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The Top Of My Todo List (paulgraham.com)
683 points by dko on April 21, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 185 comments

When I first saw the title of this essay, I thought I already knew what I was going to say...

Something about how my own todo this now has only one item on it, the single most important thing to do next. I gravitated to this based on the great quote by chess master Jose Capablanca:

[When asked how many moves ahead he looked while playing]: "Only one, but it's always the right one." (from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Ra%C3%BAl_Capablanca).

Then I read pg's essay and Bronnie Ware's blog post and realized that this post was less about work and more about life.

Then it hit me: My life's todo list still has only one item on it and always has:

"Always do the right thing."

I realize that this can be very hand wavy because the "right thing" means something different to everyone and even something different to me at different times. But still, it has been the perfect #1 for my todo list.

Several years ago, my mother, who lived 1000 miles away, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and could no longer use the phone. So I began flying back to Pittsburgh every other weekend to be with her. After a while, even this wasn't enough. So I moved to Pittsburgh to be with her every day.

People tried to say the right thing to me, but it never was right. They'd say things like, "I admire your doing this, but you really don't have to because she doesn't even know who you are," or "You may be making a sacrifice now, but in time you won't regret it; you'll have nothing to be sorry for." And I thought, "How sad. After all these years these people still don't get it. This isn't a sacrifice from me to her. It's a gift from her to me."

I'm a little uncomfortable distilling pg's and Bronnie Ware's five thoughts from down into one, but "Always do the right thing" just works for me. I just hope the others in my life find something that works as well for them.


It really is a gift.

Our definition of self has become so short sighted that doing the right thing becomes a challenge for anyone to remember. Imagine trying to do the right thing in a startup, if we aren't practicing it in every day life with every thought and action.

Seeing my parents getting a little older is tough. Where they used to take me to all my doctors appointments whenever I needed it, now more and more, I'm taking them.

Why's this important? Priorities and balance and making the most of your time is so important.

In waiting rooms I see maybe one in 10 adults accompanied by their kids. My parents are comfortable going to appointments without me, so it means a lot they even ask me, maybe to see the same feeling of finding a familiar face in the waiting room, or someone to help remember what the doctor said.

Sadly we have a generation that feels its ok to believe everything is about us, at the expense of being there for others who are greatly responsible for our greatness. Some of the deepest, satisfying moments are when I get to be witness to someone's story.

Doing the right thing is for the sake of the right thing being done, not how someone takes it, sees it, or expects you to be there for them. There inevitably are things that need to be done regardless of personalities and positions.

I hope we never forget to find and live by our values that give us a deep sense of connection with ourselves and through it to those in our lives. All we have at the end of the day is making memories. Everything can go to hell but you can revisit a memory anytime, and keep creating new ones.

My mother went through years of taking care of her aging mother with Alzheimer's and made many sacrifices. So much so that she made each of my siblings and myself promise her that if she ever got Alzheimer's we would put her in a home and move on. She can't bear the thought of putting her children through the pain she endured.

Odds are, if G-Forbid this ever happened, we would be by her side every day, telling ourselves it is the right thing. It's the least we could do after all she has done and continues to do for us....

But it makes me wonder... What would your mother prefer? What would have made her happier? What choice would she have made for you if it was up to her?

Human nature is an interesting thing. Always presenting conflict every step of the way. The right thing can and will almost always be a representation of what your heart desires.

The weird part is, the more important the decision, the easier it usually is and the choice is more obvious.

The hard decisions usually are not that important, but rather a scenario with both options are legitimately justifiable, and both choices can be justified or vilified.

Reading 'Still Alice' by Lisa Genova has helped me.


Edit: Link.

There's an old Chinese idiom that says "事到万难须放胆,宜于两可莫粗心" which roughly translates to "A difficult decision for an important matter requires bold action, but it's worth it to consider carefully and deliberately when the two options are equally viable."

So for a difficult situation like that I think it's always right to be steadfast and follow the heart.

Brilliant, always do the right thing. So catchy and yet so utterly useless at the same time.

You sound just like the 'seduction' experts, 'confidence, that's what gets the girl'.

My mum had an episode where she quite literally went mad. We spent a couple of weeks visiting her every day as she was confused, scared and angry.

At some point I turned to my sister and said 'we have to go home, our lives have to go on'.

The irony being that 'home' was 100 miles away from where my mum lives as my sister had met her husband a year earlier visiting me.

Your story is touching and totally fucking stupid at the same time. My to-do list for tomorrow has 'Get loo roll, book a ticket for Splendour festival, vote'.

Your to-do list sucks ass as it doesn't actually meet your real life needs.

And did I do the right thing? I'll never know, I still feel like a shit as she screamed that the nurses were hurting her. Humiliated, ignored. Maybe they did? Lies I hope. I will never, ever know. Alzheimer's? She won't even remember what you did, you're doing it for nothing more than your own conscience.

We are living in a very, very odd time where our parents are turning into our children.

EDIT: The reason I had to write this is that your experience seems to me at odds with points 1, 3 & 5 of the list. And the horrible thing is it's going to get worse for all of us here on HN in the next 40 years. Medicine has put us in a very awkward position, one of being able to maintain the body when the mind went long ago. Or (imo worse) maintaining the body and mind when the reasons to live have gone. My friend's grandma openly talks about wanting to die as all her friends are dead. But does my friend's Mum want her Mum to die? Of course not. This is a very odd time.

How would you react if someone spoke to you as you just did to the author of this post? I suspect you would not like it very much. Perhaps you should consider tempering your words next time. The last paragraph of your post is worthy of discussion, the rest, as written, is an attack devoid of any class, manners and consideration.

The first 2 paragraphs were assholey, the rest was pure heart. It's controversial.

Yes. But needed to be said. I'm glad people read it.

In reality I wrote that when I was drunk, I was an asshole. But read it again. It's hard to admit sober. I think edw519 needed challenging, I think he was weak pretending to be strong. But damn, in all seriousness, edw519's choice was a LOT harder than mine. I knew recovery was a few weeks away. He knew his was never.

Don't give your disease ridden parents the rest of your life.

Mainly because they wouldn't have wanted you to when they were whole.

You're supposed to be the next generation. Not caring for an empty shell.

it's going to get worse for all of us here on HN in the next 40 years. Medicine has put us in a very awkward position, one of being able to maintain the body when the mind went long ago. Or (imo worse) maintaining the body and mind when the reasons to live have gone. My friend's grandma openly talks about wanting to die as all her friends are dead. But does my friend's Mum want her Mum to die? Of course not. This is a very odd time.

Preach it. (Those who downvoted you obviously didn't read far enough.)

I do see value in the core of your argument but, boy, do you ever not know how to sell it.

In essence, your main argument is: "Here is how I see it". Well guess what, that's the same argument that the guy you're replying to made, so it might help to be a little more humble about it.

Arguing with others is only a tiny bit representing your own viewpoint. It's mainly about then figuring out where the person you're talking to stands on this and finally negotiating a path for the other person between the two points.

Your main point seems to be portraying the hurt that you've experienced and how you dealt with it when your mother had her "episode" (does she still have it? It was never resolved to us) while reminding us (rightfully, I think) that having a core priority is all fine and well, but (especially at times of distress) it might not get you through the endless sea of small challenges. A fair point that is not particularly nuanced, but that always makes for a good discussion. What came out of your mouth (fig.) was basically "you're an idiot, I see this differently. Also, while I'm at it, let me curse some more". (Not that I particularly mind expletives, but in your comment, I was tired of them the third time around already.)

Not very persuasive.

Your to-do list sucks ass as it doesn't actually meet your real life needs.

Maybe it does to him. He was just sharing his experience, not preaching everyone to do what he does.

I want to write a great many things here however I don't know whether your trolling. Hopefully you're just trolling.

However, if you are not then when the denial breaks, don't hurt yourself. Forgive yourself and move to fix it.

You did the right thing (re your mother) for the right reason, not merely out of some sense of duty. It's hard to get that across. Many people seem to think that "Do the right thing" means they should dutifully sacrifice themselves. I don't think it does. I rarely know how to express it properly. I hope your story helps make it clearer for some people.

"Always do the right thing" - I can't think of a more concise definition of a mensch.

