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in: A Man's Life, Sunday Firesides

• Last updated: September 4, 2020

Sunday Firesides: Want a Good Life? Just Don’t Do Stupid Stuff

A man foot about to step on rake.

When it comes to achieving a good life, we often think about the things we need to start doing. The habits we need to add. The practices we need to optimize.

Yet research, and reams of anecdotal experience, show that avoiding negative things has a far bigger influence on outcomes than adopting positive ones.

Studies have found that while being a bad parent has a huge effect on how children develop, being a super involved parent — making it to every soccer game, helping with every project — has very little; as long as you’re not violent/abusive/neglectful, kids turn out fine.

Same thing with health: taking a walk will not have as powerful an impact as quitting smoking.

It’s no coincidence that those foundational moral laws, the Ten Commandments, consist almost entirely of “thou shall nots.” Don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t envy, don’t cheat, and your life is probably going to turn out alright.

You’ll never even get a chance to work on the higher “shalls,” if your life’s been wrecked by ignoring the “shall nots.”

Guys agonize over which college to go to . . . and then end up dropping out because they got a girl pregnant. They ponder the right career path . . . while racking up monumental debt that will limit their options. They want a rich family life. . . but marry someone who will preclude happiness in that area, and every other.

While we get so anxious trying to figure out the best, cleverest things to do, it’s really the things you don’t do — the bullets successfully dodged — that get you most of the way there. You win by not losing.

Or as billionaire investor Charlie Munger put it, “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

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