The Four Most Important Things I Have Ever Learned

Posted On: March 24

I am currently going through all my blogs and looking for the ones to keep, update or remove. I ran across this one and was especially touched by all of the comments – there’s even one there from a very close friend who has since passed away. I hope you find value in these ideas, and add your own comments to the already impressive list.

In a few weeks, I will be facilitating a weekend retreat for an organization in my local community.  The theme of the retreat is “Self-leadership” and I will be delivering a very special class that I don’t often get to teach called “Strategies for Success.” It is basically an advanced life skills class, a superb opportunity to stop and take stock of your life and make sure that things are going in the right direction for what you hope to achieve in your life.  As part of the class, I have assigned some homework for each of the participants. I asked them to write down the four most important things they have ever learned in their lives.  I told them to imagine that if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, what four pieces of wisdom would they want to pass along to their family and friends. I thought that was a great question, so I wanted to share my answer with you.

1. You become what you focus on and similar to the people you surround yourself with.  

Whatever you fill your mind with, what you think about, watch, read, listen to… and whomever you chose to spend your time with, will in large part determine what your life will look like five years from today. And because information and people are the two strongest drivers of your future, you should take pro-active control of them as much as is humanly possible. Fill your mind with wonderful ideas, valuable knowledge, and uplifting information… and surround yourself with smart, talented and supportive people. Doing these two things consistently will have a huge positive impact on your life.

2. People do what seems easy and convenient in their lives, not what is best for them.  

We often know what we need to do to improve our lives, but many times it means making a tough decision or putting in a lot of hard work. Unfortunately, most people (myself sometimes included) do not want to make the hard decision or do the difficult work – so they pick the path of least resistance. They go with what is easy, what is convenient, what is right in front of them, what other people tell them to do or what everybody else seems to be doing. But that is not the right answer. Those who succeed in life are the ones that have the discipline and courage to do the tough things – they make the hard decisions. These people do what they know is absolutely the right thing for them to do – the best thing for their future – regardless of the difficulty or effort required.  A great life does not come about from chance, fate or good luck – it is a direct result of the decisions you make and the actions you take. That is why what you do today determines who you will be tomorrow.

3. If you work hard on your job, you will make a living.  If you work hard on yourself, you will make a life!

To this day it still surprises me how many people have absolutely no clear plan or direction for their lives. They hope that they will make more money, hope that they get a promotion, hope that they will have a good marriage, hope that they raise good kids, hope they will have a comfortable retirement… Hope is NOT a strategy! The people who enjoy a happy, successful, joyful and balanced life have that life because they have worked hard to create it.  They read, study and learn everything they can about building a wonderful life. They become experts on their own success. They ask successful and happy people for advice. They surround themselves with a wide network of people that want to see them succeed. They are constantly working on themselves to learn the ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and skills necessary to take them to where they truly want to go in life.  They have a clear picture of their own unique definition of success and strive with focused effort to make that dream a reality. They realize that no one else is coming to save them. No one else can make their life happy and successful but them. They understand that their life is their responsibility, so they set out every day with the goal of making themselves better and better so that their life becomes better and better. They understand that there is no secret formula of success, but the real formula is quite simple:

  • Decide exactly what it is that you truly want from your life. A clear, values-based vision of the life you deeply desire to live.
  • Determine specifically what it will honestly take to achieve that success – the Who, What Where, When, How and Why of the path to attain your dreams.
  • Then, get up every single day and work on doing what it takes to “Pay the Price” of achieving what you want in your life. Constantly be curious, constantly be thinking, constantly be asking for help and advice, and constantly take massive action to make your vision into reality.

4. Tell the truth.

I know this last one seems obvious, but it is fundamental to having a successful and happy life. Nothing can hurt you if you simply tell the truth.

Well, at least for right now, these are my top four.  I can think of a lot of other great ideas, but these would be at the top of my list.

I would like to invite you to put your top four in the comments section. It would be great if a whole bunch of people contributed their most important lessons learned, and it would be a very interesting list to read.

PS – If you found this post helpful, please share it with your network.



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  1. 4 things learned.
    Happy don,t have the most, they make the most of what they have.

