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21 Principles for the Nonlinear Life

Trevor O'Hara
11 min read
21 Principles for the Nonlinear Life

1. AGENCY: Think Like a Beringian.

Beringia was an ancient land bridge that connected Russia and Alaska thousands of years ago. When the ice sheets started to melt, the Beringians were forced to venture back into the land they once knew (the known world), or venture forth into an unknown, unpredictable land.

These two worlds are a metaphor for navigating the predictable and unpredictable worlds today.

In our business, career, and personal lives today, we tend to confuse both worlds. And we find that the rules, habits, and mindsets we learned in the predictable world are useless to us in the unpredictable world.

If we accept that most of the time we are operating in the unpredictable world, our actions, choices and decisions in life would be very different.

8. RANDOMNESS: Life's Tetris, Not Chess

In the past, we tended to follow a more predictable linear life path, career, we treated life as a chess game with a carefully orchestrated sequence of moves: education, career, retirement.

Today, although we widely accept that life’s no longer linear, we still underestimate the role of luck and randomness in our lives.

Remember that what got you here won’t get you there.

14. LINEARITY: Nature Hates Straight Lines

With increasing human lifespans, we’re gladly replacing the linear life model by mixing up our life experiences.

That's great news. However, we’re still haunted by the ghost of linearity. We're still governed by thinking we’re supposed to be doing certain things at a certain age. We feel bad if we don’t immediately find our purpose or when we lose our motivation for what we’re doing. Or we feel devastated when we don’t achieve our goals.

But if we accept that the nonlinear life path allows for discovery and experimentation along the way, for more frequent change and pivoting, for ditching things in our lives that no longer serve us, we’d lead much more fulfilling lives.

2. OPTIMISM: Heckle Your Dreams

One characteristic of traditional linear life was boundless optimism. Modern culture tells us to ‘look on the bright side,’ and if we always focus on our wishes, they will come true.

I’m not advocating we throw all these positive mantras away, but as the ancient Greeks reminded us, there’s a danger in flying too close to the sun.

Again, we underestimate the role of randomness and luck in our lives. Things often don’t turn out as expected – for better or worse. So staring at ourselves in the mirror every morning, and heckling our dreams is not being miserable. We're just being grounded and realistic. It’s also a good way to develop resilience and emotional flexibility. And we're more likely to make balanced decisions when unexpected outcomes happen.

12. APHORISMS: Success is Never Baked the Same Way Twice

Traditional, three-stage, linear life was full of aphorisms that no longer apply in today’s unpredictable world. In particular, we cling to aphorisms about success.

We seem to believe that “if Gates, Zuck, or Winfrey could do it, then so can I.” That’s great! No harm in seeking out inspirational models to inspire us in life. However, we often fail to realize that success is more than just grit and intelligence.

Again, we underestimate the role of randomness in our lives. All it takes is just one random factor to determine a different outcome.

What about all those people who didn’t achieve a successful outcome? Were they not as intelligent or as hardworking?

Of course, feel free to be inspired by successful people in your life. But just be careful when you read the biographies of millionaires, unicorns, and celebrities.Their path is not the same as yours, and no two outcomes will ever be the same.

12. UNLEARNING: Learn to Ride the Backward Bike

Sometimes, when we’re teaching other people a new skill, we’ll say, “It’s easy. It’s just like riding a bike.”

But what happens when we have to unlearn an skill or switch mindset? With the increasing rate of change and transition in our lives, there will be many more new beginnings and endings for us than in the past. And our ability to unlearn old skills, mindsets and habits will be just as important as learning new ones.

Problem is it’s not that easy, and Destin Sandler’s famous bike experiment is a classic example of this.

How long do you think you could stay on a bike if, when turning the handlebars to the right, you go left, and when turning the handlebars to the left, you go right?

Sounds easy, but it took Sandler eight months to unlearn the old habit.

The modern world favors developing new habits. But remember: to move fast, you’ll need to be able to unlearn old habits just as fast.

15. EMOTIONAL BURDENS: Don’t Carry What You Don’t Need

As I said earlier, as the pace of change becomes faster and more unpredictable, we need to get good at ending some things and starting new things.

But any time we go through change, emotions come into play. And often, we carry the emotional burdens of a previous life chapter into a new chapter. It's hard for us to let go. Or, we often end up making critical life decisions based on a previous outcome that left us emotionally charged.

We are all the products of our past. But don’t let past regrets, ruminations, shattered dreams, grudges or unwanted thoughts weigh you down. The world is extremely random and new opportunities are waiting for you, if you know how to spot them.

10. NARRATIVES: Edit Well

Humans are great storytellers. And we use story to make meaning out of our lives.

