31 Life Lessons on My 31st Birthday

A couple of years ago for my 29th birthday, I wrote up 29 of the best lessons I had learned over the previous year.

The lessons seemed to be popular, and were widely shared by friends and family — so I followed it up with 30 more life lessons on my 30th birthday.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve copied passages and quotes gathered from all the various books I’ve read into a tiny green marble notebook I keep in my home office, always ready for more. The scribbles, doodles, and highlights serve as a constant reminder of lessons I needed at various points in my life. They are as much for me as they are for my future children and grandchildren.

I thought it was a disservice not to share them publicly with others.

These ideas and thoughts are not my own. I doubt any of it is truly original although I have tried to put everything in my own words. I am primarily channeling the wisdom of the ages. What follows is advice I have heard from others, timeless knowledge repeated from the past, or modern aphorisms that match my own experience. I hope you enjoy:

1) Reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule. It’s tough to maintain a consistent and disciplined practice when life gets in the way. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, offers the advice to stick to the schedule, but reduce the scope — meaning, you may not have an hour to get a workout in, but you can do 50 pushups and 100 air squats before you hop into the shower. You can walk laps around the terminal before your flight. By doing so, you extend the streak of your daily exercise and don’t feel like a “failure” in your own eyes. Reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule.

2) “I don’t like [fill in the blank]… today.” Be careful when you say you like or dislike something, because you could change your mind soon. I don’t like seafood… Country music just isn’t for me… Yet, how often do our attitudes, perceptions, and tastes change over the years? For 20 years I thought pickles were gross. One bite of a Chick-fil-A sandwich and now I love them. Sure, you may not like pickles today, but be open to the prospect that your inclinations may evolve. You can apply this same logic by book-ending your self-criticism with the word “yet.” I can’t afford to buy a house… yet. I don’t have the skills to get promotedyet.

h/t Derek Sivers on The Tim Ferriss Show #667

3) You’ll enjoy life more when you understand that life is not fair. Comedian Chris Distefano was a guest on JRE #1947 when he shared a story about his father, who was a gambling addict. Chris’s father explained to him that life is always going to be unfair. Regardless of how successful you are, how happy you are, or how much money you make, life will find a way to shove shit in your face. Once you accept the inevitable pile of shit you’ll have to face, you can enjoy the absurdity of life a bit more 🙂

4) Beliefs are just practiced thoughts. A belief is just a thought you keep thinking.

Don’t let reality control your imagination. Let your imagination be the user interface to steer your reality. You can change your thoughts with a different story.

5) Nobody is coming to save you. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that nobody is coming to save you. A government-subsidized vaccine isn’t going to undo years of poor diet and lack of exercise. Ultimately, you have to take responsibility. Only you have the power to control your situation and your readiness for all situations.

6) Make decisions your future self will thank you for, not resent you for. Our decisions are investments we make into our future. Ultimately decisions aren’t being made for you now, they’re being made for you in 24 hours, and 24 days, and 24 months. It’s why I’ve cut down on drinking drastically in the last couple of years. As much as I love going to the bar with my friends, the two-day hangover just isn’t worth it for me anymore. Make decisions you’ll be grateful for tomorrow.

h/t Jimmy Carr on Modern Wisdom #691

7) The only real failure is the failure to try. This year I became a volunteer firefighter in my town. I had a million reasons not to join the fire department. But I knew if I never tried I would live the rest of my life thinking, ‘What if?’ If I hate it and quit after a year, I can deal with the disappointment. But never trying? That’s the real failure.

Bonus tip: Imagine failures as reps. Each time you fail, rather than self-criticize about everything did wrong, simply say to yourself, “That’s a rep.” Accumulate reps until you find what works for you.

8) Focus is not about giving something more of your attention — it’s about giving everything else less. Kevin Kelly says,Never in the history of humanity have we had to exert such discipline to craft boundaries to carve out time for intentional work.

I recently started using a 25-minute timer on my phone to focus solely on work (The Pomodoro Technique). In those 25 minutes, I can’t look at my phone or browse the internet. I can only do the task at hand. The first time I did it I was amazed how quickly and how often my mind looked for another stimulus. Before the timer, I was spending my time mindlessly task-switching every 30 seconds. No wonder I couldn’t get anything done! The best productivity app on your phone is called Airplane Mode (use it). This ties in nicely with #14 on the list.