    Life is not a marathon, its a series of short sprints- get rest and recover

    Values based living is measured in what you teach and do – not just say

    Do unto others as if they were you.

  2. John — Thank you. I’m impressed (but knowing you, not surprised) by the depth of your list. I admire your courage. For my four, at this moment, I’ll use yours with some minor modifications.

    1. I am becoming what I focus on and similar to the people and things I surround myself with at every moment.
    2. I am inclined to the habits of my history and superficial self, and must be consciously conscious of what is better for the deeper me.
    3. Howard Thurman, whom I admire, said, “Don’t ask what the world needs… ask what makes you come alive. What the world NEEDS is more people who have come alive!”
    4. My deepest self is the truth. I wish to manifest the truth in thought, word, and action.

  3. Dear Fellow Rhino:

    Common sense is not so common this day and age. Your simple advice can help many. Spread the word. We are doing our part @ Costa Farms.

  4. Brian and John,

    As two people who I respect greatly in relation to knowledge acquisition, I read both of your lists with great interest! Here is my list as of today (and how I think they may be related to your items above):

    1. Joseph Campbell, when asked what he thought was most important in life, often replied, “follow your bliss.” Based on that quote, I think I might say “Identify and follow your personal bliss path – even in the face of great difficulty” is one of my top 4. I think this relates to Brian’s comments on “coming alive” (I think a bliss path is a lively path – and aviodance of such a path deadens me) and John’s idea of “telling the truth” (in this case, to oneself – about what I want to do in life, etc.). Also related to John’s list: when following one’s bliss path, one often is challenged to do what’s best for them, rather than what’s convenient or what others think they “should do.”

    2. Mindful living, or working to live in every moment as it is (instead of allowing memories of the past and/or thoughts about the potential future to cloud what is happening now) – and the recognition that every second spent doing one thing = saying no to the infinite other possible things one could be doing instead. Being as aware as I can be of what is happening now (with myself and others) and how I choose to live each moment is another thing I have learned that makes my current list. I think this is perhaps related to all of Brian and John’s items above, potentially.

    3. Telling MY truth (to myself and others) is important and satisfying to me – and my truth is not necessarily anyone else’s truth. I think this is related to John’s item about always telling THE truth – only I think it is critical to me that I replace “the” with “my.” I believe that telling my truth can sometimes be difficult, but that, if done with compassion (for myself and others) and postive regard (once again, for myself and others), telling my truth will lead me to where I need to be in life. A minor thought that may be counter to what is stated above in terms of “Nothing can hurt you if you tell the truth.” I’ve found that many things CAN hurt me when I tell my truth, but that it is often worth the pain in order to be who I am as much as possible (this is related, in my mind, to Brian’s “come alive” idea above). I guess I might summarize this by saying something like, “tell my truth with compassion and positive regard – even in the face of potential pain – in order to become more of who I really am.”

    4. Knowledge can be both helpful to me and my goals – and also a potential distraction. If I use knowledge to move toward experiencing what I think is best for me (including being who I really am, following my bliss path, and being more mindful), it is helpful to me, I think. If I use it in a way that moves me away from actual experience (because of information overload, or in order to “seem smart” rather than actually acquire wisdom, for example), it can be harmful to me. I think the best knowledge is experiential knowledge that moves me toward being able to actually DO the items listed above (rather than simply write or think about them).

    Great exercise – this was rewarding for me to put into words. I look forward to other postings!

  5. John,

    Great question, great list. Let me take a crack at it, in no particular order:

    1. Take care of your life, your love, your passions, and money will take care of itself. I can’t say how much easier this has made my adult life, especially since this advice was given to me in high school. Freeing yourself from the common stresses of money (basic needs aside) opens up a whole side of your mind and heart and allows you to focus on the things that will genuinely make your life more enjoyable. Be smart with your money — be a good businessperson or a good investor — just dont lose sleep over money or let it pervert your relationships.

    This advice was given to me as “a future starving artist”, but as an adult I realize it can apply to everyone.

