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Personal Wisdom: Making Sense of You, Others and the Meaning of Life Updated Edition, Advanced Life Skills

Robert Brown

Personal Thoughts

Great read on personal growth, fundamental goals, and self-value. I really enjoyed his explanation and idea of scripts, which caused me to do some deep thinking and reflection about my own life and choices. I liked how for many of the main ideas he presented, he gave specific stories to illustrate how those concepts play out, which made it easy to understand.

Summary Notes

  • “No one,” he said, “asks how long a book is. We want to know how good, how interesting, how worthwhile it is.” He said our friend may have had a short life, but it was of value because of his contributions to the community and his many loving relationships.
  • Do you think your life should have meaning? Do you think others’ lives have meaning? What makes your life important? How much time do you spend watching TV? How much time do you spend cleaning your house? Is your value found in your pants size, your income, or how smooth your skin feels? Is it better to talk than to listen, consume rather than share, or imagine rather than act?   How much time should you spend working compared to eating, sleeping, relaxing, drinking a nice wine and making love? What would you do today if you knew you would die tomorrow?
  • According to mythology, Zeus ordered Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship, to create the first woman, Pandora, out of clay. She was endowed with wonderful attributes by all the gods and was given a box with the warning never to open it. But her natural curiosity got the better of her and one day she lifted the lid. Out flew the many ravages of man: war, greed, crime, hate, pain, sorrow and many more. She slammed down the lid before everything could escape. One remained, pleading to be let free. Luckily for us, she lifted the lid again and gave freedom to hope. Perhaps only love is its equal in creating meaning in life.
  • “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; Seek what they sought.” Matsuo Basho
  • Unless you are aware of your assumptions about yourself and the world around you, your life path can be a series of blind alleys or blind luck.
  • Look how a simple assumption can fool science. There is a classic experiment in psychology that compares “smart” and “dumb” rats. The scientist creates two groups of regular lab rats, A and B, of ten each. He labels Group A as the smart group and B as the dumb group or vice versa, it doesn’t matter. Then he goes to a graduate student he wants to fool and says, “Group A has been bred for intelligence and Group B has not. I want you to find out how much smarter the smart rats are in learning a maze.” And, as we’ve learned from research, the “smart” group seems to learn the maze faster. This happens because the graduate student expects it to happen.
  • Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, popularized this idea as personal “scripts.” Over time, from personal experiences and cultural expectations, a person formulates how his life should be, what Berne called his script, and goes about making sure he plays the appropriate part. This script has nothing to do with reality or even fate, it is what we unconsciously decided should happen and we behave and interpret life in a way that makes this script come true.
  • Each of us has dozens of subtler and much more influential rules buried in our subconscious. A woman client and I worked together for weeks before we learned why she continued to stay with a man who physically abused her. We figured out that one of her buried rules was “If your marriage doesn’t work, you’re a failure as a woman.” A second rule was “If you’re not married, you’re not lovable.”
  • One evening, Ted, a twenty-eight-year-old single man, was sprawled on the living room floor of his apartment, watching a boring late-night movie when sleepiness overtook him. About ten minutes after he went to bed, a speeding auto crashed through the living room window, ran over where he had been lying, and ended up in smoke and a deafening roar as the tires kept spinning in his kitchen. That was quite a trauma of noise and smoke and what might have happened had he stayed to watch the end of the movie. For about three weeks afterwards, as nighttime approached, he had a sense of urgency or anxiety in his stomach, his muscles tightened, and he felt afraid. His emotions were concocting the rule that “Evil lurks in the dark of night” or something like that. What he suffered was a trauma-induced phobic reaction. His feelings created a new rule for him to be on the alert for danger when night fell.
  • The reason your roots grow so deep is that the basic function of cultural rules is to ensure the survival of the group, not the individual. What this means is your personal life will be shaped to support the group: your needs and goals will take a back seat to group needs.
  • Adult children of alcoholics are often victims of parental rules gone sour, which can cause significant damage to the family for generations.
  • The more you are aware of these social forces and the more you create your own set of rules, the more you add to your personal wisdom. You gain wisdom with each independent decision. You gain wisdom with mistakes, with sharing your point-of-view, and with every attempt to be true to yourself.
  • Worthiness is partly accepting sincere compliments, but mostly it’s the giving of yourself to others. Have you received any compliments this week that gave you a sense of worthiness? Have you said or done something to others this week that might have contributed to their feeling worthiness? You can add to your worthiness by accepting good wishes from others and freely giving them out yourself.
  • Your worthiness is determined by what you do, especially what you do for others. Lost your job? Depressed? Lonely? Is your sense of worthiness anemic? Do something nice for someone. Pick up a piece of trash on the sidewalk and put it in the trashcan. Say “thank you” more than usual. Volunteer at any of a hundred different places within a few miles of your house. Contribute to the welfare of others and your sense of worthiness will grow tenfold.
  • Values create meaning. Meaning creates a life of value.
  • Values should include things like meaning, happiness, joy, success, excitement, achievements, fun, significance, other people, your environment—everything you think is important. Have your values changed since you were younger? Should your values change?
  • We all get up best in the morning when there is something waiting we really want to do, like plant the garden, play tennis, attend a concert, or hold somebody’s hand. Did you include this sort of thing in your values? They may not be significant in the grand scheme of things, but they are in your life.
  • The Seven Billion Rule says that what you think and feel is valid, and what other people think and feel is also valid whether or not they agree with you or you with them.