We are distracted from distraction by distraction.” — T.S. Eliot

9) Have a weekly meeting with your partner. Lauren and I have been together for almost eight years. When we got married, we didn’t expect anything to change. But it is different. We are partners now. And like a business partner, it’s vital that we share the same values and mission. We vowed to be by each other’s side through thick and thin, and that means there’s no room for anger, mistrust, or miscommunication. So every Saturday morning, we go to our local coffee shop and ask each other three simple questions —

  • What did I do this week that made you happy? 
  • What did I do this week that upset you? 
  • How can I help you this upcoming week?

Those three questions alone have brought us so much closer.

10) If you avoid the conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside yourself. Anthony de Mello tells a story about this: “There’s a guru in India who says, ‘Every time a prostitute comes to me, she’s talking about nothing but God. She says I’m sick of this life that I’m living. I want God. But every time a priest comes to me, he’s talking about nothing but sex.’ Very well, when you renounce something, you’re stuck to it forever. When you fight something, you’re tied to it forever. As long as you’re fighting it, you are giving it power. You give it as much power as you are using to fight it.”

A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” — Jean de La Fontaine

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” — Sigmund Freud

11) You can choose choices but not outcomes. This is a tough pill to swallow. You can choose how you feel, and the decisions you make in the moment, but those choices, in the end, may not influence the outcome in the way you were hoping for. Focus on your micro-decisions, not on the outcome. From The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

12) Roger That — Received Order Given, Expect Results. Former Navy SEAL and ultramarathon runner David Goggins is notorious for his resistance and mental toughness. In his book, Never Finished, he writes “Every minute you spend feeling sorry for yourself if another minute not getting better. Whenever life gives you that inevitable pile of shit, the answer is always “Roger-Fucking-That.”*

*And don’t forget to smile. A smile reminds them that you’re most dangerous when you’re cornered.

13) Style is the stuff you get wrong. Style isn’t about purposefully wearing a cool accessory, walking with a swagger, or having a particular taste in music. It’s being so authentic in one’s interests that other people’s opinions don’t matter. Style is not knowing the unwritten rules. Or, it’s knowing the rules well enough to break them with confidence.

In The Creative Act, Rick Rubin says, “Consider that it might not have been your initial style that attracted success, but your personal passion within it… Trust in your instincts and excitement are what resonates in others.

“Style is the answer to everything.
A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing
To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without it
To do a dangerous thing with style is what I call art.” — Charles Bukowski

14) Use “No-Go Moments” to train your willpower. Your sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself. Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab) insists that with enough self-awareness and effort, we can develop and train impulse control. He discusses a technique he uses himself to develop greater self-control:

25 times per day, he will suppress the desire to take an action. He calls these “No-Go moments.” Small moments where he’ll purposefully not act on a thought or an urge. I’ve been playing around with this, and the opportunities to practice are endless.

  • Resist taking my phone out of my pocket while waiting in line.
  • Resist refreshing my emails when I checked them five minutes ago.

Discipline isn’t about beating yourself up when you fail to resist your impulses. It’s about small interventions to slowly strengthen your self-control.

15) We do not remember days, we remember moments. Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older. I love playing with my nieces and nephews, but as anyone with kids knows, it can be exhausting to keep them entertained. It’s easy to get annoyed and ask for relief. But I often think of this quote. One day I will look back on those moments of kicking the soccer ball with them or letting them sit in the front seat of my car as memories.

Create more memorable moments in your life.

16) Whoever has the most fun, wins. It’s hard to “compete” with someone who is having a ton of fun while others are working. The most attractive thing you can do is genuinely have fun. You’d be surprised how many people don’t. Energy is contagious. People like how it feels. If you show enthusiasm, others will want to experience the same rush.

17) Knowledge accumulates in drips and gets leveraged in buckets. — Farman Street.

18) Unknown suffering is going to happen. So the only way to prepare yourself for unchosen suffering is through chosen suffering. Ryan Holiday writes in The Daily Stoic, “We’d be crazy to want to face difficulty in life. But we’d be equally crazy to pretend that it isn’t going to happen. Which is why when it knocks on our door — as it very well may this morning — let’s make sure we’re prepared to answer.”

People who are good at remaining calm under pressure are just people who went through a lot of stressful situations, and who learned how to take responsibility instead of acting like a victim. The more we eliminate struggles from our lives, the more we create artificial struggles — sports, video games, Twitter culture wars — because the mind wants peace, but needs conflict.

The more you sweat in peace the less you bleed in war. -Norman Schwarzkopf

19) Record your parent’s laughter. The saddest part of getting older is realizing how little time we have left with our parents. I remember when my grandpa passed away, my mom kept a voicemail of him saying, “Hey Mary, miss you and the kids. Call me soon.” It’s heartbreaking, but just hearing their voice after they’re gone is better than any picture. And if you’re going to keep a recording of a loved one, make sure it’s one that brings a smile to your face.

