Advice From the Fringes

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” – Steve Jobs

That may have been literal for Jobs, or it may have been metaphor. We’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. By many standards, he was an unimaginable success. But… It’s not difficult to find stories of people he terrorized on his way, or huge mistakes he swept under the carpet. He stepped on people, and he left this world earlier than was necessary. He made his own path. His way of thinking fit his specific type of genius. If you don’t have his type of genius, his advice likely won’t work for you, and if you do have genius, you’ll make your own path.

I don’t really think that people like Steve Jobs are the right ones to be taking advice from, personally or professionally. Most of us don’t have what it takes to be a Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Bill Gates, nor do we need to have it. That type of person isn’t in the norm. Most of us wouldn’t be happy in their shoes. Those in that select group are on the fringes of humanity. They are very rare, whatever the subject or vocation, and will have their own way of getting through life. Advice from others of their ilk isn’t what drives them, a voice inside their heads does.

If today were my last day on earth, would I be doing what I’m doing now. No. Of course not. Think carefully about your last 24 hours. Would you want to be at a job, any job? Would you care to save money? Would you put food in your refrigerator? Would you pay for the gas you just put into your car? My guess is that you’d find one person or a group of friends to be with, and one thing to do. It would be a day of very singular purpose.

What if you found that you have a week to live? Would the answer be different? With a week, you could get a lot more done and see a lot more people. You’d pay for the gas so you wouldn’t end up spending two days of that week in jail. You’d think about food a bit, and either wash or buy some clothes.

How about a month, a year, a decade, a lifetime? With three months, you might be able to live off of credit cards, but beyond that, you’d need income – a job. Each successively longer time period would allow for, and require, more long-term thinking. Some of the long-term activities would not be all that pleasant, but as a part of a whole, they enable the pleasant. Life is an accumulation, an averaging. It’s not a single event. It’s a lot of events that add up to a whole. We all have a lifetime. We just don’t know how long that lifetime will be.

Some pieces of advice, like “work hard”, or “don’t fear failure, learn from it” are more or less universal. That’s because advice doesn’t work in a vacuum. It works within a specific set of conditions. We are all surrounded by hard work and moments of failure (well, all normal people are), so “work hard” and “don’t fear failure…” work for most people. Beyond that, the real secret is in yourself.

To follow advice from Elon Musk, with the aspiration of becoming him, you’ll have to put in the massive amount of work time he does, you’ll have to get his education, take on his attitude – become him in entirety. That’s not realistic for someone that just wants a better salary, a more fulfilling job, and a more rewarding life.

If I look at the whole of my life today, and see something I don’t like, I need to change or adjust. Whether it’s big change, or a few small tweaks really depends on personality. If big change typically ends in failure, try small adjustments, and vice versa.

I don’t buy into the philosophy of live everyday as if it’s your last. To live everyday as if it’s your last is to say that you can never have a down day. It’s to say that you can never make a mistake, to never invest in the future, to never do something without short-term gain. I say live everyday as if it’s a small part of a great work of art. Today is a brush stroke – a pixel for those like like to think in digital terms. It is one part, working towards the whole.