Today (April 30) I turn 38 years old.
I’ve been on this earth for nearly four decades. Being in a city like Paris, where there are buildings that measure their age by the millennia, helps put that brief blink of the eye into perspective. But still, it amazes me that I’ve been around that long — I feel like I’ve barely begun.
I’m not usually one to make a big deal about my birthday, but as always, it has given me an opportunity to reflect. I thought I’d share a handful of lessons I’ve learned — as a helpful guide for those just starting out.
This post is for my children, whom I miss greatly across the distance of a continent and an ocean. I hope this will shine a dim light on the streets they have to navigate ahead of them, though I know they’ll still stumble as much as I have.
This is for you, Chloe, Justin, Rain, Maia, Seth and Noelle. I apologize for the length.
38 Lessons I’ve Learned in My 38 Years
1. Always swallow your pride to say you’re sorry. Being too proud to apologize is never worth it — your relationship suffers for no good benefit.
2. Possessions are worse than worthless — they’re harmful. They add no value to your life, and cost you everything. Not just the money required to buy them, but the time and money spent shopping for them, maintaining them, worrying about them, insuring them, fixing them, etc.
3. Slow down. Rushing is rarely worth it. Life is better enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
4. Goals aren’t as important as we think. Try working without them for a week. Turns out, you can do amazing things without goals. And you don’t have to manage them, cutting out on some of the bureaucracy of your life. You’re less stressed without goals, and you’re freer to choose paths you couldn’t have foreseen without them.
5. The moment is all there is. All our worries and plans about the future, all our replaying of things that happened in the past — it’s all in our heads, and it just distracts us from fully living right now. Let go of all that, and just focus on what you’re doing, right at this moment. In this way, any activity can be meditation.
6. When your child asks for your attention, always grant it. Give your child your full attention, and instead of being annoyed at the interruption, be grateful for the reminder to spend time with someone you love.
7. Don’t go into debt. That includes credit card debt, student debt, home debt, personal loans, auto loans. We think they’re necessary but they’re not, at all. They cause more headaches than they’re worth, they can ruin lives, and they cost us way more than we get. Spend less than you earn, go without until you have the money.
8. I’m not cool, and I’m cool with that. I wasted a lot of energy when I was younger worrying about being cool. It’s way more fun to forget about that, and just be yourself.
9. The only kind of marketing you need is an amazing product. If it’s good, people will spread the word for you. All other kind of marketing is disingenuous.
10. Never send an email or message that’s unfit for the eyes of the world. In this digital age, you never know what might slip into public view.
11. You can’t motivate people. The best you can hope for is to inspire them with your actions. People who think they can use behavioral “science” or management techniques have not spent enough time on the receiving end of either.
12. If you find yourself swimming with all the other fish, go the other way. They don’t know where they’re going either.
13. You will miss a ton, but that’s OK. We’re so caught up in trying to do everything, experience all the essential things, not miss out on anything important … that we forget the simple fact that we cannot experience everything. That physical reality dictates we’ll miss most things. We can’t read all the good books, watch all the good films, go to all the best cities in the world, try all the best restaurants, meet all the great people. But the secret is: life is better when we don’t try to do everything. Learn to enjoy the slice of life you experience, and life turns out to be wonderful.
14. Mistakes are the best way to learn. Don’t be afraid to make them. Try not to repeat the same ones too often.
15. Failures are the stepping stones to success. Without failure, we’ll never learn how to succeed. So try to fail, instead of trying to avoid failure through fear.
16. Rest is more important than you think. People work too hard, forget to rest, and then begin to hate their jobs. In fitness, you see it constantly: people training for a marathon getting burned out because they don’t know how to let their straining muscles and joints recover. People who try to do too much because they don’t know that rest is where their body gets stronger, after the stress.
17. There are few joys that equal a good book, a good walk, a good hug, or a good friend. All are free.
18. Fitness doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process, a learning process, something that happens in little bits over a long period. I’ve been getting fit for five years now, and I still have more to learn and do. But the progress I’ve made has been amazing, and it’s been a great journey.
19. The destination is just a tiny slice of the journey. We’re so worried about goals, about our future, that we miss all the great things along the way. If you’re fixated on the goal, on the end, you won’t enjoy it when you get there. You’ll be worried about the next goal, the next destination.
20. A good walk cures most problems. Want to lose weight and get fit? Walk. Want to enjoy life but spend less? Walk. Want to cure stress and clear your head? Walk. Want to meditate and live in the moment? Walk. Having trouble with a life or work problem? Walk, and your head gets clear.
