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How to Do Life: what they didn't teach you in school

By Marty Nemko

(written for Mensa's national magazine)

Especially in these tough times, life can be a challenge, even for a Mensan.

Here, I share what has most helped my 3,900 career and life coaching clients (and me) with seven of life's biggies: career, recreation, relationships, education, money, parenting, and spirituality. I'll end with a few all-purpose tips.

Career. Rather than tell you to see a career counselor for ten sessions only to be told "There's lots of things you could pursue," try this. It's fast, free and often surprisingly helpful: Scan the index of the 300 careers in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, available free at, and read the profiles of any careers that appeal. Then read a couple of articles on that career. To find them, just Google the name of the career and the word careers, for example, "geologist careers". Finally, talk with, visit, or volunteer for someone in that career, and voila, you've picked more wisely than do 95% of career searchers.

To land a job, do it your way. Sure, networking works for many, but if you're a lousy networker, it probably won't work for you. Put your effort into crafting ahead-of-the-pack job applications. Describe your distinctive attributes: If you're slow and craftsman-like rather than a fast producer, say it. If you'd rather work alone than be the proverbial team player, say it. The wrong employers will screen you out and the right ones will screen you in. In addition to a cover letter showing you meet the job's requirements, include a piece of collateral material. For example, one of my clients applied for a sales job with a government contractor. He included a list of 50 federal decisionmakers he'd call if he got the job. Another client, to show an employer that he knew a lot about hospital management, wrote a three-page White Paper called, Keys to Effective Hospital Management in 2012 and Beyond, which he researched just as he might have a term paper in school.

On the job, key is to mold the job description to fit your personality. A client of mine became a manager. Her predecessor focused on developing budgets, processes, and evaluating employees. My client disliked all that. She loved helping her supervisees solve problems and advocating for them with higher-ups. As much as possible, she molded the job to fit her preferences and is now happy and successful.

Money. Financial advisors make investing seem more complicated than it need be. Most experts agree you'll likely do better than most investors in much less time and with much less stress simply by investing your money in theVanguard All-in-One Fund that matches your risk tolerance and time horizon. Truly, for many people, it's that simple. The cost is low, diversification high, and simplicity unmatched.

Some Mensans may feel they can outsmart the market, but most active traders lose money. It's tough to beat--net of expenses--the collective wisdom of the millions of investors that determine a stock's price.

Rccreation. Advertisements try to get you to buy $100 football, theatre, or concert tickets, not to mention $50,000 cars. But what actually gives you the most fun per dollar? Here's my list:

Hikes with my doggie, Einstein.

Renting a video

Hanging out with my wife

Giving a private piano concert in my home

Reading books and magazines (including the Mensa Bulletin)

Writing (including for the Bulletin)

What should go on your list?

Coupling. Despite all the societal changes in the past half century, many of us still reflexively feel we should be in a couple or have children. And for some people, that's right. But many people get married and have kids, if only unconsciously, because its what you're supposed to do. But I've observed that some of the happiest and most fulfilled people are single and without kids. Just something to think about. Get married and have children because you want to, not because society expects it.


Considering a back-to-school stint? Ask yourself whether you'll likely learn enough and/or your career will benefit enough to justify the cost, time, and inconvenience. Might you be wiser to forgo State U let alone Private U in favor of what I call You U: articles and books you'd select, workshops and webinars offered by professionals in your field, and volunteer "apprenticeships" with respected people? If you were an employer, mightn't you consider someone who had forgone the prepackaged State U program for a customized You U education?

If you decide on the traditional U route, look for professors and especially an adviser with a reputation for being transformational, someone whose life lessons remain part of your fabric long after you've forgotten everything on the exam.

If you think an assigned paper or project won't be of sufficient value to you, propose an alternative. Many professors will say yes.

Consider doing an independent study with your favorite professor. Those one-on-one experiences are among the most transformative---and lead to some of the best letters of recommendation.


Ever-hovering helicopter parents won't let their kids blow their nose without help. Such parents think they're doing it for their child's benefit but, unconsciously, it's often to make themselves feel needed. It's usually better to let your kid have a life--even if he does occasionally skin his knee. Chances are s/he'll end up more self-assured and less entitled than are helicopter parents' kids. And you'll have time to create a life for yourself.

The most stressful part of parenting is fighting with your kid to get him to (insert one or more: clean his room, do his homework, come home on time, stop having sex with his girlfriend: 'Not"under my roof!" When your kid screws up, instead of a confrontation, try Jewish and Catholic parents' time-honored tactic: invoking guilt. For example, "Johnny, I'm disappointed you didn't clean your room. You know you're a more responsible person than that." Then walk away. Do not delude yourself into thinking he'll say, "You're so right, mommy, I'll jump right on it." But you will have sown a seed--Unless your kid is a real hellion, you'll likely have helped your child become intrinsically motivated to do the right thing. A fight with him is more likely to engender a short-term win for you but long-term, a kid who proves that you can't control him.

Spirituality. The question of whether God exists is irrelevant. If your faith in a higher power gives you comfort, then go speak in tongues, sit in a Shabbat service for three hours, fast from sunrise to sunset for Ramadan's 30 days. Knock yourself out.

One caveat: Some very religious people wait for God to provide. You must do your part.

In General

Don't blow off these next two tips because they're clichés. They've become clichés because they've worked for so many people.

Be in the moment. I used to always think about what's ahead. That prevented me from enjoying and making the most of the present. For example, when I was in Paris 40 years ago, I raced through the Louvre in an hour because I wanted to get to the Tuilleries before it closed. I've never gotten back to the Louvre.

Break big tasks into baby steps. For example, my wife was intimidated by the task of doing her dissertation. She and I taped to the refrigerator a piece of paper with a crude thermometer drawn on it, with all the little dissertation milestones listed on the side. Every time, she met one, we colored-in that part of the thermometer tube in red and I gave her a kiss. She finished her dissertation.

Most of us would like to be more productive, to make a bigger contribution, but too often we end up wondering where all the time went. This might help. Sometimes, when I'm considering what to do, I score each option on what I call The Meter:from -10 to +10, where -10 is making things much worse--for example, selling cocaine to children to +10, trying to cure cancer.

So, for example, let's say, on a Saturday morning, I'm deciding whether to watch TV (a 0--neither helpful nor hurtful) or finish that work project (say, a +4.) Sure, I might decide I need the recreation, and that's fine. But by making such decisions more consciously, being aware of that moment of truth when I'm deciding what to do next, I more often choose to be productive. Over the long run, that helps me feel better about how I'm living my life.

Lastly, it's so helpful if you can rid yourself of your psychological baggage. Sure, you may need years on the therapist's couch but maybe not. My dad, a Holocaust survivor, rarely talked about it. I asked him why. He stiffened, which he rarely did, and said, "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Martin, never look back, always look forward." I can give you no better advice.

Dr. Nemko was named "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach," by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. An archive of his writings is free on

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