Missing Life-Lessons

We learn many things over the space of our lives. With language, we can share such things with many others distant in space and time. With such a fantastic capacity, you might think we humans would hardly ever have to learn anything important directly for ourselves. But while we do learn many things from textbooks and mentors, we are surprisingly bad at teaching the most important life lessons. Like, for example, what its like to be married a long time, how to stay married, and when that is worth the trouble.

One contributing factor is that folks, late in life, almost never write essays, or books, on “what I’ve learned about life.” It would only take a few pages, and would seem to offer great value to others early in their lives. Why the silence? Some possible explanations:

  1. People don’t actually learn much that can be abstracted from their life details.
  2. People don’t want to hear the truth, and they won’t find lies useful, so why bother.
  3. Young folks already think they know all the answers, so won’t listen.
  4. It seems arrogant to offer lessons from your life when few others do this.
  5. When folks write on their life, they care much more to brag about what they did.
  6. Useful lessons will suggest the author had average success, which is shameful.
  7. The lessons of folks with way above average success aren’t useful to average folks.
  8. People are too weak to write when they feel old enough to tell lessons.
  9. Few care what people will think of them after they are dead.
  10. Most lessons have been written, but few can be bothered to read them.

None of these explanations seem especially satisfactory. What’s going on?

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  • “One contributing factor is that old folks, late in life, almost never write essays, or books, on “what I’ve learned about life.””

    Isn’t this what memoirs are?  According to the psychology dictionary, the average age a person writes a memoir is 68.

    • Robin Hanson

      No, most memoirs about what I did in my life, and what others did to me. Few life lessons are abstracted from that. Few people ever write memoirs, and fewer still read ones about ordinary lives.

  • AC

    Throwing out some potential partial explanations:

    1. People want to learn from high status people; hence biographies of rich powerful are sought after.  There isn’t as much of a market for average people’s thoughts (even though they would be arguably more applicable to the average person.)
    2. Most of the lessons people learn are highly culture-dependent – so are of little use to younger generations, or even those who live in different places.
    3. Life advice is freely available – everybody’s got an opinion.  There isn’t a market for more unless it’s unusually well-written.  We’ve got some of that; most people feel little impetus to write.  Note that old folks do advise their children a lot.

    • lump1

       Michel de Montaigne wrote an awesome autobiography in which he reveled in his ordinariness and was yet full of insight and perspective. Yes, his essays are a rare sort of book, but valuable exactly for this reason.

  • matt6666

    How about because the lessons would be trite. Stay in school, work hard to get through problems in your marriage, have patience with other people, do moderate amounts of exercise, eat fruits and vegetables, save your money and avoid frivolous expenditures on status goods. You think people don’t already know all this? 

    • anonymooz

      Or those that aren’t would upset too many people.  Cf. Bette Davis:

       “It has been my experience that one cannot, in any shape or form, depend on human relations for lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.” 

    • Peter

      Not a comment on your content mattt6666 but you made me think of Baz Luhrmann:


  • Owenbiesel

    Google searching “what I’ve learned about life” does turn up quite a few hits – mostly lists of epigram-style statements, but they’re not totally devoid of content.  My guess is that these sorts of treatises aren’t taken more seriously because (a) without the stories you’d find in something more like memoirs, the principles are hard to remember, and (b) when you abstract out the life lessons, they aren’t always consistent from one person to another.  So what you get feels like possibly helpful, but not particularly memorable, advice.

  • A Country Farmer

    Maybe it’s just a matter of technology? Before blogs and twitter (microblogs), it wasn’t exactly easy to write a book. Even a short one.

    There needs to be a website centered around this that makes it easy for older people to do.

  • Siddharth

    After figuring out how to solve a certain set of problems, internally, you tend to forget all the effort and all the places you got stuck. It now feels natural. 

    Just think about how you kept your marriage happy. If you’re old, it would seem obvious and natural to you that you have a happy marriage and you wouldn’t feel that it needs to explained.

  • Martin

    Writing down lessons, also means admitting when and where you failed. This is hardly a pleasurable experience and also lowers your status. So I would go for #5 & #6.

