Every once in a while you come across something that really sticks with you. You read the article, and it wrenches your mind in a direction that you are unfamiliar with. It leads to an “ah-ha!” moment.
A few weeks ago, I came across one of these. Harry Browne, former Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, wrote a letter to his 9-year old daughter that was published in a newspaper column on Christmas 1966. It was intended as a gift for her, and while I hope she also received more tangible presents, it is chock-full of wisdom.
I am republishing his letter here. I suspect that many people will misinterpret his words, so I have added my own somewhat disorganized thoughts below. Enjoy!
It’s Christmas and I have the usual problem of deciding what to give you. I know you might enjoy many things — books, games, clothes.
But I’m very selfish. I want to give you something that will stay with you for more than a few months or years. I want to give you a gift that might remind you of me every Christmas.
If I could give you just one thing, I’d want it to be a simple truth that took me many years to learn. If you learn it now, it may enrich your life in hundreds of ways. And it may prevent you from facing many problems that have hurt people who have never learned it.
The truth is simply this:
No one owes you anything.
How could such a simple statement be important? It may not seem so, but understanding it can bless your entire life.
No one owes you anything.
It means that no one else is living for you, my child. Because no one is you. Each person is living for himself; his own happiness is all he can ever personally feel.
When you realize that no one owes you happiness or anything else, you’ll be freed from expecting what isn’t likely to be.
It means no one has to love you. If someone loves you, it’s because there’s something special about you that gives him happiness. Find out what that something special is and try to make it stronger in you, so that you’ll be loved even more.
When people do things for you, it’s because they want to — because you, in some way, give them something meaningful that makes them want to please you, not because anyone owes you anything.
No one has to like you. If your friends want to be with you, it’s not out of duty. Find out what makes others happy so they’ll want to be near you.
No one has to respect you. Some people may even be unkind to you. But once you realize that people don’t have to be good to you, and may not be good to you, you’ll learn to avoid those who would harm you. For you don’t owe them anything either.
Living your Life
No one owes you anything.
You owe it to yourself to be the best person possible. Because if you are, others will want to be with you, want to provide you with the things you want in exchange for what you’re giving to them.
Some people will choose not to be with you for reasons that have nothing to do with you. When that happens, look elsewhere for the relationships you want. Don’t make someone else’s problem your problem.
Once you learn that you must earn the love and respect of others, you’ll never expect the impossible and you won’t be disappointed. Others don’t have to share their property with you, nor their feelings or thoughts.
If they do, it’s because you’ve earned these things. And you have every reason to be proud of the love you receive, your friends’ respect, the property you’ve earned. But don’t ever take them for granted. If you do, you could lose them. They’re not yours by right; you must always earn them.
A great burden was lifted from my shoulders the day I realized that no one owes me anything. For so long as I’d thought there were things I was entitled to, I’d been wearing myself out — physically and emotionally — trying to collect them.
No one owes me moral conduct, respect, friendship, love, courtesy, or intelligence. And once I recognized that, all my relationships became far more satisfying. I’ve focused on being with people who want to do the things I want them to do.
That understanding has served me well with friends, business associates, lovers, sales prospects, and strangers. It constantly reminds me that I can get what I want only if I can enter the other person’s world. I must try to understand how he thinks, what he believes to be important, what he wants. Only then can I appeal to someone in ways that will bring me what I want.
And only then can I tell whether I really want to be involved with someone. And I can save the important relationships for those with whom I have the most in common.
It’s not easy to sum up in a few words what has taken me years to learn. But maybe if you re-read this gift each Christmas, the meaning will become a little clearer every year.
I hope so, for I want more than anything else for you to understand this simple truth that can set you free: no one owes you anything.
I want to get this out of the way first, because I suspect it could be on many readers’ minds: Mr. Browne is not suggesting that we manipulate people. He says he must get inside other peoples’ minds in order to “appeal to someone in ways that will bring me what I want.” Some may interpret this as manipulation, but it is merely the recognition that, because the other person doesn’t owe him anything, he must be prepared to make some suitable “trade” for what he wants. In order to get what he wants, he must give someone else what they want. Everybody wins.
