On Monday, a guy cut in line at the hairdresser. Not the grocery store, the hairdresser. Where you already wait for some 30 minutes and each person’s treatment takes forever. But just as I was about to get angry, I finally got sick of my own bullshit.
I was angry a lot over the past three months. At people, at events, at myself. Often for valid reasons. But having a good reason to be angry does not make being angry a good reaction. It almost never is. I remembered a Buddhist quote:
Since I had a little more time to pass, I started digging: Why was I holding so many coals?
The Third Option
Looking back, I realized most of the times I was angry came from some sort of failure or rejection. It was never anything major, just obstacles on the road towards my goals. Unexpected speed bumps, paid for in money, energy, and time.
Speed bumps are a good analogy, because the people who set them up are only doing their job. Most of the time, they do it at someone else’s command, and they never do it specifically targeting you. So when you see one coming up, it’s your decision to go full throttle and potentially blow out your suspension. Or, you can just slow down.
There is a scene in How I Met Your Mother, in which Ted is chasing his ex-fiancée in a cab, ready to confront her. After leaving him at the altar, she moved in with her ex-husband, having previously told Ted he’d have to come live with her. That’s a very good reason to be angry. But then, Ted slows down:
“So I got out of the cab, ready to say all of that stuff. Ready to explode. But then…it all just went away. And that was it. In that moment, I wasn’t angry anymore. I could see Stella was meant to be with Tony.
Kids, you may think your only choices are to swallow your anger or to throw it in someone’s face. But there’s a third option: you can just let it go. And only when you do that is it really gone and you can move forward.
And that kids, was the perfect ending to a perfect love story. It just wasn’t mine. Mine was still out there, waiting for me…”
While I found letting go to be a great solution in the past, it’s often hard to do in the midst of failure, when the sting of rejection is still fresh. It hurts. And, as humans, when we’re hurt, we want to do something. Getting yourself to where you can let go is a process and that process takes time. Inaction makes it feel drawn out, while doing things distracts us, usually just enough for our subconscious to begin dealing with everything.
By now I was sitting in the chair, looking in the mirror. I asked myself: “What else can I do here? How can I use these failures, these rejections, these objective and indifferent speed bumps, really, to get to the next level?”
Then, I remembered another quote.
The Simple Ethos of a Billionaire
All humans have desires. Growing up is fulfilling our duty of separating the good ones from the bad. The template we then use to chase those desires is as follows: We alternate between taking action and waiting until we hit either failure or success. If we succeed, we can pursue another desire. If we fail, we need to go back and restart the cycle.
Every time we get angry is a sign that the waiting part is broken. We want our rewards now and we can’t stand the thought of resetting the cycle. It’s almost as if slowing down itself hurts, regardless at what speed you end up taking the bump. But if you load up on coals, eventually, your car will stop altogether.
As I was thinking about what I want the most and how I can do more than just let go, I remembered an idea from Charlie Munger’s 2007 USC commencement address:
“I got at a very early age the idea that the safest way to try and get what you want is to try and deserve what you want. It’s such a simple idea, it’s the golden rule, so to speak. You want to deliver to the world what you would buy if you were on the other end. There is no ethos, in my opinion, that is better for any lawyer or any other person to have.”
Deserve what you want. A simple idea indeed, but a very nuanced one. I first heard it four years ago, but I used to focus too much on the getting part. Now, I finally realized that even someone who deserves to have certain things might still never get them. Note also that Munger didn’t call it a sure way, just a safe way. Except death, there are no guarantees in life.
But if you give your best to deserve what you want every step along the way, something funny happens to your template for fulfilling desires. Suddenly, every iteration of the cycle reroutes to success.
One Question to Rule Them All
The difference between when I first heard Munger’s quote and now is that this time, I don’t see it as a shortcut in the goal-setting process. I see it as an upgrade.
Think of it as charging all your actions with integrity. To do that, you can either imagine virtue as your highest desire or a filter to run all your wants through. Whichever perspective you choose, if you practice it successfully, the result of every action will be the same.
Once the waiting begins, you’ll eventually detach from the outcome, knowing you’ve done the best you can. The right thing, whatever it may have been. That in itself is a success. Because regardless of what’ll happen with your goal, you’ve fulfilled your desire to be virtuous. That, you can take pride in and then restart the cycle. You’re not immune to failure happening to you, but to much of the self-inflicted stumbling, falling, and cursing that usually follows.
You create this sort of moral contrast to a vision of your future self. A self you can aspire to. And while it’ll never exist in its purest form, if you get close enough, you’ll inevitably attract what you desire. I was already on my way home, but still thinking about how I could implement this idea in my life. Eventually, I came up with a daily reminder, a question:
Like the idea itself, it’s simple, but nuanced. When I say “everything I want,” I have a few specific goals in mind, but it applies to all of them and they’re free to change. When I use “the guy” instead of “the person” or “someone,” it’s easier to imagine the virtuous ideal as my future self. But above all, I like this question for three reasons.
1. It is always relevant.
You can ask this question right after waking up in the morning, as you’re about to leave work, or at 3 AM during a horrible fight with your wife. It doesn’t matter whether you just failed, succeeded, or learned a certain path is blocked altogether. The answer will be useful at any time, always and forever.
2. It is limitless.
Maybe you want to be the first human being on Mars. Maybe you’d like nothing more than a stable, five-figure job. Maybe you dream of making it on broadway. Or, maybe you want to pick up your son and get a haircut yourself, without losing too much family time. Whether you have a single, ubiquitous mission, or a dozen small goals, this question has room for them all. It doesn’t care if what you want is possible, because behaving morally always is.
3. It is detached from all outcomes.
You can always choose to act with integrity, right now. Deciding in the present moment does not require what you did over the past ten years, or last week, or even five minutes ago. Your moral compass usually has a clear answer, too. And it’ll still be the right answer, even if you should fail. There’s no need for what-ifs.
The Road Worth Taking
Every morning, I look at my phone and sit with that question. It’s an experiment that’s just beginning, but I already feel a lot better about my decisions.
There’s one caveat though: Aspiring to more integrity is not a substitute for sacrifice. It’s a layer on top. You’ll find that, often, what is right, what is hard, and what is the most beneficial to your goals are one and the same. Especially in the long run.
For the few times they differ, you’ll never regret taking the high road. It has a lot less speed bumps. But, most importantly, you won’t spend your life holding hot coals.