    There is really no gain to you to write those lessons down, but you do bear the cost. 

  • Julien Sorel

    “For a man to pretend to understand women is bad manners; for him really to understand them is bad morals.” – Henry James  

    Certain truths are harmful to social stability. For example, in traditional patriarchal civilizations e.g. Europe prior to the 20th century, the life lessons taught by Roissy would be of little benefit to most men since Game was unnecessary as there was female choice and autonomy. A beta male didn’t need to “game” his wife to avoid a sexless marriage because marital rape was legal. The men that would benefit from most from such advice were blackguards. 
    The patriarchy has been replaced by feminism, but under this new set of taboos the life lessons of Roissy are forbidden for different reasons. 

    “Bookish” was a legitimate insult because it was common sense that there were certain forms of knowledge that were not available in print. Hence a genius like Stephen Hawkings is still mystified by  women. The internet has changed that. 

  • Ely Spears

    Since we tend to demand near-mode advice but give far-mode advice, maybe there is little demand for advice that could be widely disseminated. Surely to publish a memoir requires writing exceptionally impractical things, and the best selling of such books strike me more as entertainment than advice (heroic stories of throwing caution to the wind to do what your heart tells you).

    Further, clans often view you as a disingenuous outsider if you try to distill their platitudes into general principles of reasoning without accepting the rest of the memes that the clan associates with the platitudes. My dad’s side of the family, for instance, are very connected to mountain culture, hunting, fishing, and wilderness survival skills. But they deeply despise folks who try to compare their mountain-folk views of respecting nature and not desiring things “for consumption” with modern green or environmental initiatives, even if the same proncies underlie both communities in some ways.

    From a personal perspective, I also feel that my life goals, and the set of life goals that I can viably choose from, are very different from just a generation ago, and wildly different from my grandparents’ generation. I know they are wise and mean well, but I do not face the same scenarios they faced and their advice usually has little applicability for me, except in tiny near-mode instances like how to efficiently deal with institutions or policies that are unlikely to change soon.

    • Michael Vassar

      My impression is that beyond a fairly modest level of human capital, say the level Harvard demands for admissions, throwing caution to the winds IS highly practical, if you can stick with it through a very stressful 4-8 year period.  It demands roughly the same level of self-sacrifice and risk as elite careers like Investment Banking and BigLaw, but with a much higher payoff.  However, you have to navigate it on your own, without a script and without social support for doing so, which makes it much harder for people for whom such things are essential.  

      • Ely Spears

        I know several folks who spent their 20s and some of their 30s as low-income, aspiring performing artists. They have no serviceable skill set, no savings, and most now work jobs they hate. Yet they followed this notion. I don’t see much evidence that it was a good gamble for them. Their peers who began a trade or craft type job, or studied practical things to secure more average jobs post-college seem to have made almost uniformly better choices.

        This lottery type bias is all around us, affecting who we choose to marry, what companies a VC will invest in, what careers we try, etc. There’s also a lot to be said for forager/farmer differences in terms of openness to new experiences.

        At any rate, I agree with you that there is some bar, below which it is worthwhile to try going for broke (perhaps with a promised stopping time if it’s not working); but I think the bar is much lower than talent required to get into Harvard.

  • Apprentice

    A lot of advice of this sort amounts to things like:

    “I wish that in my 20s I had done things in a way which would have optimized my outcome in my 50s.”

    When you’re on the young end of receiving advice like that you are – justly –  not as willing to discount your current pleasure as the older person advising you is.

    • Apprentice

      As a concrete example: When I was 18, my father was constantly giving me advice based on his life experience. So he would tell me things like: Don’t worry about dating girls now, which is difficult for a geeky guy like you. Just get a good education and get started on a great career. You’re smart so you can do some cool and creative stuff. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have a much easier time with women. And until you’ve done that, a girlfriend would be detrimental anyway, since she would tie you down and limit your options.

      This is all true, in a way, but even if I had fully believed it at the time, which I didn’t, I still wouldn’t have thought that putting Project: Girlfriend on the back burner for 10 years would have been a great idea.

