• The Don't List

    The world is full of bucket lists—all sorts of wonderful things to do before shucking off the mortal coil. And one has all sorts of other “to do” lists as well: Ten things to do in Rome. Five books to read on vacation. Twenty classic movies in black and white.

    All of this presupposes that life is about inclusion, not exclusion. That a sufficient number of items checked off the list ensures the good life because life is a function of what one has done, not what one has not done. I beg to differ.

    One really bad decision—say, deep-frying a frozen turkey—can become your last act of free will. (I know since a friend of mine’s uncle actually died from the aforesaid culinary challenge.) Or how about scuba diving off Mexico with no prior experience? (Yes, I have intimate knowledge of this life-ending activity as well.) Or lesser mistakes, such as driving a 1948 Farmall down a steep incline with a full load of hay on the back? You get the idea.

    Life is about not making the huge mistakes while assembling an inventory of smaller steps in the right direction. Smart moves accumulate over time to your advantage. One major misstep and it may take a lifetime to work back to the beginning.

    So here is my list of things to avoid at all costs.

    1) Don’t Shoot the Dog: When rabbit hunting, it is really bad form to shoot the dog instead of the rabbit. Tom, the president of The Old Rabbit Hunter’s Association, had his beagle sprayed with buckshot by an overenthusiastic amateur hunter. The gentleman’s shotgun was summarily wrapped around a large oak. Put another way, hold your fire unless you are darn sure you can see what you are shooting at.

    2) Don’t Cure the Symptom: On many occasions, I am awoken in the middle of the night by a smoke alarm. I grab a stepladder, rip the unit off the ceiling, remove the battery, and go back to bed. Always address the big problem, not the symptom.

    3) Don’t Listen to the Words: I once spent two weeks trying to negotiate a business deal with an investment group in the Far East on behalf of a friend of mine in magazine publishing. Every night, we would fax over a revised business plan. Every morning we were told, through an interpreter, that everything was fine, that the deal was almost done. What they were really saying was, “We would rather give our money to Charles Ponzi than invest one additional dollar in your enterprise.” We finally got the message, about a week before we had to shut the doors. Read between the lines, not the lines themselves.

    4) Don’t Be Right: One of my favorite overheard conversations was a couple with two young kids arguing in the parking lot behind a cinema complex about the now-forgotten location of the car. Finally, in a fit of exasperation and ego, the husband yelled, “Those of you who want a ride home, come with me. Those who want to walk back to the house, follow your mother!” The worst-case scenario for that gentleman was if he really did know where the car was. As I said, it almost never pays to be right.

    5) Don’t Take the Shortest Path: I once hiked in the Pyrenees and was headed toward the village of Banyuls-sur-Mer. Around midday, I took a left and ended up in a dark forest, filled with wild boar runs. Three hours later, I emerged somewhat worse for wear, having engaged in a primitive form of “orienteering” that led me through chasms, rivers, drop-offs, and dense thickets. I ended up at a café, drank down three beers, and discovered that I was a good 20 kilometers from my destination. It was the best hike of my life. It’s often best to take the long way around; you never know what you’ll discover.

    6) Don’t Roll the Dice: Luck is not delivered free of charge; it is earned. A famous chef on the West Coast once sold her establishment for a few million dollars and then invested every penny of it with Bernie Madoff. She lost every penny. Today, she is back at work and, one hopes, happy in her second career, but I bet she thinks a lot about what might have been. Just get over it! You’re not lucky. You’ve never been lucky. So don’t test your luck.

    7) Don’t Have the Last Word: The word one regrets is almost always the last word. That’s the one you can never take back. Like the time I argued with the highway patrolman who had pulled me over for using a radar detector. After an escalating back and forth, I ended the conversation by yelling, “Well, even if I had one, you’d never find it!” He immediately called for backup, threw me up against the car, and found the detector hidden under the driver’s seat in about 20 seconds. It cost me $300 and half a day in court. The judge joked, “That sure is an expensive radar detector!”

    8) Don’t Follow Conventional Wisdom: When I launched Cook’s Illustrated, I was betting on a food magazine that had no color photos and no advertising and had a painting on the front instead of a seductive plate of food. Simply put, convention is what worked in the past; it doesn’t predict the future. Never take it seriously.

    9) Don’t Trust Your Instincts: If I had trusted my instincts, I would now be the oldest member of a commune outside Brattleboro, Vermont, playing Grateful Dead covers at the August 4-H fair. One’s instincts almost always push one to do the fun or easy thing, almost never to choose the hard path. Maybe a better mantra would be, “Do the opposite of what you feel like doing right this minute.” That will serve you better.

    10) Don’t Ignore Old People: Once a month I walk over to a friend’s house for cocktail hour. He is a widower. He is 80 years old. And I rarely enjoy myself more. My generation’s mantra was “Never trust anyone over 30.” Experience forces me to reconsider that proposition. Above a certain age, you don’t care whom you offend, you’ve exhausted your anxieties, you’re good at conversation, and you have accumulated sufficient life experience to be a useful companion. If you want solid career or personal advice, talk to an “old person.” They don’t call us “grown-ups” for nothing.

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