I recently turned 30. And during the journey to 30, I’ve learned so much. Below are 30 of the most important life lessons from those 30 years. Each lesson is a brief summary of that lesson, some of which have a link for further reading if you’re interested. Take your time and explore those links—they’re all meaningful to me.
1. We must love. You know the saying, “tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” right? I know, such statements sound so banal and vapid on the surface that we often dismiss them with a wave of the hand. But it’s the cold truth, a truth so profound that perhaps we can only discuss it with little cliched statements. But 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 that we care, to show them that we love them.
3. Happiness is not for sale in any store. We can’t buy happiness. Hell, it sounds clichÃ© to even say that, and yet we search the aisles and shelves and pages on eBay in search of something more, something to fill the void. But we can’t fill the void with stuff. It doesn’t work that way, no matter how hard we try or how much stuff we buy, because that stuff won’t make us happy. At best it will pacify us momentarily. At worst it will ruin our lives, leaving us empty and depressed and even more alone, alone among a sea of material items—sometimes a crowded room can feel the most alone. The truth is that we are all going to die, and heaping our tombs with treasure will not save us from this fate. Ryan and I wrote about happiness for Dave Bruno’s 100 Thing Challenge: The Minimalists On Happiness.
4. Success is perspectival. I used to think I was successful because I had a six-figure job that my friends and family could be proud of. I thought the house with too many bedrooms would make me look even more successful, and so would the luxury car and the tailored suits and the nice watch and the big screen TV and all the trappings of the material world. But I got all that and I sure as hell didn’t feel successful. Instead, I felt depressed. So what did I do? I bought more stuff. And when that didn’t work I figured out that I had to do something else with my life, that I had to stop living a lie and start living my dreams.
5. You must make change a must. I knew that I wanted to change my life for the longest time. I knew I was unhappy, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled. I knew I didn’t have freedom. Not real freedom. The problem was that I knew these things 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. Anthony Robbins has a good aphorism to describe all these shoulds in your life: he says “after a while you end up shoulding all over yourself.” But once you understand these things on an emotional level you are able to turn your shoulds into musts. I believe that that is the pivotal point, that is when you get leverage, that is when you are compelled to take action. Thus, a decision is not a real decision until it is a must for you, until you feel it on your nerve-endings, until you are compelled to take action. Once your shoulds have turned into musts, then you have made a real decision.
6. Growth & contribution is the meaning of life. Giving is living, I said that before. I believe the best way to live a meaningful life is simple: continuously grow as an individual and contribute to other people in a meaningful way. Growth and contribution. That’s all. That’s the meaning of my life.
7. Health is more important than most of us treat it. Without health, nothing else matters. It took me over a year and a half to lose 70 pounds—70 pounds of disgusting fat—but that was seven years ago and I’ve kept the weight off and I’m not turning back. I’m 30 years old now, but I’m in the best shape of my life, by far. And it’s only going to get better from here. I wrote about my exercise and diet in this essay: Minimalism Is Healthy: How I Lost 70 Pounds
8. Sentimental items are not as important as we think. My mother died in 2009. It was an incredibly difficult time in my life, but it also helped me realize a lot about the unnecessary meaning we give to stuff. I realized that I could hold on to her memories without her stuff, that I don’t need Mom’s stuff to remind me of her. There are traces of her everywhere: In the way I act, in the way I treat others, even in my smile. She’s still there, and she was never part of her stuff. I wrote an essay about that experience: Letting Go of Sentimental Items.
9. Your job is not your mission. At least it wasn’t for me, though I thought it was for the longest time, I gave it so much meaning and worked so much that the rest of my life suffered. I wrote an essay about leaving my corporate job to pursue my passions and live my mission: Screw You, I Quit! You can also check out Day 19 of our journey for further explanation.
10. Finding your passion is important. My passion is writing. Maybe you already know what your passion is, maybe you don’t have a clue. Do yourself a favor and figure it out, it will change everything for you. Read the above mentioned “Screw You, I Quit!” essay for more discussion about finding your passions.
11. Relationships matter. Not every relationship matters all that much, but there are a few that really, really matter. There are a few relationships we should focus on (for most of us there are a handful of relationships that truly matter, probably no more than 20). I’ve found that minimalism has helped me focus on these relationships. And I recently learned how to establish deeper connections with people.
