Life is long. Contrary to what the feel-good charlatans of self-improvement often preach, it can certainly be boring from time to time. The onus is on each individual to make his life a thing to be admired. Often, I find that it can be hard to keep the big picture of life in my mind. In the endless cycle of work and sleep and eat it is often hard to remember that you’ve always wanted to see Venice, that one more year has elapsed without a Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Therefore, it is helpful to write things down. To keep them urgent, to send notice to yourself that death is ever approaching and your long cyclical life needs to be punctuated by amazing things no matter what it takes. The list is in no particular order. It is geared towards men. Some of them I have done personally and others I aspire to do. I hope you’ll leave a comment at the end and tell us all what percentage you’ve done and whether or not you agree with the items on the list. These are but the first twenty-five, so be on the look our for part two coming soon.
- Listen to an old person tell you about their life
Sometimes an old man will beat you over the head with his own experiences. For the most part of your life, you should smile and nod politely, and then do the thing that you were going to do anyway. The wise become so by trial and error, not by listening to old men. And yet, there is wisdom in the aged none the less. For this reason, set aside a specific time to actually listen, absorb, and reflect on the history of the seasoned veteran of life, the old salt, or even that geriatric drunkard who never shuts up.
- Read Shakespeare
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”
-from Julius Caesar
- Build something for a child
Both aspects of this one important. First, build something. Knowing how to make something with your hands will stand you in good stead in a whole slew of zombie/apocalyptic scenarios. The second part of this is also important. While I don’t suggest having kids of your own until you’ve fulfilled your own personal bucket list, building that clubhouse or derby car (do they even still do that?) for a young person is still an enriching experience. If you can’t build, teach them something, inform them of something. Just don’t preach too much.
- New York’s Museums
‘If I’d lived in Roman times, I’d have lived in Rome. Today, America is the Roman Empire, and New York is Rome itself. New York is the center of the earth.” – John Lennon
As a southerner and a world traveler, I only begrudgingly agree with John Lennon. Down here there is a distaste for New York-centricity which is warranted. They get all the resources, the recognition, the federal help when there is a disaster, while we here in the sleepy south function more like a colony of the great empire of America. But when you go there and see what it is, you find it hard not to admit the truth— it is a treasure trove of human culture, history, art, and fairly anything that man has wrought can be found there in the highest quality.
If New York is the center of Western culture, it could be said that China is the center of the East. In fact, the word for “China” in many Eastern languages translates to “middle” or “center” country.
And you simply have to see it. There are few places more epic, more swiftly changing, more human and yet alien to we western types. It is a churning, building, growing, pissing and shitting mass of humanity that is rumbling from the basement of history. China bursts forth on the visitor, moaning like some tragic dragon from the depths of what it means to be a country, a people, a culture, a human.
- Get your heart broken
Pain is an important thing for any man – absorbing it, enduring it, learning to not let it move you. We grow up inculcated with so many Disney tropes, so many rom-com clichés, so many well-meaning females telling us to “just be yourself” that most of us make it to eighteen a bit too far on the starry-eyed and hopeless romantic side.
Your relationship with women will never be healthy until your illusions about romance and dating are violently shattered.
Some might learn these things in more natural ways, but they are the exception in modern, western society. Getting your heart broken young and deeply will help you grow in meaningful ways.
- Write a book
Being a man who thrives in the world means knowing something. Whatever that something might happen to be, a mind is made richer by sharing its knowledge with others though communication of thoughts and ideas and interests. With self-publishing and internet access being what they are, there is no better time in human history to put pen to paper and share what it is you know. Just make sure to hire an editor (some of you; you know who you are).
- Almost die
You should almost die. No, I’m not advising you to go around searching for danger. If you live an adventurous life, it will at some point find you. In fact, it is a challenge to think of any adventure story in which the protagonist does not risk death at some point. The very word adventure is synonymous with risk. While I wouldn’t suggest that anyone be reckless or stupid, your whole life is made richer and more profound by every brush you have with the specter of death. It will teach you to appreciate every aspect of being alive that much more.