  • The Iceberg Rule means you don’t know a whole lot about yourself and others, only the most visible part—and that’s okay. It also tells us we should be more accepting of our mistakes and of others making mistakes, to be open to advice and to be comfortable with ambiguity.
  • The Two-Cents Rule is that most people are working hard to reach reasonable goals and if what they’re doing looks stupid, obnoxious, etc., give them two cents worth of credibility until you learn more. And do the same for yourself. If you’ve done something hard to understand or made a dumb mistake, give yourself the benefit of the doubt until you figure it out.
  • You are like the three-of-hearts in the deck of cards of life. The metaphor is valid in many ways: you are one part of a group, your role and value change according to the game being played and you sometimes are shuffled around by forces beyond your control. But you are a unique individual in spite of being part of a larger whole. This is important because your definition of the best life will be and should be different from everyone else’s. It will have elements like others, sure, but it will be specific to your interests, talents, values, experience, and a host of other things.
  • THE SNAKE RULE (A STORY)   Once upon a time, a traveler happened upon a snake in the road. As it was a cold day in the middle of winter, the snake was nearly frozen and nearly dead. Taking pity on one of God’s creatures, the traveler picked up the snake and put it under his heavy coat, hoping the warmth of his body might save the poor animal. After only a half-mile he could feel the snake stirring under his coat. He smiled, for perhaps his gesture may have saved it. Then he felt a sharp pain. He grabbed the snake and threw it on the ground. In just seconds he could feel the poison seeping through his body. He looked down at the snake in bewilderment. “Why did you bite me,” he asked the snake. “I saved your life.” The snake shrugged its tiny shoulders and replied, “I’m a snake.” The lesson here is snakes will tend to act like snakes no matter what you expect them to be like and they will act like snakes no matter how wonderful your intentions.
  • The key concept of personal goals is to understand what you want and to know the issues and hurdles (mostly your roots and the wind) that must be sorted out. Make sure the issues and goals are yours. Don’t make the mistake of comparing your life goals with those of anyone else unless it is to learn something. An ideal goal does not have to measure up to the success of someone else’s life. You do not have to achieve as much, as quickly, as easily, or anything else that another person has done.
  • Goals that work best have three characteristics:   Measurable (include time frame) Interesting (and rewarding) Not too easy (and not too hard)   Goals should be defined as short term, intermediate, and long-term. Having clear goals and methods makes reaching them more likely. 
  • Do not rush forward to your goals but enjoy moving toward them.
  • Achieving something important or significant is not the only kind of goal. Enjoy yourself during the time you have.
  • As you list goals, things you will do, ways to enjoy a sense of worthiness and all the other activities of living, try to do just a little better today than you did yesterday. You can do this by taking that extra step that presents itself each day. Hold open a door for someone or sign up to give blood when you never have before. Do one more good thing each day,
  • There is little cause and effect in human existence. You cannot make someone love you. You will not become rich just because you work hard. There are no secrets to happiness. There are no three things you can do that will guarantee your popularity. There is no one best way to lose weight and be healthy. God may or may not respond to your personal requests. Your government may or may not help you after a disaster. The novel you just started may or may not end the way you want it to.
  • Avoiding stress requires planning.
  • Serenity is accepting the world, accepting our limited power in the world, and accepting that doing all we can do is enough no matter what the outcome.
  • SLIPPERY SLOPE MOMENTS   Small decisions, which one by one over time define who we are; we shall call Slippery Slope types in honor of the venerable Jacob Marley. No matter how small, each subsequent decision adds consequences. Simple decisions like driving fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit do a lot of things: increase the probability of an accident each time; provide a bad example for others in the car; and even, in its own small way, mocks conservation efforts by excessive fuel consumption and extra wear and tear on the car. Here are a few examples of Slippery Slope defining moments:     Practicing unsafe sex, how you respond when a young child is upset, how you handle a compliment or a criticism, what you do when cut off by another car, what you do if you’re wrong
  • A few Deal-With-It defining moments are:   You earn the family income in a job you hate and a better, but lower paying job becomes available, A co-worker you like is stealing from the company, You’re busy and someone needs a favor, You find a wallet containing $600
  • Go-For-It defining moments are those our actions create.
  • Some examples of Go-For-It moments are:     Telling someone what you really think of them, Saying “I love you” when you feel it, Reaching out to someone in need, Committing to a cause, Choosing your attitude when you get out of bed
  • Maybe forty years ago, my brother-in-law Dan told me a story that stuck in my mind. When he was a kid, Dan spent the late summer on his grandparents’ farm complete with an apple orchard, a wide wooden porch and a filled to overflowing apple barrel. Like most people, his grandparents lived very much by their roots. They would often say, “One rotten apple spoils the rest.” And they told Dan he should eat the apples that were going bad before they spoiled all the good ones in the barrel. Shaking his head and laughing, Dan told me that in all the summers he visited the farm, he never once had a good apple. Many of us think we care about ourselves, yet we are not so good at doing it. We never eat that good apple. Rationalizing, postponing, self-bargaining, and a multitude of other mental gymnastics often impede our taking care of our needs. The goal is to end every day satisfied with yourself.
  • Here are ten ways you might try to help you do that.   Judge yourself honestly, but not harshly. Don’t judge others at all. Keep an eye on the future while you live in the moment. Do everything, except smiling, in moderation. Drive your car, eat, drink, and exercise as if your life depended on it. Appreciate kids for who they are and who they can become. Every day do something that challenges you, do something nice for someone, and talk to someone you care about. Gaze at the sky as often as you can. Tell selected others the truth about yourself. Learn to hug really well.   Or, if you wish, make a list that works better for you. 

Personal Wisdom: Making Sense of You, Others and the Meaning of Life Updated Edition, Advanced Life Skills

Robert Brown
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