Life Lessons

My 9 Orienting Thoughts

The quality of my life is determined by the choices I make, not the random stuff that happens to me.

For the last few years, I’ve been compiling a list of insights that I’ve found particularly useful. I call them my orienting thoughts because they keep me pointed in the direction I want my life to go. Some are direct quotes from books I’ve read, but most are ideas that have come to me through experience. They’re all principles that I’ve tested in the laboratory of daily life and found to be true.

I keep these orienting thoughts in a list on my phone. When things in my life go wonky — when I’m feeling guilty for failing to live up to my potential or I feel tempted to act upon an unruly impulse — I pull out my list and check it. It reminds me that I am in charge of my life, not my feelings or my circumstances.

This post is the result of a lot of writing and thinking I’ve done during the past two years. It’s written to and for myself primarily, so don’t think I’m trying to pose as some kind of life guru. All these principles, as well as every other insight I’ve discovered, are always up for revision or elimination in light of better evidence.

My 9 orienting thoughts

Anything can serve you if you put it to the right use

Nothing is so bad that I can’t learn something from it. Being the victim of other people’s poor choices is an opportunity for me to learn from their mistakes. Being a victim of my own poor choices is an invitation to get my act together. Failure is a gateway to greater understanding and empathy. Everything is grist for my mill.

Small choices make the difference between happiness and misery

Fragmenting your attention during work hours by checking your social media accounts. Ignoring your partner’s bid for engagement and choosing to give your attention to your phone instead. These may seem like small actions, but over the long run, they add up. If you’re sailing across the ocean, being off-course by a few degrees can land you many miles away from your destination.

Yet, more destructive than the act itself is the way it corrodes your mindset. If I choose to check Instagram instead of doing my work, I’m sending myself the signal that my work is a chore I’d gladly get away from. This signal reshapes my behaviors. Where I once found joy in the work, now I only find drudgery. Whose fault is that?

“The act precedes the virtue”

“Change happens from the outside in. … It is through the expression of courtesy that a person becomes polite. It is through the resistance to fear that a person develops courage. … The act precedes the virtue.”

David Brooks, The Road to Character

It’s easy to imagine goodness as a stable, inherent trait. By this logic, good people behave in kind, brave and courteous ways simply because they are good. But the concept of inherent goodness is a disabling one. Not only does it give us permission to shirk the hard work necessary for becoming better people, but it also makes the work of personal improvement seem impossible. Behavior becomes as fixed a trait as eye color. There’s no changing it.

I think this concept is horse pucky. Good people aren’t good because they’re miraculously born that way. They’re good because they put in the difficult work of monitoring, assessing and correcting themselves every day. Doing good is the path to being good.

“Focus on doing, being, and having the best in the present moment.”

This quote comes from Barbara Winter’s book Making a Living Without a Job, which is still my go-to text for mastering the behaviors and mindsets for successful freelancing. It’s a reminder that doing the best with what you have can still yield great joy, even if you don’t have the wealth or success you wish you had.

Virtue is its own reward. Vice is its own punishment.

This thought is a central tenant of Stoic philosophy. The truly happy person is the one who does the right thing, no matter how inconvenient or painful it may be. I remind myself of this when I’ve done something selfish or boneheaded. No matter how I feel — no matter what gifts of chance fell into my lap that day — it doesn’t negate the fact that, in that moment, I was a miserable person.

The opposite is true, too. When I live in accordance with my values — when I practice diligence by working patiently through a difficult project or practice temperance by resisting the urge to respond to someone’s anger in kind — in that moment, I am a happy person. No twist of fortune can take that away from me. The quality of my life is determined by the choices I make, not the random stuff that happens to me.

A moral failing on someone else’s part does not justify a moral failing on yours.

Living a good life means making tough choices. Chief among these is the choice to live virtuously no matter what life throws at you.

Just because other people have abandoned their good judgement or their values doesn’t give you permission to do the same. This is especially true when you feel backed in a corner and someone is trying to get a rise out of you. This happens a lot more than it ever used to. Folks seem dead-set on bringing out the worst in each other these days.

Don’t fall for it. Don’t retaliate and then claim the other guy made you do it. No one can make you betray your principles.

Live by your values or risk being misled by your desires

The chance whims of the moment often have little to do with the long-term goals we set for ourselves. Yet, it’s these fleeting impulses that can be the hardest to resist. You need constant reminders of what you value and who you want to be. Otherwise, it’s easy to just go with the flow.

In my office, I have cork boards crammed full of inspirational quotes. I spend a lot of time in my office, and whenever I’m tempted to indulge an unproductive impulse, I only have to glance up to find a quote that reminds me of what I should be doing instead. It sounds a little goofy, maybe, but it works.

Negative feelings have a positive purpose

We’d all love to live on a pillow of sunshine and buttercups, but there’s a dark side to bliss. It blinds us to what organizational theorists call the “weak signals” of failure — the signs of evolving problems within the system. Systemic problems are easiest to fix when the signals are weak, but that’s also when they’re hardest to detect unless you’re actively looking for them. Fixating on happiness can blind you to these signals. That’s why high reliability organizations cultivate what’s called a “preoccupation with failure.” They actively seek out weak signals and challenge themselves to envision all the ways the system could fail.

To be better, you must do better

This is one of the most powerful mantras I’ve discovered yet. If you want to be better — better than your past self, better than your detractors, better than what you are now — you’ve got to start making better choices in the moment .

We are constantly in the process of creating and re-creating ourselves. Every day, our selves are subtly altered by the decisions we make. Over time, those decisions add up. Make sure those choices count.

Other stuff


I’m nearly finished my TESOL certification program from Arizona State University. I start my second and final capstone project July 1. My teaching practices have improved tremendously since I started this program. I sometimes feel compelled to apologize to all my regular students for all the boneheaded methods I used to use in class. I guess that’s a sign of progress, right? You can see my full portfolio of lesson plans, micro lessons, and study guides here.

The Quotable Mueller

I’m currently reading The Mueller Report and posting salient quotes and facts on a Tumblr titled The Quotable Mueller. Find the full text of Volume I of the report here.

Jam of the Week

My latest playlist for work featuring some of my favorite songs from the past few months. Octave Cat and Southern Shores are at the top of my personal hits list right now.


“Fortune has no jurisdiction over character.” – Seneca

Have a great week, friends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s