While many people may not like thinking of it this way, my economics background inclines me to be particularly attached to this “trade” analogy. When you walk into the grocery store, you do not expect the grocer to give you all of the food you want without you providing something in return. They might do this if, say, they are having a great day, or they really like you, or you seem to be in need and they are a kind person. But it is not simply expected that you will be provided for, free of charge.
Mr. Browne is suggesting we have a similar mindset with regards to all our relationships, and in general how we relate to the world. Things do not come free, but can be acquired more easily by doing things for other people.
You may have certain expectations about the world, and how you ought to be treated by your friends, neighbors, family members, lovers, teachers, strangers, and so on. But these expectations are liable to ruin your day and make you unhappy. The solution isn’t to lower your expectations, as many do, but rather to eliminate the idea of “expectations” entirely.
Think of it this way. We all want things: love, happiness, friendship, chocolate, leisure time, money, intellectual stimulation, and so on. But everyone wants different things to different degrees – our desires are our own. It is every one of our individual responsibilities to go after what we want. Nobody owes you these things, and none of them are guaranteed or promised to you simply by virtue of your existence. Heck, even my own mother, who loves me quite a lot, can only go so far in terms of guaranteeing my safety and happiness!
This may sound bleak, but it is actually liberating. It means that everything you give to others, you give by choice. And everything you receive from others is because they wanted to provide it. I have some great friends who would go very far out of their way to help me, not because they owe me, not because “that’s what friends are for,” but because they want to help me. What an incredible blessing this is!
(Note that, when discussing people not owing each other, this excludes agreed upon commitments. If you have agreed to do something, then you “owe” someone whatever it is you’ve agreed to. But you didn’t owe them the courtesy of agreeing to some obligation. If we make a $5 bet and I lose, I owe you $5. But I wasn’t obligated to take the bet in the first place.)
Unfortunately, many people take that kind of thing for granted. When their friend comes to pick them up from the airport, it means nothing because they feel as though they’re owed that much. And if, for whatever reason, the friend can’t come to the airport, these people get angry and upset.
But if you accept Mr. Browne’s perspective, you are relieved from that selfish part of you that expects to be repaid for anything kind that you do (and often leads to bad feelings when your expectations aren’t met). When others are kind to you, you no longer take that for granted. And you are no longer enslaved by the perception that you are obliged to do certain things that you truly don’t want.
How does this improve your interpersonal relations? It clears a space for genuine connection, free of preconceived notions and from the scourge of “keeping score” in your relationships. You respect and honor the other person’s freedom to choose how they want to relate to you. This means respecting that someone you love may not love you back. They don’t owe you love, and that’s okay. If they love you, it’s because they really love you and you make them feel good. If you love them, it is because you really love them and they make you feel good. No one needs to feel like they “owe” each other for the love or kindness that they provide. Whatever is given, is given freely.
You cannot ask others to conform to your expectations and become someone they are not. If you do, you will inevitably be disappointed – not to mention that you will likely hurt those around you.
If you don’t owe anyone else anything, then you can give more freely of yourself, without strings attached. This makes you less resentful of others, and gives you the authority to look after your own interests first and ensure your personal needs are met. You do this by associating with whoever you want to associate with, generally based in part on the things that they can offer you: love, friendship, money, etc. Surround yourself with these people, and give them value. If you want someone to be your friend, you should figure out who they are and what they value, and then provide them with what they want. They are not obligated to reciprocate, and if they don’t, that’s okay. Look elsewhere.
All of your relationships involve this kind of back-and-forth “trading.” This has a negative connotation of being “selfish,” but it is not selfish to look after your own interests, so long as you don’t actively harm someone else.
People will also extrapolate from the principle and assume that if someone does nothing for you, then you should do nothing for them. This couldn’t be further from the truth! It buys into the idea that we owe each other things, and that you being nice to someone else is only done out of obligation. But you can still benefit from giving to others – perhaps just with a warm and fuzzy feeling, the respect of others, a tax refund, whatever. If you have two cookies, you are not obligated to share – but if you do, perhaps you’ll make a new friend.
Ultimately, Mr. Browne’s philosophy here is not about being self-centered. It’s about clarifying your values, finding out what makes you happy, and going after it, while considering the consequences of your actions. When you realize you don’t owe anybody else, you are free to pursue your goals unapologetically while recognizing that what you provide others is done freely. And when you realize that you are owed nothing and yet have so much, you will feel immense gratitude.
What do you think about this advice?