What my personal experience told me so far, there are always situations that only happen once. then you can do the right thing or you don't, so be carefull how you react in situations like this since they can change the course of your history. the trick is to recognize these moments, but that#s when you do the right thing, so I agrre with you.

As the of hagakure put it (cited from my memory and translated twice...): treat important thing lightly and treat unimprtant ones with all the seriousness you have.

It took me some hard decissions and situations to slowly get this and it seems like death is best teacher for that you can imagine. So we all should learn from other peoples mistakes and lessons, espacially if it's almost impossible to make them by yourself.

And then watch Kathryn Schulz's TEDx talk on the psychology of regret and why it's OK: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2011/12/05/kathryn-sc...

Always do the right thing, even if it's the wrong thing. Just don't be afraid.

Does "always do the right thing" mean "listen to your heart, not your head"?

Do the Right Thing like Spike Lee

I'd rework Paul Graham's list a little, as the first two items are phrased in negative terms (it's easier to do stuff than to not do stuff).

"Follow your dreams; take a break; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy."

The idea of putting them at the top of your todo list is interesting. At the moment I organise myself with Trello, one list per project, and at the top of each list I have a card that reminds me why I'm doing the project. Every now and again I check these cards to see if any projects should be culled -- if they're not meeting their goals, or if there's a better way to achieve those goals, or if I no longer care about those goals.

Keeping long-term priorities in mind when caught up in the midst of your daily tasks seems like a winner. Your life is lived one day at a time, after all -- if you don't seize the day, you won't seize your life.

Anyway, the whole idea of combining your todo list with your bucket list -- your daily goals with your life goals -- is interesting. I've seen a few startups based on this idea (evr.st, Goalhawk). It'll be interesting to see if the model works.

I didn't phrase them that way by accident.

"Follow your dreams" is too strong. I wrote about that here: http://www.paulgraham.com/hs.html.

"Don't work too much" is phrased that way because it really is a matter of avoiding something.

>Don't work too much

Then why advocated startups "as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years." So is this balance only good after you've "made it"?


The phrase "don't work too much" doesn't mean "don't do a lot of work today." It means don't let work take up your whole life. Starting a startup is the best way to do that, if you're suited to it. Note the word "compress" in the passage you quote.

This implies that you advocate working very hard for what is essentially an early retirement.

Sort of. More like working very hard till you achieve financial independence, after which you can do whatever you want. You don't have to stop working; you just never have to work on anyone else's terms.

A question, which hopefully doesn't come across as facetious, as it isn't mean to be: Do you do whatever you want?

I ask this in the context of having been through the start-up mill in the 90s and watched other people make 10 figures off the technology (WiFi) I worked on. I still work 9-5 for someone else, and need to.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that I have to "live for today". If a firm opportunity presents seize it, but don't compromise today in the name of nebulous rewards tomorrow. Don't wait for retirement or financial independence, but try and do stuff now, using the means at my disposal.

I ask this question on the assumption some people here have had the opposite experience and would advocate going out on a limb for future rewards. When it paid off, did the change in circumstances meet expectation? It's always interesting to hear from people who have had a different experience.

No, that's a good question. I can do whatever I want. But doing things one wants at large scale often entails not doing it on a smaller scale.

As for the more general question, overall it was certainly worth it. If I were in the same situation again, I would do the same thing.

Can you clarify, perhaps with some examples, of doing something one might want at large scale and not doing it on a smaller scale? Thanks

Possible answer:

Large Scale: Convincing others to start startups and helping them achieve it.

Small Scale: Talking to journalists, defending Y Combinator in the press etc...


For the majority of people this is unobtainable. Which is where your theory breaks down, I think. Because if a huge proportion of people adopt this attitude and strive for independence, most will fail and be ultimately unhappier for it.

Which sounds like I am recommending resigning oneself to never achieving.

But really what I am saying is this; figure out realistic goals, add a little bit, then head toward them. Also, enjoy yourself on the way.

Most successful people to my observation fall into two camps; ridiculously talented and "lucky". The former have realistic high level goals anyway. And the latter are, by definition, random.

Believe me, no one knows better that starting startups is not for everyone. That's why I was careful to qualify the great grandparent with "if you're suited for it."

I think that financial independence is the definition of retirement. It is only seen as a mismatch (and early if before the age of 60 or so) because the conventional path to financial independence is working for 50 years. Someone who has spent 50 years working and is now financially independent will not want to do any more work ever again. Someone who is financially independent at the age of 26 or 30 though will probably keep working. This doesn't mean that the latter person isn't retired; an unconventional path to retirement leads to an unconventional retirement.

If you're prudent with your lifestyles and finances, "financial independence" doesn't have to mean "enough money to last a lifetime." It just means "enough money to last until I have a reasonable certainty of making more money." I know a bunch of people on incomes far lower than a software engineer's that will intersperse work with 6 months to a year of doing something interesting like hiking the Appalachian trail, traveling around the world, or living in Thailand.

Something bugs me about this, and I'm having a hard time putting my finger on it. The first thing that sticks out is that you kind of imply that there is no difference between work and not work. 'Working hard' is something you do for financial independence, which implies the earning of money. And yet, even after you earn enough, you say that it's okay to continue earning even more money through work? It seems to me that if one takes the dictum "don't work too hard" seriously that you'd stop earning money through work once you've earned enough. Otherwise the temptation to define work as something that you just want to do is too great, which would then render the dictum "don't work too much" meaningless.

Sorry if that's a little rushed, but there's a surprising amount to unpack about a seemingly simple statement.

[...] Work very hard till you achieve financial independence, after which you can do whatever you want.

This is a very interesting statement. The thing to keep in mind is that working very hard changes you, so that the thing you'll most likely do after achieving financial independence is probably more of the same (very hard work).

I'm taking a different approach, perhaps most succinctly advocated by Mr. Money Moustache (http://www.mrmoneymustache.com):

Become extremely frugal till you achieve financial independence, after which you can do whatever you want.

This is done with the same caveat: after achieving financial independence, you'll most likely continue being frugal, which is a very good thing.

Would you agree that adjusting expectations might also be a way to get there, at least partially?

"Financial independence" isn't just a measure of wealth, it's also a measure of one's own personal burn rate.

Or at least working very hard on one thing so you can spend your time doing whatever else you care about, which may be "working" on other passion projects.

I interpret this more as, don't work to the point where it pushes other priorities out of your life. For me, I'm young and don't have a family, so starting a startup with some friends could be a tough, yet fun learning experience. Maybe for people in different circumstances, it takes over your life to the point that you lose sight of your relationships or faith.

pg, it's a well known fact by researchers on habit creation that goals framed in a positive statement work much better. I liked the essay and came here to make that point, but what do you know somebody had said it already.

I'd also rephrase "be happier", as modern research also suggests that striving to be happy does not work for some people. If you look at the writer original #5 statement, it's "I wish I'd let myself be happier" which is not exactly the same... Admittedly it's a bit of nitpicking.

Nice essay

I dropped by to make precisely your first point.

Re: adding items to your todo lists, i feel like PG's 5 exhortations (which seem more like general advice than specific prescriptions) fit into something like the "epics" that were recently introduced into Pivotal Tracker, than actual items to do. One should take a look at each of the items placed on a todo list and ask "does this item take me closer or further from my goals?"

I think take a break misses the point of the second one.

The spirit is closer to what my father always says - no-one ever died wishing they'd spent more time in the office.

Take a break makes it sound like an hour or two out rather than what it is, basically saying it's really not all about work.

At the risk of sounding cynical, I wonder how much it actually matters. We tend to live our lives thinking as we go that we should be striving to end up at some optimal place and that the purpose of our lives is desperately trying to keep us exactly on that course. If we don't ask the girl to the dance, or give up on an idea, or spend extra nights at the office to get a promotion instead of hanging out with our family we think that we are drifting off of our optimal course and we drive ourselves crazy wondering at every step if we are losing our way and strive to keep our future regrets to a minimum. But the reality is that life is no more valuable at the end than at the beginning or the middle. Why worry about what our future selves will regret while forgoing present happiness? Why should I worry today about what I will feel tomorrow if I know I can be happy today?

When I hear somebody say "I wish I would have spent more time with my family" I wonder whether they really wish they had spent more time with their family or if they just miss their old family and wish they could have them back. That is to say I wonder whether people confuse nostalgia with regret. As you get older you regret not taking advantage of some things in the past, but I tend to think that what you feel as regret is actually just longing for being young again.

