The Top 10 Things I Learned From Reading ‘Life Is a Verb’

patti dighMuch of my copy of Patti Digh’s Life is a Verb is already dog-eared. Regular readers know I learn by writing, so here’s the result of my writing down what most resonated with me as I read it.

I should note that everyone who reads this book will learn something different. So don’t trust my list — get your own copy and make your own list.

Life is a Verb is all about learning to live intentionally — learning to do things that have meaning for you, deliberately, purposefully, moving towards doing what you were meant to do, what you’ve always wanted to do. So these 10 lessons are, naturally, phrased as intentions. Here they are, in countdown form:

Intention 10: See Anger for What It Is: An astonishing quote from Alanis Morissette: “Anger is just a cowardly extension of sadness. It’s a lot easier to be angry at someone than to tell them you’re hurt.” Anger is just a mask — for fear, for hurt, for helplessness, for grief, for uncertainty. Figure out what’s behind the mask and deal with it instead of the anger. Including your own anger.

Intention 9: Give Up Your Possessions: When we become too attached to them, our possessions end up possessing us, holding us back, wasting our time and money looking after them, maintaining them, protecting them. And those possessions may include beliefs we cling to, beliefs that we are right, which also hold us back — from considering other possibilities, from being open to new ideas and experiences. From letting ourselves change.

Intention 8: To Help Others Succeed, Go Where They Are and Give Them Space: Instead of doing things for (or to) people, or giving them advice “for their own good”, give them the opportunity to figure out what’s best themselves. This is especially important with groups: Give them time and space to achieve consensus rather than telling them (or letting anyone else tell them) what to do. Even — especially — when you’re part of the group. To let this happen, “go where they are”, see things from their perspective, and steer them, gently, from there. Let them do things themselves, understand that language is subjective, find a motivation that is meaningful to them, be reasonable, consistent and patient (and above all, honest), and let them work their magic.

Intention 7: Don’t Let Others Control You: We have to give control to others. Through our learned helplessness, our need for attention and appreciation, and thorough others’ manipulation or coercion, we cede authority over our lives to those we obey, love, owe, report to or look up to. It’s harder to get it back than not to give it up in the first place. But it’s never too late. A quote from the book, from Anthony de Mello: “In many ways we were drugged when we were young. We were brought up to need people. For what? For acceptance, approval, appreciation, applause.”

Intention 6: Be Generous: I’m still far too stingy with compliments, with my time and attention and appreciation and even my knowledge and imagination. I take people, and things, for granted. I don’t say “thank you” nearly enough. I don’t pay enough attention to people, remember important things about them. I don’t smile at them enough, authentically, unreservedly. Every day is full of squandered opportunities for me to proffer small kindnesses, offers that may be so important to others, and will always, through being paid forward, be repaid. Patti’s story of “finding” a $5 bill “dropped” by a woman in a grocery store who did not have enough money for her purchases brought tears to my eyes. How can I consider myself an imaginative person if I cannot devise such acts of simple, graceful, brilliant generosity? [This “being a stealth angel” is, by the way, my current 37 Days exercise.]

Intention 5. Just Help Them Get Started: Most people — children, teenagers, adults — are unhappy with their lives, or lost, and they’re either afraid or stuck. They don’t want or need you to tell them what to do and how to do it. They just need a gentle, helpful nudge to get out of the rut, to point them in the right direction, to suggest possibilities. This is not difficult. We just need to pay attention to what they’re afraid of or stuck on, and see how we can get them started past that obstacle, with the first step, forward.

Intention 4. Tell Great Stories: Life is a Verb is at heart a book of stories. It is the stories, each so perfectly crafted, that give the book its power and wisdom. Patti could have stripped this book down to just the stories, and presented them in a book as fiction, and it would have been just as wonderful, just as transformative. I have to learn to tell stories this well.

Intention 3. Practice: The journey is the destination. Intention is all about trying, again and again, with patience and attention and discipline, to get better, at living, at making a living, at loving, at understanding. My life now is all about doing the things I love, every day, not obsessing about achievement but only about getting better, and having fun doing it. These are the things I practice:

playing learning loving
conversing giving (ideas,
knowledge, competencies)
being present writing reflecting

Intention 2. Be Present: Patti quotes Chan Chih: “Do not carry the burden of the past; do not live in the future. The only important thing is that one lives in the present authentically and fully.” I’ve read and written a lot about presence, but my practice being present is just beginning. I intend to learn to live every moment in the present, thoughtfully, using this ‘personal-U’ process that Cyndy Roy and I developed a few years ago:

