Almost every time I turn on my television or go to the website of a cable news network, I’m frustrated.
I’m frustrated by the things that pass for “news” that are mostly just commercials, like breathless announcements of the latest product from Apple or the latest car models or the latest antics of some reality television star.
I’m frustrated by the advertisements that are Photoshopped into unreality and show images that aren’t even connected to any sort of life that I see (or even want).
I’m frustrated by how even the “legitimate” news is written to provide a certain angle and is often compressed down to only a sentence or two of content, often literally just showing us someone’s Tweet.
I’m frustrated by how these things are seen as important enough to be the “news.”
Regardless of what information is actually being shared or reported, they’re passing along a lot of messages directly to you (and to me) about how we should behave and think. Most of it is incredibly damaging to our self-worth, and much of it encourages us to do nothing more than spend, spend, spend.
Here are five “rules” that seem to be constantly promoted both by the content and by the advertisements on most television networks and on most mainstream websites, along with five “better” rules that run counter to them. You can decide for yourself which ones are better to live by.
Media Rule #1: Your Worth Is Defined By Your Possessions and Physical Appearance
The dress that some celebrity chooses to wear to some awards show is not a noteworthy event. Some random person’s list of which person is beautiful and, by exclusion, which people are not is not a noteworthy thing. The fact that one of these beautiful people happens to be driving a particular car is, again, not a noteworthy thing.
Yet, based on what passes for “news” and “entertainment” programming, these are noteworthy things. And based on advertisements, these are extremely noteworthy things.
In that world, the “good” people are beautiful and the “bad” people are not. The “good” people have all of the latest stuff, while the “bad” people do not.
The end result of all of that? For many people, it’s a lowered sense of self-worth coupled with a sense that you can somehow be “better” if you buy a particular product or two. You might be a nebbish dweeb, but you don’t have to be if you have the latest gadget or car. You might be physically unattractive, but you don’t have to be if you have the latest cosmetic product.
It’s all a joke. None of it matters.
A Better Rule: Your Worth Is Defined by Your Character
When I actually think about the people that I respect and care about the most in this world, it doesn’t come down to the things that they own or the beauty that they momentarily possess in their youth.
It comes down to their character.
What has that person done to make the community and the world a better place?
Show me information about how someone has used their time and energy to address a world problem without trying to make money off of it, instead of the latest consumer products.
Show me a fireman who rescued people from a burning building rather than the latest antics of the Kardashians.
Show me a teacher who has won a bunch of awards for quality teaching rather than what dress someone is wearing on a red carpet.
Show me a person who took genuine steps to improve their own life and the lives of others rather than someone who is comparing the latest and greatest stuff for me to spend my money on.
The problem is that you won’t get those things from watching the news, at least not the national stuff. You get it by being a part of your community and by being really, really selective about where you get your news and information.
Media Rule #2: Your Income Is Indicative of Your Success
So often, we are told to respect people because those people have managed to accumulate significant wealth, and yes, I’ll agree that in at least some cases, that’s an accomplishment built on the back of lots of hard work.
We’re supposed to fawn all over the ideas of a person who is good at acting or managed to make a few good stock picks as though their ideas are incredibly valuable just because they’re good at acting or made a few good stock picks.
Sure, I’ll listen to that good actor’s ideas on how to be a good actor, but that acting skill doesn’t make that person a success in every area of life. Sure, I’ll listen to that investor’s thoughts on how to invest, but that investing skill doesn’t make that person a success in every aspect of life.
The thing is, we’re often expected to be impressed by someone in all areas because they were successful in one area. Furthermore, we’re often expected to be impressed by a person simply because of their income or the wealth they’ve accumulated.
When I hear that someone is wealthy and that they did it themselves, I am impressed, but I’m not impressed by the wealth. I’m impressed by the hard work and the expertise that went into it. However, as soon as I know that, I have another question at the ready.
A Better Rule: The Positive Impact You Have on Others Is Indicative of Your Success
The big problem is when I hear about that wealth level and income level, I find that it is often leaving out what I consider to be a huge factor in terms of personal success. Have the things that you have achieved had a positive impact on the lives of others?
