Precepts: Mentors, Stress, Glory & People Change
January 15, 2023
Welcome back to my Precepts series—inspired by meaningful thoughts, insights, and discoveries I have during each week, and intentionally designed to help make your life just a little bit better. Enjoy!
You can find the Precepts series in its entirety here.
Precept 96: You’re Everything:You’re Nothing
The 19th century Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim once recommended that every person carry in their pockets two pieces of paper. On one should be written, “For my sake was the world created”…
…and on the other “I am but dust and ashes.”
Each paper was to be consulted at the appropriate time. For example, if one felt arrogant and proud of how much more they had achieved than others, they could remind themselves that they’re just a bunch of glorified minerals that are going to be buried in the ground someday. If one felt down, depressed, or in despair, they could remind themselves that they are a very unique and special being created in the image of God and designed for a specific and special world-changing purpose.
You’re all that. But you’re really not.
You’re a big deal. And you’re not so special.
The world revolves around you. Also, the world’s going to keep on revolving whether or not you exist.
You’re everything. You’re nothing.
In Genesis 18:27, Abraham – a man set apart by God to be the father of many nations – recognizes this humble truth when he says, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am only dust and ashes.”
Yet God says in Isaiah 43:4, “You are precious and honored in my sight,” and in Genesis 1:26 God says, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So when you’re tempted to despair, remind yourself that you are indeed “the greatest of all these.” You are a ruler, created in the image of God. But when you are tempted to take great pride in what you have accomplished, remind yourself that you are also just flesh, dust, and ashes, especially the physical part of you. You don’t have to have some kind of bipolar-esque Jekyll and Hyde mentality to acknowledge these facts, but rather the humility to acknowledge and accept your own mortality and inherent weakness; the confidence to lay claim upon the promises that God has made for your life; and the wisdom and discernment to strike a balance between that humility and confidence.
Perhaps you can start with those two pieces of paper.
Precept 97: Show Up
My friend Mark Manson believes that action creates motivation. I agree. As a matter of fact, Mark’s mantra to just “Do Something” is a surprisingly simple yet powerful strategy to get motivated. This is because action creates motivation. Mark says, “Action isn’t just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it.”
So the Do Something principle is based on the idea that your present actions create emotional reactions that inspire and motivate your future actions. In other words:
Action → Inspiration → Motivation
If you lack the motivation to adopt or drop a habit, or to make any other important change in your life, then just do something already, and then harness the emotional reaction to that action as a way to begin motivating yourself.
I call this “showing up.” Want to write a novel this year? Show up every morning in your office and just sit in front of that blinking cursor with a word-processing document open. Do that for twenty minutes. You might type a paragraph. Or a sentence. Or just a word. You might just weep softly. But if your experience is anything like mine, you will rarely walk away from those twenty minutes having produced jack-squat nothingness. However, you have to show up.
Want to pack on ten pounds of muscle this year? Don’t defeat your motivation by committing to a thrice-weekly two-hour barbell suffer-fest at the gym. Instead, figure out a way to simply show up and to show up simply, such as by dropping and doing ten pushups at the beginning of every hour of the waking day, for a full week. There’s far less cognitive resistance to that approach, and it’s pretty unlikely you won’t show up to just a few seconds of pushups performed regularly (unless you’re on an airplane, in which case, do air squats, slacker).
Have a dream to travel to France? Download Duolingo to your phone and commit to five minutes of French language practice per day. Toutes nos félicitations. You just showed up. Soon, you’ll be shopping for a ticket to Paris, learning to make a Croque monsieur sandwich for lunch, and sipping a tiny espresso, pinky out.
The great secret that every artist and admirable creative knows is that the first step is showing up.
Do you want to play piano? Sit down at the piano bench.
To paint? Stand before an easel.
To dance? Turn on a song and stand in front of the stereo.
So take a deep breath, and then just do it. Show up.
Precept 98: Declutter
There is a bookshelf in my office that is labeled “Books To Read Again.” This shelf contains the books I’ve enjoyed the most over my lifetime, which tend to be dog-eared, well-worn books with multiple pages turned over and hundreds of important and thought-provoking lines highlighted or underlined.
But I also receive nearly a dozen books a week in the mail to “review,” and nearly another dozen that are recommended to me by friends, authors, podcasters, and other books.
Obviously, my life – particularly my reading life – could become quite complex quite quickly if I were to task myself with a cover-to-cover reading of any new book I discover. So rather than reading every new book that comes along, I devote myself to primarily rereading just the classics, while giving myself permission to briefly skim or peruse the other, less important, or compelling titles; to read the Kindle highlights that are most popular; to use services like Optimize, Blinkist, Scribd, and Thinkr to quickly get through book summaries; to listen to the most important sections of the book at 3x speed on Audible; or to simply shelf the book altogether or (gasp!) even throw it away.
Decluttering your reading life makes you feel much more light and free, especially if you’re a bookworm like me and especially if you’ve lived much of your life with the self-inflicted pressure that a new book must not only be read, but that it is somehow a fail if it’s not read cover-to-cover. You wouldn’t force feed yourself a crappy meal at a restaurant just because you bought it and it’s there in front of you, would you? Unless you’re living with a real spirit of scarcity, the answer should be a resounding no!
This rule applies to much of life, really. As author John Heider notes in his book The Tao of Leadership: if you want to be free, learn to live simply.
