What does it mean to live a good life?

Awareness around high-quality decision-making is very important to lead a good life

Perhaps the most important decisions you will ever make are whether to marry, who to marry and whether to have children. Getty
Powered by automated translation

For my final column for 2022, I want to share some things I have been pondering lately. Because this time of year encourages a lot of reflection.

Firstly, what does it mean to live a good life? It is a seemingly simple question, but with a complex answer.

Perhaps it is living mindfully? Knowing your purpose and values? Cultivating creativity? Overcoming fears and anxiety? Helping others? Or understanding the difference between being wealthy and being rich?

It is a vast subject, but perhaps the most important decisions you’ll ever make are whether to marry, who to marry and whether to have children.

None of these are taught to us. How could they be? You can’t distil major life decisions into an equation or even a broad principle.

They are so important but so hard to teach. Therefore, awareness around high-quality decision-making is so important to lead a good life.

People have different personalities, goals, experiences and levels of chance and serendipity, all of which make universal truths hard to find and difficult to teach.

Earlier this year, a friend rejected my recommended scientific personality test in favour of a horoscope!

Regardless of technological development, the best answer for many big questions will always be: “You have got to figure it out for yourself.”

A lot of things work like that. Some of the most important topics are the hardest to teach and experience is the only school.

Here are some others:

  • How to get along with people you disagree with
  • How to respect the views of people who have had different life experiences than you
  • How to make high-quality life decisions when the stakes are super high
  • How to deal with failure
  • How to avoid being swayed by charlatans
  • How to manage the balance between confidence and ego, recognising that you might be unique but you are not special
  • How to accept your faults without guilt
  • How to change your mind, especially about things that were once core to your identity
  • How to listen
  • How to love
  • How to come to terms with the agony of making a costly financial mistake
  • How to accept critical feedback
  • How to be inspired by others’ success while avoiding envy
  • Recognising how incentives affect your behaviour, often for the worse
  • How to recognise the long-term consequences of your actions
  • How to balance optimism and pessimism so you can exploit opportunities with realistic expectations

There are no easy rules to learn and memorise — you have got to figure those out for yourself.

Mindset matters, as does self-awareness around your own fears, emotions, wants and triggers.

For me, a good life is measured by progress. I am reflecting now on my progress in 2022 and thinking about how I can improve myself next year and to use the wisdom I learnt from today’s learning opportunities to live a better tomorrow.

When you learn to see the world as it is, and not as you want it to be, everything changes
Sam Instone, co-chief executive of AES

Comparisons are not made with other people, but only with previous versions of myself.

I follow my inner scorecard. This gives me optimism to hope we will all be a little bit better tomorrow than today.

Following on the theme of progress, my second thought is around the models we all have in our heads.

The quality of our life depends on them. Because when you learn to see the world as it is, and not as you want it to be, everything changes.

The solution to any problem becomes more apparent when you can view it through more than your own lens.

You will spot opportunities you could not see before. You will avoid costly mistakes that may be holding you back. And you will begin to make meaningful progress in your life.

This is the power of the world’s great “mental models”. They can help to propel you past the massive gravitational pull towards our natural, evolutionary programming.

But traditional education doesn’t prepare us for this. Or at least, it didn’t prepare me.

I have made more than my share of mistakes over the years. To improve, I have spent a long time looking around for mentors. Those with practical world experience in making “great decisions”.

I have settled on the easy-to-like, intelligent, witty and, at times, irreverent Charlie Munger. The billionaire long-term business partner of Warren Buffett says: “The key to better understanding the world is to build a latticework of mental models.”

Ideas such as “first principles thinking” (popularised by Elon Musk) and “second-order thinking” — there are many more ideas I wish I had learnt at school.

And these are ideas we can all benefit from because they help us understand how the world works and how to apply that understanding to keep us out of trouble. Ultimately, this makes our journey through life more successful and rewarding.

As a final note, I will leave you with American novelist David Foster Wallace’s thoughts: “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”

Here’s to a better life.

Sam Instone is co-chief executive of wealth management company AES

Updated: December 30, 2022, 4:00 AM