20) “The plans are nothing, but the planning is everything. Rely on planning, but never trust the plans.” Dwight D. Eisenhower famously uttered those words during the planning for the Normandy D-Day invasion, and his foresight about those plans proved to be accurate.

It’s not that planning is useless. It’s that, when push comes to shove, the perfect idea of how you want things to play out is never going to happen.

 Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. — Mike Tyson

21) Your disposition is more important than your position. Winston Churchill put it best: “I am an optimist. It doesn’t seem to be much use being anything else.”

22) Take social media with a grain of salt. The top 15% of Twitter users account for 85% of all tweets.

Gurwinder Bhogal calls this Idiocy Saturation: Online, people who don’t think before they post are able to post more often than people who do. As a result, the average social media post is stupider than the average social media user. Worth remembering whenever Twitter dumbassery drives you to despair.

23) Spend more time being bored. We’re constantly bombarded with inputs — movies, phones, social media, billboards, email, music, etc.

Cal Newport has called this style of living Solitude Deprivation — a state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds. If you never learn how to deal with boredom, you will never learn to enjoy peace and quiet. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal

24) Always remind yourself that your track record for making it through your bad days is perfect

25) You’re not afraid to fail, you’re afraid of what other people will think if you fail. I think it’s bullshit when people say it’s fear of failure or fear of success that hold us back from pursuing our dreams. No, it’s not. Why would I be afraid of being successful? And if I fail, fine. I can deal with that.

What’s actually scary is what your mom will think if you fail. What will your aunts and uncles say at family gatherings? How will your friends look at you? But as David Goggins says, “To live the life you want to live, sometimes, that means being the motherfucker who can put a middle finger up to everyone in the room and be totally comfortable with that.

26) Controlling your thoughts is incredibly difficult, but controlling your actions is easy. Although #4 on this list stated that you can change your thoughts by changing the story you tell yourself, it is far easier to manage your thoughts through action.

Your actions determine how you feel. How you feel determines what you think.

27 ) Bad things can happen fast but almost all good things happen slowly. Anything that is new, even if it is good, will feel uncomfortable until it is also familiar.

28) Too many options leave us unhappy. Our modern world provides us with endless choices and possibilities — forty different types of toothpaste, seventy-five brands of cereal, and jeans that are straight, slim, skinny, relaxed tapered, or bootcut. We are completely spoiled for choice in every aspect of our lives, and these choices aren’t just limited to material goods; there is a parallel proliferation of new ideologies, movements, and theories.

In the Paradox of Choice, psychology professor Barry Schwartz argues that though it may be perceived as advantageous to have so much agency and free will over every aspect of our lives, the abundance and proliferation of choice are actually detrimental to our physical health and psychological well-being

29) 80% of happiness is body chemistry. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and author of How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big writes, “If you want to enjoy life you want to have as much energy as possible.” Your energy depends on your physical form. Your hardware is literally made out of what you put in it — and that’s not just food. It’s what you put into it with effort, good sleep habits, and the reduction of stressful environments (people, places, things). Exercise is the opposite of drugs. Drugs make you feel good in the moment, and terrible afterward. Exercise makes you feel terrible during it, but incredible afterward.

30) “You don’t get self-confidence by shouting affirmations in the mirror, but by having a stack of undeniable proof that you are who you say you are. — Alex Hormozi. Confidence without evidence is delusion. But if you consistently give yourself proof that you are the version of yourself you want to be, you’ll become them.

31) Life is a gift, but it’s on you to figure out how to unwrap the package.  – Unknown

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this moving piece by Brianna Wiest called ‘A Beautiful Life’

A beautiful life is not stumbled upon, it is built. It is chosen. It is nurtured over the years. A beautiful life is made from the heart, not the head. It is not one we can rationalize our way into, it’s one that must be felt. A beautiful life is not one that is immediately comfortable, but one grown through the acknowledgment of what is worth being uncomfortable for. It is not one that is easy, but it is one that is worth it.

 A beautiful life is composed of the things our 90-year-old selves would have wished we’d done with the years in which we were so young but did not realize, before the decades piled up and passed us by and we came to find how little time even the luckiest among us have. It is made of all the whispered prayers they’d have for us as they looked back, the same way we imagine our younger selves now and wish we could impart and instill so much guidance, so often leaning in the direction of — go where your heart already calls you, move toward the truth you already know.

‘Til next year

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Books, Articles, Tweets, & Podcasts Referenced

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