  • gwern0

    Differing incentives and realities. Old adults give advice to teens which basically assume they can act like old adults; they forget just how painful things like waiting were, and wish away even the most transparently biological realities like shifts in circadian rhythms. (Young night owls, ever have an old morning lark tell you to just go to bed earlier? Yeah, I thought so.)

    Other times, the advice you *can* give is useless. My little brother went to the same private high school as me, which was 50 minutes away and the daily commute works out to ~3 hours daily; it was the single most miserable part of high school for me. I told him in advance and pointed out that at 4 school years of ~180 school days, he could expect to spend a *lot* of time being miserable on that bus. I’m not sure he believed me, but even if he did, what value would it have? He has no choice in the matter.

    • Yaobviously

      Telling your younger brother that he will be miserable doesn’t qualify as advice. You should have told him what you did and thought about when you were miserable, or suggested things to do or think about that might make him less miserable. Describing the commute as “miserable” implies it will be miserable no matter what he does, which is basically an endorsement of the commute-feeling association.

      This type of description is usually what passes for “advice” in memoirs and it is completely useless. I don’t think it is intentionally useless, or useless because writers are somehow failing. I think the standard ways of telling an engaging and readable story conflict with offering clear and actionable recommendations.

  • Michael Vassar

    The main things that people learn from life, rather than from being told are reading, aren’t stored in verbal form.  As a result, people generally don’t think that they can be represented with words.  As a general rule, as people get older, they become less disposed to construct new patterns out of words, and the patterns in their brains become more subtle and nuanced, and more divergent from the simple cliche verbal patterns that are typically exchanged as something like a carrier wave for the real primate communications that determine peoples actions.  It takes, essentially, literary talent, to look at the world and construct a novel and precise description of what you see rather recognizing the closest stored pattern and outputting the most appropriate available cliche.  

    Robin, Katja, I’d be happy to discuss this in more detail by email or phone, as I think it’s a really important and interesting question.  

    • It takes, essentially, literary talent, to look at the world and construct a novel and precise description of what you see rather recognizing the closest stored pattern and outputting the most appropriate available cliche. 

      Yes. Fiction is the primary vehicle for conveying life lessons; perhaps the only vehicle for conveying personal lessons in  usable form.

    • Make that conversation public somehow!  I’m a bit spooked by how closely this resembles what I’ve been obsessing about over the past year.

    • Silas Barta

      The main things that people learn from life, rather than from being told are reading, aren’t stored in verbal form.  As a result, people generally don’t think that they can be represented with words.  …
      Robin, Katja, I’d be happy to discuss this in more detail by email or phone, as I think it’s a really important and interesting question.  


  • 1) People can’t trust memoir writers to abstract specific pieces of wisdom from their unarticulated experiences with competence and fidelity. With respect to competence, we should doubt that memoir writers have the capacity to really know what they have intuitively learned. With respect to fidelity, memoir writers will likely be far, while people searching for wisdom from elders will more likely be near.

    2) Given the general uselessness of advice, people may also not trust themselves to pick out good advice from bad advice. If memoir writers can’t know what they know, how can readers know if they really knew it?

    3) Lessons can rarely be learned simply from articulated advice, rather than from experience processed intuitively.

  • What’s going on?

    Most people don’t give a shit about writing or ideas. 

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  • Lord

    Most advice is trite, comes with little guidance on how to apply it, and often doesn’t even apply because the world changes.  

    One I always heard was to get a good job, get a good education.  

    One that I never heard was it is up or out.  

    I had a really static conception of time; there was always time to do things right and always time to get around to things.  Life is not static but dynamic and you must seize opportunities when they come.  Time doesn’t come around again.  Don’t look for permanence in anything.  If something isn’t done, it is not that it was tried before, but no one may have thought of it before.  As you get old you learn how things are done and forget why they were so frustrating.  Along with this goes any idea of how to improve them since you no longer see them as problems.  

    • Lord

      Another example
      The One Minute Millionaire was old hat to me at the time.  On the other hand Rich Dad, Poor Dad was something I had never heard before.  Old is old, new is new.