For example, the narrative, ‘track record of success’ depicts the story of an individual who has assumed a linear, upward progression throughout life, where all the blemishes and inconvenient moments have been edited out for convenience.

Others assume a downward, linear path when they say, “My life is a mess” or “I’m such a failure,” using it as an excuse not to take action.

But life isn’t linear. Many people are now shaping their life narratives to reflect this the fluctuating life narratives - the 'ups and downs' of life. Be honest with yourself and edit your life stories well.

13. BIASES: We’re All Eejits

In Ireland, the term "eejit" is used in a friendly or playful way to describe a family member or friend as stupid or foolish.

Many of the biases, preconceptions, and assumptions that worked for us in the traditional, linear, predictable world are of no use to us in the modern, unpredictable world. But many of us still apply them today – to our detriment.

We assume that ‘best practices,’ the ‘surefire way,’ or ‘the guaranteed approach’ will lead us to our desired outcome. But they won’t – because we underestimate the role of randomness in our lives.

Staring at yourself in the mirror every morning and calling yourself an eejit is a powerful way of keeping your biases in check and reminding yourself you’re not always the big cheese you think you are - and randomness is all around you.

20. QUITTING: The Summit is Only The Halfway Point

"Summit blindness" is a mountaineering term used to describe climbers who stubbornly refuse to give up and keep pushing for the summit, even when the alarm bells are ringing all around them, telling them they should get down quickly.

Modern life has brainwashed us into thinking that courage, determination, and sticking things out is the guaranteed way to success. But it isn’t.

Every day, we hear stories of entrepreneurs who literally fall off a cliff because they’re so afraid of the prospect of failure or they're so vested in a future goal that they're terrified of things not turning out the way they hoped.

But let’s remind ourselves: the purpose of climbing a mountain is to not to reach the peak, but to get back safely. In other words, the summit is actually only the halfway point.

It’s much better to cut your losses and quit while the going is good so that you can fight another day. We’ll free ourselves up for new projects, save a lot of time, and preserve our mental health in the process.

6. GOALS: Start From Where You Are, Not From Where You Want to Be

Some of the greatest discoveries and innovations happened by chance: Coca-Cola, Viagra, Nokia, velcro. They were the result of many tiny journeys of discoveries and mini-pivots, tiny insights that led to other insights.

Despite this, the modern world places a lot of emphasis on grandiose goal-setting. If we’re not reaching for the stars, we live in fear of being perceived as not having enough ambition.

Having goals is great, but grandiose ambition is dangerous. What if your motivation changes along the way? What if life serves you a curveball?

And often, the pursuit of big goals can become so stressful that we end up de-privileging other things along the way: family, friends, health.

Much better to shrink your goals to a few tiny stepping stones and being open to insights and discoveries along the way. It’ll be less stressful and you’ll discover a more exciting and motivating journey.

11. EXPERIMENTATION: Everything’s a Bet

Modern life’s teaches us to fall in love with our ideas and projects, but there’s a danger in doing so.

What happens when and if they go wrong? What about the cost in terms of lost ego, time, relationships, money, and other resources? Why do 90% of startups fail?

In moments of failure, we can all soothe ourselves by saying, “Well, at least I tried.” But isn’t it better to increase the odds of success the first time around?

We can do that by shrinking our goals and projects into tiny little bets, through rapid iteration, and trial and error. Bets are small and cheap to set up, they have little downside and huge potential upside. And even if you fail, you’ll still learn something from the bet.

In life, treat everything not as a grandiose project, but as a tiny bet. Jobs are bets, relationships are bets, even buying a house is a bet.

17.LUCK: Luck Is Not A Lightning Strike

Think of your own success in life. If you’re truthful with yourself, it’s likely you’ll attribute most of that success to hard work and smarts, but hardly any to luck.

In the modern world, most of us don’t believe in luck. But a tragedy of modern life is discounting luck so much that we fail to spot opportunities when they occur. And the worst part is – we’ll never know.

Luck and randomness happens much more than we think in life. We just need to get better at spotting good luck, increasing the likelihood for good luck and decreasing the likelihood of bad luck in our lives. It takes practice, but we can all get better at it.

3. PROBABILITES: Think Probabilities, Not Expectations

Charlie Munger once said, “If you do not understand elementary probabilities, then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”

The truth is, because we underestimate the role of randomness and uncertainty in our lives, we also vastly underestimate the probability of our desired outcomes. When we set goals for ourselves, we tend to assume that the outcome will equal the input - that hard work and smarts will get us a 100% expected outcome.

In reality, there are very few things in life we can be sure of.