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. Julien Smith articulates this sentiment very well in his 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 seems to place a lot of emphasis on material wealth as a sign of true wealth, and yet I know too many people of “status,” too many “rich” people—hell, I’ve been to some of their dinner parties—who are miserable, who are not wealthy at all. They are only ostensibly “rich,” but they are bankrupt inside, emotionally drained and broke almost everywhere except in their wallets. But perhaps Chuck Palahniuk said it best: “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your khakis.”
14. Jealousy and envy are wasted emotions. This one might be easier for me than it is for you. I’ve never been the jealous type. In fact, it has hurt some relationships for me in the past, because I didn’t articulate this fact—that I’m not the jealous type—to the other person. It’s strange but some people expect us to be jealous to show that we care. Instead, I choose to show that I care about someone by showing that I trust them and telling them that I trust them. Just be up front with people, tell them you don’t get jealous because you love them and you trust them. It makes everything easier.
15. Everybody worships something. My favorite fiction writer, David Foster Wallace, said it best: “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” Many of us chose to worship our stuff. That’s what led me to minimalism. Ryan and I wrote an essay about it at the beginning of the year: Everybody Worships Something.
16. I am not the center of the universe. It’s incredibly 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? Suffice it to say that we are acutely aware of everything connected to our own lives. That’s why Ryan and I wrote an essay about consciously removing yourself the center of the universe; it’s about paying attention to what’s going on in front of you and around you and inside you: I Am Not The Center Of The Universe
17. Awareness is the most precious kind of freedom. This is yet another reason why minimalism is so appealing to so many people. It removes many of the obstructions and allows us to focus on what’s important. Minimalism is a tool to rid ourselves of superfluous excess in favor of a meaningful 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 and 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 important to do so, for this is real freedom. Ryan and I wrote an essay about awareness and conscious freedom for Nina Yau’s site earlier this year: Awareness: The Most Precious Kind of Freedom
18. Be On The Mountain. This is the term I use for “living in the moment.” I wrote an essay about it a few years ago: Be On The Mountain.
19. We are often scared for no reason. Just ask yourself “what am I afraid of?” We are usually scared of things that don’t have a real impact on our lives (or that we can’t control, so we’re worrying for no reason).
20. It’s OK to change; 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 much fun. But when we learn to enjoy the process of change—when we chose to look at the uncertain as variety instead of uncertainty—then we get to reap all the rewards of change. And that’s how we grow as people.
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, 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 your car with your eyes glued to the rearview mirror. But driving this way—only looking behind you—is a surefire way to crash. Ryan and I wrote an essay about letting go of the past: Your Past Does Not Equal Your Future.
23. Pain can be useful; but suffering—there is absolutely nothing useful about suffering. Pain lets us know that something is wrong. It is an indicator that we need to change what we’re doing. But suffering is a choice—one that we all choose from time to time—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 or happy or passionate or living a meaningful life is you. We can doubt ourselves to death.
25. It’s OK to wait. Leo Babauta always reminds his readers to slow down, that we don’t need to hurry. Sometimes it’s OK to wait a little longer for something. Why rush if you don’t have to? Why not enjoy the journey? Example: These days, when I’m walking the streets of Dayton or Portland or Oakland or wherever, I don’t rush across the crosswalk when I see the flashing red hand warning me that I need to hurry up and cross the damn street! Instead, I wait. I let red hand turn solid, warning me to halt! and I let the traffic light change color from green to yellow and then red, and I wait. I look around, I breathe, I think, and I wait. It’s OK to wait. We wrote an essay about waiting earlier this year: Reasons For Waiting. Also, clearing my plate helped me tremendously with this.
26. Honesty is profoundly important. Honesty, at the most simple level, is telling the truth, not lying. It’s incredibly 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 have to be honest with yourself before you can be open with others. This doesn’t mean that you must put your entire life on display. Some things are private, and that’s OK too.
28. Adding value to other people is the only way to get their buy-in. We recently wrote an essay about adding value to other people. It’s something I’ve lived by for a long time. 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 same 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. While eating lunch with Leo in San Francisco he said something that stuck with me: “I’m allergic to hype.” That sentence touched my nerve-endings and resonated in a special way. So often we fall for the hype (e.g., “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. But we can train ourselves 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. This goes back to being aware, which is, as I mentioned above, the most precious kind of freedom.
30. I’m still trying to figure it all out. I don’t intend to promulgate my views and opinions as some sort of life maxims or absolute lessons by which you should live your life. What works for me might not work for you (hell, sometimes it doesn’t even work for me).
Note: this essay was inspired by Leo Babauta’s 38 Life Lessons I’ve Learned in 38 Years.
Update: Read Ryan Nicodemus’s 30 More Life Lessons from 30 Years.