization, and control.

“STEM, standardized testing and active-shooter drills have largely replaced recess, leisurely lunches, art and music,” says the writer Kim Brooks, who is the author of the book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.

While many of Brooks’s insights are spot-on, the undertones of her article make clear that she is focused on the collective “it takes a village” narrative of childrearing. Indeed, her book praises “the forty-one industrialized nations that offer parents paid maternity leave—to say nothing of subsidized childcare, quality early childhood education, or a host of other family supports” (p. 50).

The assertion is that most parents are desperate and alone and they must rely on government programs to help raise their children. She writes in her article:

The work of raising children, once seen as socially necessary labor benefiting the common good, is an isolated endeavor for all but the most well-off parents. Parents are entirely on their own when it comes to their offspring’s well-being…No longer able to rely on communal structures for child care or allow children time alone, parents who need to work are forced to warehouse their youngsters for long stretches of time.

This narrative is backwards. It was the expansion of government programs, particularly in education, that weakened the family, led many parents to abdicate responsibility for their children’s upbringing, and caused them to increasingly rely on government institutions to do the job for them. These institutions, in turn, grew more powerful and more bloated, undermining the family and breeding contempt for parental authority. What may seem like a charitable endeavor to help families ends up crippling parents and emboldening the state. As President Ronald Reagan reminded us: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Brooks knows better than many of us the terror associated with granting the state more power: Her book details her harrowing ordeal of being accused of child neglect and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for leaving her child alone in a car for five minutes while she ran a quick errand. The village shouldn’t be in charge of raising children; parents should.

So how did we get here? While the seeds of mounting state power and institutionalization were sown in the 19th century and spread throughout the 20th, it was Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson who dramatically accelerated these efforts in 1964-1965 with his “Great Society” legislation. One of the most consequential effects of Johnson’s Great Society proposal was getting Congress to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) which gave unprecedented control of education to the federal government, mainly through the funding of a variety of government programs. In fact, expanding the government’s role in education was a stated goal of the Great Society plan. As Johnson himself stated: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” (Heaven forbid a child be unschooled!)

The result of Johnson’s plan was the establishment and enlargement of programs such as Head Start, which was initiated in 1965 to provide government preschool and nutrition programs to low-income children. Despite billions of dollars spent on the federal Head Start program over the last half-century (the annual Head Start budget is over $10 billion in 2019), the results have been disappointing. As researchers at the Brookings Institute noted, the most in-depth studies of Head Start show that any initial gains disappeared by the end of kindergarten. More troubling, by third grade the children in the Head Start program were found to be more aggressive and have more emotional problems than children of similar backgrounds who did not attend Head Start.

Not only are these outcomes concerning for the children involved, they also indicate how government programs can strain family relationships. Notably, it was the parents of the Head Start children who said their children were more aggressive than non-Head Start children of similar backgrounds, suggesting that parental bonds could be compromised at the same time that government early learning programs could foster maladaptive social behaviors. When parents, not government, are in charge of determining a child’s early learning environment they may rely on informal, self-chosen networks of family and friends, thus building social capital in their communities, or they may choose from among various private preschool options where they retain control over how their child learns. If parents are not satisfied, they can leave. When government increasingly controls early childhood programs, reliance on family members, friends, and other private options fades. Grandma is no longer needed, and she becomes less of an influence in a child’s life and learning and less of a support system for her daughter or son.

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Johnson’s Great Society plan had other consequences that served to weaken family roles and strengthen government. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 greatly expanded the National School Lunch Program, allocating additional funding and adding school breakfasts. While no one wants a child to go hungry, relying on government programs to feed children can cause poor health outcomes, strip parents of their essential responsibilities, weaken informal family and community support systems, and lead parents to hand over even more control of childrearing to the government.

Perhaps the most far-reaching impact on education of Johnson’s Great Society was the lasting legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that paved the way for ongoing and amplified federal involvement in education. It was the ESEA that was reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that led to the standardization of schooling through Common Core curriculum frameworks, as well as regular testing. No Child Left Behind morphed into the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, again a reauthorization of Johnson’s ESEA, that tried to shift some curriculum standard-setting to states but retained regular testing requirements under federal law.

In her weekend op-ed, Brooks laments the increasing role of regimented schooling in children’s lives. She writes:

School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade. Young children are assigned homework even though numerous studies have found it harmful.