> If we don't ask the girl to the dance

If you don't ask the first girl to the dance you might not be brave enough to ask the second girl to the dance and before you know it you're in a self-reinforcing loop of not asking anyone to any dances until you're old enough to realise and break out of that loop.

> Why worry about what our future selves will regret while forgoing present happiness?

I'm not sure how to grok that sentence. Here's two responses.

i) Exactly. Don't miss out on current happiness just to keep the future you happy. That's the point - future you does not want to look back on a life of hard grind and no fun just so you can do the looking back from a gold bed on your huge yacht.

ii) Because seeking contentment now is a way to ensure that you'll be contented in future and the future you won't look back on a life of missed opportunities. Missing out on happiness now is sometimes important in the short term, but it's not a great way to live a life. Perhaps a lot of grind now means you can retire early and relax and enjoy stuff. But you have to live long enough to retire, and by that time you may have missed some really fun things like babies growing.

> the reality is that life is no more valuable at the end than at the beginning or the middle

Yes. That is the point. Don't grind today to provide future you with excessive luxury. A bit of grinding might be needed to avoid future financial hardship, but other than that you should seek things that fulfil you today. Happiness today will make future you happy.

Future you is not more valuable, but s/he will have the benefit of hindsight.

Well I don't think it all breaks down that cleanly in reality though. Everybody has dreams and some people pursue them 100% doing what they have to to get by in the interim, and some just categorize them as dreams and never really pursue them.

My point is that those who tell themselves "I'm not going to let outside pressures influence me and I'm going to do what makes me happy" very well may end up miserable in the short term while they are working to achieve their dreams. In the end, if they do not achieve their dreams (or even if they do) they have traded time that they could have succumbed to those pressures and been more comfortable with the end result of regretting not having had the guts to go after what they really wanted to go after. Then again, if you succumb and work forever in a job you hate and are miserable anyway then you haven't really succeeded in satisfying yourself now either. That's really a bad position to be in.

I think Jim Coudal put it best in a talk he gave (actually he was quoting somebody else whose name I can't remember) where he said "The reason most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals not for the person we will be when we achieve them, but the person we are today." I have found that that is really true. For example, people often go to law school thinking that they will end up happy if they get a job that pays a certain amount and it will look good to their current friends so they spend a bunch of money and work their asses off to get through law school. Then they graduate and feel compelled to take a job as an attorney and they absolutely hate it. I know this because I have many many friends who are attorneys and they all are trying to find a way out. I think the mistake people make in those cases is not cutting their losses and being truly honest about what kind of life they want. There is so much pressure to maintain the status quo that they feel trapped.

Advice rarely comes with the caveats, and free advice is worth every cent. Ever hear anyone write on a blog, "I wish I didn't have to spend so much time with my family." or, "Given the Dunning–Kruger effect, don't follow your dreams as you are unlikely to achieve your unrealistic expectations given your current skill level."

To add to your comment, I wonder what the "regret bulletpoints" look like for the people who actually did all those things that PG listed. Maybe they wish that they worked more instead of hanging out with friends all the time?

My old stoner underachievers who never finished school still live in the same shitty hometown, got married young to the same high school girlfriend, have mental illness/drug issues, have kids who hate them, and otherwise live miserable lives.

I think the whole "be an underachiever, there's happiness in it you stupid capitalist" is something of a myth. Truth is, life is little more than trade-offs and opportunity costs. Truth is that if you want something of a comfortable life, want to not live in the ghetto, and do things like have expendable income, take foreign vacations, etc you need to give a good chuck of your life to work.

>That is to say I wonder whether people confuse nostalgia with regret.

This is such an excellent point. This "dying patients" list greatly ignores the opportunity cost of getting to where you managed to get to in life.

Lets say I grant these wishes. I wave my magic wand and you work less. Now your memories are full of being poor, sending your kids to some shitty school, getting robbed in a poor neighborhood as opposed to working more but being able to live in a better neighborhood, going on more vacations, having extra money.

So its like saying, "I want my cake to eat it too." Well, that wasn't possible when you were younger and its certainly not possible on your deathbed.

There are two issues with your argument:

1) Money doesn't equate to happiness - economists have shown this. It increases up to an annual income of about $60,000 then flat lines completely. So yes you need to have a solid income, but the point extra stops making a difference comes surprisingly early.

2) Even if that weren't true you've turned in into something of an all or nothing situation (I may have misunderstood here in which case forgive me). There are obviously levels within everything - yes you could work the least you can get away with or work 100 hours a week and always be on call, but you could also work 40 hours a week and take regular holidays, or work flat our for a couple of months then take a month off.

Maybe some of us are spending too much time on cake acquisition. If we spent less time doing that we may not have such a large cake but we would at least be able to eat the smaller cake that we had.

>We tend to live our lives thinking as we go that we should be striving to end up at some optimal place and that the purpose of our lives is desperately trying to keep us exactly on that course.

This is very US (and now occidental) thinking. Many cultures in the world don't have people thinking like that. You've got to have a family and integrate well and support the community. The rest is not as important as our current society wants us to think.

You're right, it doesn't matter. Life is absurd is death is the final word. Just live it however you want.. just don't toil 60 hours working for some company, that's the worst.

What's so bad about being a cog?

I work 9-5 for a large company (100,000+ employees). I clock on each day, they pay me a great daily rate and I enjoy the work that I do.

Work doesn't define who I am and I am definitely not unfulfilled. I take French classes, dabble in photography and build the occasional web app. Once a month I take a 3 day weekend and go somewhere I've never been before. So far this year I've been to Switzerland, Belgium, Iceland and I'm shortly off to Madrid. I also enjoy cooking and going to fine restaurants.

The only reason I can afford to do these things is because of the money I receive from my work as a cog. Sure, I could try and grow one of my web app ideas, work a bazillon hours for the small chance that it takes off and I become a millionaire.

But what would I do then? Most likely the exact same things that I am doing now.

I'm not advocating working in a job you hate and avoiding following your dreams. I'm saying that working as a cog allows me to afford my dream, so don't be so quick to bag it.

In some ways being a european cog is better than being an american cog. I wish Geneva, Brugge, Rejkjavik, and Madrid were weekend destinations for me! I also wish I had a european-cog vacation allotment!

Reasons why you don't need to be a millionaire in Europe (vs being a millionaire in the US):

-- Guaranteed healthcare -- A sane amount of mandated vacation/family leave time -- A safety net for being unemployed/retired

More basic needs are met in EU than in the US, so money has a much lower "value" there than it does here in the US.

I'm an Australian who's visited both a few times, including 15 countries in Europe and 10 states of the US last year. Now, Europe is very diverse and a great place to be, but the US is full of awesome stuff. Sometimes I wonder how many locals appreciate what they have.

Point taken, but I do with I had a European's vacation allotment

would you give some examples got those of us who may be missing out?

Apart from NY, my most recent trips have been mostly West Coast, and Chicago to LA. The real standouts have been national parks and Utah is amazing for that, but before I went I had no idea. Arches National Park is stunning and great fun to hike around but quite accessible to even non-hikers. Same with Zion (Angel's Landing and The Narrows!) and Bryce, also in Utah.

Did the Bright Angel Trail from the Grand Canyon South Rim and liked Yosemite, especially hiking Half Dome which was a favourite too.

The area around San Fran is cool, Chicago is quality, some of the smaller highway driving around Texas and New Mexico I really enjoyed. Mesa Verde. Antelope Canyon if you can handle the hordes.

If you're an efficient traveller, you could knock off three top-tier parks in Utah in a week without IMO rushing. Moving quickly yes, but not rushing.

IMO, you are not a cog. Working a 9-5 doesn't make someone a cog. You've evaluated your options and made a conscious choice. Who can find fault in that?

Going through life on "auto-pilot" is what would someone a cog. That's how I would define it. Though, personally, I don't like describing other people with words like "cog" or "sheep".

It's possible to actually be a cog, but I doubt you're one. Even if you're not actually cynical about what you do, describing yourself as a "cog" probably breeds cynicism in others.

Hmm. About 2 years ago I bought myself a canvas and wrote on it the following:

Live happy, make friends, enjoy. Make those dreams happy

It was for much the same reason - to inspire me. However, about 6 months later I thought those idea through and realised that, actually, it was an example of "making me feel better". I could sit and look at this poster and think; "yeh, I'm following my dream, I'm going to be happy". I even had a list of goals to meet.

