“Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously.’ […] There aren’t any other rules."
— Ben Zander The Art of Possibility
Back in college, I took a one month trip to South Africa. And while we were in Cape Town, our group attended a Friday morning mass at St. George’s Cathedral.1
It was a highlight of the trip.
Sure, I don’t remember what songs we sang. I don’t remember much of what the cathedral looked like. I don’t even remember what the brief talk was about.
But Archbishop Desmond Tutu was there.
And there’s one thing about him I’ll never forget: The spirit of joy he carried himself with.
I remember how he warmly welcomed everyone. How he gently teased his fellow church leaders. How he cracked jokes about his age. How his deep laugh filled the entire cathedral. How he approached everything with a childlike lightheartedness.2
It was magical.
Here’s the thing though…
I’m not talking about someone who was just blindly pretending the pain, suffering, and hardships of life don’t exist.
This Was Desmond Tutu
A man who walked into the very center of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Someone who embraced the conflict and struggle. One who’s leadership and courage was recognized by the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.
In fact, on the opening day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he was left stunned by the horrible stories people shared. And all he could do was weep.
This was the man who I saw smiling that Friday morning. Despite all he’d seen, he still chose live with optimism and humor.
It’s not just Desmond Tutu who embodies this quality either. I’ve noticed it in almost all of the great leaders and creators I respect… people like my grandfather, Pema Chodron, or Ben Zander.
They don’t take themselves too seriously.
They’re able to laugh at life (and themselves).
They step through the world with a sense of play and curiosity.
And as a result, not only are their lives better… but they automatically elevate everyone around them too.
How Do We Approach Our Work This Way?
How do we dance through life with this spirit of play and lightness? How do we live out Rule Number 6?
Part of the answer is committing to the foundation. It’s embracing the work of developing who we are… changing the stories that run our lives… redefining our game… and pursuing a vision that’s bigger than we are.
However, I’ve also found there are a number of small ways to cultivate this attitude on a daily basis.
You can reflect on Rule Number 6 itself. In the heat of the moment, if you can remember it… that alone can help diffuse stress or anxiety.
Develop a bigger perspective on life. Meditate on death. Ponder the vastness of space. Realize how against the river of history, our lives are but a small drop. So why not appreciate this moment we’ve been given? Right now. Right here.
Take a walk outside. (I find many of life’s problems can be solved by a good walk.)
Go play with children.
Do something kind for another person. Seriously, science shows that just being kind can make you feel happier, more alive, and less anxious.
All of those are great.
And here’s another powerful practice that Ben Zander talks about. It’s just two simple words…
Watch him explaining how it works…
Instead of just complaining… or beating yourself down… raise your hands in the air and say, “How fascinating!” (Notice the exclamation mark at the end. There’s an energy and celebration to it.)
Someone says something that triggers you… “How fascinating!”
Make a mistake… “How fascinating!”
Feeling stuck or challenged… “How fascinating!”
To be clear, I’m not saying you should just ignore your problems or pretend they don’t matter.
In fact, it’s the opposite. Ultimately, this is about facing your problems more fully. Approaching them with openness and creativity. Being present. And, in the process, uncovering solutions you never would have found otherwise.
So that’s my challenge for you… to keep Rule Number 6 in mind this week.
Maybe when someone ignores your very, very important email… you don’t have to get annoyed or take it personally. Perhaps when you’re nervous about performing in front of a group… you can take a breath and appreciate the opportunity to be there. Or maybe when you feel stuck in “the grind” of work… you can try to find room for more fun or experimentation.
And if you’re having trouble, you can always throw your hands in the air and say…
St. George’s was one of the leading churches speaking out against the apartheid. And was nicknamed “The People’s Cathedral” for its strong stance against the injustice. ↩︎