Five rules for better living

I once gave a speech to a group of graduating students in which I decided rather than offering long and often boring suggestions about how to live in the world they were about to enter, I would simply provide them five ways to do so.

I wrote down five fules for better living on a bookmark-size handout and hoped they might remember later.

1. Keep it simple (it will get complex all by itself).

2. Know yourself (many conspire to take this away from you).

3. Be kind to yourself and others (somebody has to).

4. Seemingly small things matter most (there are no small things).

5. Take care of your soul (even if you don’t believe you have one).

Years later, I ran into a student who proudly showed me the handout and claimed she referred to it when faced with a decision. I doubt she remembered anything in any lecture or textbook covered in class, but it helped me realize that while our minds are cluttered with ideas and impressions, sometimes something simple breaks through.

I needed to apply this advice to myself. I tried to summarize what practical wisdom I had gathered from having lived. I was surprised with a short poem that arose without much effort.

I get up in the morning,
                    And there I am.
                    Wake Up!
                    That is all the universe asks.

Is that it? Is that why I spent so many years in school to study everything but hadn’t realized these few words about how to live? Yes! It’s the wisdom I learned over time the hard way in the School of Life.

Getting out of bed each morning and being aware of yourself as a thinking, living being is the first lesson for life — being fully awake. And trying to stay aware the rest of the day helps to make better, more rational decisions.

If the School of Life is the place we learn lessons about living, then perhaps even formal education is about equipping students to live well — not just armed with facts and figures but resources for doing so.

Come to think of it, some of the best classroom teachers I had were ones who taught me how to think and loved what they taught — and us.

Yes, there are practical skills needed to live in the world, certainly the old trio of reading, writing, and arithmetic. But there also are emotional and intellectual skills required. It is not enough to know facts, although these are important, but how to interpret them, which are the skills needed to reflect on them.

The most practical skills I was provided in my formal years of education were how to think for myself, sort out facts and figures and arrive at my own conclusions, however tentative these might be. It’s called critical thinking. It’s the one resource we need most these days.

John C. Morgan is a columnist and former teacher whose columns appear weekly at

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