Mom was wrong.
The secret to getting along with others is not by “being nice” or by “being helpful” or “not picking your nose in the Principal’s Office.”
The secret to getting along with others is the separation of tasks, wherein you focus on your life-tasks and not interfere in others’ life-tasks.
Sounds too simple to be true, right? Let’s break it down.
Separation of Tasks
In a nutshell, the separation of tasks means that you solve the problems in your own life and accept that others must solve their problems. When you respect these boundaries you create a feeling of respect and mutual-trust with other people.
When you insist on solving other peoples’ problems, you are in a fact saying, “I don’t trust that you can handle this. I must insert myself into your decision-making process. I must make decisions for you. I must be your savior.” This kind of behavior violates their autonomy, erodes their self-confidence, and decreases their desire to solve tasks. If it happens enough times they will lose the capability to solve their tasks and become completely dependent on others.
When you insist on solving other peoples’ problems you are asserting that solving others’ tasks is more important than solving the problems in your own life.
Don’t try to solve other peoples’ problems and push back when people try to solve the problems in your life.
(I first stumbled across the Separation of Tasks in The Courage to be Disliked, which is a fantastic book.)
What Are Your Tasks?
At a high-level, your tasks involve all the things necessary to meet your needs. This includes your physical and material needs, emotional needs, spiritual and existential needs, etc.
You need food and shelter and so you will have tasks relating to getting those things. This includes selecting a vocation and getting the training you need so that you can have enough income to provide these necessities.
For example, you may dream of owning an oversized mansion modeled after Wayne Manor, the kind with more bathrooms than bedrooms. You may dream of having a butler, a personal vegan chef, and a four-story waterslide. That’s fine. But it’s your task to make this a reality.
You probably have physical ailments and it’s your task to resolve those. Options include seeking medical advice and assistance, reading books, or talking to people who’ve faced similar challenges. And it’s your task to decide what course of action is best. In some cases, you may decide to do nothing and that’s valid. It’s your life and you must live with the consequences of whatever is chosen.
You have needs relating to positive connection with other people, whether it’s with your family members, friendships, or a romantic partner. If you struggle with any of these relationships it’s your task to fix it. This might mean that you go to therapy, read books on how to have positive relationships, be introspective, practice listening and having empathy for others, and identifying the things you do to damage relationships. And it’s your task to decide what course of action is best.
You may have needs related to finding fulfillment in life, discovering meaning and purpose, or finding truth. It’s your task to handle these things, whether it’s studying philosophy, reading books, investigating religions, talking to people you trust, praying, meditation, etc.
For example, you may dream of climbing the Matterhorn and planting your Slytherin House Banner atop its peak, while yodeling “We Are the Champions.” And that’s fine, but it’s your task and no one else is obligated to help you in this endeavor.
Your success in the workplace depends on your ability to have positive relationships with your coworkers. So you may have tasks related to improving interpersonal communication, project management, etc. You may need to get advice from trusted friends, read books, and be introspective as to why you can’t get along with people.
You may desire to have a positive and long-lasting romantic relationship. Sorry to say it, but this isn’t going to fall into your lap. You need to figure out what makes relationships fall apart. (Hint: Taking control of other peoples’ tasks is a huge relationship killer!)
And reading a couple blog posts on BuzzFeed isn’t gonna cut it. You need to read books and be introspective about what you did to mess up previous relationships.
Just as importantly, you need to study and understand what makes great relationships great. You need to identify key behaviors and model those behaviors in your relationships. This is your task and no one will do it for you.
What Are Others’ Tasks?
Other adults have the same needs as you. They need food and shelter, love and belonging, good health and well-being. They have a slew of common existential needs and they have a bunch of personal needs that you know nothing about.
This will be hard for you to accept but it’s not your task to take care of their needs. It is their task. They are responsible for meeting their own needs, just as you are responsible for meeting yours.
(You may be responsible for taking care of children or other dependents. This is a different situation and I’ll talk about that in a later section.)
For example, if your uncle wants a Ferrari, he is responsible for meeting the requirements to have a freaking Ferrari. Likewise, if he is ill, he is responsible for getting better.
Life is radically simpler when you accept this.
The Golden Rule
The Golden Rule says to treat people the way you want to be treated.
The separation of tasks is the golden rule put into action. You don’t want other people interfering with your medical decisions, so don’t interfere with other peoples’. You don’t want other people interfering with who you decide to marry and how to spend your life, so grant other people the same courtesy.
Lack of Context
Peoples’ advice is based on the context they have, and in most cases, they don’t have enough context to give you useful advice. You end up with bad advice which is far worse than receiving no advice.
For example, say you’re having a difficult time in your romantic relationship. A friend may advise you that “chocolate and flowers” are the answer, but they’re not. A neighbor may tell you, “Never go to bed angry; stay up and fight!” But that’s probably not going to solve your problems, either.