But really you're not; you're following an arbitrary list, and all that is is con-straining.

Here's my thought process; trying hard to be happy isn't being happy... That thought mulled for a long while; I was doing cool stuff, with people I liked, and having plenty of down time. But I still felt like it was an effort to pursue.

This year has been a revelation. I did something "stupid" and spent a lot of my savings on two big holidays (many years ago I discovered my truest love is travel). Yesterday I spent a big portion of what is left on my third holiday of the year. I've barely done any work since January - one product release and some bugfixes. I started writing, then stopped, wrote a little program for myself, tried some carpentry, almost trashed my car trying to fix it, stood for at least three elections (politics and social communities) on a whim, dated two girls at once. And this is the tip of the iceberg.

All of this wouldn't sync with the person who wrote that maxim 2 years before; it would seem reckless and silly. As if I was throwing away what I had worked for years to build. A load of fucking rubbish.

Right now I'm free.

And I smile more than I ever have in my life. I have more friends. My life is barrelling along where, 6 months ago, it was stagnant.

So I wrote a new canvas (about 2 weeks ago, actually) which now says:

Let rip

My point is this; take care, with some of these ideas, that you don't get too focused on the means to the end. Just relax, close your eyes, do what you feel like. In the end it will work out. One day we will all be dead - till then I am going to enjoy myself. :)

There is nothing wrong with a todo list topped by the words "don't ignore your dreams". But only if it makes you happy.

I struggle with this from time to time.

I'm building a business that I plan/hope will allow me to have the freedom to do whatever I want with my time at some point in the future.

Today, however, I work. I work a lot. 12 hours is the low end for a day. I've put work ahead of lot of things.

If I were to truly close my eyes and do what I feel like, I'd be headed to a river/lake or getting on a plane. But I have clients, whom I've promised deliverables on Monday & Tuesday. So I'm going to work today.

In addition, we're generating a lot of sales leads from our website but our sales process isn't as effective as it needs to be to justify hiring a dedicated sales person to handle that task. Once I can improve the sales process, put in place the tools necessary for a higher closing rate, revenues will increase and I'll hire someone to manage that aspect of the business and move on to a different/higher quality problem. So this weekend, I'm going to be working on the sales process (emails/pdf brochures/demo video/etc) as well.

Yes, I could just go have fun and maybe I get to the same goal, just in a slightly longer time... but at least I enjoyed the journey more. Right? Maybe, but I don't see it that way.

If I don't work my ass off today, I perceive that my chances of "making it" are going to be much lower. I'm not sure if that perception is true or not, but can I really afford to take a chance? So this weekend, I'll work. I'll put in the time and hope that the small successes will build up to a mega success and make all the sacrifies (like leaving cousins birthday party after a quick drop-in or skipping out on a date) are justified at the results (money and freedom to do spend a lot of time with people.)

I don't know if that's the right call or not. I struggle with it all the time, particularly when friends are taking vacations 2-3 times a year.

For now, I'm placing my bets on "work now. enjoy later."

PS: I do make time for the absolutely critical things in my life like talking with my sister every other day, talking with my parents, keeping in touch with friends and more recently, taking my health a bit more seriously.

PS2: Two of my deepest fears: 1) not trying hard enough, 2) succeeding and realizing it wasn't worth the sacrifice. I don't think they are likely to happen.

I have two concerns with the work now, enjoy later:

1) It forms habits. I think there are a lot of people who work now and just keep working because they never work out how to stop.

2) Later isn't always what you think it might be. A cautionary tale:

My parents worked (very) hard their whole lives, both became company directors, had a small shareholding in the company one of them worked for and did well out of it. They wanted to get themselves (and me) set up and get to the point they could enjoy retirement.

When they did retire (a bit after 60) within a year or so my mother had to have her hip replaced which laid her up for some time and rather scuppered many of their plans. Things got worse on that front and she ended up having both hips replaced twice. She was then diagnosed with cancer and died 18 months later (much of the enjoyment during that period limited by her treatment).

My dad is now way more than comfortable but his plans are in tatters.

In short: later is always a risk. Later may not be what you think it will. Perhaps it's best not to bet it all on later.

I hear ya. And very for your mom.

I'm 28 today so for me, later = 35 onwards.

That's awesome; I'm glad you've come back with an opposite viewpoint.

I think the takeaway is that different things work for different people. It could be that you would spend your life intensely happier if you just let go right now. And equally I could spend my life much happier if I took a grip.

If anything I'd say let go of the regret - you've picked this path so live it and love it :) And if you can't, maybe my way might be worth thinking about.

I guess the only way to find out is in 10 years time.

> but can I really afford to take a chance

You can always take a chance. always. Don't let anyone (including yourself) tell you different.

You're taking a chance on yourself right now by pushing hard at your goals.

Most of all; good luck!

I agree, if your work fulfills you, work. If you hate what you do, do something else. But I think a lot of this "live your dreams, die with no regrets" is a bunch of pie-in-the-sky psychobabble. Utopias don't exist in this life, and chasing them often leads to a bad end.

My only advice would be: work hard, play hard. It sounds like you've got the work hard part down pat. Take at least a couple weeks off a year. 50 weeks at 12+ hours a day of work is more than 99% of people do. Spend at least 2 weeks at 0 hours a day of work unwinding with your friends on a vacation. Your work will still be there when you get back, and you'll have renewed enthusiasm for it.

When running, you are getting faster in the breaks in between running sessions. Running all the time leads to degeneration.

So if you want to excel, work hard and make enough breaks.

Watch out for the slump!

When the party is over, all your money is gone, your travels are done, your girls disappointed and you have to go back to more work while not being as successful as you used to be, it can be quite a hangover.

I disagree. Strongly.

Following your dreams, not working too much, spending time with family and friends, saying what you think, and being happy, might belong at the top of Paul Graham's todo list. He's already succeeded at what most people struggle at: making a living. He may have forgotten that getting by is hard.

What's so wrong about being a "cog in a machine"? Large organizations exist partly because scale and specialization are useful. People aren't "cogs" out of perversity, but practicality. Sometimes your comparative advantage is in being a good cog. And sometimes being a good cog is admirable. Example: surgeons who specialize in one and only one procedure, doing it exactly the same way every time, have a low failure rate. They save more lives that way. Are they creative? Nope. They follow somebody else's rules. They make themselves as mechanical, as repetitive, as possible. And the guy on the operating table lives.

Paul Graham is in a very unusual profession, where risk-taking is much more of an ideal than it is anywhere else. Also notice that he makes money off of telling other people to take risks. The more people decide to be entrepreneurs, the wider a pool he has to draw from. "Follow your dreams" is a useful meme for people like that; if a hundred people follow their dreams and fail and ruin their lives, PG never hears about it, but if one person follows his dreams and becomes a billionaire, PG might get a share. This isn't meant to vilify the guy; there's nothing wrong with making a living by inspiring people. And I'm sure he would say that he's fighting dangerous opposing memes against ever taking risks. I just think you can't take posts like this at face value.

Woah, cowboy.

> if a hundred people follow their dreams and fail and ruin their lives, PG never hears about it

Ruin their lives?

Hundreds of people fail in front of pg all the time. As an entrepreneur you fail in little ways constantly, and in big ways repeatedly. But that's ok. Failing is how we learn.

Can you think of anyone who ruined their life by failing at a startup?

> Can you think of anyone who ruined their life by failing at a startup?

Yes, I can. Lots of people, actually. But that's fine, I also know plenty of people that succeeded.

Failing at a start-up can do a lot more to you than just costing you some money and some time. It can wreck your relationship with your significant other, your children, your family, your friends and so on. It can cost you more than you could afford. It can put you in debt for a long time to come.

Whether or not this happens is related to how hard you're trying and at what point you throw in the towel. Fail fast is not just a way to tell people to iterate, it is also a way to remind you that if you fail you should fail in such a way that you don't end up losing more than you can afford.

All of those things happened to me, but my life hasn't been ruined. Not even a little. It was after my greatest failure that I finally learned to be happy. It wasn't easy, but it was important. The lone exception from your list is family. Failing in a startup cannot wreck your relationships. Only you can wreck relationships.

