Life is a journey. That’s what we’re told. And it’s true in many ways. It has a beginning, an in-between, and an end. All lives do.
Yet, most journeys will have pitfalls along the way. Difficulties we don’t foresee.
And journeys have traps. Things we can fall into while we’re traveling.
One of the dangers of traps is that they’re unseen. They’re hidden. By the time you spot them, it’s too late. There aren’t signposts that say, “Trap Ahead.” And because we don’t see the traps, we don’t prepare for them.
But what if you could be warned about the traps along the path of your life journey?
Wouldn’t it be helpful to know those you will encounter along the way ahead of time?
You’re in luck.
Here are 20 traps people fall into in their lives. These traps are so common they’re nearly universal. They will almost certainly apply to you as well as to me.
As the saying goes, “Forewarned is forearmed.” So let’s get forearmed, shall we?
1. The trap of playing the victim.
We all have things happen to us that we wish didn’t. Sometimes we are the victim of violence, injury, mistreatment, or abuse. It’s okay to call it for what it is.
But we also have a tendency to see ourselves as a victim when the blame really lay with us.
Getting the flu right before a job interview makes you an unfortunate victim of circumstance. Being fired for arguing with your boss does not.
We should learn to recognize things that happen to us that aren’t our fault and that we can’t avoid.
Just as we’ve all been victims of circumstance at some point, there will have been times when we’ve had things done to us by another.
When this happens, there can be a compelling drive to settle the score. To repay evil with evil. We should resist this drive with all the strength we can muster.
Revenge is not only wrong in and of itself, but we do ourselves harm when we cause evil in someone else’s life.
This is not to say that we should not seek justice when there has been a crime committed, or some other harmful action has been taken. But we should leave justice in the hands of those who are empowered for this purpose.
Even if they don’t always do it perfectly.
Sometimes life is just not fair. But we don’t have the authority or the right to take matters into our own hands. They call it the “law of the jungle” because it’s what is done in the jungle. Unless you live in the jungle, you should avoid this trap.
As someone observed long ago:
Revenge is like drinking poison yourself and expecting the other person to die.
It’s also like burning bridges over which we ourselves must cross.
3. The trap of bitterness.
It’s not a question of whether you have something to be bitter about – you probably do. Nearly everyone does. We’ve all been treated badly by someone at some time for some reason.
But what’s done is done. The only question is whether you can let it go and not become bitter over it. Unfair treatment is inevitable – bitterness is optional.
Bitterness will merely add an additional burden to your life, which may already be burdened enough. Don’t add to it. Relieve some of your burden by not being bitter.
4. The trap of self-centeredness.
We all need to take care of ourselves, but there’s an appropriate amount of self-interest, self-preservation, and self-attention.
Once we are no longer children, it’s expected that the responsibility for our well-being will shift away from our parents and caregivers to ourselves. This is right and it should happen at some point.
Sometimes we can carry self-care too far. Our focus is entirely too much on ourselves.
But life is not just about ourselves. It’s also about what we bring to others. It’s about our contribution that betters the lives of others.
But in order to invest in others, we must necessarily shift our focus away from ourselves. We must look outward as well as inward.
A self-centered life is a travesty. It means that someone is keeping for themselves what is meant to be shared. But there’s plenty to go around. There’s enough for us to have what we need, while offering to others what they need too.
5. The trap of thinking you must win every argument.
It’s important to know what you believe and why you believe it. To have deep convictions that can withstand opposition. We should be able to articulate our positions on various issues and defend them with clear, cogent, and logical arguments.
But we don’t need to win every argument.
We don’t have to always be right.
Sometimes we can honestly defer to others, without denying the things we hold dear. We can listen empathetically to the beliefs and opinions and convictions of others.
We can also agree to disagree. We can admit that we could be wrong about something we hold to strongly. We can live and let live. We can even try to appreciate the different convictions that others hold and why they may hold them.
