Successful living is a difficult task. I’m not talking survival, which has its own challenges, but flourishing with a working balance of security, growth, connection, and contribution. Success requires us to possess core living skills.
In 1987, I packed my little red Datsun 510 hatchback with all my possessions and headed to California to begin a thirty-year adventure. With no college education or place to live, only driven by a heart full of dreams, I left home, expecting success to be easy, freely available for any eager adventurer. I was wrong. The years that followed my innocent and courageous journey twisted my soul, challenging old resolves, and, at times, threatening my existence. I survived.
Flourishing Requires Skill
Maybe the arrogance of youth—or just stupidity—prevented a wiser approach. I’ve watched (and tried to assist) my three children as they travel from childhood dependency to mature self-sufficiency, hoping they would experience an easier path to happiness and success. I watched as their paths, often impeded by obstacles, challenged their wills, tested their resolves and interfered with their dreams.
My conclusion: life is not easy. Successfully navigating the peaks and canyons requires skill, luck and plenty of assistance.
We consistently engage in basic life transactions. We encounter choice after choice, each with payoffs and costs, each impacting our future and the futures of others.
Life is Complex
Many scientific studies examine these transactions that enlighten our understanding, exposing childhood deceptions, and identifying the involved biological circuitry. As a psychological, behavioral, biological, and sociological junkie, I’m starting to get small glimpses of the complexity. Even after a couple of decades of intense study I can’t claim a clear vision, understanding the grand purpose of it all; nor can I explain why it is we do what we do; but I understand that there is much more than the many versions of simplicity often presented by religions, life coaches, and cunning politicians.
Life is complex. And within the complexity lies the answers to cause and effect.
Books on Successful Living
We Can Make Wise Choices in Uncertainty
But even in the confusion of infinite elements, when we boil it all down, burning off the fluff, scraping away bias, and accepting many contributing factors are impossible to unveil, we still can make choices that improve our lives.
Throughout the weeks, months and years, we make thousands of choices (some more important than others) that influence our futures. The science of human behavior that gives insight into action, only projects a blurry image. The predictive crystal ball of episodic foresight is general and subject to error. We must succeed amidst contending answers and the constant flow of unpredictable and destructive forces.
But I get that life is complex. And within the complexity lies the answers to cause and effect.~T. Franklin Murphy
“All of us have hard decisions to make at times in our lives; not all of them will be right, and not all of them will be wise” remind Carroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson. “Some are complicated, with consequences we could never have foreseen. If we can resist the temptation to justify our actions in a rigid, overconfident way, we can leave the door open to empathy and an appreciation of life’s complexity” (2020, Kindle location 3,579).
Natural Laws and Basic Core Transactions
But to live a good life, no matter what our past provided, or the support available, we must succeed in core life transactions, developing skills, avoiding common downfalls, and creating connections.
We can blame, protecting our ego by justifying poor choices; but the justifications, while soothing our soul, don’t invalidate the natural consequences. For a college degree, we must study, learn and sacrifice. For financial security, we must earn, budget and save. And for relationship security, we must keep commitments, have loving kindness, and communicate.
If we fail in the core transactions, then all our could-have, would have, should have explanations, won’t change the outcome, they just justify the failure.
We don’t always know the significance of a basic transactions at the moment—whether a choice has serious implications on the future or not. Often, the importance of an experience, a choice or a relationship fails to materialize until several years have passed—much too late to reformulate our efforts and reorganize priorities.
We must work through the consequences the past (combined with the complex influence of the unknowns) has created. We foolishly want to blaze our own path, thinking we can deviate from proven techniques, and succeed by the great gifts of personal wisdom that we have amassed during our first twenty-years of life.
We Must Develop Core Living Skills
Life is much too complex for this shotgun approach. We prepare for the unknown by developing core living skills to effectively make decisions. Our pattern of living right, even when future interferences are unknown, still provides a foundation to flourish. Core living skills create an opportunity for more freedom—less constraints—and a better life.
Those least equip to handle a difficult life, also tend to face more challenges. Their poor youthful actions create accumulating barriers, while simultaneously distorting their perceptions with a variety of defense mechanisms, dragging the poor lost soul further from wisdom and deeper into chaos. The further they drift, the more difficult life becomes, and the more wisdom (and strength) needed to recover. The wanderer loses touch with reality, distorting life’s feedback, greatly confusing connections between cause and effect. Without a foundation of reality, life lessons confuse rather than enlighten, failing to teach needed knowledge to correct the waywardness.
Their poor youthful actions create accumulating barriers, while simultaneously distorting their perceptions, dragging the poor lost soul further from wisdom and deeper into chaos.
Seven Core Living Skills for Flourishing
Over the years, I have learned to focus on skills. A collection of fundamental skills that provide direction when faced with choice. These seven core skills build a foundation for success by creating future advantages. Life changes constantly and to keep pace we must constantly be developing. These skills keep us relevant. The ability to examine actions, thoughts and emotions. Life is chaotic without the anchor of self-knowledge. We adapt to the challenges of life. Many adapt in unhealthy ways, often blunting this powerful skill of self improvement. Maintaining in contact with the realities of our feelings and the appropriateness of our actions is an essential skill for living a flourishing life.
We achieve knowledge from intense battles against bias. Hence, we must search in openness, not close minded arrogance. We can read but if we don’t read the right stuff our efforts just further the narrowing of our mind. Accordingly, we must develop the skill of seeing reality from a wide variety of perspectives. We can add to our simple childhood constructions that tend to limit our openness.
Self enlightenment is never complete. Once we rest, bias swoops in and blinds our perceptions.
See Self Enlightenment for more on this topic
We must develop the mental muscle necessary to withstand momentary impulses, skipping some pleasures, to achieve much better rewards in the future. Many of life’s greatest joys are achieved through slow, methodical action—not an impulsive amusement.
See Delayed Gratification for more on this topic
Human kindness is the ability to feel and express sensitivity towards others. Compassion is the social glue that ties us to others.
See Human Kindness for more on this topic
The ability to build genuine relationships. While compassion brings us towards healthy relationships, it does not check all the relationship boxes. Relationships take work, patience, and skill. We must learn haw to listen, balance personal wants, and solve differences. These skills take practice, persistence, and guidance.
See Connections for more on this topic
We must possess an underlying sense of empowerment. A belief that our actions matter. We must believe in our ability to transform thoughts into action. These beliefs fuel courage to act and commitment to personal change. A sense of empowerment is the opposite of helplessness.
Virtues and Character
We need a foundation of values to guide creates the structure and foundation for behaviors. Known values help resolve internal conflicts, prioritizing options.
See Living a Virtuous Life for more on this topic
Possessing an underlying reason enriches and gives energy to life. We need purpose for small actions, but also need an overarching theme that gives meaning to our lives.
See Passionate Purpose for more on this topic
I chose these seven skills for their utility in developing other more specific skills (budgeting, advancing careers, caring for families, etc…). The seven listed core skills give the possessor a foundation of strength to personalize their development.
Limitations of This List
Any simple list to give direction to a complex life has limitations; this list is no exception. Take the wisdom contained here for what it is. Reflect on it, identifying personal areas to explore, seeking expert guidance when appropriate.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Maybe packing my little Datsun back in 1985 was a necessary experience, giving me the wisdom needed to face the turbulent and wonderful years that followed. Perhaps, the struggles shocked my inexperienced soul, bringing me slightly closer to reality; then again, maybe a little openness to the wisdom of others might have prevented the thirty-year tragedy of growing up, developing a few core skills before taking on the entire weight of living as an adult.
Tavris, C., Aronson, E. (2020). Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) Third Edition: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner; Reprint edition.