I recently turned 30, and during the journey I’ve learned a great deal. Following are 30 of the most important life lessons from my first 30 years on this planet.
1. We must love. You know the saying, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” right? I know, we often dismiss cliches with a wave of the hand, but maybe it’s a truth so profound we can discuss it only with aphorisms. Yes, we must love, even if it breaks our hearts—because, unless we love, our lives will flash by.
2. Love isn’t enough. Although we must love, love is not enough to survive: we must take action to show others we care, to show them we love. Yes, love is a verb.
3. Happiness is not for sale. We can’t buy happiness, yet we search the aisles, shelves, and pages of eBay in search of something more, of something to fill the void. The stuff won’t make us happy, though—not in the long run, anyway. At best, material things will temporarily pacify us. At worst, they will ruin our lives: they will leave us empty, they will leave us depressed, and they will leave us even more alone—alone among a sea of trinkets. The truth is we are all going to die, and heaping our tombs with treasure will not save us from this fate.
4. Success is perspectival. I used to think I was successful because I had a six-figure job my friends and family could be proud of. I thought the house with too many bedrooms would make me look even more successful, as would the luxury car, the tailored suit, the expensive watch, the big screen TV, and all the trappings of the material world. I got it all, and I sure as hell didn’t feel successful. Instead, I felt successfool.
5. Make change a must. For the longest time, I knew I wanted to change: unhappy, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled, I knew I didn’t have freedom—not real freedom. The problem was I knew this intellectually, but not emotionally: I didn’t have the feeling in my gut that things must change. I knew they should change, but the change wasn’t a must for me, and thus it didn’t happen. A decision is not a real decision until it is a must, until you feel it on your nerve-endings, until you are compelled to take action. Once your shoulds have turned into musts, then you are ready for change.
6. The meaning of life. Giving is living. The best way to live a worthwhile life is simple: continuously grow as an individual and contribute to other people in a meaningful way. Growth and contribution: that’s the meaning of life.
7. Health is underestimated. Our well-being is more important than most of us treat it: without health, nothing else matters.
8. Sentimental items are less important. My mother died when I was 28. It was a difficult time in my life, but it helped me realize our memories aren’t in our things: our memories are inside us.
9. Your job is not your mission. At least it wasn’t for me, although I treated it like it was for the longest time. I worked so much that the rest of my life suffered. There’s nothing wrong with hard work, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of life’s more important areas: health, relationships, passion.
10. Finding your passion is important. Passion is not preexisting, which means you can cultivate a passion as long as you find something that aligns with your principles and desires.
11. Relationships matter. Every relationship—friendship, romantic, or otherwise—is a series of gives and takes. Every relationship has an Us box. For the relationship to work, both people must contribute to—and get something from—that Us box. If you just give but don’t get, you’ll feel used, exploited, taken advantage of; if you only take but don’t give, you’re a parasite, a freeloader, a bottom-feeder.
12. You don’t need everyone to like you. We all want to be loved—it’s a mammalian instinct—but you can’t value every relationship the same, and thus you can’t expect everyone to love you the same. Life doesn’t work that way. My friend Julien Smith articulates this sentiment very well in his popular essay The Complete Guide to Not Giving a Fuck: “When people don’t like you, nothing actually happens. The world does not end. You don’t feel them breathing down your neck. In fact, the more you ignore them and just go about your business, the better off you are.”
13. Status is a misnomer. Similar to “success,” our culture places an extraordinary emphasis on material wealth as a sign of true wealth, and yet I know too many people of supposed “status” who are miserable. They don’t seem wealthy to me. One’s true worth is not determined by his or her net worth.
14. Jealousy is a wasted emotion. Competition breeds jealousy, although we often give it prettier labels like “competitive spirit,” “stick-to-itiveness,” or “ambition.” Jealousy is ugly, though: it is never a way to express that we care—it’s only a channel through which we broadcast our insecurities.
