The One Thing You Need to Know to Have a Great Life

Like a lot of people, I get much of the philosophy by which I manage my life from popular movies. (Hey, those scriptwriters are wise people.) The problem with our culture today, as illustrated by that brilliant scene in “The Hurt Locker” where Jeremy Renner plays a character who has nerves of Titanium yet is literally stunned into inertia by the mind-numbing plethora of toothpaste choices at his local grocery story, is that we have too many options.

Gone are the days when you knew you only had your folks’ farm or the garment-sewing factory to look forward to. Nowadays it’s been drilled into us relentlessly since our very first Disney movie that we can do and be anything we want. Screw the Ford factory assembly line! You could be President! Or a famous director on Broadway. It could happen. Things have changed since our parents’ parents’ generation, oh they of the Few Options. Because so many more people are able to get  college degrees than a couple generations ago they have more options. With more doors to choose from, there is more consternation about choosing the right door. After all, writers create short stories about people who choose the wrong door and then their lives go totally to hell.

So, if I can get you to accept that we have more choices and more options than ever before then I can get down to the point I’d like to make which is, there are more wrong roads we can take now too—and not because someone (or poverty) pushed us down that road but because we chose it for ourselves.

Since having a great life is within our power—if we make a series of right choices—then there is a lot of pressure on us to make those right choices. Which brings me to one of my favorite philosophic movies of all time, City Slickers with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. While the premise of the movie was that Billy’s character had lost his oomph with life, his wife, his dull kids, and definitely his job, it was the line by Palance’s character, Curly Washburn, that lit up the screen for me in a way that would have me remember the moment ever after.

When Billy was whining about how he wasn’t fulfulled and maybe he didn’t have the job he really should have, Curly told him that the secret to life was “one thing.” He held up that big gnarly gloved finger in Billy’s face and I remember clutching for the next words out of his mouth that would tell me—and every lucky person who was watching this movie—what the one thing was that we should all heed. Imagine! In the ten seconds or so that the director milked the line for, I really did mirror the look on Billy’s face: this old grizzled cowboy who lived basically and in the present had the secret to a happy life and was going to tell me! Then all I had to do was plop it into a simple formula that related, somehow, to my own life, and finally, I would be on my way amid the tsunami of choices and wrong exits that pocked my life.

Why is it we love the simple and the streamlined? There’s an argument that nothing really important can be sorted out by a simple formula. True, complicated issues sometimes are solved by very simple answers, but I’m thinking rarely. Mostly, if the conundrum is a complex one, you can bet it’s not a simple matter of: eat more roughage and add ten minutes to your evening walk.

Like a lot of people, though, I’m a sucker for any self-help book that starts out: “The only THREE things you need to know to reduce debt (lose weight, make better grades).” And I should know better. I’m an advertising copywriter. I write this crap for a living!

Okay, so after much milking of the time between the promise and the delivery, Jack Palance finally coughed up the “one thing,” which was different for everyone.

Huh? Turns out, you had to go and find the $#@!! “one thing” that was YOUR “one thing.” Bloody hell! Yeah, Billy looked pretty disgusted, too.

But once the easy answer and free lunch was mourned and gotten over, the “one thing” concept did start to roll around in my brain parts a bit. And while it wasn’t as soon as I walked out of the movie theatre, it was within the year: I began to form in my mind the “one thing” that mattered to me and that would help me walk in the direction of making my life worthwhile.

And once you know it, it’s true: it turns out you really can spend your whole life’s journey working to achieve it. That’s something else I discovered: (I think it was in the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously”) the steps in the journey are even more important than the destination which, let’s face it, could just as easily be a nursing home (or worse) than that beautiful Craftsman-style home in the better neighborhood you have your eye on.

Step by step, day in day out.

So. What’s your “one thing?” Do you know it? Are you still figuring it out? Love to hear from you!

14 thoughts on “The One Thing You Need to Know to Have a Great Life

  1. Wow, Susan! Just WOW! This post encapsulates pretty much exactly what is going on in my life right this very second and within the last 24 hours! It’s what literally kept me up all night last night. You’ve hit a homerun for me today!

    In a nutshell, I’m feeling suffocated and downright persecuted by my corporate day job (long story. can’t post it here. they’re watching me. no kidding). But in truth all I’ve ever wanted to be, from as far back as I can remember, is a WRITER. So how did I end up trapped in corporate America?

    For me writing is that one thing. I’ve always known that. I think the challenge is to find out how to make that the supportive center of my universe in a time when writers have to struggle to make a living at it. But the last 24 hours have taught me that it’s something I must do.

    Thanks for a timely and inspiring post!