You can learn a lot by listening to an argument without needing to win the argument. As someone once wisely said, “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
When you argue with the intent of winning the argument rather than learning from the argument, you gain debate ground at the expense of relational ground.
It’s not a very good trade.
Avoid the trap of having to win every argument. You’ll make more pleasant company.
6. The trap of caring too much what other people think.
There’s an old saying that goes like this:
We wouldn’t worry so much about what other people think about us if we realized how seldom they do.
That said and even that being true, we still tend to worry about it anyway.
If you find yourself being told by several people that you’re a certain way, or that you have a certain problem, or that you should change a certain thing… it’s worth considering.
The reason people tell you this may be because it’s a real problem that you have. But you should always consider the source before you draw any firm conclusions.
There’s another old saying that I’ve thought about many times over the years:
If one man calleth thee a donkey, pay him no mind. If two men calleth thee a donkey, get thee a saddle.
We need not be overly concerned with what other people think about us unless a lot of people think that way. And only then if it’s a genuine negative or toxic trait that they’re shining a light on.
In those cases, we should do some serious personal assessment and make some changes.
Otherwise, caring too much what other people think about us is just another trap to avoid falling into.
7. The trap of not learning from experience.
It’s been said that the only thing more painful than learning from experience is not learning from experience.
Experience should be our best teacher. In school, we first learn the lesson, then we’re given the test. In life, we’re first given the test, then we learn the lesson.
Experiences are the tests through which we learn those lessons. If we have experiences and don’t learn from them – or refuse to learn from them – we miss the value and purpose of experiences.
When you have an unpleasant or painful or costly experience, do an honest and brutal assessment.
Ask yourself what you did wrong. How could you have done it better? What mistakes could you have avoided? Should you have started earlier? Should you have been more careful? Should you not have attempted it at all?
These kinds of questions followed by honest answers will help you learn valuable lessons from your experiences that will serve you well in the future.
Don’t fall into the trap of not learning from your experience. To do so is to squander one of your greatest opportunities.
8. The trap of indecision.
One of the markers of adulthood is that we come to realize that the decisions we make can be either direct or indirect.
A direct decision is when we decide proactively to move in one direction or another. An indirect decision is when we decide by failing to decide. In other words, we decide by default.
So if someone asks you if you’d like to have an ice cream sundae, you can respond in one of 3 ways:
“Yes, I’d like one, thanks.” Or, “No, I wouldn’t care for one, thanks.” Or, “You know, I really can’t decide one way or the other.”
But of course, the second and third decisions result in the same thing – no ice cream sundae.
We delude ourselves when we think we can put off a decision indefinitely and somehow avoid the unpleasantness and risk of deciding. But we can’t.
If you don’t decide whether or not to marry, you indirectly decide to remain single. If you can’t decide whether or not to take a particular job, you indirectly decide not to take it.
We don’t have the luxury of only deciding when we want to. To not decide is to decide for the opposite thing. So do your best to avoid the trap of indecision. Indecision will not serve you.
This is why I appreciate the words of Amelia Earhart. She said:
The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.
So go ahead and make a decision. If you make a bad decision, see Trap #7.
9. The trap of thinking you can do nothing because you can only do a little.
One of the most common traps in life is the belief that if we can’t do a lot, we should do nothing at all. This can be a crippling philosophy.
The fact is, every effort we will ever make lies somewhere between zero and infinity. We can never do everything. But we can do nothing. Everything else falls somewhere on the continuum.
This means that even the smallest acts can contribute to the goal. Even the tiniest actions can make a big difference in the long term.
You don’t have to run marathons to improve your health. You can take a daily walk and cut back on foods that don’t contribute to your well-being.
If you’re always behind the 8-ball financially, make a commitment to save some money out of every paycheck. You don’t need to save $10,000 per month. Start with $25 per month. That’s only $300 in a year, but it may be more than you’re saving now.
Maybe you should be reading more. So what if you can’t read a book a week, or even a book a month. Commit to reading 1 chapter a week. It’s a start.
