Have you seen the site Unnecessary Quotes? It’s fabulously sarcastic, offering a collection of signs that have quotation marks in all the wrong places.
I started thinking about other unnecessary things after a few people asked about my language skills for traveling. You can’t be a world traveler without speaking six languages, right?
Surprise! I’m not a language ninja. I speak bad French and awful Spanish.
Otherwise, I’m definitely not the guy you want to have around as a translator. (Airport codes and frequent flyer info, yes; translation at the next U.N. meeting, no.) It’s not that I think everyone should speak English, or that learning other languages is unimportant. If I had kids, I’d put them in Chinese school in the morning with a Spanish-speaking nanny in the afternoon.
But you know what? Even though I’d happily accept the gift of magic language skills, I also know that my inability to cross most language barriers doesn’t really hinder me from going anywhere or doing anything. You don’t need to be a language ninja to travel. Sometimes it will be awkward and sometimes it will be funny, but your chances of starving to death on the road are quite low.
If I Could Only…
Focusing on something you don’t have (but think you need) can be a dangerous, common pattern. The pattern is to identify something you lack and use that as an obstacle that prevents you from doing what you really want.
With an obstacle identified, we feel better. No harm done, right? No harm except that nagging sense in the back of our brain that we really should be doing something differently. Not to worry: most people come to terms with it over time.
Fortunately, many of the obstacles we perceive are not really obstacles. Many of the things we think we need are unnecessary. I don’t mean to discount handicaps, social disadvantage, etc., but the way out of most challenges was best defined by Oprah:
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“We are each responsible for our own life; no other person is or even can be.”
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a prison cell on Robbin Island. He got out and led South Africa on a path of forgiveness and transition. Viktor Frankl created a philosophy on finding personal meaning while imprisoned in a concentration camp.
When I think about people like that, I become less tolerant of other excuses. If you can emotionally thrive in prison, even more things become unnecessary. Let’s look at a few of them.
You don’t need experience. Experience can sometimes get you in the door, but what really matters is what you’re doing now. The past belongs on a resumé; the future is only partially in your hands. Today is the only day we are fully in control of.
You don’t need a mentor. No one will ever be as invested in your success as you. You can’t outsource the responsibility for planning the course of your life.
You don’t need paperwork. Paperwork includes degrees, certificates, endorsements, licenses, recommendations, referrals, and so on. Please note: it’s not that some of these things (or the other things) are unhelpful. It’s that they are unnecessary.
You don’t need to pay for access or information. I realize the irony: I sell information products on the right side of the screen. But if you want to break things down to the simplest level, almost all information is freely available. If you live in Iran or China, some information may be kept from your view – everywhere else, whatever it is you want to learn, go and learn it. If you have no money, go to the library. Go to the bookstore and read books in the cafe.
If you want to start a business…
The list of things you don’t need grows longer. You don’t need to move to Silicon Valley; you don’t need to pitch to venture capitalists; you don’t need to borrow money.
This part could go on for a while – you don’t need an office, you don’t need a MacBook Pro, you don’t need to outsource, you don’t need business cards.
From time to time I’ve been asked about my productivity habits. Here is my primary GTD workstation, pictured below for all posterity:
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No instructions are included, but it’s pretty basic. GTD (‘get things done’) is a great organization system because you don’t need much of anything to use it. The principles of GTD as I use it are:
- Write stuff down
- Do easy stuff quickly
- Review big stuff periodically
As I said, basic but life-changing. But enough about notebooks and venture capital – let’s get serious. Are you ready? Here we go:
You don’t need other people’s permission.
If you’ve heard the one about forgiveness and permission – how it’s easier to say “Oops, sorry” than it is to get something cleared in advance – this is totally true. This principle helped me finish college in two years and sneak into graduate school without taking the GRE. (It certainly wasn’t high intelligence or aptitude for study.)
However, you also don’t need permission for much of anything. You don’t need permission to be happy, for example. Just be happy.
Where’s the line? The line is where your actions cause harm to someone else. My view is that as long if you stay behind that line, you don’t need permission. Thankfully, I don’t know many people who want to intentionally harm someone else. We just want freedom to pursue our own choices without being held back by anyone else.
What You Really Need
If you don’t need most of those things, what do you need?
You need passion. You need to be absolutely passionate about what you believe in. If you don’t feel passionate about something, chances are you haven’t discovered it yet. Keep looking.
You need a vision and a task. The vision tells you where you are going; the task tells you what to do next.
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You need the two answers. What do you really want to get out of life? How can you help others in a way that is unique to you?
You need commitment to stay the course. Most people give up at 5,000 hours; the winners continue to 10,000 and beyond. I liked what Seth said about the 3,000 posts he’s written: the first 2,500 were the hardest.
Very Important: What’s the difference between the things you need and the things you don’t need?
All of the things in the first category are up to you. Most of the things in the second category come from other people.
Mostly, you need enough. You need enough money, enough time, enough courage. What is enough? That’s for you to decide.
But don’t worry about what you don’t have. When you let go of all the things you don’t need, a lot of other things become much easier.
A version of this post originally appeared on Chris Guillebeau’s website.