A few months ago I published a post called My Personal 40 Before 40 Challenge thus signaling the fact that I was in the final throes of my 30s. I still have a little more than half a year left before I have to start dropping that 3 from my age, but I have been giving this illustrious birthday a lot of thought. Specifically, I’ve been reflecting on my 30s, a decade that for most people is about change, growth and (hopefully) some maturity. It was definitely all those things and more for me; a decade that saw more death and loss than I’d ever expected but balanced by personal changes that were better than I could have ever imagined. While we can’t go back in time, and I’m not really sure I’d want to either, there are some lessons about life I wish I could go back and tell my younger 30-year old self, and maybe in the process of this exercise I’ll be able to enjoy my 40s in a way that won’t necessitate another post like this in a decade.
You Don’t Know Everything
I’ve needed this advice at every stage of my life I think, including now probably. It’s a common problem, most of us tend to think we’re right no matter what, but in my case I’ve noticed that this attitude isn’t just annoying (it is) but it limits us dramatically when it comes to our growth potential. Think about it for a second; when most of us get into an argument with someone, it’s not a high school debate, we become intractable and usually indignant. We refuse to listen to counterarguments that would sway our thoughts or opinions on something we have accepted to be fact. This can be something silly like disagreeing about a “Jeopardy!” answer but it becomes really dangerous when it comes to both our professional and personal lives.
We never get to see the whole of any situation. Whether it’s trying to understand someone’s emotions, or eking out what an employer wants from us. That’s what I’ve failed to keep in mind throughout most of my 30s, and I wish I could go back and change that. When it comes to our personal lives, we have to remember that people really are like icebergs. We may think we know what their lives are like and what they’re going through, but we don’t. We only see what’s on the surface, a small portion of their actual lives. We need to give people more slack, be more tolerant of them and instead of assuming that everything is peaches and cream for them, understand that they may be going through hard times and to try to be accommodating of that. There’s a fine line between confidence and being a jerk and it’s also the difference between someone who is successful and someone else who is a narcissist. The most successful people in the world didn’t get to where they are today by ignoring good advice, but they also understood the need to take a different path when necessary.
Don’t Be Afraid
I mention this a lot, but only because I think it’s so very important. If you stop to think – really think – about your life, I believe like me you’ll realize that a lot of what we all do is fear based. We’re afraid of making our significant others angry, so we don’t criticize when perhaps we should. We’re afraid of being wrong, so we don’t always speak up at work. We’re afraid of making big decisions, because of the ramifications they could have; and so on. A lot of what we do, from the small stuff to epic, life-changing decisions are all based on fear and that needs to stop. The movie “Defending Your Life” operated under the premise that when we die, we’re judged not only by our actions in life, but how we confronted fear. Fear holds us back and prevents us all from living truly memorable lives. It took a long time for this message to take root in my soul, but once it did the effect was extraordinary. I stayed in meaningless jobs for years because I was scared of the unknown. I was scared of not having a steady income and frightened what would happen to me. Little did I know that my life only became truly excellent after I stopped being scared.
Mistakes Are Fine
Instead of fearing mistakes, we need to accept the fact that failure is freeing, it’s an opportunity for growth. The most successful people in the world have almost all failed epically at some point in their lives. The key isn’t to dodge failure, that’s impossible, but to know what to do when it does happen. Failure is the best method we have of better understanding our actions and provides a chance for us all to step back, evaluate, change and evolve. Zig Ziglar once wrote, “Failure is an event, not a person.” Extrapolated, that means that all of our mistakes, our personal failures either at work or with our families, do not define us. They are not who we are as human beings. Every new soul is born on this earth with I believe the ability to achieve great things and to be a good person. It is the culmination of a lifetime of choices, and mistakes, that then tailor the individual. But at no time, even the worst amongst us, can anyone really be called a failure. Rather, they have failed and these errors are just single moments in time. It is our reaction to those failures, what we do when slapped in the face that really, truly matters.
Stop Wasting Time
While 30 is indeed young, as is 39 if we’re being honest, the truth is that none of us really know how long we have until we shuffle off this mortal coil, and instead of putting things off or waiting for a better moment, we need to live the lives we have today and not the ones we might have tomorrow. For years, years, I worked in jobs I didn’t like because I felt like I had to. I felt like there was no other path in my life and that I just had to learn to deal with the unhappiness and lack of motivation that came from that lifestyle. That was wrong. What I failed to realize that none of us are on a rigid path, we all zig and zag on a daily basis and that to accept these deviations in our lives isn’t only ok, it’s necessary. Looking at the kids today, Millennials, they seem to understand this in a way that my own generation (Gen X) and definitely my parents generation (Baby Boomers) do not. It’s a matter of the times in which we live, no doubt there. My mother was raised by parents who were always haunted by the specter of the Great Depression and World War II, which meant finding a job, any job, and working at it as hard as you can until you die or retire. If you do retire, that’s when you can have some fun. That lesson was handed down to me and I accepted it for a long time, too long. It was only when I was thankfully pushed forcefully off of that path that I saw it for what it was. Not a single lonely road, but part of a great collection of paths and avenues, all waiting for me to try them out. If we want to change our lives or if we want something more in our lives, we have to act on that today, because tomorrow is frankly far too late.
This post is probably a little too early in the year, I still have 7 months or so until my 40th birthday, but it’s where I found myself thinking today. No matter what the numbers are on our birthday cakes, we all have lessons to learn and ideas we’d love to share with our younger selves. It’s not about lamenting poor choices, not at all, it’s taking these life lessons and extrapolating them so that hopefully by the time the next birthday rolls around, you don’t have nearly as much to share with your mythical, younger selves.