15. Everybody worships something. In his This Is Water commencement speech, my favorite fiction writer, David Foster Wallace, said it best: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
16. I am not the center of the universe. It’s difficult to think about the world from a perspective other than our own. We are always worried about what’s going on in our lives. What does my schedule look like today? What if I lose my job during the next round of layoffs? Why can’t I stop smoking? Why am I overweight? Why am I not happy with my life? We are strongly aware of everything connected to our lives, but we are only one ingredient in a much larger recipe.
17. Awareness is the most precious freedom. Minimalism is a tool to rid ourselves of excess in favor of a deliberate life: it is a tool to take a seemingly intricate and convoluted world, cluttered with its endless embellishments, and make it simpler, easier, realer. It is unimaginably hard to remain conscious, attentive, and aware. It is difficult not to fall back into a trance-like state, surrounded by the trappings and obstructions of the tiring world around us—but it is crucial to do so, for this is real freedom.
18. Be on the mountain. I use this term as a metaphor for living in the moment. When you climb to the peak, don’t immediately plan your descent. Enjoy the view. Be on the mountain. Just be.
19. We are scared for no reason. Just ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” We are often scared of things that don’t have a real effect on our lives (or that we can’t control, so we’re worrying for no reason).
20. Change is growth. We all want a different outcome, and yet most of us don’t want any change in our lives. Change equals uncertainty, and uncertainty equals discomfort, and discomfort isn’t fun. But when we learn to enjoy the process of change—when we chose to look at uncertainty as variety—then we get to reap all the rewards of change. That is how we grow.
21. Pretending to be perfect doesn’t make us perfect. I am not perfect, and I never will be. I make mistakes and bad decisions, and I fail at times. I stumble, I fall. I am human—a mixed bag, nuanced, the darkness and the light—as are you. And you are beautiful.
22. The past does not equal the future. My words are my words, and I can’t take them back. You can’t change the past, so it’s important to focus on the present. If the past equaled the future, then your windshield would be of no use to you: you would simply drive with your eyes glued to the rearview mirror. But driving this way—looking only behind you—is a sure-fire way to crash.
23. Pain can be useful, but not suffering. Pain lets us know something is wrong: it indicates we must change what we’re doing. Suffering, though, is a choice, and we can choose to stop suffering, to learn a lesson from the pain and move on with our lives.
24. Doubt kills. The person who stops you from doing everything you want to do, who stops you from being completely free, who stops you from being healthy, happy, and passionate—is you.
25. It’s okay to wait. Sometimes it’s okay to wait a little longer for something. Why rush if you don’t have to? Why not enjoy the journey?
26. Honesty is important. Honesty, at the most simple level, is telling the truth—not lying. It’s supremely important to be honest, and it’s hurtful when you’re not, but…
27. Openness is just as important as honesty. Openness is more complicated than honesty: openness involves being honest while painting an accurate picture, shooting straight, not misleading other people, and being real. Openness is far more subjective, and you must be honest with yourself before you can be open with others. This doesn’t mean you must put your entire life on display: some things are private, and that’s okay, too.
28. Getting people’s buy-in. Adding value to other people is the only way to get their buy-in. When I managed a large team of people, I constantly asked them questions like, “How did you add value this week?” I also asked that question of myself, and I would share with my team how I added value that week. That’s how I got their buy-in.
29. Hype is cancerous. So often we fall for the hype (“Buy More, Save More!” and “Three Day Sale!”), and we are suckered into rash buying decisions because of scarcity and a false sense of urgency. We can train ourselves, however, to not only resist such hype, but to have a vitriolic reaction to the hype—to elicit a response so off-putting that we avoid anything that’s hyped. When we’re aware of the world around us, we can willfully develop a hype allergy.
30. I’m still trying to figure it all out. I don’t intend to promulgate my views and opinions as some sort of maxims by which you should live your life. What works for me, may not work for you. Hell, sometimes it doesn’t even work for me.
Additional Reading: 30 More Life Lessons by Ryan Nicodemus.