  • efalken

    You are asking for wisdom, and while it does increase over a life, it does so very weakly on average.  Most people just settle into comfortable patterns of thought and behavior that work for them.  To the extent they are wealthy, usually there was a large amount of idiosyncratic luck involved so it doesn’t generalize. To the extent they are happy, I’m sure the serenity prayer, the Golden Mean, or some other aphorism already captures their key trick.

    In general the popular pundits and authors simplify because most people don’t like thinking probabilistically–and thus the advice they like is not really true–or entertaining truly unconventional thoughts (not currently popular ideas that were once iconoclastic).  Paul Graham writes some really thoughtful pieces about life and his work, and he’s a niche writer. Tom Friedman writes painfully obtuse cliches and is a best-seller.  Encouraging more memoirs would bring forth many T.Friedman emulators, not Graham emulators.  

  • One of the lessons I’ve learned in 71 years is that I didn’t, and I think most people don’t, learn from written lessons.  That reduces my incentive to share my wisdom with whippersnappers. It also means there’s no audience waiting at my knee with bated breath for me to impart my wisdom, much less willing to buy a book or search out a website with such lessons.

    There’s also the competition factor.  The market for published wisdom is sufficiently saturated with books, ranging from religious to self-help to psychobabble.

    • johnbr

      This would roughly be my guess – I could write about what I know and what I have learned, but almost no-one will read it, and those who read it won’t see how to apply it, so why bother? 

  • Spindritf

    > Why the silence?

    Because usually other people have already put that in writing. Usually in a more compelling and systematic way. Most of what I have learned is which advice from other people have worked for me, plus some general knowledge, so “What I’ve learned about life” would be a reference list of articles and books by other people peppered with little commentary and some anecdotes that people I care about would already know anyway from various conversations (oral tradition of sorts).

  • DonaldWCameron

    The rate at which technological change has progressed would speak against those kind of long term memories. Also, scripture is our longest record of experiences in life.
    Modern education is based on mass production. You have to subjugate the self to policy and expedience,
    We believe in the environment, and animal rights.
    And simply put, we no longer believe in reproduction. With no progeny there is no point to passing along experience – there is no one to leave it to.

  • Faze

    I can’t agree that there is any shortage of good advice out there.  Good heavens, there are hundreds of books of quotes and epigrams that are packed with excellent advice and useful insights.  (Read Chamfort, read Samuel Johnson’s essays, read the book of Ecclesiastes, for heaven’s sake. It’s all there. Everything you need to know.) We are awash in good, solid advice, filtered by time, that is applicable to almost every life situation.

  • Richardsilliker

    What is going on?

    Families are under attack. The greatest enemy of the state is the family.  The best of life’s lessons are taught and learned in the confines of the family.

  • mjgeddes

    Wizard’s First Rule: People are Stupid
     (‘Sword of Truth’ saga, Terry Goodkind)

    Surely the simplest explanation is simply that most people don’t bother reflecting on what they do (hence they consciously learn little) and can’t communicate it properly any way (limited writing and verbal skills).

    No need to grope for complex explanations when the wizards first rule seems to brilliantly account for most observed human behaviour.

  • Arch1

    1) “Fast Thinking, Slow Thinking” by Daniel Kahneman is arguably such a book.   (The fact that Kahneman is a scientist describing the fruits of his research, so that the “life lessons’ he imparts are not overwhelmingly based on experiences drawn from a single life, is IMO a feature, not a bug).  I’m almost halfway through 1st reading and it appears to be nearly deserving of its hugely complimentary cover blurbs.

    2) I also can’t escape a feeling that there could be significant value in attempting to quantify cost & benefit of life lessons.

    If, for example, there were available a database of 10,000 life lessons which were crowd-evaluated along 3 dimensions (benefit, effort/cost, risk/variability), it seems that mining the near-upper-left corner for ones I hadn’t yet realized (or hadn’t yet sufficiently appreciated) myself might be both very beneficial and very enjoyable.