- Give a performance
I was going to write than you should learn an instrument or be in a play, but these specific niches leave a lot of people out who aren’t inclined to those particulars. What I would suggest, for each and every man, is that he learn how to perform something and perform it well. Whether it is a long and epic story told by the fireside, a country song on the ukulele, or even a favorite joke. Learn to entertain people and your life will be much richer.
- Be lonely
Humans are communal animals, and when we commune with others we get surges of brain chemicals that make us feel well-satisfied.
While a satisfied life is important, it is also important to take some time to be hungry once in a while, particularly if you want to learn to appreciate that porterhouse.
And you will learn and grow if you are hungry. It is for this same reason that young braves were forced onto their vision quests, alone and without food for days at a time, in order to temper their dispositions until they returned to the tribe with a cast-iron will.
To know what it means to be lonely will make you a better, more appreciative and sturdier person.
A lot of people never experience this. They tend to crumple more easily once the support they’ve so long depended on gives way for some reason.
We live in skyscrapers now. We push a button and get fresh water, information, microwaved burritos.
I’m no luddite, but I have found that the more complete your disconnect from the soil beneath your feet gets, the more entitled you become to things which no one should take for granted.
The fish you catch yourself and cook over a campfire you built is going to taste sweeter than that thirty dollar sushi you get delivered.
In fact, a bit of time in the woods makes the whole of life sweeter.
- Live abroad
I’ve talked a great extent about the importance of being alone in a strange place . The best way to do this is simply to spend some time living and working abroad. If you are an English speaking westerner, there are tons of opportunities to do so.
Being the foreigner, the minority, and sometimes even the outcast is a profoundly altering experience of loneliness. You will learn that there are things that link us as humans, and that many of them are negatives: our fear, our anger, our tribalism. At the end of it you will see that we can’t be any other way, and despite the many flavors of culture and history, we are all of us linked in a kind of ugly perfection. The clarity of that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life, and make you a more tolerant person when you return to your newly appreciated homeland.
- Try (some) drugs
I was conflicted on whether I would give this blanket piece of advice to whoever stumbles onto my writing, but after some thought decided that it is solid (with caveats).
I’m not suggesting that you make it a point to delve into the world of drug use, not at all. In fact, I would posit the idea that real caution, thought, and study needs to be taken before ingesting anything foreign into your body.
However, a life spent without bending one’s consciousness from time to time is a life spent on the tip of the iceberg of your own mind. It is like owning a three bedroom home but spending all your time in the Living-room only. There are so many thoughts and feelings that we just aren’t built to naturally experience. Sometimes a bit of tweaking is necessary to see what is behind door number two.
- Own a home/land
This one might not be possible for all people, and a life spent financially poor is not inferior to one spent wealthy in terms of richness or profundity. However, I wouldn’t recommend being poor if you can at all help it. And if you find yourself in a position to stop renting and actually get a place of your own, you should make sacrifices to see that come to pass. You might be thinking that this piece of non-advice is fairly obvious, and it is. However, the things that owning property teaches you are myriad. There is a sense of pride, of self reliance, of genuine contentment in having your own piece of dirt. It will teach you how to keep things, how to fix things, and give you a sense of yourself and how you like things in a way that few other human experiences will. Make it a life goal. You can always rent it if you decide to take off somewhere. Oh, and don’t put anyone else’s name on the deed unless they are paying half. You’d be surprised how many people make this mistake. Love is a hell of a thing.
If you are reading this then you speak a remote tribal dialect that, over the course of centuries, became the lingua franca for the world and the language spoken in more countries than any other (58). English and Englishness, if you are a westerner, comprises a large part of your cultural makeup. And you must go.
You must see the oldness of the things that man’s hand has wrought, the maps in which each glen and field has a name and story older than the living memory of humanity. It is a place where every inch is a piece of the long tapestry of who and what we are.
Say what you will about colonialism. While it is a horrid thing to be sure, any group of people would have done it if they were capable of doing so. England did it, and left a scar on the world in doing so that colors all of western thought and experience.
But you don’t have to think about all that, just stop by the Saracen’s Head for a pint, climb the Gummer’s How and look out over Lake Wyndemere, give your leftover fish and chips to buskers on the high street. England is green and beautiful.