Observe, listen, pay attention, focus, open up your senses, perceive everything that has a bearing on the issue at hand. Connect.
Self-control: Don’t prejudge or jump to conclusions. Don’t lose your cool. Focus.
Understand: Make sure you have the facts and appreciate the context. Things are the way they are for a reason. Know what that reason is. Sympathize.
Question: Ask, don’t tell. Challenge. Think critically.
Imagine: Picture, hear, feel what could be. Be visionary. Every problem is an opportunity. Anything is possible.
Offer: Consider. Give something away. Create options, new avenues to explore. Suggest possibilities. Lend a hand. Help.
Collaborate: Create something together. Solve a problem with a collective answer better than any set of individual answers. Learn to yield, to build on, to bridge, to adapt your thinking.

Intention 1. Know Yourself: The only thing that can prevent us from being everybody-else, and from being unhappy with ourselves, is to know ourselves. We can’t be nobody-but-ourselves if we don’t know who that is. And we can’t possibly know who we’re meant to be in community with, all the people we’re meant to live with and make a living with and love, until we know who we are, what makes us happy, what makes us unique. What makes us us. To know ourselves we need to look inside, to see ourselves as if we were outside ourselves. And we need to acquire enough diverse experiences to inform us about ourselves, to learn who we really are and what we’re intended to be and do, and what’s holding us back from realizing our intentions. Three of my favourite quotes from the book relate directly to this — Dr Seuss: (Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”), La Rochefoucauld (“We are so accustomed to disguising ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”), and Oscar Wilde (“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”)

Writing this blog, virtually every day for five years, becoming self-aware, and following the advice (most of it from others) on its pages, I have come to know myself. I know, at last, what I love to do, and what I am intended to do (practice the nine things in Intention 3 above). I know what I want, what makes me happy, what makes me me. No more trying or pretending, miserably, to be somebody else, or everybody-else. I know myself so well that if I had only 37 days to live I wouldn’t do any of the things that other people would do. I know exactly what I would do.

That’s perhaps why my Saturday-links quote from Coelho’s The Alchemist resonated so strongly in my mind with the messages of Life is a Verb:

Why should I listen to my heart? Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet. Even if you pretend not to have heard what it tells you, it will always be there inside of you, repeating to you what youíre thinking about life and about the world.

You mean I should listen, even if itís treasonous? Treason is a blow that comes unexpectedly. If you know your heart well, it will never be able to do that to you. Because youíll know its dreams and wishes, and will know how to deal with them. You will never be able to escape from your heart. So itís better to listen to what it has to say. That way, youíll never have to fear an unanticipated blow.

.     .     .     .     .

The book also has some extraordinary poetry (each chapter begins with a poem from a little-known poet), and some stunning artwork, contributed by 37 Days readers.

Last but not least, we should all take up Patti’s way of taking pictures: with her own outstretched left hand, getting herself and her companion of the moment (close on her right side) in the picture, together. The top photo above is an example.

Absolute genius.

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7 Responses to The Top 10 Things I Learned From Reading ‘Life Is a Verb’

  1. Hey Dave–Thanks for this post–it got me off my duff to post about it on the tea house: made me smile to think of your copy already dog-eared!!Beth

  2. andy mill says:

    1 Anger cowardly? I don’t think so. There is plenty to be angry about. So much has been lost. So much was taken long ago. Anger is an energy. It’s all in how you use it that counts.

  3. mattbg says:

    Wow, it sounds like a picture-book version of the Bible… but presumably far more existential, else it wouldn’t sell, would it?

  4. Hello Dave,As I was reading your most recent post, I was struck by something I had not noticed before. I am familiar with your list of nine things that you practice, and I think they are are wonderful activities to dedicate your life to. I wonder why “giving” is the only activity you qualify (ie. ideas, knowledge, competencies). You don’t qualify “play” with the things you play or “learn” with the things you learn, etc… So why are there only certain things you give?Perhaps this is also tied to what you mentioned in intention 6 about learning to be more generous. A gentle suggestion would be to remove the “qualifiers” from your giving. You have so much to give in the way of ideas and knowledge and you are already well-versed in giving those parts of yourself. Maybe you should find a few new things to qualify your giving practice.However, please don’t stop writing.In kindness,Candice

  5. Susan Hales says:

    Hi, Dave! I sent this post to my Language Arts & Skills Freshman class. I thought it was a fitting introduction to a world they’ve never been exposed to, and I asked them to write an essay on one of three blog posts. I chose this one because so many of them (and their teacher) are dealing with these issues daily. I will be intrigued to see what impact you and your friends have on them. You should have seen me trying to explain knowledge management to them…Best,Susan Hales

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