She is absolutely correct, and the culprit is increasing government control over American education through the ongoing reauthorization and expansion of federal education programs. Longer, more regimented, more standardized, more test-driven schooling is a direct consequence of the government’s education policy.

The inevitable result of these expanded government powers is less control over education by parents. As parents lose this control, they cede more authority to government bureaucracies, which in turn grow more powerful and more bloated while parents get weaker and more vulnerable.

I agree that childhood is being ruined, as children play less, stress more, and find themselves in institutional learning environments for most of their childhood and adolescence. I also agree that the problem is getting worse. The solution, however, is to weaken government and strengthen families, not vice versa. Put families back in charge of a child’s education. Grant parents the respect and responsibility they rightfully deserve. Remember that the government’s role is to secure our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not to determine what those pursuits are.

Childhood is being ruined and parents are the only ones who can save it.

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Socialism Sucks, and Everyone Ought to Know It

Today my friends Bob Lawson and Ben Powell have released their new Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World.  Intellectually, EconLog readers will know the score, but Socialism Sucks embeds good economics and economic history within an irreverent travelogue.  Modern socialist rhetoric is so ahistorical and otherworldly that it’s great to hear reports about what North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba are actually like.  Along the way, Lawson and Powell thoughtfully explore the whole “That’s not real socialism” slogan. Quick version: Contrary to First World socialists, it’s the hell-states that are real socialism, and the success stories of Scandinavia that are fake socialism.

I actually had the privilege of workshopping the draft of this book.  Some of the attendees urged Bob and Ben to rewrite the book to appeal to young progressives, but I insisted that this was a task for a completely different book.  Socialism Sucks speaks to people with common sense and a sense of humor who simply don’t know much about socialism.  That includes 95% of American conservatives, who normally have negative feelings about the socialist label but who couldn’t tell you about the Holodomor, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, or the Laogai, much less the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Killing Fields.  Talk radio is going to try to angry up its listeners anyway, so it might as well angry them up against smug nostalgia for a totalitarian idea that murdered over a hundred million people and reduced dozens of nations to slavery while claiming to be the greatest of heroes and humanitarians.

Do Lawson and Powell really think that young self-styled American socialists are plotting mass murder?  Do I? My answer, at least, is, “I severely doubt it, but I shouldn’t have to wonder.”  When activists gush about the glories of socialism as if the Soviet Union never existed, all people of common decency should be horrified.  The right response to the slogan, “We want Sweden, not Venezuela” really is, “The Venezuelans didn’t want Venezuela either, but that’s what they got.”

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The Discouraged Suitor

Labor economists occasionally have a crisis of faith.  After years of scrutinizing the unemployment rate, they suddenly remember… discouraged workers.  Who are they?  They’re people who want a job, but aren’t officially unemployed because they aren’t actively searching for work.

This is a serious problem – and a serious flaw with official unemployment rates.  True, we should not forget the Prideful Worker Effect – the workers who say they want a job, but refuse to do any job for which they’re genuinely qualified.  But if you take introspection half as seriously as I do, you can hardly deny that lots of people find job search extremely demoralizing.  When your whole ego and sense of self are on the line,  one needs Stoic determination to keep looking in the face of multiple rejections.  Every parent has seen even the sweetest of children surrender to despair.  Does anyone seriously believe that human beings cease to have these emotions by their eighteenth birthday?

Happily, there’s a silver lining: If you ever become a worker, strong social norms rise to your defense.  Imagine you fail to find a job.  If anyone mocks your failure, virtually everyone will take your side.  The same applies if a bystander snarks, “I guess your very best just isn’t good enough, haha.”  Until you finally land a job, parents, friends, and total strangers will share a bounty of comfort, hope, and friendly advice on how to do better.

Yes, you may prefer to brood alone.  Social norms, however, insist that discouraged workers need to be encouraged even if they don’t want to be encouraged.  If you say, “I can’t find a job,” you will hear a barrage of questions: “Where have you looked?”  “Are you using social media?”  “Maybe you’re aiming too high?”  “Have you asked your friend, Jim?”  Or even: “The economy’s picking up; have you tried re-applying anywhere?”  You’ll also enjoy an abundant supply of truisms: “You’ve got to keep trying,” “We all fail, but you can’t give up hope,” and “There’s no harm in asking.”  A tad annoying, but these questions are the expression of a valuable social norm: Encourage the discouraged.