    2. Cultivate a thirst for learning. About as much of the world as possible. My parents taught me to love 3 things, and I marvel now at how their simple guidance has had such a profound effect on my life’s path. They never said explicitly, merely guided me to appreciate the following:

    A) The Beatles. Music, art, creativity. Not being afraid to be at the forefront of anything.
    B) Jaques Cousteau. Nature, the amazing diversity of the earth. And respect for it.
    C) Carl Sagan. Scientific inquiry and rational discourse. The insatiable quest for discovery.

    If I had to boil the wisdom of my upbringing down as far as possible, that would be it.

    3. Always remind someone when you’ve done them a favor. And don’t feel bad about doing it. This advice came from a businessman, but I’ve realized I shouldn’t limit the habit to mere commerce. Rather than being self-serving attention seeking behavior as it may seem, taking the time to tell someone “let me explain what I did for you” does several things. First, it makes a connection with another human being, it says “in case there was any confusion, I care about you”. Truth is, that can mean a LOT to someone. And often the person helped may not even realize your contribution.

    Second, a reminder of help given isn’t as much a benign request for reciprocation as it is as reminder to ourselves. It’s easy to get down on our lives, to think we don’t do enough, care enough, contribute enough. Rather than looking for a favor returned, telling someone what you did is a self-affirmation of karma, that what comes around goes around and by striving to help you will in return find support and guidance when your need arises.

    If you think of it that way, you can free yourself from any deep-seated selfish need for ‘quid pro quo’ and move on to the honest work of helping people when they need it.

    4. ” ‘Character’ is how a person treats people when they’re having a bad day”.

  6. Brian and Brian — fantastic contributions — I love what you wrote — thank you so much!!! I hope to see a lot more comments up on the site — it would be wonderful to be able to read 50 or 60 notes like yours. Please pass the link to this article on to all your friends — it would be a joy to spread these crtiically important ideas. Thanks guys — John

  7. Ahh — Jim, Charlie and Jim — more great comments — these are superb ideas — I am so happy you took the time to share — wonderful !!!! John

  8. It’s great to begin the morning with such inspiration!

    1. From childhood – my dad worked very hard all his life but I don’t think he ever enjoyed what he did. Sacrifice is a noble trait but you have to make some choices that bring you happiness or you will spread unhappiness to those around you. Responsibility being important, do what you love and the money will come. Be brave enough to make adjustments along the way and be humble enough to ask for help when you need it.

    From adulthood:

    2. Find balance between work, play and commitment. They are all equally important.

    3. Choose your friends and partners wisely. It’s sometimes difficult to face the decision that someone isn’t right for your life but if you don’t let them go, they will stunt your growth. Great support systems make all the difference in life.

    4. Whatever you call it, believe in “karma”. What you put out there, good or bad, comes back 10 times better or worse to you.

  9. Excellent suggestions, John. Along with your four, I’d suggest three more rules:

    Trust Your Instincts. If your gut tells you that something or someone is wrong, you’re probably right. In my career, I’ve been much less likely to kick myself over the opportunities I didn’t take or the people I didn’t hire than the ones I did.

    Cut Your Losses. This relates to the last point, especially when it comes to employees. Too often I’ve given poor performers one more chance when the best thing for them and for me was to walk away.

    Learn from your past but don’t dwell in it. When something isn’t the success you hoped for, it’s important to analyze what went wrong and change accordingly. But too many of us will beat ourselves up over a past decision years after it occurred. That’s unproductive and time-wasting.

    I’ve often thought of life in Robert Frost terms–as a series of roads diverging in a yellow wood. As critical points, we choose which road to travel. If that road gets a little rough, we shouldn’t sit down and curse the choice, or backtrack to the crossroads; we should correct course and keep moving forward.

  10. John – I agree wholeheartedly with your four, and with comments posted. Why are some of the many things that, in the past were considered “common sense”, now considered more complicated. It’s not rocket science. People just need to hold up the mirror sometimes and JUST DO IT (as Nike said best).

    It is attitude and it is responsibility and action vs procrastination and excuses. So, with that, I’m off my soap box and on with MASSIVELY improving mine! Thanks! 🙂

  11. John,
    I wrote most of this before you put your list on your blog. Most truths are universal.

    1.Have a plan and use your plan.Figure out what works for you. Write it down then follow through.

