This Sunday, May 31st, 2020, is my 35th birthday.
As someone who still feels like he’s twelve years old, this information is a little difficult to process. Thirty-five?! I remember when I used to joke about how long it would be until my golden birthday… and my golden birthday was four years ago now.
I’ve done my best to fill those 35 years with as much as I can. I’ve fallen in love and had my heart broken. I’ve taken chances and avoided risks. I’ve made friends and a few enemies. I’ve had moments of pure pride and moments of sheer, unbridled embarrassment (more of the latter than the former, if I’m being honest).
With two young boys who are growing and a baby daughter on the way, I figured this is a good time to jot down a few of the things I wish I had known about life when I kicked off my journey 35 years ago, interrupting my aunt and uncle’s wedding rehearsal and forcing my mother to leave me at the hospital at two days old just so she could see my older brother be a ring bearer.
Other than the joys of shaving off awkward hair from my head (that photo above is me at 7 years old and… well, that’s about as good as it ever got), here are 35 things I’ve learned in the last 35 years. I hope to pass these onto my kids as they grow up:
- The bad times don’t last. So don’t sweat them too much. Broken hearts heal. Lost money can be replenished. Wounds will scab over. I spent too much of my life grieving instead of letting myself move forward.
- The good times don’t last, either. So don’t get cocky. In the fall of 2014, my wife and I were looking at buying a house with some money saved up. By spring 2015, that money was gone and so was my income. It took us 5 years to claw our way back to solid ground. Do your best to enjoy the good times, but be aware that bad times will always follow (but don’t worry – see #1).
- Having the right partner is everything. My wife supports me in everything I do. She’s been a shoulder to cry on, a supportive voice encouraging me when I needed it the most, and always, always has my back. Not everyone can say that. It sure helps you get through the tough times.
- That worst case scenario probably isn’t that bad in the grand scheme. Outside of death, there aren’t too many unchangeable situations in life. Even when you are at your darkest, there’s always a way out – even if it’s just a change in attitude. You can always find a way to smile. And if the world can’t take that away from you, then it doesn’t have that much power, does it?
- The most important lesson to learn is that your actions affect other people. I’ve dealt with people, relatives, landlords, and others who clearly have never learned this. You don’t live in a bubble or a vacuum. If you make selfish choices, you risk hurting those around you. Sometimes that’s the tough choice, but often, you have other – better – options. Pay attention to how you affect others. This world is about more than just what you want.
- Getting away from screen time is crucial to your health. I love TV. I enjoy swiping around on my phone. But my health and relationships only improve when I put those things down and turn them off once in a while.
- The number one health concern is sleep. If you want to change your life, focus on waking up at the same time every day. Fix your sleep problems and you’ll see piles of benefits. If you’re not properly sleeping, then all the exercise and overtime won’t make a difference. You’re fighting an uphill battle. Fix your sleep.
- You have to choose joy – and you can. If you’re waiting for the world to give you a reason to be happy, I hope you’re comfortable because you’re going to be there for a while. On paper, just about everything sucks. Work sucks. Having kids is a lot of work. Maintaining a healthy marriage means making sacrifices at times. But you can always choose joy. Put a smile on your face through the hard times. It gets easier the more you do it.
- Today, you can do whatever you want for a living. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s doable. You can write, sing, dance, create, build… whatever you want to do, you can do it. And there are endless resources to teach you how. I didn’t go to college for marketing, and yet I’m an established copywriter. I never built a thing with my hands until I was 29 years old, and I have a thriving wood shop.
- It is more important than ever to own your stuff – and keep backups of it, too. Any TV show you watch on a streaming app can be taken away from you. Any music you stream can be lost forever. I have a server computer with shows and movies and music and photos all backed up and duplicated onto external hard drives. My photos are also backed up in the cloud with Google Photos. All my important documents are in Google Drive also. I’ve lost too many photos and important documents from hard drive crashes.
- You can love someone and still disagree with them. In the age of COVID-19, it feels like everyone disagrees about something and we all have to let each other know about it. I’m guilty of it too. Healthy disagreement and discussion is one thing. But anger is another. We have to be able to disagree on points but still find commonalities. Maybe you don’t like how someone is raising their kid. If they’re your friend, you should be able to go grab a beer with them anyway without arguments. We’re all human.