Turning it around, when I think of all the people I know who have gone through the problems you mention, few did so as a result of starting a company. In fact your list seems well within the bounds of normal life.

I'd love to hear an example of a person whose life was really ruined by a failed attempt to start a company.

> What's so wrong about being a "cog in a machine"?

Wanna live to work or work to live? I know that cooperate america tends towards the former, and much of the world is following that great success story. But, there is really not much point. In the end you're just as dead.

The easiest example of this can be seen in one of his comments upthread:

> (pg): Sort of. More like working very hard till you achieve financial independence, after which you can do whatever you want. You don't have to stop working; you just never have to work on anyone else's terms.

He states that as if anybody but an extremely lucky few can achieve "financial independence" (his words) before 60. One can say he was speaking to a particular audience, but in truth, the overwhelming majority of folks on HN aren't retiring early either.

It all comes across as wildly out of touch. If it were anyone else, I'd say the new bubble had blinded the author, but pg's been around since before the last bubble. Perhaps shepherding young people through the new bubble is a blinding force as well.

My boss doesn't read hn, so I can get away with this. In the last few years, after my daughter was born, I made a decision to not work too much. I consciously reduced my working hours as much as possible.

To my surprise and delight, my productivity and overall work completion has actually gone up. By being time bound (I am leaving at 5 no matter what) I often have to work like mad to get my work done. I have to make decisions quickly and implement.

The results are more projects done, sooner. If a mistake is made, or a more complete solution is needed you iterate and do it tomorrow. Already you are two iterations in where 2 years ago I would have been stalled still trying to work up a good starting point.

Try it.

I just forwarded this to your boss.

That made me laugh. I would be ok with it though as he is very happy with my performance. Reviews were yesterday.

For heaven's sake! If I worked 2 or 3 days a week my productivity would shoot up dramatically! With a lifestyle based around communiting to work 5 days a week 95% of the year for a relatively good salary and very modest annual raises, there's little incentive to do more than the absolute minimum to get by. Unfortunately, even though it makes sense, no manager would ever work out this kind of arrangement while keeping my current salary.

There are two ways of living: fear-based, and love-based.

People who live fear-based avoid things. They avoid things that might cause heartache, pain, difficulty, etc. but all of the most interesting pursuits in life have the potential to cause these things sometimes.

People who live love-based move towards things that bring happiness and satisfaction in the long term. They work hard and play hard, and when they hurt they know that things may get better.

I heard this several years ago now, and I see one of these approaches in most people around me.

To make this more relevant to entrepreneurship and startups...

It is possible to get a pretty good idea of how someone will behave under times of stress by just talking to them for a few minutes. Then gauging if most of their worldview is driven by-

- Shame / Guilt / Apathy

- Fear / Anxiety

- Anger / Hate

- Pride

- Courage

- Joy

- Compassion

Now we are often taught to 'be compassionate' or the 'enjoy life', but there is a difference between actually feeling that way and trying to convince people, including yourself, that you feel this way (which would be fear driven).

This is a bit difficult to explain, especially given my limited writing skills, but pretty easy to pick up in the subtext of conversations. For instance in the way that people phrase certain things, or tone with which they talk about certain issues.

There is probably some correlation between this sort of emotional development and conventional success. But I think this sort of development is probably more important to the subjective experience of life as a human.

Very interesting.

What's the difference like?

I mean, what kind of responses do you see from people whose world view is driven by pride/courage/joy/compassion ?

I think this can also defined in the level of risk one's willing to accept. Fear-based is having a low risk tolerance. It's so easy to choose the safe route; steady corporate job, work your way up the ladder, etc. It's predefined and historically tested. But I fail to see a lot of happy people at the end of this line.

Making big life changes is hard, and a risk. The more I talk to people about this topic, though, the more I can see in their eyes that they wish they had taken bigger risks in their youth.

You have described a much more "realistic" model for this - it's a spectrum of risk-aversion, not a binary attribute.

A complementary attribute is the level of "abundance mentality" present in the person.

The difficult thing, though, which is what everyone glosses over, is that it is difficult to achieve abundance mentality. It's a good metric to look at, but there is much, much more work necessary to improve it.

And that work is actually not at all trivial, unfortunately, and hard to pick up on the Internet, as it is highly personalized.

Abundance mentality is an excellent term, I'll happily rip it and use it from now on.

Indeed, the "safe" route could be called survivor mentality; to maximize the chances of not dying without offspring. What about a world where you are not really in danger? When you already have food, clothing and a house, and no one is preventing you from procreating at will?

Those who in that position still want a bigger house, more food, a yacht, expensive sports car and a harem; they're still in survival mode _after already having survived_ past any meaningful definition of survival.

They're over-survivers; and indeed, it's not a binary thing but a spectrum.

Hence, try to enjoy the abundance, and let others enjoy it; develop your attitude towards abundance mentality. We all have already survived.

Those who in that position still want a bigger house, more food, a yacht, expensive sports car and a harem; they're still in survival mode _after already having survived_ past any meaningful definition of survival.

I don't know that I agree with you at all on this.

I don't think a healthy person ("abundance mentality") can ever have too much of whatever it is they value. That's not to say that you're not happy with what you have or always unsatisfied. Only that you're always seeking to expand your "life," whatever that means to you. To make your life abundant. For many healthy people, that might include yachts, cars, more travel, more pursuit of hobbies, growing their business, improving their love life (for this, having a harem is probably not a great strategy), improving the world's political situation, expanding knowledge, etc.

I think the viewpoint you're advocating really just reduces to giving up on values, i.e., asceticism.

It's hard to step outside the systems of social domination which suppress dreams, encourage overwork, etc. because they operate from fears which are often so deep-seated we're often not even aware of them. Bringing those fears into the light and unlearning the reactions they trigger is the main goal of spiritual practice (at least of mine.) This sort of emotional study and training is on the critical path for all of the desiderata pg lists (again, at least for me) and would have to precede them on my todo list, if I had one for this sort of thing.

Something my teacher wrote along these lines: http://www.unfetteredmind.org/learned-helplessness/0

  Can learned helplessness be undone? Well, that’s the big question,
  isn’t it? The answer is “Yes.” The cost, however, is high. We can only
  undo learned helplessness by severing our internal connection with the
  system that gave rise to it.
  Our motivation must be clear and strong. We must really want to hear
  and respond to our own questions about life. We must really want to
  live our own life and not one prescribed by our family, society,
  culture, profession or tradition. Metaphorically, we must be willing
  to go north, the direction that takes us out of society. We must be
  willing to endure pain, know from direct experience, act on what we
  see and receive what happens. We must yearn to experience what is
  without relying on anything to confirm our existence.

A big problem is that the fears are not all irrational, either, at least not in all circumstances. For many people on HN, they might be, but on average we tend to have pretty marketable skills and middle-class backgrounds (with some exceptions). I think for a lot of people it's unfortunately the case that making yourself look as much like a shiny cog as possible really is the best strategy to making a decent living.

In sheer numbers, the largest path out of poverty is a pretty mundane one: find a stable middle-class job in a large company. There are more exciting rags-to-riches stories, but rags-to-decent-paycheck stories are a lot more numerous and high-probability. So, maximizing attractiveness to large companies is probably the highest-probability way out of poverty. And, large companies are large machines whose hiring processes usually aim to acquire new cogs that can be inserted into the machine as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

Another tool for designing out choices is called "Nudge" [1]

By a nudge we mean anything that influences our choices. A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front. We think that it's time for institutions, including government, to become much more user-friendly by enlisting the science of choice to make life easier for people and by gentling nudging them in directions that will make their lives better.

"Most people know they should save money, but many don’t save enough and may not even be sure what amount is enough. Most savings advice goes against human nature and asks people to make complex calculations. To help people save, nudge them. When it is time for employees to enroll in your firm’s retirement plan, make signing up the default. People can choose not to sign up or can quit any time, but inertia and the status quo conspire to keep them from doing what’s good for them. Try a “Save More Tomorrow” program that “invites participants to commit themselves in advance to a series of [savings account] contribution increases” as their wages rise. This approach recognizes that people fear loss, and may perceive savings as a loss of disposable income, so it links increases in their savings rate to parallel increases in their salaries. When people earn more, the company automatically deducts more in savings. They don’t have to decide to save."