Undoubtedly, some wealthy people are doing amazing things with their money, but even perhaps the most prolific of those, Bill Gates with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, does not get nearly the attention that he should. The positive impact of the Gates Foundation is enormous, but instead the media prefers to show us the latest celebrity who had a few too many drinks.
Furthermore, it doesn’t take tons of wealth or income in order to have a big positive impact on others. I know teachers who have positively shaped thousands of lives, but they’re not wealthy or earning a fat income. I know of volunteers who have ensured that thousands of people have food in their bellies and clothes on their backs, but they’re not wealthy or earning a fat income.
Those people made a positive impact without having wealth, and that earns my respect and my attention far more than some overexhausted politician’s gaffe.
Media Rule #3: Delaying Gratification Is Bad
Modern life, in so many ways, is based on the immediate and the urgent rather than the important.
If you’re a smartphone user, you know exactly what I mean. That ding or vibration indicating a new notification often triggers a Pavlovian response. We have to look. We have to see what the latest update is. Rather than listening to the person in front of us, we have to check on the latest text we received or the latest Instagram update.
We are driven to pay attention to the new thing, to give into that impulse.
The same thing happens in a less obvious way throughout our lives. We’re constantly attracted to the new thing and we’re constantly given this sense that now is the time to spend money on it. Now is the time to buy it. If you want to be “relevant,” now is the time to go to this new restaurant or buy this new product.
Waiting? Waiting is for losers. Waiting means you won’t be relevant.
Well, here’s a secret. Those updates on your phone will still be there in an hour, after you’re done building a LEGO castle with your child. That restaurant will still be open in a few months when your food budget makes it easy to go there. That product that you want will still be available a few months from now when you can actually afford it without a credit card crutch.
A Better Rule: Spending Extra Money or Focus Due to Impatience Is Bad
The challenge is that modern life constantly encourages us to substitute “urgent” things in the place of “important” things. I’ve found that “urgent” things are rarely very important and that important things are rarely very urgent – and that life is better spent on the important things, not the urgent.
To me, the worst thing you can do to someone you care about is divert your attention from them because of some “urgent” nonsense. Turn off your cell phone and read a book or play with your child or listen to your spouse’s problems. Turn your phone on again at a later time. Your friend’s “witty” Facebook update will be just as unimportant then as it is right now.
Similarly, the worst thing you can do to your financial future is divert your money from it because of some “urgent” nonsense. Often, the things you want right at this moment are going to completely change in the next week or two, so throwing money at them right now is effectively the same as throwing money out the window in a week.
Wait. Have some patience. See if you still want that same thing a month from now and, if you do still really want it, then think about buying it. Let the urgent fade away and let the important rise to the top.
Media Rule #4: Skipping Any Pleasure Is Bad
If you tune into a television program and watch the ads along with the show, you’ll get the impression that if you’re skipping out on something – anything – that you might enjoy, you’re missing out on a pleasure, and that’s bad.
Ice cream? Can’t skip it. Alcohol? Can’t skip it. A shiny car in the driveway? Can’t skip it. The latest iDevice? Can’t skip it. A juicy steak at the new restaurant? Can’t skip it. The list is infinite.
This creates three problems. One, it becomes an endless drain on your money and time. If you spend your time and energy jumping from pleasure to pleasure, you don’t have money or energy left over for other things.
Two, having an endless stream of pleasures saps the joy from those pleasures. Having a delicious coffee once a month makes that coffee a special treat. Having one once a day makes it ordinary and routine and just adds a $5 expense to each and every day.
Three, you don’t really give yourself enough time to figure out if that theoretically pleasurable thing is actually bringing you pleasure. If you jump on to the next pleasure quickly, you don’t really get to reflect much on the last pleasure, so you don’t know if it’s actually something that’s joyful.
And there’s another, even bigger problem…
A Better Rule: Skipping Things That Don’t Bring Lasting Joy Is Good
Here’s something well worth thinking about: almost every significant personal accomplishment that anyone achieves in America involves skipping pleasures that don’t bring lasting joy.
Think about it. The guy who lost 200 pounds started skipping excess food – a pleasure that doesn’t bring lasting joy. The person who got completely out of debt started skipping excess purchases – pleasure that didn’t bring lasting joy. The person who built a great career started skipping excess time wasters – pleasures that didn’t bring lasting joy.
