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What I’ve Learned After 30 Years

11 Lessons from 3 decades on a blue dot

30 years.

It’s been one hell of a ride so far. I’ve done some amazing things, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, too.

Along the way, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two. One thing I learned about myself in my twenties is that I find it extremely meditative (especially in times when my thoughts are running wild) to get my thoughts on paper, which is why I just etched 3,000 words into a notebook. After reading my reflections, and while waiting for my hand to de-claw, I started to notice some trends and figured I’d throw them up here for anyone interested in the advice of a 30-year-old who’s still trying to figure it out. At this point, I’m cool with not knowing it all. I think that’s part of the plan.

Here’s what I’ve learned after 30 years on this blue dot.

1. Find meaning

All of the other things I’ve learned on this list are in random order – but this is number one for a reason. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning was one of the most influential things I read in my twenties. The notion that we have freedom to find meaning in what we do and what we experience even in the face of unchangeable suffering has been life-changing for me. A few of my favorite quotes:

-“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

-“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

-“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

-“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”

This book has meant so much to me. It reminds me of another great book, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The main character, Louis Zamperini, feels extreme despair before he finds meaning in his terrible suffering. If you can’t change a situation, accept the challenge to change yourself and find meaning.

2. To be happy, be good

Don’t aim to be happy. Aim to be good. Aim to do good. Aim to give, and to love. The happiness will ensue.

3. Focus on your own journey

To quote from the only book I’ve read 5+ times in the past decade:

“If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” 

Paulo Cohelo, The Alchemist

Trust yourself, and ignore the naysayers. After all, “It’s not the critic who counts…the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

See #4 for more of my favorite speech from Theodore Roosevelt.

4. Have a bias for action

When I took the 216-meter leap off of Bloukrans Bridge in South Africa and conquered the highest commercial bungee jump in the world, I was terrified. But a sign outside the registration office pushed me towards action. You can see it in the upper right corner of the photo that I definitely didn’t blink in below.

Whether you’re on the proverbial fence about something or a literal bridge with a bungee cord attached to your feet, lean into the fear and have a bias for action. I smile every time I think about this day.

To finish off the Theodore Roosevelt quote, which fits nicely here:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

5. Embrace creativity

In my experience, the brain can get too comfortable in its everyday surroundings. Writing, listening to new music, reading, traveling to new places, trying new foods, or just finding some quiet time to sit and ponder – whatever your thing is, embrace it. To me, no one is better on the subject of creativity than Austin Kleon. If you need some inspiration, pick up one of his books.

“Be curious about the world in which you live. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else–that’s how you’ll get ahead.”

6. Lean on others

Sick? See a doctor. Depressed? See a psychiatrist. Lonely? Call a friend.

Don’t try to fix all of your problems yourself. Don’t assume they’ll go away on their own. Lean on professionals, family, and friends when you need a hand.

7. Concentrate on the present

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

That quote has been accredited to Lao Tzu, though he actually never said it. Nevertheless, I think it’s spot on. Life is fleeting – don’t spend it in the wrong spot. For more advice on living in the future, see #8.

8. The fear of suffering is greater than suffering

So much of what we worry about never actually happens.

As the Stoic philosopher, Seneca said: “The man who suffers before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary.”

Remember this the next time you hit turbulence at 30,000 feet and start to freak out – then order a whiskey-ginger and enjoy your new outlook on fear.

9. Be accountable

Discipline and accountability can set you free. The sooner you recognize you are the captain of your fate, the better. Don’t like your situation? See #1. You missed the lesson.

Without further ado, my favorite poem, by William Ernest Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

10. Practice gratitude every chance you get

If you’re reading this, you’re blessed. Not because I’m some modern Bill Shakespeare – but because you’re clearly fortunate enough to own a computer or phone that can answer (or try to answer) literally every question ever conceived by humankind, you’re clearly in an area that has internet access, you have eyes to read, were born with a functioning brain to comprehend the words on this page…I could go on and on.

We’re all blessed. Do what you can to show gratitude every single day, and help the less fortunate along the way. This all could fall under point #2, “To be happy, be good”, but I think it’s important to keep it as a separate point for emphasis.

11. Aim to minimize your regrets

Jeff Bezos operates within a “regret minimization” framework, and you should too.

Look at your life as it sits right now. What do you regret? Be honest.

If you can’t do anything about your regrets, forgive yourself. If you can do something about them, forgive yourself – then get to work making sure that you won’t have the same regrets in the future.

Remember: the only person you need to please is your 90-year-old self. Make that old-fart happy he/she has no regrets.

Here’s to the next 30.

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