It’s better therefore to be 75% sure of an outcome rather than 100%. With a probabilistic attitude, we’re more likely to make life decisions based on potential outcomes with more upside than downside rather than planning out our lives based on wishful thinking and believing we’re the smartest, hardest working person in the room.

7. ANTIFRAGILITY: Safety Nets Aren’t Hammocks

Safety nets are typically designed to catch people when they fall or provide some temporary assistance during challenging times.

But modern technology and the conveniences of modern living risks making us too comfortable, perhaps even complacent to the risks and dangers posed by uncertainty and rapid change, even when those risks are staring us in the face. We end up treating safety nets as hammocks.

We’re spending less time outdoors, protecting our kids from taking too many risks, and seeking out too much convenience where it’s not required.

We should all seek out small stressors in every aspect of our lives: the antidote to change and uncertainty is not resilience. It’s antifragility.

4. DIVERSIFICATION: Don’t Bet Your Destiny on a Single Number

Nature likes redundancy. There’s a reason why we have two lungs, two eyes, and two kidneys. If one fails, there’s a backup.

In the finance world, investors build portfolios so that risk is balanced. Publishers do the same, never relying on the potential of any single publication to drive a home run.

Gone are the days when we had one career, one business idea, one source of income. In today’s nonlinear world, you can protect yourself from uncertainty by diversifying and experimenting with a portfolio of ideas and revenue streams, rather than being a bet in somebody else’s portfolio.

16. IDENTITY: We’re All Actors On A Stage

Not so long ago, we used to define our identity through our chosen profession, such as "I’m an engineer’ or ‘what would you like to be when you grow up?"

But we often challenge these statements of identity any time we find ourselves at life’s crossroads, with questions like "Who am I?’ or ‘What am I all about?"

These days however, it’s very hard to describe ourselves concisely on a LinkedIn profile. Increasingly, we're pursuing multiple projects at the same time. Therefore, as life becomes increasingly nonlinear and unpredictable, we should acknowledge and embrace the fluidity of our identities. This will help us avoid feeling confined or limited by previous versions of ourselves and be open to new roles, perspectives, and changing circumstances.

18. LIFESTYLE DESIGN. Don’t Reinvent. Reconfigure

It is said that in the ancient Chinese game of Tangram, over 6,500 shapes have been created. Just imagine the power of creativity and what we can achieve with just seven pieces.

Today, we’re living much longer than our parents. And many of us are deciding to re-allocate some of that ‘extra time’ to different uses throughout our lives: micro-retirements, going back to learning, starting new projects.

In the past, we would think of these moments as "reinventions" or "sabbaticals," but today, life moves much faster than our ability to reinvent ourselves, so reinventing ourselves in the same way we did in the past is neither practical nor feasible.

By adopting a portfolio instead of linear approach to living, we can make meaningful adjustments, discard what no longer serves us, and then rearrange those elements of our life to optimize life enjoyment and fulfillment.

9. JUVENESCENCE. My Age Is Not My Cage

In the three-stage linear life of the past, chronological milestones were the primary means of structuring our lives, dictating what we should be doing and how we should be behaving at each life stage.

But with increasingly longer and nonlinear lives, we’ve much greater freedom to rearrange our lives as we see fit. We’re no longer tied to going through life with our chronological age cohort. The challenge however is to break free from the rampant age stereotypes that still exist today and not allow them to hinder our choices, actions, and possibilities, so that we can align ourselves with our evolving aspirations and circumstances – no matter how old or young we are.

21. STILLNESS. Life Is in the Interludes

The concept of doing nothing is not familiar to us.

Modern life has conditioned us to be busy and always on. We’ve grown up believing if we take too much time out, we’re lazy, unfocussed, or have lost our motivation.

But while the concept of doing nothing is unfamiliar to us and even threatens us, the Dutch have embraced it as a pastime. “Nixen” literally means "doing nothing,” just being idle.

Being able to stop at frequent and rely on frequent interludes, not just throughout the day, but throughout life, is a skill we must learn. These are the moments where we connect the dots, where when we’re able to stake a step back and see things in perspective, and regain our sense of purpose and identity. Build these interludes into your life on a frequent basis.

TIME. Deferral Is the Worst Sacrifice

The modern world has conditioned us to sacrifice our lives for a potential future payoff.

We place so much emphasis on goals and ambition and the pursuit of happiness that we treat anything that gets in the way as a nasty inconvenience.

This strategy might have made sense when life was shorter and more predictable, but today life is neither short not predictable. And it’s too risky to put off living in the pursuit of goals.

You may never achieve that goal. The world might change. You may end up postponing your dreams, or you might lose motivation along the way. Make lifestyle choices that enable your dreams in the present moment and be flexible to change course as the needs arise.