    • Thanks, Merry! I was doing the corporate thing a year ago this time too so I definitely know what you’re feeling. Creative types combined with the corporate world is an epic fail (more for us than them!) I lost my job last summer and while I hate the lack of income (especially with my son about to launch) I can tighten purse strings and make it work b/c I have a working spouse. Not sure I’d admit it to HIM just yet, but I don’t see going “back to work” as the best thing for me right now. It’s funny b/c my husband, who is an academic, always had the view that what you did for a living should be connected with your passion or what you got your degree in. As a writer, I never felt I had that luxury. While I worked as an advertising copywriter most of my career, trust me, it’s only slightly less connected to “real” writing than cranking out corporate drivel as a “communications specialist.” You’re right: that “supportive center of my universe” has got to be connected, somehow, with who I am as a writer and what I do day-to-day. For me, too, writing is that one thing. I’m hoping Amazon and Smashwords and the billions of readers out there in cyber-world will discover us and then provide the momentum necessary to help both of us someday earn a living doing what we love to do.

      And I totally believe it will happen.

      • Amen to that one!

        This is the only area in which I feel like I am really missing out by being single. Or as one of my friends suggested this morning, “You really need to find a sugar daddy!” =P

  2. Heh, I liked that movie too. But looking to Hollywood screenwriters and actor for wisdom about life is like turning to politicians and investment bankers for advice on moral integrity. Aristotle says that the ONE THING we are all seeking is eudaimonia—Flourishing as a Human Being. This involves a complex set goods such as friendship, health, good judgment, virtue, family, work, income, leisure activities, and community. Of course, for each of us, there are special things we care about so much that we can’t imagine life would be worth living without them. My personal list includes music, the outdoors, birding, religious faith, and reading. But, pace Curly, you need the whole shebang to flourish–not just the important thing(s) you’re passionate about. After all, didn’t Lindsay Lohan get Curly’s One Thing right?

  3. I’ve wanted to write since I was in my late teens and always assumed I couldn’t. Now I’ve given up my work, I’m writing. Nothing published yet but I’m doing what I always wanted to do. Someone once said it’s the things you didn’t do which cause regrets later in life – so at least there’ll be no regrets about not writing! And there might be a novel one day 🙂
    It’s hard, lonely, there’s lots to learn and not a quick fix in sight, so along with this goes: find things to enjoy each day, no matter how small and how simple.
    Most nights before I sleep, I go through my day and find three things I liked – the first daffodils opening, a cheery word from a neightbour, a meal well-cooked; it can be anything.
    It kind of helps keep the balance.

  4. Hmm, a single purpose in life is such an enticing concept…

    In the past couple of years, I’ve felt that I’d gotten waylaid – morphing from a Tasmanian dreamer who wanted to be a writer, to working in mainstream magazines, publishing and advertising in Sydney. Now back in Tassie, I don’t regret what I’ve done to this point, but I made a conscious effort late last year to investigate what my ‘true life purpose’ was – thanks to Steve Pavlina’s 20-minute technique (which I highly recommend).

    After a couple of hundred goes, I landed on:

    “To treasure my unique voice, to tell the truth in the face of non-truths, to create with courage, to live with freedom from confinement, to love my children and to leave something for them to be proud of once I’m gone.”

    The above, while not stating ‘writing’ per se, can all be achieved through my chosen medium of writing.

    My life purpose is not set in stone, of course, but it’s a guiding light to direct AND keep me on the right track through the day-to-day…

  5. I loved reading this, makes you think doesn’t it.
    I read alot of Deepak Chopra who advocates living in the present and enjoying the journey without worrying about the destination. I find this mind set does bring about a certain contentment but allowing you to still feel excited about the possibilities in the future, whatever they may be. It also helped me conquer the fear of failure, which was stopping me from writing and stiffling my creativity. Now I am a stones throw away from finishing a novel, (I’ve started many and given up half way through because I thought no one would like them.) and have the confidence to submit it as I feel what will be will be and what ever the outcome it’s okay.

  6. I’ll choose the scene where Glinda, the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, told Dorothy that she had the power to go home all along. I believe we all have the power within us to create the life we want to lead. The secret lies in listening to our inner voice, believing we have the right to our own self-fulfillment, and taking the first step. My journey started when I went back to college. I love this posting so much that I wrote about it on my own blog!

  7. Pingback: Self-fulfillment: Taking the First Step « Realize Your Dreams

  8. Susan I love this post! It made me smile, I like to “educate” myself, or search for the right answers through the books I read and the films I watch. I’m always looking for that nugget of wisdom that will make sense of my life and where it is going. Then a little while ago I began to realise that the one thing for me was writing; and if I’d not pursued it with all my heart before now it was very much because I was scared of failing at it and realising at 85 years of age: $h1* I took the wrong path! Anyway I’ve now made peace with that possibility, and know that day will never come as I love writing, and even if it never gets me anywhere I’ll have at least enjoyed myself in the pursuit of a career in writing. Also by the time I hit 85 I hopefully won’t be dragging myself through the motions of a day job so I could feasibly drink enough red wine until everything looks rosy.

  9. Pingback: ONE Thing: Whats the Most Important Thing in Your Life? « For Whatever It's Worth…

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