Once you take the plight of the Discouraged Worker to heart, you might wonder, “Are there any major analogous social ills that I’ve also overlooked?”  The first that comes to my mind is what I call the Discouraged Suitor.  Lonely people normally search for a mate; they’re analogous to the conventional unemployed.  Some lonely people, however, are analogous to Discouraged Workers.  Such people want to find love, but the dating experience is so depressing they stop trying.

Denying the existence of Discouraged Suitors is as dogmatic as denying the existence of Discouraged Workers.  In both cases, people face a challenge of epic proportions: convince an employer to hire you… or convince a stranger to love you.  When the stakes are this high, failure is scary.  Unsurprisingly, then, we commonly respond to failure with despair: “I’ll never find a job” or “I’ll never find love.”  Discouraged Workers silently endure deep feelings of uselessness.  Discouraged Workers silently endure deep feelings of loneliness.

There is however one major difference: Social norms on the treatment of Discouraged Suitors are none-too-supportive.  Parents and friends naturally urge the lonely to persist in the pursuit of true love: “There’s someone out there for everyone!”  Yet social norms have also long allowed public mockery of the socially awkward and unattractive: “You’re 25 and never had a girlfriend, heh!”  In recent years, moreover, norms against sexual harassment have become stricter and vaguer.*  Is asking a co-worker out on a date sexual harassment?  What about asking twice?  Sure, the probability that you will be fired for one vague affront remains low.  The typical Discouraged Suitor, however, is already petrified of rejection.  When the norm shifts from “Let them down easy” to “Zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” many lonely people choose the safe route of silent sorrow.

Personally, none of this affects me.  I met my wife when I was nineteen, and have never dated anyone else.  Along the way, though, I have met many silently suffering lonely souls.  If Discouraged Workers deserve sympathy, don’t Discouraged Suitors deserve the same?  Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that Discourage Suitors have a right to be loved or even liked.  Like everyone else, however, they should be treated with good manners.  Indeed, since Discouraged Suitors rarely speak up on their own behalf, should we not make an extra effort to consider their feelings?

* Morrissey, one of my favorite singers, has said made multiple inflammatory comments on sexual harassment, but there’s a kernel of truth here: “Anyone who has ever said to someone else, ‘I like you,’ is suddenly being charged with sexual harassment.  You have to put these things into the right relations. If I can not tell anyone that I like him, how would they ever know?”

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National Polls Don’t Mean Much; Here’s Why

“Here we go with the Fake Polls,” President Donald Trump tweeted on July 15.  “Just like what happened with the Election against Crooked Hillary Clinton.” He’s complaining about several polls that show him losing the national popular vote to various Democratic presidential aspirants, in some cases by double digits.

He has a point. In 2016, most polls showed Hillary Clinton winning handily and most Americans seem surprised when Trump emerged victorious.

On the other hand, Trump’s future isn’t quite as indisputably bright as he’d have you believe.

We’re looking at two separate problems.

The first problem is the false perception that there’s a “national popular vote” or, concomitantly, “winning nationally.” There isn’t.

The second problem is that in recent years polling techniques just haven’t produced very accurate results.

First, the “national popular vote”:  Hillary Clinton received more votes nationwide than Trump did in 2016, but lost the election because all of each state’s electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote in that state (except Nebraska and Maine, which apportion their electoral votes by congressional district). A narrow win in a state gets you exactly as many electoral votes as a landslide and vice versa.

Clinton won California, beating Trump by more than 4 million votes. Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than Trump nationwide. But Trump racked up 304 electoral votes to her 227 with small-margin wins in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Nationally, the election turned on fewer than 80,000 individual votes in those last three states.

That’s how it works. A “national” poll can’t tell us who will win a presidential election because it doesn’t capture the relevant data.

Second, the problem with polling as such: Pollsters are having a harder time identifying and reaching representative samples of likely voters who willingly share their preferences.

In 2016, I predicted (six months in advance) that Trump would win Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Friends told me I was crazy to think he’d win any of those states. He won them all — and with them, the election.

My formula for predicting the outcome those states was simple: I believed that any state in which Clinton didn’t enjoy at least a 5% polling advantage would go for Trump, because Trump was activating a demographic — rural Republicans — that was going to turn out at much higher than usual levels but that pollsters weren’t reaching.

What’s Trump’s 2020 problem? A few tens of thousands of Democratic votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and possibly Florida would enough to reverse the Electoral College outcome.

