A research study proved that when people read or hear horror stories such as school shootings, they come home earlier from work and tend to hug their kids tighter that night. But then, a few days later, it's back to the same busy lives as before. It's not news to any of us that life is short. Yet, we are too busy doing middling things, spending our hours and days like we're immortal. The sooner we learn how to gain perspective in life on what matters to us and what doesn't, the better chances we have of living a fulfilled life.
Maybe it's the element of hypoxia (lack of oxygen,) but on a long-distance flight recently, I had the opportunity to ponder and philosophize more than usual. The news of action star Bruce Willis' Aphasia diagnosis had recently hit the airwaves.
Aphasia, it turns out, is a cruel disorder. It damages the language expression and comprehension centers in the brain, robbing patients of the ability to communicate effectively.
When we hear news stories such as Willis's Aphasia diagnosis, it makes us stop to take notice and internalize the situation. What if we lose the ability to communicate tomorrow, or some other life-threatening illness robs us of a key personality trait that defines who we are? Or, if that's not morbid enough for you, what if we never wake up tomorrow?
Whoa—calm down, you say? I will.
I'm just trying to set the stage on how to gain perspective in life. Because it matters. A lot. After all, while time is infinite, we are not. The sooner we learn to separate what's truly essential from the fluff that consumes us, the more meaningful our lives can become.
Laurel v Yanny
It was 2018. A group of high school students uploaded an audio clip to the internet. Everyone was doubly sure about what they heard. People differed on whether they heard the word Laurel or Yanny. It was like you and a friend were looking at the same fruit, and you are convinced that it's an apple while your friend is ready to bet her life savings that you both were looking at an orange.
Not surprisingly, the collective internet lost its mind over the clip. Families and coworkers were polled to confirm who was right. Celebrities chimed in with their opinions. Twitter wars ensued. Finally, it was revealed that there were two versions of the truth. Depending on the audio frequency, you could hear Laurel or Yanny. There were two correct answers. The NY Times even created a tool to explain the concept.
By the end of the week, people had spent hours of their lives debating on a subject that didn't really matter. Someone on Twitter even said, "That's three days of my life I wasted on Yanny v Laurel that I'm never getting back."
Time is infinite. We are not.
It's never been hard to find things to waste time on, especially now. Between watching viral YouTube videos, and Tweets that can make your blood boil, there's always a lost cause you can lend your time to. Which really won't matter if we all lived to a thousand years. What's a few wasted hours every day when time is seemingly endless?
But since we only have a finite amount of time, we need to find out how to gain perspective in life. This does not mean we kill ourselves every second of every day trying to be productive. That may seem rich coming from someone whose life seemingly is controlled by to-do lists. But even I can sense the futility of it all. Especially after constant reminders of life's mortality in the form of Willis' Aphasia or Seneca's "The shortness of life."
Which is how I found myself on the path of figuring out how to gain perspective in life.
People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Finding (and losing) focus
Two of the most underrated life skills are:
a. The ability to gain perspective on what does and does not matter in life.
b. The ability to keep the perspective gained (a) above.
I'm not a photography expert. But I've dabbled enough with non-automatic cameras to understand how difficult it is to take sharp images. Many factors—shutter speed, lighting, poor focal position, tripod imbalance, dirty lens, etc.- can cause the resulting photos to be blurry. But the joy of photography is in learning to eliminate the distortions and take sharp, focused, beautiful pictures.
Like going from a blurry camera to finding sharp focus, here are three pointers on how to gain perspective and also, keep sight of the said perspective.
How to gain perspective
1. The 5/25 rule: Accept that you'll never get it all done
Personally, I struggle with this concept of accepting that I can't do it all, which is why I've listed it as the first and the most important thing you need to do to gain perspective.
The 5/25 rule for productivity is attributed to Warren Buffett, probably like most wise sayings on the internet seem to be Einstein's. Anyway, the story goes something like this:
Buffett's personal pilot, Mike Flint, was seemingly confused about his career and sought Buffet's guidance on what he should do. Buffett asked Flint to write down his top twenty-five life goals. Once Flint had listed the twenty-five, Buffett asked him to circle the top five on the list to create an A-list. Buffett then advised Flint to focus on the A-list.
When asked about the other twenty items, Buffett told Flint they belonged on the "avoid-at-all-costs" list: tasks Flint should NOT spend even a second on because it would distract him (Flint) from what mattered.
The lesson on how to gain perspective is this: define the handful of things you should be doing with your time. Everything else goes on the DO NOT DO list.
2. Perspective is personal
We all have demands and standards we choose to live up to. Some of these are standards imposed by our culture and environment, a few by relationships and family, and some we set for ourselves. But since we and our time on earth are finite, the multiple demands on our time will conflict with each other sooner or later: C'est la vie.
Wanting to meet up for every happy hour, oops, I mean "after-work-networking," may mean missing the 7 p.m. spin class with Lara at the gym. At that point, the choice is yours. Would you rather cultivate your work relationships further or cultivate those calf muscles you've been dreaming about?
You can choose to live authentically based on your perspectives, or you can try to be a people pleaser and stress yourself out in the process. Just understand this one truth: You can't swim and be dry at the same time.
3. Draw a line in the sand. Already.
One of the earliest lessons I learned from raising a child is this: do not ask open-ended questions. Asking my then-toddler, "What would you like to eat for lunch today?" was a call for disaster, as I soon found out. Firstly, it overwhelmed my 3-year old to have to think of her choices, but then when she eventually came up with "Icecream and Fruit loops," it was an impossibly long bridge to walk her back to the only lunch choices I was realistically going to permit—Broccoli and PB&J sandwiches.
It didn't take long for me to switch to asking, would you like your sandwiches to have both PB & J or just jelly?
The quickest way to gain perspective is to reduce the number of options available to you. Yes, by committing to a QLED TV today, you may miss out on the better, more feature-laden models to be released soon, but it's better than the endless analysis-paralysis that can keep you researching forever on the best TV to buy.
Quaint, but I guess it's true: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Hurry is how we live our lives. Multitasking when we can, taking on more than we can handle, constantly changing our definition of what enough is, and generally trying to be everything to everyone until we either fail or fall. All because we know life is too short, and we want to make the most of it.
But we're going about it the totally wrong way. Because, in the end, we spend far too much time on what doesn't matter to the detriment of what indeed does.
This is why it's crucial to learn how to gain perspective in life as soon as possible.
Perspective comes from knowing we have far too many things we cannot do and permitting ourselves only to do what we can.
Just ask yourself at night before bed if you'd be okay not to wake up in the morning. Morbid, yes. But if the answer is no, you know some course correction may be necessary.
Or, you can choose something less morbid to act as your compass on whether your life is in accordance with your values. Like this scolding from Seneca, perhaps:
You live as if you were destined to live forever; no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by, you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last ― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life