Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
~ M. Scott Peck, Psychiatrist & author
Comparing yourself to others is an easy path to misery. Others appear like swans, gliding effortlessly through life, their frantically thrashing legs beneath the surface hidden from view. Unable to see others’ cares and carefully concealed failings, it is easy to imagine we are the only ones who struggle to get through life. For the most part, others’ lives seem idyllic only because we do not know enough about them.
Set limits to work
The Duke of Wellington’s famously believed in “the work of the day, in the day”. He set out what he intended to achieve each day and finished it. He avoided setting out an endless list of tasks he could not finish. He did not worry about tomorrow or let work expand to fill the time available, as it will always do if you let it (this effect is so well known that it has a name, the “Peterson Principle”). He simply seized the day and got on with the most important things to hand, working as intensively as possible. This approach saw him beat Napolean Bonepart and later be elected Prime Minister. Clearly, this approach worked for him.
Learn to accept
In life, many things cannot be changed. We might work to influence some of them, object loudly to others, and even spend our lives dedicated fighting certain social causes but fighting the world is tiring. As a matter of self-preservation, we have to pick our fights with care. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca observed that we become angry whenever reality disappoints our expectations. We expect our pen to not run out of ink, for our drink bottle not to leak, and for our favourite study space to be available whenever we want it.
Feeling frustration and upset when our expectations are not met wastes energy. Eastern philosophers suggest that it might be more useful to ask of each upset life throws at us, “how can I use this?” There is a lesson to learn in every mishap and problem encountered – either that there is a better way of carrying on or simply a reminder that accepting what happens to us and making the most of a bad situation we cannot change hurts us less than railing against things we cannot change.
Over to you
Try putting these three principles into practice: stop comparing yourself to other people, decide what to work on and focus on it without procrastinating, and accept the things you cannot change and adapt to make the most of the situations you find yourself in without frustration or regret. Easier said than done, certainly, but any progress will reap dividends.