In 2016, Trump was at the top of his turnout game and the Democrats were at the bottom of theirs. He has nowhere to go but down. They have nowhere to go but up.

My prediction: Trump won’t win any states in 2020 that he didn’t win in 2016. The question is how many states (and thus how many electoral votes) the Democratic nominee can wrench from his grasp. Two would be enough, if one of them is Florida. Without Florida, it would take three.

It’s closer than it looks, folks.

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How to Deschool Yourself for Success and Satisfaction

Most of us spent at least 15,000 hours of our childhood and adolescence being schooled before we turned 18. Now in adulthood, we may need to unlearn some of what we were taught and embrace self-education for career success and personal fulfillment.

Much of what we learned in school was dictated by others, disconnected from our own passions and proclivities. We were taught what to learn, and we learned to be taught. With self-education, we take back control of our own learning, exploring topics and skills that matter to us, free from coercion. In many ways, pursuing self-education is the difference between learning in a library and in a school. A library offers abundant resources to support our learning, including tangible and digital tools, optional classes, and helpful facilitators, but it is free from compulsion. Unlike K-12 schooling, we are not required to learn there under a legal threat of force. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, winner of the 2015 National Book Award:

I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. (p. 48)

Granted the freedom to learn, our true talents and ambitions can begin to emerge. But first, we need to deschool ourselves and shed some of the common myths we may have internalized about learning that could get in the way of our self-education and related success:

Myth #1: Color Inside the Lines

One of the first things most of us learned as a tot when we stepped into a classroom is to color inside the lines. Follow instructions, be neat, do what everyone else does. Now as we embrace self-education and discover our full human potential, we need to do the opposite. If everyone is coloring in the lines, we should be coloring outside of them. We should be looking at opportunities for creativity, not conformity. What do we see that no one else does? Where is the market possibility there? Coloring outside the lines may be messy, but it can lead to original ideas and novel inventions that make our lives and those around us better off.

Myth #2: Ask for Permission

In school, we quickly learn to ask for permission. Obedience is heartily rewarded, and non-compliance is swiftly punished. If we want to succeed at playing the game of school, we learn to be led. Now, as a self-directed learner with personal and professional goals, we need to be bold! If we wait around for permission to pursue those goals, we won’t get anywhere. Be intrepid.

Myth #3: Be Quiet and Stay Still

This schooled expectation is getting even worse than it was when many of us were kids. We were all taught to be quiet and stay still (especially when forming those straight lines in the hallway), but today young children are increasingly being diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD when they don’t keep still and remain attentive. Aside from the tragedy of medicalizing what, in many cases, is just normal childhood behavior, we become conditioned to stay passive.

But to achieve our audacious goals in adulthood, what we need more than anything is exuberance. We need to be constantly moving, constantly questioning, constantly exploring new pathways. Energy and agility are critical characteristics for achieving success in a fast-moving, always-changing world.

Myth #4: Don’t Read Ahead

Remember this one? We were often given reading assignments of certain pages or paragraphs with the warning to not read ahead. Now, of course, we need to be curious instead of compliant and seize all opportunities to read ahead! Digging deeply into topics that matter to us or reading a wide variety of different materials to broaden our worldview can help us to uncover our enthusiasms and crystallize our goals.

Myth #5. Winners Never Quit

One of the more pervasive myths we hang onto from childhood is the belief that we shouldn’t quit. Yet, some of the most successful people are those who stopped wasting their time and energy in jobs or activities that were not meaningful to them. As Rich Karlgaard, the longtime publisher of Forbes, writes in his new book Late Bloomers:

“How can the curious and creative, the searchers and explorers, jump off the dominant culture’s conveyor belt and begin shaping our own fates?” We do it by quitting. Quit the path we’re on. Quit the lousy job. Quit the class we hate. Quit the friends and associates who hurt us more than help. Quit the life we regret. (p. 148)

Myth #6. Failure Is Unacceptable

Failure can be as valuable as quitting. Contrary to what we were schooled to believe, failure is an important part of risk-taking and experimentation. If we spend our adulthood seeking only gold stars and Good Job! stickers, we may find only hollow rewards.

The first step in taking charge of your learning and livelihood is to shed these schooled myths and become adept at self-education. Trade conformity for creativity, obedience for curiosity, and compliance for exuberance. Don’t be afraid to quit or to fail. Setting your own path requires a great deal of coloring outside the lines. Don’t wait for the teacher or the buzzer to tell you when it’s time to go.

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