- Learn to be really good at something
Every man needs a skill, whether it is in his hands or in his mind. It reminds you that we are not intrinsically valuable, but that our worth is often viewed as what we are able to do, build and create. While I don’t necessarily agree with this, it is absolutely how the world views you as a man. There are men out there who devote their whole lives to doing one thing very well. There are too many beautiful things to do and see in the world to do that, in my opinion, but a lot of men derive their purest satisfaction from a job expertly done. A good skill is never taken for granted.
- Foreign language
I’ve always loved the tower of babel story for the accurate way it pins many of the frustrations of man on the too-numerous movements of his tongue.
Taking the indecipherable babel and, through hard study and diligent scholarship, illuminating it, gives you a feeling of joy, triumph, and human connection in a way that so few other things will.
For bonus points, make it a far-flung language. Go to the place where it is spoken. Buy strawberries in the market with the alien words. Haggle a cheaper price with the old woman using flattering honorifics. The word “foreign” will lose all meaning for you ever after.
- Mardi Gras in New Orleans
I’ve tried to keep the list as personally unbiased as possible, but in certain ways and aspects a writer’s sentimental notions can’t be kept off of the page. The affection I have for New Orleans is one such prejudice. It is a dirty, crime-filled swamp of a place. And yet few locales have as much character, as much sweetness, as much life. I’m not the only writer to feel this way.
“America has three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” – Tennessee Williams
- Flip something
There is a certain competence required to buy something cheaply, fix it up, and market it to people who are willing to pay more for it. Whether it is something as mundane as garage sale books or something as impressive as a California Baroque mansion, becoming so expert in a niche that you can pull this off will teach you much about how our capitalist world works. After all, if you can’t change the world for the better you might as well learn how to climb to the top of the pile of humanity.
- The jungle
The jungle is loud at night. The monkeys call to each other across the groves, and the scuttle of everything underfoot can be deafening in the echo chamber that the canopy makes. The darkness is complete. There are still wild places on the earth. Find them before it is too late.
Guns are a tool, and for every idiot that leaves a loaded Glock in the backseat with their child, there is a person who knows and understands responsible gun use. Knowing how to use that tool will save you a lot of pain should the situation where it is necessary ever arise.
You always eat what you kill and I don’t support sport hunting. If you eat meat, you owe it to the animals to see what it actually takes. You, from a million year old line of human hunters, are made to do it. Separation from the harsh realities of the world profits a man nothing. Seek not to keep your hands clean.
- New Zealand Great Walks
The most beautiful country in the world is, in this writer’s opinion, unquestionably New Zealand. Imagine England with a mix of Norwegian fjords and Polynesian jungles. In this loveliest of countries they have what they call “Great walks” that encompass some of the most breathtaking hiking (or tramping as the Kiwis call it) in the world.
- Learn the history of your country
The story of humanity is insane. Imagine, a troop of monkeys in the forest over the eons collecting more tools and knowledge until their complexity grew so great that they created a government and then a country. This happened independently all over the world of course, and though the individual countries will have vastly different histories, each story contains its own pearls of wisdom regarding the human animal. To be a citizen of the world is to know how the world was wrought.
- Run a race
Running (Link) is the cornerstone of self improvement – both mental and physical, and the pinnacle of any lonely jogging practice is a day at the races. Whether a full on marathon or just a 5k, the thrill of lining up with hundreds of people feeling that same potential, that same pent up tense energy ready to spring is an amazing feeling. And then the gunshot. The unleashing of a human surge. The thundering energy that exists only for the sake of being energy, latent power gone wildly kinetic. Then the slog, the huffs of men and women in self-fulfilling pain. You’ll break personal records and ache for weeks all over, and you won’t be able to wait until you get to do it again.
- Learn to lose gracefully
The secret to life is losing. You lose your city. Your wife. Your friends. Your parents. Your car keys. Your good looks. You lose at poker and monopoly and job interviews and there is always someone out there who is a thousand times better than you at whatever it is you do.
Life is about losing, and those of us who are able to stand up straight under the heavy burden of bereavement are the only ones able to drink of human existence down to the last drops. The strange elixir of sadness and beauty must be swallowed down with gusto, with a yawp of satisfaction and not a grimaced whisper.
Check out the second part of the list, coming soon!