- In everything, take a step back and see the forest. If there’s something bothering you about your life, take a few steps back and think about how you could change it. I know too many parents who complain about not getting enough time with their kids because they both have to work. Why? Because their bills are too high and they need the money. Is there a way they can downsize their living expenses? Move to a smaller home with a more manageable mortgage? Cook more and eat out less? I don’t have answers to those questions, but I do know…
- You just don’t need that much stuff. The best memories I have right now are dancing in the living room with my boys to music. We do it regularly, even though they have a closet full of toys. It costs us nothing extra to do it. Most of the stuff you accumulate is just clutter. If you have some clothes on your back and food in the pantry, you’re probably good.
- You might be running away from something and don’t know it. Do you need several vacations a year because you “love to travel” or because you’re unhappy with your everyday life and need an escape? The same goes for drinking, drugs, overeating, and even TV. Look at your habits. If there’s something you want to change, maybe it’s not the habit, but the cause of the habit.
- Every bad decision in your life leads to a good decision later. As long as you learn from it. I didn’t handle relationships very well when I was younger. As a result, I spent a lot of time by myself, wishing I was with someone. But had I not been alone then, I might not have been single when my wife came around. I should have done things differently, but they worked out.
- Context. There’s a time for laughter and a time for seriousness. I love to joke. I love to laugh. I think it’s the great unifier. But not everything is a joke. Not everything is serious, either. If it’s appropriate, you can deal with frustrations by laughing them off. Just be careful you’re not offending anybody by doing so.
- Self reliance is sorely underrated today. How many COVID quarantine memes are there about people who can’t cook for themselves? You don’t need everything delivered in a box. Learn to cook. Learn to build. Learn how to work on your car. That doesn’t mean you have to do it yourself all the time – but knowing how is only going to benefit you down the road.
- Gift cards are a unique form of torture for me. I never know when to use them to discount the price on something bigger, or to try to buy something close to the amount of the gift card. And then, do I get something that I could probably afford without the gift card? Send me to Target with a $25 gift card and chances are I’ll come home two hours later, still with the gift card in my hand.
- Everyone has a story you don’t know about. Some jerks are jerks because of things that have happened to them. Some people were never taught life lessons. Some people know more than you think, and some know less than you think.
- You need to separate a public persona of a hero from a private one. Bill Cosby used to be something of a hero of mine. The guy was a master storyteller and stand-up comedian. He also promoted wonderful values and donated millions to charity to help underprivileged black youth. Unfortunately, now he’s a convicted sex offender and it’s public that he’s been a monster in private for decades. If I couldn’t separate the public persona of Cosby and the private one, I would be devastated. I’m annoyed, but I’m not broken by all the revelations. Rather, I can still appreciate and enjoy The Cosby Show because Bill Cosby plays Cliff Huxtable, but he is not Cliff Huxtable. The jokes he told on stage are still marvelous and funny, and it’s okay to laugh at them. Cosby on stage was not Bill Cosby the man, that was Bill Cosby the performer. Keeping that separation is the only way to navigate famous figures. His crimes don’t disqualify his talent. I can admire the talent and not the man.
- Whenever you can, you need to build margin in your life. Remember when I said we were going to buy a house? We didn’t, because I didn’t build enough margin in my life. It felt like our finances were comfortable, but one major hiccup and everything was lost. Pay off your debts and put money into savings so that you have a buffer when you need to rely on it. Do the same with your work by building multiple streams of income. Don’t max yourself out, or you’ll be susceptible to the unpredictability of life.
- You don’t have to choose what everyone else chooses. Who cares what everyone is watching on TV? Who cares what they drive? Who cares what kind of house they have or what toys they have or where they go on vacation? You do you. Make decisions based on your values and your priorities. And speaking of values…
- Faith is so underrated in today’s culture. My faith in God has been a guiding light, which has mostly led me down the right path. Having a nihilistic view of the world around you is something that many young people wear as a badge of honor. But their pessimism and despair drip out of the words they speak. Engaging with my faith has only made me a better person and created a healthy worldview. As many young people turn to drugs and suicide and we all wonder what went wrong, I just think of how many are raised to not believe in anything – and they have nowhere to go when life inevitably goes sour.
- I should have learned to eat healthier sooner. I have so many bad eating habits and they are catching up to me in my thirties. Even just a good relationship with vegetables would have done me so much good back in high school and college. It’s hard to break bad habits now.