Write one letter. Make one phone call. Make one productive change. Clean out one closet. Read one important book. We just cannot know in advance what our small efforts can bring.
So invest in small efforts. A little bit is better than nothing at all. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can do nothing because you can only do a little.
Do a little. It can make a big difference.
10. The trap of not treasuring what you truly value.
Everyone must personally decide what things in life are truly valuable. Things worth protecting. Things worth preserving. Things worth nurturing.
These are all intensely personal. You can’t tell me what’s valuable to me. I can’t say what’s valuable to you.
The point is to avoid the trap of not treasuring what is truly valuable TO YOU!
So begin with what you personally deem to be of great value. Then do what you can to protect, maintain, and nurture whatever that may be.
Whether it’s your material possessions. Relationships. Your health. Your wealth. Your dreams. Determine what things are most valuable to you and act accordingly.
Avoid the trap of not treasuring what you truly value. This is a huge mistake in the journey of life. You will end up working hard to keep what is not truly valuable to you. And you will lose what truly is.
Some things in life can’t be fixed once they’re broken. Time doesn’t heal all wounds.
You don’t want to lose the things you treasure the most. Don’t fall into this trap. Be sure to treasure the things you value the most.
11. The trap of refusing to accept that things have changed.
It’s been said that the only constant is change. Whoever said it was right. Nothing ever remains the same. We aren’t even the same person tonight that we were this morning.
We’ve probably learned something new. We’ve probably forgotten something. All of the cells in our body are one day older. All the systems in our body are one day older. And when you consider that we only have so many days of life left, we’re one day closer to our own death.
I don’t mean this to sound morbid. I mean it to sound honest.
The fact is, things are going to change whether we acknowledge it or not. Things will change with or without our permission. Change will come even if we don’t notice it. Change will keep on occurring even if we denounce it or rail against it.
We cannot stop change. No one can.
So the best we can do is to accept change.
We can honestly acknowledge that things are not the same as they used to be. We aren’t as young as we once were. We aren’t as strong as we once were. We don’t have the same energy we once did.
Our interests have changed. Our friends are different. We may not live in the same house, the same town, or even the same country as we once did.
Not all change brings progress. But without change there can be no progress at all.
So we should become friends with change. We should be comfortable with accepting what has changed and not complain about what is inevitable and unassailable.
Those who cannot acknowledge and accept change are living an illusion. Don’t fall into the trap. Even if you aren’t happy about change – at least learn to accept it as one of life’s nonnegotiables. You’ll be better for it.
12. The trap of seeking perfection rather than excellence.
Excellence is a worthwhile pursuit. Perfection is not.
With few exceptions, perfection cannot be achieved. You can come close. But perfection itself is almost always elusive. There’s little sense in pursuing what cannot be reached.
But even if perfection WAS achievable, the cost is usually too high.
The pursuit of perfection is extremely time consuming. It also consumes enormous amounts of energy. It’s exhausting. In very few cases is perfection worth the cost even if it could be achieved.
Perfection is so seldom required. We may think it is. But it’s not.
Of course, there are occasions where we wish that perfection would always be achieved. Brain surgery, landing a commercial airplane, relationships, childbirth, jumping from an airplane with a parachute – just to mention a few.
But the vast majority of things in life need not be perfect.
Excellence is a much better goal. Excellence will be acceptable nearly every time. And excellence is almost always achievable, while perfection almost never is.
So opt for excellence. Don’t fall into the perfection-seeking trap.
13. The trap of assuming we know what we don’t.
You’ve probably met some self-appointed “know-it-alls” in your lifetime. People who present themselves as experts on every subject. They can get pretty annoying. Don’t become one yourself.
It’s reported that human knowledge doubles every 13 months. And according to IBM, the expansion of the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of human knowledge every 12 hours.
I think we can safely agree that there are plenty of things that you don’t know. Same for me. Same for every other human being.
So when you think you know something, do everyone a favor and confirm your knowledge. Do some personal fact checking. Try to separate true knowledge from things you picked up as a kid.
