28 Things I’ve Learned Over The Years

This week I turned twenty-eight.  It still hasn’t fully sank-in that I’m a mere two years from thirty; a stone’s throw in the grand scheme.  I started thinking back to some of the things that I’ve seen and done and how things could have been markedly different–but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these events occurred and couldn’t have occurred any other way because I’m still alive and I’m still learning.

I think one of the most important things that people can do for each other is to teach.  In that spirit, I want to share twenty-eight things I’ve learned over the past twenty-eight years.

1. Be kind to yourself.

Often we tend to drift into black-and-white thinking when it comes to how we see ourselves.  We’re either great or we’re terrible.  There is woefully little room in-between for nuance and internalizing progression.  Fight the urge to categorize yourself this way and recognize that you are on a journey.  One that will often test you, knock you flat on your ass, and sometimes lift you up in victory.  Realize that the only failure is not trying.

2. Awareness is key (to almost everything).

It’s such a broad-brush skill that trying to list everything that awareness can impact would take all year.  Simply being aware of more things can improve our lives.  Being aware of the warmth of the breeze, the taste of your coffee or tea, the smiles or frowns on the faces you see.  It helps us to be fully-present.

3. Everything is subject to change.

The longer we live, hopefully the more knowledge we accumulate.  With more knowledge, we can then view our past with a critical eye and change accordingly.  What we knew yesterday can only stay true when we compare it to what we know today.  Every moment is a chance to change how we see literally everything.

4. There are no stupid questions.

This is something that took me several years to cultivate and even longer to feel less judgmental about.  In every activity and interaction, we need the ability to ask questions about things we don’t remember off-the-cuff or don’t understand.  No one has the answers to everything, and even the experts or gurus need to ask questions.  Albert Einstein has been credited with saying “Never memorize something you can look up”, and I would argue that this is more true now than it ever has been in human history.  So ask away.

5. Emotions (even irrational ones) have a source and a reason.

Feelings are our way of broadcasting to the world that we are affected by something positively or negatively.  Sometimes those feelings or emotions don’t make rational sense, but when we spend the time to dissect them or notice what memories that they’re attached to, we can glean deeper understanding about how we really feel and see the world.

Emotions that might seem irrational given the circumstances might contain memories of being hurt, being happy, or even deep sorrow.  None of it may make sense in the context of what’s going on, but they are important.  Don’t ignore them, dig deeper.

6. What you wanted before or want right now might not be what you want later

We all make choices–buying more stuff that we might use later, having a few too many drinks, sacrificing intimacy or a relationship for short-term goals or gain.  You might see that your choice might have been ill-advised in hindsight, and that’s okay.  You live, you hopefully learn something from it, and you make more informed choices in the future.

7. Don’t take any relationships for granted…

Honestly, this should be a no-brainer.  I’ve tripped over this particular one a few times in my life and I’ve lost friends, professional connections, and lovers because of it.  Don’t ever take a single relationship for granted.  Call them, text them, tweet at them, email them, knock on their door–don’t ignore them or treat them poorly.  One minute they could be there, the next they could be gone.

8. … but don’t let anyone take advantage of you.

This goes for any kind of relationship you have: intimate, personal, or professional.  You don’t owe anyone anything, and the only person who’s going to advocate effectively for you is you.  If a relationship isn’t quite working-out or matching-up to what you want or need, then renegotiate it.  Be forthright, be aware, and try to understand it from both sides.  Speak your truth.

9. Being responsible isn’t easy.

Sometimes it downright sucks.  It sometimes means deferring purchases, putting a hold on plans, and foregoing entertainment.  It sometimes means disappointing others in favor of what’s right for you over the long-term.  It means putting off some things in favor of longer-term gains.

10. Adventure can come calling at any time… be ready.

The above being said, ignoring adventure will mean that you’ve likely just passed on an opportunity to experience spontaneous beauty.  Don’t pass up opportunities–nobody’s going to be interested in your office heroics or cubicle-dweller exploits.  Have a story to tell: hair-raising, curious, awe-inspiring stories that have meaning.