- The quality of your life comes down to your priorities. I have little patience for those who complain about things they can control. You probably make enough money, you just spend it on the wrong stuff. You probably have plenty of time, you just waste it on activities that bring you little satisfaction. You could spend more time with your friends or your children, but you have prioritized having that big house or that fancy car, or that big TV instead. Now you have to pay for it, which means you have to work more. You’ve prioritized the house and the car and the status over time with your children. Is that the wrong choice? I can’t answer that. But if you’re complaining about not spending time with your kids or your spouse or whatever, then you might already have your answer. What are your priorities? Are your actions mapping to those priorities?
- Few things are more valuable than a genuine smile. In high school and college, I gained a reputation for two things: smiling and holding the door open for people. I know because they told me. In high school, they wrote in my yearbook how they looked forward to seeing me in the halls because I always smiled at them. It kinda makes me sad that a simple smile makes such a difference because we should all be doing it more. When you make eye contact with someone out in public, smile. It might just make their day a little better – and yours, too.
- Appreciate your loved ones, because they can be gone in an instant. A friend of mind died of a stroke less than a year after our high school graduation. My grandparents have died very suddenly. Heck, last fall I had to put my cat down after 14 years and made the decision that day. You never know when the people you love will be taken away from you. All you can do is appreciate the time you have now.
- You cannot live in fear your whole life – you will ruin it. I speak from experience. I was scared to get hurt, so I didn’t play many sports as a kid. I was scared of drowning so I didn’t really start swimming until I was 10 years old. I was scared to be embarrassed so I obsessed over my appearance and my actions all through high school. While others were having fun, I was worrying constantly. It was a massive mistake. Just because there’s a chance of getting hurt, a chance of getting sick, even a chance of dying… that’s no excuse to stop living.
- Children are miracles that you can’t describe. I’ve watched both of my boys being born. I watched them grow on the ultrasound, held them in my arms, and I’m watching them grow out of my arms too. There is nothing like fatherhood at all. Nothing.
- Having children teaches you one important lesson on living for someone else. I know a lot of people my age who have refused to have kids for one reason or another. Often, they cite the responsibility of having to stop doing what they’re doing, like going out to dinner and drinking when they want, etc. But being a parent, while that changes your perspective on every decision you make, is good for you. It teaches you to put the needs of someone else ahead of your own desires. It’s the purest definition of love, and I believe it’s made me a better person.
- The news media is full of hot steaming garbage – before Trump, even. I know this whole “not trusting the media” thing has been amplified in the Age of Trump, but really: I’ve known this since high school. I wrote a research report on violence in the media, and I learned that, since the 1970s, violent crime in America had declined every year (I wrote this in 2001, I believe), but media coverage of violence had shot up something like 400%, despite it being down by more than 50%. Thus, the perspective of society was that the world is a violent, dangerous place, when it has never been safer. Sensationalism has been a problem for years, and as I’ve watched the media handle COVID, nothing has changed. Shame on them. Don’t listen to them. Do your own homework. They just want ratings.
- History is the most interesting thing in the world. Ironically, though I’m a fiction writer, I don’t read much fiction. People think history is boring, but the world has seen some really fascinating stuff. Pick up a book by Erik Larson and dig in. Then keep going. Narrative nonfiction is the bomb (do kids still say, “the bomb”?).
- Money just isn’t everything. I’ve had lots of it and none of it. The things that stick with me are the relationships I’ve had. Love and friendships are far more valuable.
- Every relationship needs laughter. One of the strengths of my marriage to my wife is that we make each other laugh every day. It feels good when there’s a way to break the tension of everyday life. Spend more time trying to make each other smile. It’ll do you a world of good.
- There’s always something to be grateful for. Even when I’ve wondered where we would come up with the money to buy groceries, I still had a roof over my head and access to clean water. Even when I drove around a car with no headlights because I didn’t have the money to fix them, I had a laptop that could connect to the internet and learn how to grow my business. We live in the richest time in history. We have more resources at our disposal than ever before. That’s worth being grateful. And when all else fails, I’ve got a family who stands by me and fills my house with laughter every day. No matter what happens in my work day, I can always be grateful for that.
Here’s to the next 35 years, and I’ll write my “70 Things I’ve Learned in the Last 70 Years” post then.