I turned 64 on July 16th and as The Beatles’ song rang through my mind (“When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now…”) I took a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned over the years. Here goes, in no particular order of importance.
#1. Don’t wait for a global pandemic to live your best life.
For decades I slogged through heavy traffic to commute into Boston to work at the ad agency I co-founded, Captains of Industry. I thought that being successful meant having employees and a nice office. It wasn’t until the pandemic struck and we closed down the office that I realized the full depth of just how miserable I’d been for a long time. When we closed the office and I began working from my home in Vermont I felt like I’d been let out of jail. No commuting. No management hassles. This morning, like a lot of mornings, I woke at 5 and went for a long swim. After breakfast I read a book to my grandson, and now I’m in my home office. This is good. Very, very good.
#2. Make health your job.
When I was running my agency at our Boston office I was so stressed out my health went into a downward spiral. I will spare you the details, but let’s just say it was incredibly awful. These days I have a to-do list on Google docs and at the top is whatever workout I have planned for that day. I feel great, I’m twice as productive than I was a few years ago, and I make more money.
#3. Being kind is the best investment you can make.
Coming back to The Beatles (they are after all still my favorite band), they sang “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” I’ve learned this lyric actually underestimates the value of generous love and kindness. When I’m kind to others it’s always returned in greater measure. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.
#4. There is no such thing as a Red or Blue State.
Have you ever been to a family gathering when one of your relatives (let’s call him Steve) finally leaves and as soon as he’s gone you say to your spouse, “Jeeze, can you believe that guy? Was he raised by wolves?” Then, a few months later, something challenging happens in your life and Steve is the first to call and offer to help. That’s what America is. We have our differences, but at the end of the day we are one big family. Often dysfunctional, but a family nevertheless.
#5. Creative ideas are all around us.
We just have to listen to find them. The main barrier to creativity is the mental clammer that usually buzzes around in our minds. When I meditate, I gradually calm down the brain buzz, and when I reach a quieter and more focused state all kinds of creative ideas reveal themselves to me. The ideas have been there all along, like puppies pawing at a door, and when distraction is gone the door opens. I keep a pad of paper handy to write down what the puppies tell me.
#6. The best feature on your smart phone is airplane mode.
Related to point #5, turning off the phone helps prevent distraction — the top plague of modern life.
#7. People who want you to worry about eating red meat or Cheetos are unhealthy to be around.
We can’t eat these things every day in mass quantities, but let’s bust loose now and then and enjoy ourselves without stressing about it. Have you had Cheetos lately? Yes, the day-glow color of Cheetos does not exist in nature, and the ingredients will never appear in any cookbook. But come on, they are indescribably crunchy and yummy. And a good steak, right off the grill, is a recipe for happiness.
#8. Our perception of time is tied to the quality of stories.
As a writer, I focus on telling a good story and don’t worry about making it too long. Horrible 90-minute movies are interminable. The original Godfather, at nearly 3 hours, is a classic that goes by in the blink of an eye.
#9. People won’t laugh if they are confused.
This is something John Cleese told me when I wrote a script for him, and he’s right. I later asked him how this lesson related to the concept of medieval knights “riding” around banging coconuts together. Why would audiences not find that confusing? The answer of course was that in that particular off-kilter world it all made perfect sense. The reason why many comedies are not funny is that they fail to establish a consistent and understandable universe that doesn’t confuse the audience.
#10. We are all connected in ways science does not yet explain.
My late Aunt Lois used to tell the story of a man named Willard Haskell that she knew in high school. In the Second World War he was a pilot stationed in England. One night she had a vivid dream that he was flying overhead in a squadron of bombers and he was leaning out the window of the cockpit waving goodbye. When Lois woke up that morning she learned that the D-Day landings were underway. Two weeks later she found out that Willard’s plane had been shot down on D-Day, at the same time she had the dream. The lesson: All the people we know and love are always with us in a vast and interconnected web that transcends time and space.
#11. Never let anyone put artificial limits on what you can or should do.
10 lessons was the original limit here, but who cares. One of the best things about the movie “This is Spinal Tap” is that the band’s amplifier goes to 11. So, turn up the volume. Go beyond the expected. Have a ball. Life is too short for anything less.