    Even if most of the high-leverage life lessons were already platitudes when the pyramids were new, such a framework could incent folks to become very clever at *packaging* those platitudes into palatable, actionable units,  radically enhancing their beneficial impact..

  • J O

    I’ve received life advice from old fogies.  Here’s how it’s been so far.

    The more vague and detached from my own life’s context, the less I can apply it and the less relevant it is.  The more directed at my own context, the more my mind will flare up and say “No actually that’s not as good an idea even if it worked well for you…”  Too direct to me, biases and preference make it difficult to apply.  Too abstracted and vague makes it difficult to apply.

    As an example, when I had depression multiple fogies told me to get better social skills. Except social situations felt unpleasant and I got no reward from them; I couldn’t feel a damn thing, except the discomfort. It was, within the context of my life, a useless piece of advice, even though it was generally good advice.

    On the other end of things, I’ve heard loads of ambiguous truthisms given out by old fogies. With some older, more rigid ones it’s become a game; I try to get them to elaborate and they act like it’s just this self-evident, self-explanatory obvious bit of advice, some of them are shocked I’d even “question it”. From that alone I know many old people could never give useful advice just because they’ve lost the ability to generate relevant dialog, provided they ever could.

    Someone else mentioned that words are a lousy medium for many “life lessons”. Experience will sear it into your mind, but hearing someone talk about their own mistakes is nothing like it. As if you can just give a list of instructions and there you go, succeed at everything.

  • Robert Koslover

    I think your items #3 and #10 could be significant factors.  In regard to #10, I might modify it as follows:  Most lessons have been written, but few are both read and fully understood.

  • IVV

    So I’m friends with a mother and her teenage daughter. The mother regularly dispenses advice to the daughter, who dutifully ignores it whenever possible. The daughter likes me and listens to me, but if I deliver advice the same way her mother does, she’ll shut it out, too. She’ll gladly take and follow my advice when it’s near-mode (You were hacked? Change your password NOW.) but the bigger, long-term stuff she’ll be obstinate.

    However, I also read tarot cards. She has learned and followed lots more advice when the cards read her future, than when the life lesson is imparted directly. It’s uncanny how well advice will be taken when I reveal truths that she never thought I knew, and I activate her emotions and questions, than when I deliver that always-heard good advice.

  • Daublin


    The human race advances by finding better ideas. Our brains are constructed such that children try out random mutations of our parents’ ideas, and such that we try out ideas that we don’t feel are well represented among the people we encounter.

  • I would wager on #10, personally.

  • Data

    Google has over 300,000 hits for “what I’ve learned about life.”

    • lump1

       Quite right. There is no shortage of advice-attempts. However, unless we are facing a moment of vulnerability, we react to such attempts with rolling eyes. Why? Because we have our own agendas and aren’t looking to have them superseded by someone else’s. Even if we think the advice is good, we judge ourselves to be at a point in life where there’s no room to implement it, or we tell ourselves that we’re doing it already, or just about to, as soon as our schedule frees up a bit. In general, let’s ask: How often is a person’s life trajectory deflected by *advice*? Not many times.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    Here’s a boring hypothesis. Writing a great book of advice based on long experience is hard. Writing a great anything is hard, but if someone has a notable success, other people are likely to try to follow in that category.

    Notable successes in new or neglected fields of writing are impossible to predict. If you’d asked whether there was likely to be anything as big as Harry Potter in the young adult genre the year before it got popular, I think the answer would have been no.

    I suggest that a lot of what’s going on with what’s written and what isn’t is chaotic.

    Tentatively, I think you’d get more wisdom out of people (at least the clearer-headed people) if you asked them in a leisurely way about what they’d done and how their point of view changed over time, rather than asking them for advice.

  • JSA

    11) The people who have insights worth having, tend to realize that the greatest insights are better learned than taught.  More importantly, experience convinces them that a hands-off approach leads to better results in the long-run (call it the “invisible hand” of wisdom), while an active attempt to meddle in the wisdom-acquisition process tends to be counterproductive.