Set up choices in a way that takes advantage of how humans make decisions. You can nudge people in beneficial directions. To facilitate better decisions, design a default option that benefits people unless they explicitly choose otherwise.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Nudge-Improving-Decisions-Health-Happi...


quick summary - http://www.slideshare.net/sgmitch/nudge09

Interesting, but I think we're talking about very different things. You're talking about engineering systems which manipulate people into doing things you think are good for them, and I'm talking about largely undoing the system's scope for such manipulation, by undoing the internal mechanisms by which such systems operate.

The other post currently at the top of HN is about the poster's fear that by pursuing entrepreneurial ambitions now they are setting themselves up for economic irrelevancy in a few years' time. The top comment in that thread is currently from an experienced programmer saying that he has almost never had the optimal skillset for any job market of the last three decades, yet never been unemployed. That's the kind of fear which turns someone into a cog, and the kind of thing you have to undo to live out pg's desiderata.

The word "nudge" reminded me of a motivational speech I had to give in Speech 101 back in uni. I called mine "Small Balls" (for lack of a better term) and basically went on to explain why you don't necessarily have to have "a big pair" to experience something new. If you routinely step a just a little bit out of your comfort zone, you thereby create new and larger comfort zones. This process can be repeated as much as you like and I actually used my own theory to give the speech since I wasn't exactly comfortable getting up in front of an audience.

5 most common regrets reflect what most people do.

If majority of people worked as entrepreneurs not cogs they would have different list of 5 regrets. But they would still have list of 5 most common regrets. Only different ones.

I think that people when they die usually regret the way they lived because they all dreamt about something different.

The only way not to regret anything is never dream and be happy with whatever hits you and with whatever comes out of your efforts.

>> The only way not to regret anything is never dream and be happy with whatever hits you and with whatever comes out of your efforts. <<

It is also non-accidentally the only way to live for a religious person. The thought that you can regret anything does not bring you closer to the heaven. God gives God takes - you just keep the books.

You only get one life: use it wisely.

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a man, then aged 85. Outwardly successful, he took over and ran the family textiles business his father had built, raised a family -- "but did you enjoy the job?" I asked. Because before joining the family business he first did a degree in electrical engineering -- in the 1940s -- and joined an engineering consultancy, and worked in it for some time. "No," he said, somewhat sadly.

That's not to say that he had a bad life, but he'd let his father drag him into a line of work that wasn't his dream, and grew old dutifully following it. He was a ho-hum director of a company in a decaying old-world sector, while what he'd wanted to be was an engineer.

So my advice (for what it's worth, after 47 years of trying to figure life out for myself) would be: work out what you enjoy doing, then do it. Don't put it off until later, and don't let a false sense of duty lead you down a dead-end occupation. Don't chase an end goal, because if you get it you'll then have to figure out what to do with the rest of your life; build your life around the journey, not the destination.

I think anything you do for a lifetime has a very good chance of becoming "ho hum." After 25 years in the field, I am starting to feel that way more and more about software development. You see the same ideas come up over and over. The same wheels reinvented over and over, but differently enough that you have to take one step back to take two steps forward. I wonder if it's really possible to for most of us to reach age 65, and if we've spent that time in one field or line of work to not feel some regrets about what we might have done. It might well be that these "deathbed confessions of things I wish I had done differently" are largely unavoidable.

You pluck the low-hanging fruit early in your career.

This doesn't mean there isn't scope for new thinking and originality; it just means that it's much harder to do something original, and it will take you longer and make you sweat more.

The real mind-death is a job which delivers no challenges and consists of endless repetition.

I once did something similar, except inverted.

I'd put at the bottom of my to-do list "...Die unfulfilled and unhappy"

I figured seeing that at the bottom of my to-do list would remind me to make sure it doesn't happen. And maybe even rethink the items on top.

So logically, by completing all your items on the todo list, you die unfulfilled and unhappy. Where's the incentive there?!

How about you put something like this at the bottom...

    n-1)Immediately think of something important
        and meaningful to do, and add it above.
    n)...Die unfulfilled and unhappy


Well, the idea is that he won't reach the end of the list. So, two more items at the end will make no difference except add only more backlog!

I'm stuck whether to call this optimistic or pessimistic, but I can sure call it clever.

It's sort of like the mental trick of deciding by seeing what you hope for in a coin toss. [0]

If the line seems really dissonant with the rest of the list you're probably fine, if it doesn't, or even seems to naturally progress from it, you should seriously rethink what you're doing. [1]

[0] First result I got: http://positivemed.com/2012/04/15/when-faced-with-two-choice...

[1] At least if it's the latter.

I wonder a few things about this...

1) Is it a given that our regrets, when death is close, are wiser than the choices we made when death seemed further away?

We clearly choose to do things like move away from our family and friends, to follow spouses, chase careers, have different lifestyles. And that keeps us occupied for decades.

If we chose to do none of that, or less of it, would be feel like we were in a rut all our lives? Maybe you'd still feel alone when you were dying, because you never set out in the world to find people who really understood you.

Maybe you always feel alone when you're dying and there's nothing you can do about it.

I'm just exploring this idea for the sake of testing it; actually I do not doubt the article's wisdom so much here. But my next concern, I believe in a bit more.

2) I wonder how many of these regrets are due to the systems we live under.

It seems to me that even a few hundred years ago, "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends." would be absurd. You'd be sick to death of how close your friends were (in the 1300s, perhaps literally). Americans are particularly likely to move long distances, though.

And as for living a life true to oneself, and expressing oneself -- would you even think of such things if your horizon was one town, or one tribe? Maybe you'd have to be far more discreet, without the refuge of a large city, or other forms of anonymity.

As for not working so hard, that seems to be the most tied to whatever our political and economic systems are.

This is about priority. I'd argue that while this reminder is nice, it doesn't go far enough, it is too passive.

Actively working towards those goals is the only way you'll actually achieve them. Instead of putting these generic statements at the top of your list, put some concrete action or goal there.

This is something I'm trying to live right now. A month ago I quit my job [1] to travel the world after having saved and dreamed about it for years. During the time I was dreaming we put together a plan, set aside money, and tried to reign in expenses. All tangible actions that lead to an end.

[1] http://orofino.me/homeless-and-jobless-travelling-the-world/

Objectives in the negative have a bad effect on the brain according to NLP so

"Don't ignore your dreams; don't work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy."

Can be better expressed as: " pursue your dreams, get appropriate rest and relaxation, say what... "

(if you believe in NLP)

I'm not sure whether belief in NLP is a matter of taste : The techniques are basically a distillation of what therapists (notably Erickson) have uncovered during hypnosis. To further amplify your point, the unconscious mind doesn't seem to be any good at parsing logical statements - so things that one 'says to oneself' should be cast straightforwardly.

At its most basic, the command "Don't think of a pink unicorn" brings to the surface exactly what you don't want. Drilling yourself to process 'bad stuff' unconsciously is (as you said) counterproductive.

"Don't ignore your dreams; don't work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy."

Will counter and say, it's impossible to achieve dreams (or the first big exit) without putting your head down, working insane hours, neglecting friends, and being miserable. Need to live the bad times, ultimate lows, to fully realize happiness and no regrets.

The thing about dreams is, they don't need to be achieved; even failing to achieve them is better than not trying - at least you've tried.

I know this, now I have to go out and actually do it.

Although the trying should lead to some fruition. Always trying but never having succeeded would be a pretty sad way to end up. This awareness gives me the stamina to work through all the details it takes to end up with a polished product.

Sure, though when you start a project often times the goal you set out to reach turns out to be the wrong one. Enjoy the journey and be flexible on the goal. The mere act of trying, produces fruits that you didn't expect.

I always loved this quote from Jobs: "...you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future." And they very often do. So be sure to start that project, whatever it may be, just take the next smallest manageable step instead of just thinking about it. Go west and whatever fruits that produces might turn out to be very successful, just not in the way you originally planned.

Pivoting at the right times can lead to success. But I have seen plenty of people just pivot endlessly, because sometimes that's easier than doing all the drudgery work required to carry an idea out fully.

I know most of us have to "fail" many times before we succeed. But if our failures never lead to any real success, then we are doing something wrong.

