Recently, my column 17 Daily Habits My Dad Insists Will Make You Happier and More Successful was one of the most popular articles on Inc. This was very gratifying both to me and to my dad, whose words of wisdom inspired the article.

It got me thinking, though: My siblings and I have also learned a lot of success and happiness lessons from my mom.

So, just in time for Mother's Day, I reached out to my four brothers and sisters and asked them to help me compile a list of the best life lessons we've learned from her.

We had quite a few of them. However, I realized that there was one item on the list that was so simple, direct, and yet profound that it's worth an entire column. Our mom has said this advice often, in two different but related ways. We heard it while we were growing up, and still do now that we're all adults and my parents have become grandparents.

So, with her permission, I'm focusing this entire article on that one piece of advice (said in both ways). If you can follow my mom's precepts, I guarantee that you'll be happier and more successful in life.

"Be in the driver's seat."

Just about every time I went out with friends during high school, my mom would tell me on the way out: "Be in the driver's seat." She meant this literally, figuring that I was a careful kid, a decent driver, and that I didn't drink alcohol or the like. My friends were good people, but she didn't know them the way she knew me.

However, she also meant this figuratively: Control your own destiny. Don't let other people make your choices for you, in matters big and small. This applies in just about every circumstance I can imagine:

  • Don't let someone else choose your career.
  • Don't let someone else choose your friends.
  • Don't settle in your relationships.
  • Don't choose your fashions and passions just because "everybody else does it."

We're social beings, and so this isn't always easy. Sometimes it seems we're hardwired to seek approval, to be insecure, and to follow the crowd. Nobody adheres to this advice all the time, but the more you do, the happier and more successful you'll be.

"Remember who comes first."

Fast-forward to college, when I spent my summers working as a lifeguard. (Thank God I'm just old enough to have missed the generation where everything has to be a résumé-building experience.) I liked the job a lot. We got to be outside all day in the summer, and the pay wasn't bad.

For the last few years that I did this, my brother and I worked at a lake in a state park that could be quite chaotic. Swimmers actually got into trouble, and we made rescues. Eventually, I got promoted to captain, supervising all the other college kids. We even had a motorboat. It was like a low-rent version of the old TV show Baywatch.

Every morning on the way out the door, my mom offered the same parting words of advice: "Remember who comes first."

She wasn't telling us to be self-centered but reminding us that if you don't take care of yourself first, you're probably not going to be of much use to anyone. I think of this every time I'm on an airplane now, when the flight attendants say that if there's an emergency, you should put on your own pressurized air mask before helping someone else.

Of course, the irony about my mom offering this great advice over and over is that she doesn't really live it herself. Having raised three sons and two daughters, she certainly doesn't put herself first. Happy Mother's Day to her--and to all the moms reading this!

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