Yet, in the end, all of those people were rewarded with something that did bring lasting joy – a huge weight loss, debt freedom, a great career.
The real challenge here is recognizing which things in our lives don’t actually bring lasting joy. It is really, really easy to see a short term pleasure and have that jolt of pleasure completely blot out the eventual results of that choice.
A great life comes from accepting and overcoming that challenge, not by just bopping on to the next short-term pleasure. Those little pleasures never, ever last, and you’re left with a life that’s lacking a lot of opportunity for lasting joy.
It’s worth noting that I’m not talking about avoiding pleasures at all, but that most of them just don’t last and don’t provide any lasting value for you. It’s far better to be choosy about those things and to spread them out so that you get joy from anticipation and from memories as well as the pleasure itself, or that you buy a product that you’ll actually use over and over again instead of just consuming quickly or sitting on your shelves.
Put your energy and time and thought and money into big, lasting, positive things, ones that will bring you lasting pleasure and joy and, by extension, also bring a positive impact into the lives of the people around you. It takes time for that to build, but it builds into something that is truly life-changing.
Media Rule #5: Everything Worthwhile Can Be Compressed Into a Simple Answer – a Text, a Tweet, or a Sound Bite
Almost every article you read from a major news source boils down to a five-second sound bite from someone along with information that can be compressed down to a text or a tweet. Sometimes the news itself is literally a text or a tweet.
To an extent, I’m even guilty of this myself. I bold and highlight key sentences in my articles, often compressing a much bigger idea down into a single sentence for easy digestion.
Some view this as a convenient thing. It allows them to quickly grab the main point in just a few seconds before moving on to the next thing. The problem is that you lose a lot of the meaning along the way. It puts convenience far above meaning, and that is a huge loss.
A Better Rule: Most Worthwhile Things in Life Can’t Be Compressed at All
You can’t compress a thoughtful conversation with someone. You can’t compress the nuance of our foreign policy. You can’t compress a philosophical book on the meaning of life.
You can’t compress an afternoon spent at a state park with your five year old son. You can’t compress a long conversation about the future with your wife on a beautiful summer evening with a glass of wine in your hand. You can’t compress holding someone’s hand as they fight off a terrible illness. You can’t compress the time spent trying to understand someone else and where they are coming from.
Those things can’t be compressed. They lose so much when you try to compress them. Their meaning just fades away into nothingness.
The thing is, those are the very things in life that are the most worthwhile. A deep understanding of one issue is far, far better than a cursory understanding of several dozen. An hour spent focused wholly on a friend or a loved one that really needs you is far better than an hour spread in tiny slivers across a bunch of people (and likely a bunch of news stories and other miscellany). A thoughtful book is worth far more than 100 trite articles that barely cover a subject at all. A well-researched and thoughtful article that covers a topic in detail is worth far more than a mountain of tweets and Facebook updates.
The more you fill your hours with the things that can’t be compressed – and the more you discard the things that can easily be compressed into nothingness – the more fulfilling your life will be, every time.
The current state of mass media – television, news, movies, magazines, and so on – constantly encourages us to put the burst of pleasure above the lasting joy, to assign heroism to non-heroic things, to compress the meaningful things in life down into nothingness, to value your own success rather than the impact it has on others, to define yourself by your possessions and physical appearance rather than by the lasting impact you have on the world.
Is there any wonder that we often feel sad and empty by modern life?
Instead of living by those rules, live by some new rules.
Look for and laud people for their character, not by their appearance or their possessions or their publicity team.
Define your own success by the people that you help, not by the income that you earn.
Be patient with your choices about how to spend your money and energy and time, and choose to spend them on things that actually matter and will last.
Drop the things in your life that don’t bring lasting joy and memories. Fill that available time and energy and money with things that do bring lasting joy.
Fill your life with uncompressed things. Build deep, strong relationships by giving them focus and time. Fill your recreational time with things that actually last and build into something great and meaningful.
If you do these things, you’ll spend far less money and you’ll find far more joy when you do. You’ll waste far less time, and you’ll find far more lasting happiness with how you use your time and your energy.
Better yet, you’ll make the world a better place and lift the people and community that are immediately around you.