Given how fast knowledge is growing and how fast so-called knowledge is changing, you might just be wrong.
Finally, remember that even though the internet is a powerful knowledge tool, it’s not infallible. Just because it says so on your screen doesn’t mean it’s true.
Don’t assume that you know what you don’t. Don’t even assume that you know what you may not know. As Ronald Reagan used to say…”Trust, but verify.”
14. The trap of failing to move on.
Nearly everyone has some event in their life that’s hard to move on from. Sometimes we just can’t seem to process it to our satisfaction. There are questions we cannot answer.
There are regrets. If this had not happened. If only that had happened. Regrets about timing. Bitterness about the way we were treated. Hopes dashed. Dreams destroyed. We could go on.
But even though we need not pretend that certain things never happened. And we need not deny how we feel about them. There’s no reason for us to wallow in it. To cling to what is no more. Or pretend that it will return.
Whenever we get a cut, the body grows a protective shield of fibrin that covers the newly injured tissue. We call it a scab. The scab protects the skin from additional injury. It also protects the newly forming skin from bacteria.
Scabs are not an accident. They’re the body’s natural bandage and they serve a good purpose. If you’ve ever scraped off a scab, you realized the purpose they served. Scabs are better left on.
Likewise, when we’ve been psychologically or emotionally injured, we need time to heal. There are a variety of aids to the healing process similar to the scab concept.
Time can help. Talking with a friend can help. Reading the stories of people who’ve gone through similar experiences can help. Meditating on what happened. Praying about it. Talking with a therapist who knows a lot about such experiences can also help.
All of these can aid the healing process, and any or all of them can be used. But eventually it will be time to move on in your life.
The outer scab will have served its purpose, it will fall off, and the formerly injured tissue is now healed. There may be a scar left behind. But the injury itself is no longer debilitating. It’s healed.
In a similar way, after some period of time – the length being hard to predict – you’ll heal from your trauma and be ready to move on.
It may not be easy. It may take all the strength you can muster to do it. But you must do it. And you can do it. But only you can do it. No one can do it for you.
Don’t fall into the trap of not moving on. Life is too short to stay unsettled. Allow yourself to be healed.
Use the resources you can to facilitate the process. But allow yourself to be healed. When the day comes for you to move on… move on. Don’t get caught in the trap.
15. The trap of taking the short-term view.
Life is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. If you’ve ever run a marathon, you know it can be disastrous to start too fast. You can only win a marathon or even hope to complete a marathon by pacing yourself. You must take it slowly and just a little bit at a time.
And so it is in life.
The way to win in life’s journey is to take the long-term view rather than the short-term view. Some things just take time, and you must often sacrifice the quick pleasure for the sustaining joy.
This is where discipline enters the picture. The author Andy Andrews gives the clearest definition of self-discipline I’ve come across so far. He said:
Self-discipline is the ability to make yourself do something you don’t necessarily want to do, to get a result that you would really like to have.
Pretty simple, actually. Self-discipline is merely taking the long-term view. It’s realizing that in order to have what I really want in the future, I must sacrifice in the present.
No one would exercise self-discipline unless there was a payoff. What many people miss about self-discipline is that it is not a meaningless sacrifice. It’s just present sacrifice for a future reward.
If you’re able to give up in the present for what you really want in the future, you’ll exercise the self-discipline required to make that happen. If you don’t, you won’t.
If what you want is not valuable, there’s no reason to sacrifice for it. But if what you want is valuable, but requires sacrifice in the present – make that sacrifice.
In other words, take the long-term view. Don’t fall into the trap of short-termism.
16. The trap of not realizing that progress requires change.
Have you ever noticed that everybody loves progress, but hardly anybody loves change?
What we want, according to Sydney J. Harris, is “for things to remain the same but get better.”
The problem we must confront is that improvement requires change. Things cannot get better without changing.
It’s also been observed that it’s not so much change that we don’t like – it’s when we must change that we tend to get uneasy.