“Use what you have and be content where you are. Quit trying to solve your problems by moving to another place, by changing mates or careers. Leave your car in the garage. If you have a gun, put it away. Sell that complex computer and go back to using pencil and paper. Rather than read every new book that comes along, reread the classics. Eat food grown locally. Wear simple, durable clothing. Keep a small home, uncluttered and easy to clean. Keep an open calendar with periods of uncommitted time. Have a spiritual practice and let family customs grow. Of course, the world is full of novelty and adventures. New opportunities come along every day. So what?”
For this reason, I have a morning routine that often feels like Groundhog Day, but is highly enjoyable and effective; a simple set of workouts I return to over and over again; a breakfast, lunch, and dinner routine that is also enjoyable, yet very predictable; and a general set of simple Principles for optimizing lifespan and healthspan that just work, day-in and day-out, year-round.
How about you? What in your life is so complex that it’s sucking away contentedness like a complicated vacuum cleaner, and what can you simplify today?
Precept 99: Friends
I’m definitely not fluent in Hebrew. Despite having the name “Benjamin Greenfield” – I am really only about 25% Jewish. But Hebrew intrigues me, and I’ve recently come across an interesting concept in the Hebrew language related to friendship. It’s derived from a Jewish spirituality channel on Instagram, and I came upon it here.
The Hebrew word for friend is “Chaver.” Just like most languages, every Hebrew word is made up of letters, and Chaver is made from the letters chet bet reish – which looks like this: חבר
Interestingly, these are the same Hebrew letters that make up the Hebrew word for sword, which is Cherev and looks like this: חרב. As you can see, the letters are just switched around in a different order.
And what’s a sword? It’s a double-edged weapon. It’s not a soft teddy bear that you come hug only when you’re sad or feel snuggly, it’s not an energy drink that gives you a boost of kick-butt motivation when you need it most, and it’s not a bank account that you go get funds from when you’re in a time of need.
No, a sword is something you must learn to wield properly. It’s difficult. It’s dangerous. It’s heavy. It can kill stuff, irreversibly. It can save countries. It can incite revolutions. It can defend you or attack you.
Just like a sword, sometimes a friend can hurt, be uncomfortable to be around, or say some sharp and edgy things that really make you think about yourself and the decisions you make, especially if that friend is a true friend.
A true friend might tell you you’re being an idiot, but in a polite way. A true friend might tell you when you are not living up to your potential. A true friend will tell you when you’re starting down the wrong path; when your character or your morals or your overall lifestyle is deteriorating; or when you need to do more or to do less. A true friend is not going to let you hurt yourself or others around you without warning you or trying to stop you.
But, like a sword, a true friend will also be by your side, no matter how difficult the situation is. They will cover all anger, fear, shame, or regret with pure love. They will go to battle for you and with you. They not always be as soft and comfortable to be around as a linen cloak or a cozy pair of boots or a woven shawl (heck, I must stick to the medieval clothing analogies, I suppose), but when you really need help – even if it may not be the help you want to hear or the kind of help you thought you were seeking – a friend who is a sword is a very good friend indeed.
Precept 100: What Do You Got?
Tony Robbins says, “Hell on earth would have been to meet the person you could have been”.
Think about that, and as you do so, consider the fact that how you spend your day is how you ultimately spend your life. Every habit (good or bad), every routine, every choice, every second, minute, and hour will eventually stack into a series of consecutive days that become your life.
So how are you spending your time?
Just imagine someone following you around all day, taking detailed and copious notes about when you got up, what you did, how you treated people (and yourself), and basically, everything else that occurred from the moment you got up till the moment you went to sleep. Imagine they were doing that today. Imagine they were standing behind your back, doing that right now.
Next, imagine that this same person cataloged their notes and created a summary of your entire life based on that one day that they followed you around. If you had that person following you around today, how would you act? What would you choose to do or not do? What would you prioritize? How would you fill those seconds, minutes, and hours?
“But wait!”, you may say, “Today was different. Today I didn’t have the energy. Today wasn’t my best day. Today I didn’t do what I would normally do if I wanted to live life fully. Can they come back and follow me tomorrow instead?”.
Are you really being honest with yourself?
What about yesterday? The day before? The day before? You know God made you good at cooking, so when was the last time you prepared a meal for someone needy in your local community, versus just stuffing your own face each evening? You know God gave you a natural gift for reading notes and an ear for music, so when was the last time you actually dedicated yourself to producing beauty with that skill? You know God made you a good writer, so when was the last time you wrote something more meaningful than a Tweet, an Instagram caption, or a Facebook post?
How do your days stack?
See, while living on this earth in your mortal body, you have a limited number of days to wield the unique skillset that God has blessed you with to make a difference in the world, to create impact, and to fully love your fellow human beings in as big a way as you can. This can either lead to defeatist, frantic, or depressed thinking (especially if you don’t have a life’s purpose or big why statement), or it can be an idea that fuels incredible motivation because you don’t want to squander the gifts that you’ve been given.
You have the opportunity to decide how you will spend your time. Use this knowledge to stay focused on doing what’s most important every day. Start with work that creates meaning.
So now let me ask you: what is the core part of you God made you be that they will talk about at your funeral? If you’re not 100% clear on this, then ask some people who know you well to describe why they think God put you on earth. What are you naturally good at? What comes easy to you? What aspects of your character or personality are you complimented about? What gets you excited? If you close your eyes in prayer and meditation and ask God what He has called you to, what is the answer?
In The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle, author Stephen Pressfield says,
“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end, the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it. It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet. You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God. Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
So what do you “got“?
Get out there, show the world, make God smile, and most importantly ask yourself, when you take that final breath and your eyes close in rest if you will hear those sweet, sweet words resounding in the bliss of the afterlife, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
That’s it for this week! If you have questions, comments, or feedback below, please leave your thoughts. I read them all!