11. Accept things for what they are…

Probably the hardest thing for anyone that’s achievement- or goal-oriented such as myself is just accepting what is.  Sometimes what is happening in the present or how someone is interacting with you is primarily driven by circumstance and can’t be changed.  There might be times where you just want to go and fix it or do it, but that might not always be possible.  Acceptance of these things is part-and-parcel with finding inner peace and without it life becomes unmanageable.  Sometimes your job or your partner might frustrate the daylights out of you, but understand that there are an innumerable number of circumstances at-play that have conspired to bring the present into being.  Just breathe, accept it for what it is, do what you can, and move on.

12. … but never settle.

On the flip-side, if you’ve got a burning urge to make something happen then make it happen.  Clarify it, quantify it, plan it, execute it.  It doesn’t even have to be something that will be “successful”; try something new!  If you’re tired of your career and have the means, do something different.  If your relationship isn’t working for you, talk about it and do something about it.  We all have the gift of agency and self-awareness, don’t waste it by settling for less than you want and worse than you deserve.

13. Understanding, patience, and a hug can mend most things.

I started carrying this from my personal into my professional life, and I’ve noticed a stark difference in the interactions I have.  People are more sincere, open, and willing to talk about problems and solutions.  Taking a bit of time out of your day to understand someone, have patience while they work through it with you, and offering a hug (where appropriate) can have an immense impact on someone’s outlook.  It says to them, “I care, I’m listening, and I see you.  Let’s work it out together.”

14. People will change (and so will you).

Humans change all the time.  When they’re healthy and they have friends and family that they can count on, they’ll often take care of themselves as circumstances and wants change.  What I was and what I wanted when I was eighteen are not the same in the present.  The same thing goes for your family, your friends, your partner, your professional life–the list goes on.  People change all the time and often it’s best to just smile and offer your support to those you care about (especially yourself).

15. Use things sparingly, love people infinitely.

The opposite doesn’t work when your aim is to build a meaningful life.  Objects, things, and “stuff” will come-and-go with time, but a meaningful life is timeless.  When you find meaning in your life, it all becomes an omnipresent now; each interaction and event becoming unique and irreplaceable.  Enjoy the moment, the company (or the lack thereof if you’re on a solo adventure), and the experience.  When you operate from a place of unconditional love for people, they will surprise and delight you more often than not.

16. Turn away from distractions, lean into discomfort.

Western consumerist monoculture is good at a few things, but most pernicious among them is the cottage-industry of distractions.  Social media, click-bait/click-hole websites, blinking lights, beeping devices–it all serves to “game-ify” and reward our A.D.D.-ridden pleasure-centers.  It’s a base, Pavlovian conditioning that serves no ultimate purpose besides lining the pockets of snake-oil peddlers.

Instead, we can turn away from distraction and lean into our discomfort.  If we feel uncomfortable with the idea of sitting alone in a quiet room with only our thoughts, maybe we should ask why that is.  Is it that we feel uncomfortable with not knowing ourselves as well as we thought?  Or is it more likely that we’re addicted to the endorphin rush of ticking checkboxes and clearing notifications on our phones or social media profiles?  Discomfort is a clear indicator that something is amiss if we choose to pay attention and question it.

17. You will have bad days.

Instead of turning them inward like daggers, treat them as learning experiences.  Words like “good” and “bad” are loaded statements, and the word “problem” holds negative connotations.  Instead, ask yourself: “What opportunities does this situation present?  What did I do well, what could I focus on improving, and what was lucky about it?”

And if all else fails, don’t be afraid to take what a former coach used to call a “cookie day”.  That is to say: go home, have a cookie, try again tomorrow.  There’s always another moment.

18. Don’t plan for every possibility, only the possibilities that you can control.

Planning for every possible eventuality is exhausting and casts your attention so far into the future that seeing what’s right under your nose becomes impossible.  Focus on the immediate, the here-and-now.  Short-term gains add-up to long-term success.

19. Get organized (and stay that way).

It should go without saying that organization is a fundamental life skill.  Many people seem to go long periods of time without any kind of active organizational activity, so building a habit of it is a great way to stay on top of things.  I keep Evernote documents of to-do items and ideas that I haven’t quite fleshed-out yet and review them once a week to see how my priorities or my needs have changed.  Keeping a calendar also helps me keep things together and allows me to spend more time in the present with the people I care about.