We’re all for the world changing. We’re all for our friends and colleagues changing. We’re all for our community, our school, our company, and our neighbors changing.
But we’re not as excited about changing ourselves.
We must avoid the trap of thinking that progress can occur in the absence of change. It cannot. Progress requires change. And sometimes the change can be distasteful, unpleasant, or even painful.
We must want the change more than we want to avoid the distaste, unpleasantness, and pain. We must exchange one for the other. And those things worth pursuing and having are worth the exchange.
We recognize that not all change results in progress. But without change there can be no progress at all.
17. The trap of not accepting people for who they really are.
This is a very common trap to fall into. It’s as if some people think they’ve been appointed everyone else’s Personal Makeover Advisor. They just can’t accept people the way they are. They feel compelled to change them.
Nobody wants to be rejected for who they really are. We want to be accepted – warts and all.
Not to imply that we think we’re perfect or we don’t have flaws. Or that we don’t think there are areas where change is needed. Everyone can improve.
That being said, we want to be assured that those closest to us accept us as we are. That we’re accepted for who we are – not for who others want us to be.
It’s exhausting to try to be someone you aren’t. Don’t do it. Hang out with people who accept you now. But understand that you, like them, are a work in progress. Avoid people who make you feel hard to love.
You don’t want to be rejected for who you really are. You want to be accepted for who you really are.
Other people feel the same way. So avoid the trap of not accepting them. If you can’t accept them for who they really are, at least have the integrity to tell them so. And you can part ways amicably.
18. The trap of not realizing that little things matter.
Whenever ships sail the ocean or jet airplanes ply the heavens, captains know that a tiny deviation from the course can make a huge difference over time and distance.
Just a 1% divergence from the intended direction can land the ship or plane in a completely different country over a long distance.
Little things are important. Little things can make a big difference. Not realizing this is a lethal trap we should avoid.
There are endless examples we could cite to illustrate this truth. Here are just a handful:
One statement you make to a friend can destroy the relationship.
One argument can lead to a breakup in a marriage.
One case of bad judgment can end a career.
One moment of weakness can destroy a life.
Failing to replace the crankcase cap after an oil change can lead to a seized and ruined car engine.
One error can lose a baseball game, a playoff, or even a World Series. This has actually happened.
We should also recognize that simply doing small things well can make a profound difference.
Small gestures of kindness can brighten someone’s day. Small acts of courage can help overcome fears.
Little things matter. Little things can make a big difference. They have. They do. And they will. Don’t get caught in the trap of not realizing it.
19. The trap of not accepting that reaching significant goals requires focus.
Distractions steal dreams. Losing focus can cause us to lose our way. No great achievement can be realized without focus.
In fact, focus is one of the most important factors in any kind of achievement. To lose focus is to destine oneself to failure.
Focus helps us direct our energy. Focus helps us stay on task until completion. Focus helps us not be deterred by competing options. Focus helps make our work productive. Focus energizes us because it allows us to see results.
Former United States Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles said:
A man’s accomplishments in life are the cumulative effect of his attention to detail.
This is a statement about focus. Focus enables us to tend to the details that make all the difference in the outcome.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.
Habits are created through repeated actions. These actions require focus. This makes focus a key component of excellence.
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft said:
My success, part of it certainly, is that I have focused in on a few things.
I was born and raised in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. My dream as a child was to play professional baseball. I made it as far as a baseball scholarship to a Division 1 college. I’m a teacher at heart, and love to teach anything and anybody who wants to learn. I started out as a public school teacher. But within a few years, felt called to the ministry, where I spent 32 years as a pastor. I love the outdoors. I love to read. I love people. I love to learn. I try to take a long walk every day year-round. I’ve done that for more than 40 years. It’s where I do some of my best thinking. It also clears the cobwebs from my head and the nonsense that tries to take root there. My blog is Quotation Celebration, where I discuss the meaning and lessons contained within great quotes.