Only you have the total context for a given problem and only you can fix it.
When making decisions about your own life, you’re the one who is taking all the risk. If you follow someone’s advice and things turn out poorly, you are the one to suffer the consequences. The person who gives advice suffers no consequences.
When people are having a hard time
Throughout your life, you will come across many people who are struggling under the weight of their problems. Your first inclination may be to tell them how to solve their problems but you mustn’t do this.
Instead, you can offer an ear and listen to their troubles. Help them feel like someone is there to hear them. Empathize with them, connect their troubles to negative feelings, and those feelings to unmet needs. And when they feel like they’ve been listened to, they will feel better and you can ask, “What are you going to do?”
When people need advice
Often people will ask for specific advice about a problem. When this happens you have a few options:
- You can tell them what you think they should do as long as your advice only pertains to that specific thing they asked about
- You can explain how you have solved these problems in your own life
- You can ask about their goal and what course of action brings them closest to that goal.
Your response should end with the question, “What are you going to do?” And you must never be offended if they don’t follow your advice. They are responsible for finding solutions to their problems.
Giving Unsolicited Advice is a Distraction
Often when people start inserting themselves into other peoples’ tasks and giving unsolicited advice, they are avoiding the hard work of solving their problems. Telling other people what to do can feel good, requires no effort, and carries zero risk. Trying to solve everyone else’s problems is a distraction from your tasks.
Do not meddle in other peoples’ lives. And beware of folks that spend a lot of time telling you how to run your life. You are the captain of your ship, so be the captain.
I am convinced that millions of people have the potential to be magnificent artists, musicians, and writers but they never realize their potential because they’re afraid of rejection.
This fear of rejection leads them to procrastinate, invent “things to do,” and “problems to solve.” And the easiest way to fill your time, and often the most interesting, is to solve other peoples’ problems and take on their tasks. This choice is almost always made subconsciously. And it’s a choice they make every single day.
But you can make a different choice. You could ignore other peoples’ tasks, work towards mastering your craft, and finally face your fears of rejection. It’s scary. It’s hard. But it’s worth it.
Peoples’ opinion of you
What other people think of you is their task, not yours. So don’t concern yourself with what other people think about you.
A few people dislike you and there’s nothing you can do to change that. And a much larger group of people feel indifferent towards you. They don’t like you, nor do they dislike you, but instead they give you no thought at all. So stop worrying about their opinion because you are not going to change it.
Now, this doesn’t give you license to behave like an asshole and treat people poorly. This doesn’t mean you can push people around, abuse them, or take credit for their achievements.
This doesn’t mean you can snatch a piece of pizza from your coworker’s plate (while they’re holding the plate!), take an exaggerated bite, and then put the remaining bits back, as your coworker is watching. (I saw this happen!)
But it does mean is that it’s OK for you to be who you are, express your opinions, and convey the emotions you feel.
Your Dependents’ Tasks
Dependents may include your children or other family members that you take care of because they are incapable of completely taking care of themselves.
A newborn baby is completely dependent on their parents for meeting their physical and emotional needs. On the other hand, an 18-year-old would ideally be capable of meeting their physical, emotional, and existential needs.
A nine-year-old fits in between and should be capable of solving some of their problems and meeting a good portion of their needs. They should be able to get dressed, keep their room clean, get themselves breakfast, complete household chores, and navigate friendships with little assistance.
The ultimate goal of a parent is to help their children to acquire the skills and experience that is necessary for them to handle their tasks and meet their needs when they become an adult.
Caring for the disabled
Many of us will find ourselves in a situation where we are caring for a parent or family member who is disabled and cannot complete all of their tasks. It is reasonable and good to assist them in their tasks but we need to be judicious in deciding what tasks they need help with. They must manage the tasks that they are capable of managing.
For example, say your father has his leg amputated and has to use a wheelchair to get around. He needs help with certain physical activities. But outside of those activities, he needs to manage his tasks, like, deciding how to spend his time, what to eat, who to associate with, etc. Put another way, just because someone needs help with a few of life‘s tasks, doesn’t give you license to interfere with their other tasks.
All of this may sound fine and dandy in theory, but let’s apply it to real-life situations.
Examples of Tasks
- You manage the quality of relationships that you have with various people.
- You figure out how to solve the problems in your life.
- You ask for help when you need help.
- You decide what you eat and drink. You decide what things you abstain from.
- You decide when it’s time to get medical treatment for an ailment.
- You decide when to take medications, prescribed or otherwise.
- You feel what you feel and no one else is responsible for telling you what you should feel in any given moment.
- You decide whether or not you will exercise. You decide what kind of exercise to engage in.
- You decide how to spend your money.
- You decide what occupation is right for you.