I agree that achieving your dreams often takes a lot of work, and often at the cost of other aspects of your life. Finding balance is key, but that's easier said than done. I think that's what we're all striving for, but if it was easy we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Personally, I'm working on segmenting my life. When it's time to work, work hard and focused. But remind yourself there's time to play. If you don't play, what's the point of working hard?

If anyone has figured out how to achieve your dreams while maintaining your life balance, please let us know!

Nope. The journey is the destination.

Can you explain further and what the "nope" is in response to that allbombs said?

That might be the wrong dream. Find a dream that balances your other needs, and follow that one.

"Don't ignore your dreams; don't work too much;"

Aren't these two mutually exclusive?

My feeling (caveat: I'm only in my late 20's) is that it's impossible to simultaneously eliminate all the regrets on Ms. Ware's list. If you work really hard in order to chase your dreams, you end up neglecting friends and family for a bit. Stick around among your family and friends, and you don't get to chase your dreams as much.

It's hard to know where the exact boundaries lie such that a satisfying equilibrium is achieved. Makes me wonder if some regret is always inevitable.

Depends what your dreams are. One of my dream was to fly planes. I did learn all that without getting burned out - would not help me much keeping my medical certificate for flying!!! Actually, this was quite some time taking learning, but that doesn't made me put my other social activities aside. How do you define a dream? Do you define your dreams compared to the others, so you have to better than anyone else, and so you have to work like crazy? Or do you define your dreams by achievements you would like to get to yourself, in which case I'd ask you why you can't just adapt your pace to your life?

If you put anything at the top of your to-do list that you don’t _have to_ read and pay attention to you’ll ignore it sooner or later.

Ever invited someone new to your home and been surprised at the things that caught their attention? The things we make permanent fixtures in our environment—unless we have to interact with them or they change—ultimately get accepted and forgotten. Many people really hate to accept this because it means that any positive changes that we create in our life will ultimately be eroded. A solution to this problem is one of my main preoccupations.

In the mean time, the question that should be being asked is how _exactly_ will you live your life differently in order to adhere to these standards? And apply that question to tomorrow, next week, next season, next year, and the next five years. You could try writing a plan but then plans fail because they speculate. Sorry I don’t have any real answers.

I feel that balance, which can be hard to achieve, need a spot on the list. I had a friend who's approach was akin to work hard and be frugal. He was so frugal that he became famous for not cashing his paychecks for weeks. As an engineer he made very good money. He saved most of it and had been buying gold and silver as investments for the last 20 years. He and his wife were going to move to Hawaii and enjoy life. On his last trip there to buy a house he went for a swim out of the same beach they had visited for years. And he never came back.

This is an extreme example of a case where lack of balance produced the wrong outcome. He did not enjoy a lot of things in life because of his extreme focus on frugality.

Seek balance.

I think many of us mistake expressing our feelings with saying whatever comes to mind which can lead to a bigger wreck than ignoring or suppressing them.

I would change it to: don't ignore your feelings. How you act on them is where wisdom comes in.

My dad died when he was 49, I'm 27.

49 - 27 = 22;

Keeping that in mind gets me moving every day. Enjoy the time that you have, build great things and do great stuff.

I wanted to make a poster of this for myself so I did. Sharing in case anyone else might wanna use it, you're more than welcome. All respect to Paul Graham & Bronnie Ware.

There's a 26" x 39" poster version, in case you happen to have a big-ass printer around, and an 8.5" x 11" smaller version if you're normal. http://cloud.ejfox.com/G1IE

Also available in black: http://cloud.ejfox.com/G1Wm

Thanks! I noticed others in this thread saying it's better to avoid negatives. For example, "Pursue your dreams" instead of "Don't ignore your dreams". Can you make a positive version of this poster?

I think "say what you think" is fundamentally different than "not suppressing your feelings." I think suppressing your feelings goes deeper, into the inner person and getting in touch with who you really are and why you feel what you feel. But saying what you think is a lot easier. It's what a lot of know-it-all people do. You just say what's on your mind but that doesn't mean you're really paying attention to what you're feeling.

I would change "cultivate friendships" to "cultivate relationships". With family, friends, acquaintances, etc. And I'd also add "Focus on your health"

It's funny because most of these are problems I don't have yet affect me because others do have them.

You forget your dreams

Never. I live for my dreams.

ignore your family

Out of college the first startup concept I attempted was a family social network (family tree, photos, blog). How great would it be to use tech to possibly keep families together? I learned that women and new families loved it, but men seemed to be apathetic. "You spend time with your family?" "Of course" "Good, because a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man."

suppress your feelings

I try to keep people around me who don't mind listening to how I feel. Don't be a complainer, but don't hesitate to express yourself.

neglect your friends

The president of my high school class surprised me when he told me he has to make such an effort to get people to hang out. It is a challenge to know if you have a healthy friendship if you are always initiating the get-togethers.

forget to be happy

Of all, this seems to be the most difficult. If you aren't making progress with the other four, certainly this point will be true.

I can't think of any regrets that I have. There are things that seriously annoy me about my life, like I am deeply in debt, homeless and trying to declare bankruptcy/find some solution for my financial problems. But I got into this mess by getting myself and my children healthy when the world says that cannot be done. It annoys the fool out of me that there is no support for what I have done but I could milk the system for scads of money if I took the conventional course of treatment. It just makes no sense. It is so not right. What I have done is both cheaper and more effective than conventional treatments. And no one cares, neither about my plight nor about how to replicate my accomplishment for others. The whole thing makes me crazy.

But regrets? That would suggest I made the wrong choices. Given the hand I was dealt, I cannot think of a single thing I "should" have done differently.

So no regrets, in spite of wanting to spit nails about my situation.

I remember where in one of Vonnegut's books, he describes life not as some fixed end-result in time to be celebrated or mourned, but a process, something you could visualize as a roughly drawn line taking all sorts of directions through time, alongside other lines, often interacting with some of them, creating effects, and finally terminating.

I suppose, in some sense, it's not far off from our idea of a process running on a computer, often interacting with other processes, launching other processes, eventually terminating.

Taking that further, one way to look at this is that life is really a process, running on our software (genetic code), which we have some control over (somehow). We literally are code that writes code, albeit very slowly, over generations. And perhaps that what we really want is to able to look back at what we've etched into this big computer's (i.e. the world's shared) memory and be proud of it.

I'm very curious what these principles are optimizing for. If they successfully produce the certain kind of life pg desires, how is that life qualified?

It seems like this method optimizes for happiness, as well as some kind of self determination. I'm curious if happiness is differentiated from pleasure, or contentment.

I'd be concerned that based on the derivation of these rules that they actually are tuned to minimize regret at the end of one's life. If I had the choice between, say, twice as much pleasure throughout my life, but pangs of regret at the end, or a less pleasurable life that I felt satisfied with at the end, it would be a pretty difficult decision for me.

edit: downvote? really? to clarify, I'm not criticizing the article. I just want to think through the assumptions that underly it, both to know more clearly what they are and then to evaluate the ruleset by evaluating the goals it's working towards.

As a person who is currently pretty much paralyzed by anxiety attacks I can vouch for the "don't work too much" part. Even though the cause of my distress was actually a mixture of work and fun. It sounds counterintuitive but doing stuff you like and being happy can actually be quite stressful.

Please remember to take vacations and the like.

Freaky. I had exactly the same reaction when I read that list a couple of years ago. It really reminding me of some of the conversations I had with my dad just before he died, and I knew I didn't want to have those regrets.

At the top of my to do list is:

Honour dreams. Work less. Speak honestly. Have friends. Be happy.

I like the sentiments expressed in the post and hope that on my deathbed I will not regret "not having spent more time with my children".

I think, though, I would regret it more if on my deathbed I thought "My children did not get the opportunity to attend University because we could not afford it", or "If I had the money to send them to a better school, they may have had more opportunities".

I also would not like to be a burden on my children if I became sick because I did not have enough money saved to pay for medical care or whatever other care I need.

In my fifties, when there are redundancies, I don't want to be the one they say "while all the other workers are prepared to put in the hard yards, he's the one that always leaves at 5:00" or miss out on promotions because the others work longer hours than me.

This reminds me of Neil DeGrasse's Tyson's "two main philosophies in life": http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/qccer/i_am_neil_degras...

To me this one looks buggy

> don't work too much

It implies "chillin' out" which is fine occasionally but will not achieve goal 5 "be happy" if over-used.