    2.Have a good product-be very selective in what you represent personally and professionally.Quality people and products attract the same.
    Mom always said be careful who you associate with,you will become like them.

    3.Believe in yourself, If you do not, no one else will either.Tell the fellow in the mirror what you need to hear. Positive talks with yourself will help keep you motivated.

    4. Block out time for yourself every day to do something that will improve your person.It can be praying, reading,exercising,meditation or anything that gets you off the hampster wheel of life. I have had some of my best ideas and solved some of my worst problems in what I call my mental backwash cycle, when I am outside running(walking,hiking, biking,skating) down the road.Thoughts just rush through the brain and the good stuff is retained,the bad stuff is left beside the road.

    5.Ask questions, ask for help, ask directions. Don’t be so independent, people are willing to help you. (I know you asked for 4 but this would not go away).

  12. 1. Find someone who is doing right now what you want to be doing in 10 years, and ask them to be a mentor. Nearly every successful person got started by learning from the greats of their field.

    2. Remember to take time to thank people for all they did to help you. Thanking is such a simple but often overlooked practice. A note or phone call has an amazing impact on a person’s day, as well as their perception of you.

    3. Always be congruent. Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you make a promise, keep it. Again, it sounds so simple, but following through on a promise has tremendous power; failing to follow through can be terribly damaging.

    4. Embrace failure. Failure is a part of existence; it’s absolutely unavoidable. So accept it, embrace it, and learn from it; because from failure comes success. And we often learn more from what we’ve done wrong than what we’ve done right. Realize that failure is just an opportunity to try again at succeeding.

  13. Also – thank you for this wonderful and inspiring list. Emerging leaders must realize how simple success can be if it is broken down into key points and basic strategies that are clearly articulated. Thanks for keeping us in the loop! University of Baltimore students still talk about how great your workshop was!

  14. Thank you all for sharing such deep personal insights. If I may add my own:

    – Happiness is a choice.
    – Balance.
    – Ask and it shall be given; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.
    – There is more than one person in this world.

    Happiness is something that comes from within, not from without. Tragedy may come and there are rough times, but whether you are fundamentally happy is something you decide for yourself – and no one can ever make that choice for you, for better or for worse.

    When your life is unbalanced – whether in your relationships, focus, faith, ideology, etc. – you begin to close your mind to all the wonders that this world has to offer. For sure, have firm stances and pursue life with zest, but always be open to the other path and appreciate the fact that, to fully understand life, you have to fully embrace it.

    Ask, seek, knock. The world is filled with wonderful people and ideas that are simply waiting for you to find them. Go find them.

    Life is not about me; not even my own life is about me. It’s about us – about those who came before us and those who will follow us. Leaving the world a rich man will gain me nothing. Leaving the world a better place than I found it will gain me immortality. My kindness and love will live on in those who stay when I leave.

    Thanks for such a great forum, John. Looking forward to future posts.

  15. 1. “You become what you focus on and like the people you spend your time with.” Therefore, it is important to surround yourself with people of good values and character who can reinforce and increase your good ethics and habits. And, you must focus your time on people and activities that reflect your positive habits and values. The obvious corollary is that poor people will bring out the poor aspects of you!

    2. “Strive to live a balanced life.” You must consciously select at what level you wish to perform in each arena of your life. There is only so much time available in each day and in each life. Decide what is important to you, decide how important it is to you, and decide how much of your time you want to balance into each activity. The antithesis is the old joke that on your deathbed you say “I wish I had spent more time at work!” Consciously choose how to spend your time.

    3. “Happiness is a state of mind! Know that you are enough; and, you have been given enough!” You are enough to stand toe to toe with everyone you meet. And, God has given you enough love and resources to face any situation. Choose to believe this and you will have greater joys, and a secret weapon to get you through life’s challenges!

    4. “When your out-go exceeds your in-come; your up-keep becomes your down-fall.” Understand money. Strive to have a positive cash flow; strive to be wealthy rather than rich; know the difference between good and bad debt; and accept money merely as a medium of exchange for the possessions and activities you value in life. Money is not an end in itself, it is a method of sharing your life. You will feel much better if your life always has a positive balance!

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