When I first got married I made the mistake of believing it was my job to solve my wife’s problems. Whenever she had conflict with a family member or someone at work, I would jump in, and with my limited understanding, I would lay out a plan detailing exactly how she should fix things. Whenever she felt stress about an upcoming project or deadline I would tell her exactly what to do.
This caused a ton of conflict because 1) In many cases, I actually didn’t have enough information to give really good advice, 2) she really wanted to solve her problems, 3) what she wanted from me is to listen to her, and for her to feel listened to, but I was more interested in coming up with optimal solutions to her problems.
I learned some bad habits from watching my family intervene in other peoples’ lives and it took a long time to unlearn these things.
My seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter are dependent on us for numerous things like food, shelter, and reasonable bedtimes. But they do have tasks that they are responsible for.
They are responsible for cleaning their rooms, getting dressed in the morning, and some basic household chores. They are responsible for managing friendships with kids in the neighborhood. Unless someone is injured we don’t intervene.
For the most part, we require them to do things that they can do themselves.
When they need help with something we require them to ask for help instead of making demands or behaving in a passive-aggressive manner. For example, at lunch yesterday my daughter said, “I don’t have any ketchup for my hotdog!” To this, I responded, “If you want something you know how to ask for it.” Only after she asked me to get her the ketchup did I do so. This might sound mean or unreasonable but when you need help your task is to make a proper request of someone else.
Lastly, we work hard at letting our kids feel what they feel in the moment. We don’t discount how they feel or distract them from their feelings. For example, a few days ago my wife went to a church activity in the evening. Our daughter cried because she didn’t get a goodbye-hug from mom. I sat on the couch with her and we talked about how she felt sad. I acknowledged her feeling but I didn’t tell her to not feel sad. I didn’t distract her with a toy or a screen. I just let her feel sad. After a few minutes, she felt better and asked that I play a game with her, which I was happy to do.
One big mistake in my career has been telling my boss how to do his job. I thought I knew best. I was always polite about it but I believed I had some amazing counsel to share with my boss. This never ended well. This damaged my relationship with my boss and made him less likely to share information with me going forward, out of fear of being criticized. (Unsolicited advice is often seen as criticism.). Eventually, he came to see me as a judgmental jerk. (He was right!)
In retrospect, I didn’t have sufficient information in many cases to give good advice. Worrying about other people, their tasks, and what they were doing used up valuable time and emotional energy that should’ve been directed towards my work and tasks. As a consequence, my work suffered.
Nowadays I ask my boss questions like, “You’ve got a lot going on, a lot of things on your plate. How can I help?”
I’ve also been a manager before and worried too much about what my subordinates were doing and how they were doing it. In retrospect, I should have given them a task, negotiated a deadline for it, and then left them alone. (Recommended reading for all micromanagers: Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders by L. David Marquet)
If you look up “Extended Family” in the dictionary the first entry will be “Drama.” (OK, not really, but it should be!)
At any given moment someone in your extended family is facing serious health challenges, someone is dealing with a financial situation, and a whole bunch of people are not talking to that one relative. And there’s a huge temptation for you to get involved, interfere, or intervene. Everyone wants to tell everyone else how to run their damn life.
Some people will go so far as to recruit other family members and build a coalition of like-minded people to stage an intervention because they believe that this will help. But it won’t.
For example, say your Aunt has type-two diabetes and sucking on 400 fruit punch flavored Jolly Rancher’s every single day is going to kill her. But it’s not your task to tell her this (she already knows!) and it’s not your task to take away her candy. Your relationship with her has nothing to do with this. And it’s wrong to say, “I won’t have a relationship with this person because they do something that is slowly hurting their body.”
Another example. Let’s say that your Uncle has done something that royally pissed off a bunch of nieces and nephews. But if you’re not directly involved then stay out of it. Just because a bunch of people aren’t talking to your Uncle doesn’t mean that you have to give him the cold shoulder or never speak to him again.
When you have a beef with somebody in your family, you don’t want the rest of your family to take sides and gang up against you. So don’t take sides and gang up against other family members.
There’s an old saying: Good fences make good neighbors. While the word “fences” generally refers to the physical barrier between properties, it just as importantly can refer to having good boundaries between you and your neighbors.
Your neighbors probably eat and drink differently than you do. They probably have different friends and different social engagements. They likely go to bed and get up in the morning at different times than you do. They have different rules for their kids. And that’s OK. They have their own lives and their tasks. It’s not your job to tell them how to live their lives.
The separation of tasks means that you solve the problems in your own life and accept that others must solve the problems in their life. When we respect these boundaries we create a feeling of respect and mutual-trust with other people.
When you insist on solving other peoples problems you are saying, “I don’t trust you can handle this.” When you insert yourself into other peoples’ tasks and give unsolicited advice, you are avoiding the hard work of solving your problems.
Don’t do that. Focus on your tasks and leave other people to work on their tasks.
Be well, my friend