21. Let go of expectations. When you have expectations of something — a person, an experience, a vacation, a job, a book — you put it in a predetermined box that has little to do with reality. You set up an idealized version of the thing (or person) and then try to fit the reality into this ideal, and are often disappointed. Instead, try to experience reality as it is, appreciate it for what it is, and be happy that it is.
22. Giving is so much better than getting. Give with no expectation of getting something in return, and it becomes a purer, more beautiful act. To often we give something and expect to get an equal measure in return — at least get some gratitude or recognition for our efforts. Try to let go of that need, and just give.
23. Competition is very rarely as useful as cooperation. Our society is geared toward competition — rip each other’s throats out, survival of the fittest, yada yada. But humans are meant to work together for the survival of the tribe, and cooperation pools our resources and allows everyone to contribute what they can. It requires a whole other set of people skills to work cooperatively, but it’s well worth the effort.
24. Gratitude is one of the best ways to find contentment. We are often discontent in our lives, desire more, because we don’t realize how much we have. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, be grateful for the amazing gifts you’ve been given: of loved ones and simple pleasures, of health and sight and the gift of music and books, of nature and beauty and the ability to create, and everything in between. Be grateful every day.
25. Compassion for other living things is more important than pleasure. Many people scoff at vegetarianism because they love the taste of meat and cheese too much, but they are putting the pleasure of their taste buds ahead of the suffering of other living, feeling beings. You can be perfectly healthy on a vegetarian (even vegan) diet, so killing and torturing animals is absolutely unnecessary. Compassion is a much more fulfilling way to live than closing your eyes to suffering.
26. Taste buds change. I thought I could never give up meat, but by doing it slowly, I never missed it. I thought I could never give up junk food like sweets, fried crap, nachos, all kinds of unhealthy things … and yet today I would rather eat some fresh berries or raw nuts. Weird, but it’s amazing how much our taste buds can change.
27. Create. The world is full of distractions, but very few are as important as creating. In my job as a writer, there is nothing that comes close to being as crucial as creating. In my life, creating is one of the few things that has given me meaning. When it’s time to work, clear away all else and create.
28. Get some perspective. Usually when we’re worried or upset, it’s because we’ve lost perspective. In the larger picture, this one problem means almost nothing. This fight we’re having with someone else — it’s over something that matters naught. Let it go, and move on.
29. Don’t sit too much. It kills you. Move, dance, run, play.
30. Use the magic of compound interest. Invest early, and it will grow as if by alchemy. Live on little, don’t get into debt, save all you can, and invest it in mutual funds. Watch your money grow.
31. All we are taught in schools, and all we see in the media (news, films, books, magazines, Internet) has a worldview that we’re meant to conform to. Figure out what that worldview is, and question it. Ask if there are alternatives, and investigate. Hint: the corporations exert influence over all of our information sources. Another hint: read Chomsky.
32. Learn the art of empathy. Too often we judge people on too little information. We must try to understand what they do instead, put ourselves in their shoes, start with the assumption that what others do has a good reason if we understand what they’re going through. Life becomes much better if you learn this art.
33. Do less. Most people try to do too much. They fill life with checklists, and try to crank out tasks as if they were widget machines. Throw out the checklists and just figure out what’s important. Stop being a machine and focus on what you love. Do it lovingly.
34. No one knows what they’re doing as parents. We’re all faking it, and hoping we’re getting it right. Some people obsess about the details, and miss out on the fun. I just try not to mess them up too much, to show them they’re loved, to enjoy the moments I can with them, to show them life is fun, and stay out of the way of them becoming the amazing people they’re going to become. That they already are.
35. Love comes in many flavors. I love my children, completely and more than I can ever fully understand. I love them each in a different way, and know that each is perfect in his or her own way.
36. Life is exceedingly brief. You might feel like there’s a huge mass of time ahead of you, but it passes much faster than you think. Your kids grow up so fast you get whiplash. You get gray hairs before you’re done getting your bearings on life. Appreciate every damn moment.
37. Fear will try to stop you. Doubts will try to stop you. You’ll shy away from doing great things, from going on new adventures, from creating something new and putting it out in the world, because of self-doubt and fear. It will happen in the recesses of your mind, where you don’t even know it’s happening. Become aware of these doubts and fears. Shine some light on them. Beat them with a thousand tiny cuts. Do it anyway, because they are wrong.
38. I have a lot left to learn. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I know almost nothing, and that I’m often wrong about what I think I know. Life has many lessons left to teach me, and I’m looking forward to them all.