    If you’re old, and if you have wisdom that’s *actually* valuable, you usually have a very high degree of faith in the ability of that wisdom to propagate itself without your interference.  If you’re busy writing memoirs and trying to manipulate unsuitable youngsters into adopting your own personal definition of wisdom, you’re signalling that you’re not very confident that your “wisdom” can stand on its own.

  • Roger

    I would say that people constantly give advice, usually in verbal form via stories, suggestions, warnings and so forth. Ignoring this is acting like a fish unaware of the water it swims in.

    The problems are that people differ dramatically in goals, aptitude, situational context and so forth. As such the advice is often contradictory, and often either inappropriate or potentially so. There is of course also the problem of conflicting goals, and our need to worry that we are being manipulated by the advice giver for their own benefit, or at least for a goal which we do not share.

  • MPS

    We learn a tremendous amount from our ancestors, passed on via culture.  It is common to all surviving cultures and so we lose sight of it.  

    I’d say the things we don’t learn we don’t learn because they aren’t yet known, at least we haven’t distilled these things as objective truths.  

    It’s important to stress that all individuals are different, and relationships are made of individuals and so all relationships are different too.  If you read just a little bit about marriage advice you discover that everyone thinks they have learned different things from their experiences, with the overlap in lessons being things that you already knew, as part of what is passed on by culture.  I think this is generally the case.

    People do attempt to pass on what they have learned, when they think they have learned something universal, and people do pay attention, when they think there is something universal to be learned.  But people have limited attention and it’s very rare for anyone to learn anything new that is universal and so they are naturally, wisely hesitant and skeptical when it comes to trying to learn from individual accounts of elders.

  • One problem is that “life lessons” contradict each other. Some advice says “Take action as early and as often as possible, because opportunities are fleeting”. Other advice says that rushing to judgment and action will backfire. “A stitch in time saves nine” and “Haste make waste” are two proverbs with exactly opposite meanings, as are “A penny saved is a penny earned” and “You can’t take it with you”.

  • Johnicholas Hines

    Why can’t you learn to ride a bike from reading a book? Some faculties are unspeakable or unlearnable because the faculties’ closely associated learning mechanisms are not wired up to the speaking / learning centers, possibly for safety against accidents (if you could verbalize muscle movements, and tried executing a move that someone else learned and taught to you, but something about the translation or the body shape was different, you might injure yourself).

    It might also be unverbalizable simply because it’s huge; the nuances of facial expressions seems like the sort of thing that cannot be spoken simply because it would be tediously long.

  • Wolf

    Robin, you have a habit of missing the non cynical explanation.

    11. One of the lessons you learn in life is that you can’t learn life lessons from other people.

    So many times I’ve learned some awesome thing and then recognized that people were trying to teach it to me, but it didn’t transfer. It seems people can only learn the hard way. Maybe a defense mechanism against fake life-lessons? I don’t know.

    • lightreadingguide

      You have made a very good point here, but I don’t think it is cynical, in the bad way,   to have the kindness and compassion to implicitly point out, as did whoever came up with reason number one,  that people, sadly, don’t  learn or get taught except by the hard way
      (I guess I am more “cynical” than that because the hard way doesn’t seem to me, in my fourth adult decade, to  be such a good teacher either).
      Number one is consistent with –
      .. Advice, in terms of broad effects, is useless.  Your biology, and the investment, or lack thereof,  made in you by others for reasons beyond your control, are your destiny….
      People don’t learn much, and hence don’t teach much – why?
       …I guess because they can’t …
      why can’t they? because he or she was insufficiently valued, either by the modernist and stochastic vectors of DNA,  or by the sad-sack cast of characters that surrounded him or her from day one.
      as brideshead began, how doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people 

  • Philo


    Your first explanation, “People don’t actually learn much
    that can be abstracted from their life details,” actually looks pretty good,
    especially when we add that people may have great difficulty expressing in
    words what little they *have* learned. 
    People’s experiences certainly modify their behavioral tendencies, but many
    of these modifications will be appropriate only to their particular
    circumstances and thus will have no *general* value.  And—my added point–producing an abstract description
    of one’s own “learning” (= behavioral modification) may be beyond the capacity
    of almost everyone.

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