A few years ago I was sitting in my office and began mulling over a personal financial issue. The more I mulled, the more upset I became. This turned into deep frustration, which quickly graduated to desperation laced with self-loathing. In the hysteria of the moment, I decided I had to quit my job right away, and get another job that paid a lot more money. It was the only way I could see out of what seemed like a financial sinkhole.
I emailed my brother to rant about my problem and gave all the reasons why I had decided to quit. He was able, with some difficulty, not to talk me out of it, but to get me to agree to quit “tomorrow.” Of course by the next day I was in a different state of mind and realized how stupid it would have been to quit my job. (Great counseling lesson: Sometimes all you need to do is ask a person considering something rash to wait until tomorrow. They will usually be past it by then.)
Can you imagine how much worse my financial issue would have instantly become if I had quit? Can you imagine the impact of this unilateral decision on my wife and kids? It is so obvious what a stupid move that would have been. Now. Now that I am not desperate, driven to irrational extremes by feelings of panic, fueled by hopelessness and self-hatred.
I am a pretty smart guy. But like anybody, my emotions overcome me at times and, unless I have one hard and fast rule to prevent me from doing something incredibly destructive, I will at some point, in all likelihood, get upset and do something incredibly destructive. That is why Dave’s #1 rule for living well is:
Try not to do anything stupid
If I live by that one rule, my life will go far better than it otherwise would. So will yours. The problem, of course, is that when you are desperate, when you are panicking, or in a rage, or feeling hopelessly depressed, or hating yourself, things appear rational that would never seem even close to rational at any other time. So this pithy advice must be operationalized. In other words, you must define what kinds of things fall under the “stupid” category in advance and then, once you are in that terrible state of mind, steadfastly avoid all those things.
So I encourage you to think about it right now. Go on. Take out a piece of paper. Centered, at the top, write, “My Stupid List.” Then think about things you have done in the past when you were upset that didn’t turn out so well. Put those things on your stupid list if you are occasionally still tempted to do them again. Let me help you get started.
Dave’s Stupid List
Dave, when you are really upset, avoid all of the following:
- Quitting your job or dropping out of something that has been meaningful to you
- Making and acting on any consequential life decisions, including financial, career, relationship, where-to-live, or other decisions that will have an impact more than a day or two after you make them
- Trying to “talk through” any issues with your wife. You know you’re just going to pick a fight.
- Driving over the speed limit. You’re gonna get yourself killed.
- Skipping a workout or meditation session, or a counseling appointment with your therapist
- Sending any emails that express your frustration (write all you want, but don’t send until you have calmed down)
HINT: A sign that you are really upset and irrational is often the simple fact that you think you absolutely must do a certain thing right now at this moment.Actual times like that in life are very rare.
I have more than this on my list (I can be really stupid), but this should help you think about what kinds of things should go on your own list. Your list should be based on what kinds of stupid things you are more likely to do when you are upset. Some people will need to include words about not jumping into bed with somebody, or not drinking. Others may need to mention not raising their voices, or not disciplining their children (we should try to never discipline our children when we ourselves are incredibly angry — those will be the ones we’ll end up regretting).
I no longer even have to look at my stupid list. I already know everything that’s on it and manage to avoid that stuff pretty consistently nowadays. I really believe every person should have their own stupid list, keep it handy, and look at it often enough that eventually you have learned all the pitfalls on the list. When you reach that point, anytime something jumps into your head that’s on the list, you will automatically be able to identify it as stupid and something you should avoid.
See, I have just potentially saved you thousands of dollars in counseling fees (or lawyer fees!). If you avoid what’s on your stupid list, you won’t have to pay somebody like me to help you iron out the huge mess you made when, in a moment of irrational emotion, you did something that ruined part or all of your life — or someone else’s.
In return, all I ask is that you do one or both of the following:
1. Leave a note in the Comments section about how you think this might or might not be valuable, or something you think you might need to include on your own Stupid List.
2. Share this post with as many other people as possible. Because we can all be stupid at times, every person on the planet could be potentially helped by this post!