We put a lot of effort into planning, organising and executing our work lives and many of us are good at. The parallel tendency is ignoring our outside-of-work lives.

I'd postulate if we put the same kind of techniques we apply to work to our personal lives, it would be far more fulfilling than "chillin' out".

I'd also postulate it's a zero sum game - in any given time frame, e.g a week, we only have so much energy, desire and time to invest in being successful, planning, organizing etc.

So I'd propose changing "don't work too much" to

> reduce the effort put into work and invest that effort in personal life instead

Not so catchy unfortunately.

This article is so unsubstantiated...

1. These are the regrets of the dying. Maybe that it's not the best state of mind to make decisions about your life.

2. The regrets are so generic that every one could see himself in these circumstances, like with oroscopes.

3. It's not explained what it means to be a cog. Am I a cog? Is it possible to never be a cog? How?

4. It is implyied that having a family, dreams and feelings as priorities is a good thing. Maybe it's not.

5. In general, it makes the same error it is trying to avoid, omission. If you are living your life and you are not happy, don't have a family or many friends, maybe it's because you are doing something more important than those.

6. You could be happy and, at the same time, not doing the right thing.

pg, you should definitely learn something about cultures that are not so self centered then the american one. Your post reads like a prove of a mathematical system that only uses parts of it's own system. Of course it sounds logical.

Paul was born in the UK.

His "system" is universal. So you don't have family or friends in Europe or business owners in Asia?

It may not fit your vision of reality, but it's certainly not only American.

It's difficult for me to see people that don't spend time with their friends and family, never go after their dreams, and work the same boring job for 20+ years not having regrets when they get to the end of their lives.

I'd have thought the top regret of the dying would be, "I wish I wasn't dying."

GET AWAY FRO0M THESE MACHINES JUST A LITTLE BIT MORE! I think technology has created this vacuum where everything around you no longer exists and you find yourself in a place of isolation. To all those like myself jumping from machines at home, to iphones on the train, to machines at work, to iphones on the way home, to machines while you eat dinner, to iphones as you lay in the bed, and finally you wake up and the first thing you do is reach for your iphone. Let's make a serious effort to spend more quality time away from the machines before it is too late!

I found this article a few months back and was struck by its simplicity and big-picture view. We would be crazy to not try to learn from those ahead of us since we only get one pass at this.

I sent it around to some friends and, oddly, a common response was "You're too young (I'm 30) to be thinking about death." How ironic. We don't want to think about the end until its thrust upon us, but by then its too late to change course. I like the inversion you did. Its a good reminder to live life intentionally.

Its like getting consistent physical exercise, isn't it?

Keeping fit should be a priority - we feel happier, fitter, more relaxed after a workout. Yet its easy to laze around, sometimes checking email, hn, finding excuses to not go in today.

In Ms. Ware's essay - consciously choosing happiness is a very intelligent thought. On some days I feel miserable, then I look around (I am in India). I thank heavens for a wonderful life. Being miserable, then appears to be a choice.

Ah, that most Western of ideas — that to get consistent physical exercise it is necessary to "go in" for a "workout."

I am in Delhi (have also lived in San Francisco). Actually in SF, it was easy to remain fit, by just walking 7-8 miles after work with friends up and down the hills.

In Delhi (at least in my part of town), its unsafe to walk/cycle in streets due to bad driving and traffic. better to go to a public park or a gym. So yeah, its the east where rapid urbanization isn't leaving space for a random walk.

Here is my advice to change your defaults.

You want to lose weight? Throw away all your junk food. You want more time? Get rid of your TV. You want to be with your family more often? Live close to them.

I don't have practical advices for how to not ignore your dreams, not suppress your feelings, not neglect your friends, and not forget to be happy. But I am sure there can be similar advices for these, I just lack the creativity.

Sometimes HN really feels like a Tim Robbins seminar.

Ahem, I take it you mean Tony Robbins?

And now for the hard part.

don't ignore your dreams: build yourself in new ways that initially seem wrong or stupid.

don't work too much: be less materialistic but push your limit.

say what you think: don't take shit, ask questions, think what you do.

cultivate friendships: real bridges don't burn and avoid schadenfreude.

be happy: be prepared to let go of what you know to be true and strive for health.

Nice reminder to constantly put work/life in perspective. Shifting from defaults can certainly be tricky when you're jumping from one thing to the next and losing yourself in the monotony of it all. There definitely is a problem here, as well as room for a better technological solution. Opportunity for a startup, perhaps?

Brian Leiter wrote about this on his philosophy blog and solicited comments from readers. http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2012/04/what-would-you...

"Don't be a cog."

Inserted as the subtitle at the top of my TiddlyWiki organizer (my rolling ToDo list), and linked to pg's essay.

> I would like to avoid making these mistakes. But how do you avoid mistakes you make by default?

I try to do it by challenging a lot of what I think, almost all the time. It's a solution, although it's very taxing.

(I'd like to say I challenge everything always, but I likely have some blind spots)

#4 seems to explain a lot of the success that Facebook has had. FB may not be the best venue to maintain truly meaningful relationships but it serves an innate human need and does so at scale, which is why it is so valuable.

I would just change all these to the positive form rather than the negative form of what you're trying to avoid. Any thought of what you're trying to avoid just perpetuates it.

Don't ignore your dreams => Live your dreams

Don't work too much => Have fun

Say what you think

Cultivate friendships

Be happy.

>But how do you avoid mistakes you make by default?

For me, this is what mindfulness is all about. A mindfulness practice gradually develops the ability to be in the present moment and be aware of the choices you are making.

I think that the fifth rule, be happy, is either:

- a guiding principle by which the other four rules are derived or... - the effect of following the previous four rules

I don't think of "be happy" as a rule so much in itself.

I think that, more often than not, being happy requires choosing to be happy. There are far too many unplanned moments in life where, even if you've followed the other four rules, you will not be happy unless you actively choose to make lemonade out of your lemons.

That's true. People who say "I'm bored" are usually boring people. Many first- world people who are unhappy on a daily basis just have little sense of agency. This isn't meant to blame those people; many people are told to follow their dreams by adults who have given up on their own dreams. Few people are explicitly taught how to follow their dreams.

And then there's those of us who never really had anything resembling a lifelong dream in the first place. Calling it boredom is an understatement, sounds more like acedia.

I think this is a great point. The key to happiness is not planning, because life will not accommodate those plans. The key is to be flexible when life happens. Anyone remember the book "Who Moved My Cheese?"

Many people have a hard time realizing they are happy. It is all too easy, especially for hacker types, to continuously focus on 'the problems' or things that can be improved or tweaked. Its hard to know you are happy if you never stop and smell the roses.

Forking the list: Don't tie your dreams to objects; work enough to keep you satisfied; don't be an arrogant prick; build effective relationships; be happy.

I think tlb perhaps disagrees: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1644285

I'm glad PG is finding the time to write essays more frequently. Maybe this is a result of finding the time to do the things that make him happier.

More importantly and likely implicit...

"Have Dreams, Work Hard, Think for Yourself, Speak Up, Be Friendly...and you will live a happy and productive life!"

The best concise system to avoid having these 5 regrets I've heard of is 'SSS' : sport, sex, sleep. Everything else is optional.

Only successful people can say "don't work too much." The cruel reality is success comes from hard and overtime work.

"We're making the same mistakes we made 1,000 years ago. So they must be the right ones. So relax." -Chuck Palahniuk

Does it really matter if you die unhappy?

I have a similar message that gets echoed ever time I open my shell. It's the journey, not the destination.

When I die, I hope I won't regret not spending enough time with my family. This is a reminder for me.

Dream, relax, express, love, enjoy.

"Don't ignore your dreams"

Especially re-occurring ones, but the first step is to remember your dreams.

I wonder which 1 of the 5 mistakes PG is least likely to make.

Agreed, however my wake up alarm its named "Now or Never".

Or you could work to end aging.

Hi from hell! Good list y'all.

That list is now in my .plan

Hey! Paul Graham uses a text file as a todo list like me!

Hi from hell

repent and be baptized in the name of the Messiah

So, can you offer me and everyone else a nice job that makes all of this possible? That makes it possible to NOT be a cog? Or is this just another set of advice that only the privileged ones can afford to heed...

Hunter S. Thompson is the only one who had it right.

> Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!"

6. Use hypens when you spell "to-do list".

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