Excellent Advice for Living: Kevin Kelly’s Life-Tested Wisdom He Wished He Knew Earlier
By Maria Popova
“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote as he reckoned with what it takes to find yourself. And yet where would the world be if each generation didn’t plank its crossing with the life-tested wisdom of its elders? Often, that wisdom comes so simply worded as to appear trite — but it is the simplicity of a children’s book, or of a Zen parable: unvarnished elemental truth about what it means to be alive, hard-won and generously offered.
That is precisely what Kevin Kelly gathers in Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier (public library) — an herbarium of learnings that began as a list he composed on his 68th birthday for his own young-adult children, a list to which he kept adding with each lived year.
Hovering between the practical and the poetic, his learnings are sometimes seemingly obvious reminders of what we know but habitually forget, sometimes pleasingly contrarian, always unselfconsciously sincere. What emerges is a shorthand manual for living with kindness, decency, and generosity of spirit.
Here are some I loved and shall try to live by.
In a fine complement to the Buddhist practice of deep listening, he offers:
Listening well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?” until there is no more.
Affirming poet and philosopher David Whyte’s observation that “to forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” he reframes the object of forgiveness:
When you forgive others they may not notice but you will heal. Forgiveness is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves.
Forgiveness is accepting the apology you will never get.
Inverting the equation and echoing Maimonedes’s wisdom on repentance and repair, he maps the noblest path to seeking forgiveness when you yourself have erred:
How to apologize: quickly, specifically, sincerely. Don’t ruin an apology with an excuse.
A proper apology consists of conveying the 3 Rs: regret (genuine empathy with the other) responsibility (not blaming someone else) and remedy (your willingness to fix it).
In consonance with George Saunders’s moving reflection on his greatest regret, Kelly urges:
Whenever you have a choice between being right or being kind be kind. No exceptions. Don’t confuse kindness with weakness.
In a kindred sentiment that would have pleased Simone Weil, who exhorts us across the epochs to “never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it,” he adds:
Anger is not the proper response to anger. When you see someone angry you are seeing their pain. Compassion is the proper response to anger.
A century and a half after Thoreau made his lyrical case for defining your own success, Kelly — whose own illustirous life is a testament to this — writes:
Don’t measure your life with someone else’s ruler.
The greatest killer of happiness is comparison. If you must compare, compare yourself to you yesterday.
Echoing William James’s insistence that habit is how “we are spinning our own fates,” Kelly writes:
Habit is far more dependable than inspiration. Make progress by making habits. Don’t focus on getting into shape. Focus on becoming the kind of person who never misses a workout.
The purpose of a habit is to remove that action from self-negotiation. You no longer expend energy deciding whether to do it. You just do it. Good habits can range from telling the truth to flossing.
Keep showing up. 99% of success is just showing up. In fact, most success is just persistence.
And a few more, without qualification:
Before you are old attend as many funerals as you can bear and listen. Nobody talks about the departed’s achievements. The only thing people will remember is what kind of person you were while you were achieving.
If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. Hang out with, and learn from people smarter than yourself. Even better, find smart people who will disagree with you.
Promptness is a sign of respect.
Your passions should fit you exactly but your purpose in life should exceed you. Work for something much larger than yourself.
Bad things can happen fast but almost all good things happen slowly.
The best work ethic requires a good rest ethic.
Criticize in private, praise in public.
You will thrive more — and so will others — when you promote what you love rather than bash what you hate. Life is short; focus on the good stuff.
The chief prevention against getting old is to remain astonished.
Complement Kelly’s Excellent Advice for Living with Henry Miller, upon turning 80, on the measure of a life well lived, Maya Angelou’s letter of advice to her younger self, and this compendium of resolutions for a life worth living drawn from some of our wisest cultural elders, then revisit my own 16 life-learnings from 16 years of The Marginalian.
Published July 29, 2023