20. Asking for help is not weakness (and neither is taking a moment to cry).

It took me a while to get over the notion that asking for help was a sign of weakness.  Sometimes it takes a courageous person to admit that they don’t have all the answers or the strength to carry their burdens by themselves.  Seeking help isn’t a fatal flaw, it’s the mark of a mature person who understands their limitations.  When we try to carry or push more than we can bear for too long, we do ourselves a disservice and we aren’t loving or respecting ourselves.  Don’t be that person.

21. Take pride in even the smallest of successes.

Sometimes the sweetest days are the ones where you come to rest at the end of it with a string of small victories to your credit.  Celebrate them even if they seem inconsequential.

22. Go out on a limb–be bold.

Do something that intimidates you when you feel stuck.  If it’s speaking in front of people, repairing something you’ve never tried before, or experimenting with a new project, just do it.  Your life and the number of waking moments you have are too few and fleeting to leave on the table.

23. “Wash your bowl”.

Borrowing a bit from Zen Buddhism, there’s a parable of a monk arriving at a monastery where Joshu, a Zen monk, lived.  The monk said to Joshu, “I am ready to learn.”  Joshu in-turn asked if the monk had eaten their meal yet, to which the monk said yes.  Joshu simply turned to them and said “Then you had better wash your bowl.”  Thus enlightened, the monk proceeded to wash their bowl.

The story here is one of simplicity: Don’t delay or procrastinate on things that you can do immediately.  If there’s a mess you can clean, clean it up.  If there’s a problem that you can fix, fix it.  If there’s an answer to a question that you can provide, respond.  ‘Nuff said.

24. Fear is the gatekeeper.

Fear is what keeps us from moving into a space of freedom; it’s the quintessential gatekeeper.  In the space between the two points marked “effort” and “result” is fear; but this is where the magic happens.  This is the crucible within which we place our courage, our strength, and our love.  Fear can be associated with loss: esteem, courage, status, pride.  When we operate from a space where these things take a back-seat to progress and commitment, fear becomes ephemeral and loses its hold.  That’s when we truly become powerful.

25. Ignore the hype.

The hype is meant to part you from something: your money, your courage, your good sense, or your life.  Ignore all of it and cast your gaze over the obscured pieces and places–chances are, the peddlers of hype are just as fooled as they want you to be.

26. Don’t lose hope or faith.

People and events exist on a looped spectrum.  Qualifying these things as “bad” or “good” is not anyone’s job.  Feeling and understanding the effects is the only option anyone has, as innumerable circumstances and happenstance have created and influenced them.  Grieve, if you must, for what was.  Do not, however, grieve for what could have been.

Instead, hold hope and wage peace.  Every day that we engage in this practice, we make the world better by one person, one moment, or one act–and it’s enough.

27. You are enough.  Full stop.

No one else’s approvals or accolades are necessary.  Not a single title or accomplishment is required.  You are enough, just as you are, existing right here in the present.  You can’t change who you were, but you can choose to be who you want to be in every moment moving forward.  That being said, you are also perfect as you are now because there is no other you that can be seen or perceived.  So love yourself for all your strengths and foibles, warts-and-all, in every moment.  Then do it again.  And again.  And again.  Ad-infinitum.

28. Recognize the present for what it is: beautiful and irreplaceable.

Constantly being distracted by our lives and the greater world around us, we might not be able to understand or appreciate the nature of the moments we live in.  Regardless of the state of things, there is beauty to be found in everything.  A tree shedding its last leaves before the onslaught of Winter, the crackle of a camp’s bonfire, the smell and warmth of a cup of coffee, the smile lines in your partner’s face, the warmth of the sun, the depth of space when viewed at night.  Each one of these moments will almost assuredly never come again.  In this, I find happiness because I imagine as though I’m participating in a small piece of a much larger moving artwork.  Entropy may eventually “win”, but I will have had a unique part to play in all of it–even if it seems infinitesimal when viewed from without.

Maybe when I’m twenty-nine I’ll have twenty-nine new things to say.

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