Reflection on 25 years of life.
My birthday hit me hard this year. Twenty-five!
It fell on a Sunday, the day I traveled home after five weeks on the road. There was a finality to the day, and to my 25 trips around the sun. But wait, you might ask...this year is simply taking last year and adding one, right? I had to see it coming, right?
But there's been a finality to this past year that made this birthday carry more significance. Lots of pieces of my life have grown, ended, or changed. As a quarter-century old, I could be at my quarter-life, half-life, or even my one-seventh life if I live to be 175. Who knows!
I want to bring certain lessons with me into the next twenty-five years after reflecting on my last twenty-five. So these are my twenty-five lessons for navigating life and understanding myself at a deeper level. What I've learned falls into four buckets: (1) ...Let's go exploring; (2) Well Duh?!; (3) Knowing Myself, and Digging Deeper; (4) Cheat Codes for the Level Called Life.
So buckle in! This list is for anyone who wants to join me as I try to grow a little bit wiser as I grow older, with a couple laughs and lessons along the way.
...Let's go exploring.
This is my favorite comic. You might remember it from Circle Three: the twentieth; it remains my facebook cover photo. It's about adventure and curiosity, just like these lessons.
People love a good theme. Themes elicit reactions and offer an identity. People love themes. Toga parties and wearing red on Sundays aren't popular for no reason. Do something enough, or get enough people to do something, and you have yourself a theme. Circle Three, my travel Instagram, and creating happy-hour t-shirts are three ways I've used themes to explore writing, travel, and towns. A powerful theme can become an identity. A theme offers a unifying point for a group of people. Be careful what theme you choose or you might be known as "oops" guy. But have fun, because it's an outlet for creativity and a way to bond with your tribe.
Nurture experiences. I've been to countless concerts, hiked gorgeous international terrain, bungee jumped off a ledge, and interviewed a British knight. Experiences have always been valuable. It's been about getting over getting used to stuff. Experiences don't stick around, and so they're impossible to get used to. Especially as a twentysomething, it's easy to get caught up in the rush of the game of life. Being adventurous is a core value of mine, and new experiences require risk and adventure. They require throwing out plans and seeking something new. Life is about amassing stories, places, memories, friendships, faith, and truth. My Life Resume is a reminder.
I'm not naturally a risk-taker. I watched a poetry slam championship in late 2019. At a bar afterwards, I saw the elderly gentleman who had claimed victory for the entire season. His 5-minute performance was excellent, flowing from sadness to elation and back again. He was celebrating alone, champion's mug on the table. I left my group and talked to him. Forty-five minutes later, I came away with life stories from a humble man who wanted company. I'm not a natural risk-taker, but that night learning the value of stepping outside my small world is something that I'll be sure to remind myself about in the coming decades.
Jump up to 30,000 feet every now and again. In college, a Biochemistry professor gave out a study guide before each exam titled "View from 30,000 feet." (thank goodness for that!) I'm sure I still have that packet on a hard drive somewhere. It gave an overview of the material from a high level. Any details could be found in my notes, but it kept things in perspective; specifically it helped show how things were linked. This is the Overview Effect: a term that comes from the feeling of seeing Earth from outer space, when you realize you share a common identity with all human beings. We don't need to become astronauts to take a step back and frame things in the bigger picture.
Jump into cold water. Last year was certainly shocking. It was unexpected. But it's easy to turn away from opportunities to get out of our comfort zone. I've learned to embrace them as reminders. When I've had the opportunity, I have jumped into cold water on four continents just for fun. Each time, I had nothing but the clothes on my back. No towel. No fresh pair of socks. It was cold but despite the soggy socks (the worst!), I'm glad I took the jump instead of missing out on the experience. Embrace the shocks of life even if just for a few cold minutes, knowing that eventually we will return to a stable level of routine and comfort, thanks to hedonic adaptation. Jumping into cold water is a physical shock that keeps life spicy. Similarly, mental and emotional shocks can be an uncomfortable experience in the moment, but wake us to the other aspects of our life.
These may seem obvious at first. But they are list-worthy because they're only obvious retrospectively.
Positive affirmation matters. Ah, the power of saying "good job." We meet again. This is a topic I've learned the power of in the last few years, but have seen and felt its power my whole life. Words of Affirmation wouldn't be a love language if it wasn't a big deal. I've learned that I like the role of optimistic cheerleader, eager to dive into creating and collaborating. Offering positive affirmation is about giving recognition to a good thing. I've learned that I'd rather be known for giving out too many positive affirmations than too few.
Send a text. Profit. But not the financial kind of profit. Staying in touch is hard. And any strong relationship that needs to overcome distance or busy schedules is worth the extra effort and will pay both parties back dividends in friendship. I've learned to reach out and send a holiday text. To call during my 5 minutes of downtime. To schedule a trip together. The relationships ebb and flow, but by staying in touch I continue to grow together. After graduating college and moving far away from many friends, I learned the value of staying connected and the value of slowly losing touch as well.
Someone else is an expert. Otherwise known as: don't take yourself so seriously. By acknowledging that I don't know everything, and someone else is better than I am at everything, I have the space to take myself a little less seriously. It also allows me to be open to new information and perspectives. This is especially true fresh out of college, entering the completely foreign world of full-time, long-term work. After getting a degree, it feels like you know what you need to know. Climb down from Mount Stupid and don't take yourself so seriously.
Hesitancy is the enemy, so add constraints. My engineering education has taught me how to problem-solve: especially when it comes to weighing options. Oftentimes, I feel that I need to weigh all the options, and it has caused roadblocks and ruts more often than not. Advice I keep handy: "Make a move. Make a wrong move - it’ll be okay. Then make another one. And another one. When you find something good, hang out for a while. Rinse and repeat." At the end of the day the decision is your own. Start with the must-haves and move from there.
The art of decisions. Until college, our paths are loosely designed for us. The big decisions in my life were about what college to attend, not about whether to go to college. After graduation that changes. For post-grad twentysomethings, decisions are our own. It's scarier, but when something feels right and has been given its due thoughts, make the decision. I could never have predicted the course of my last year. Rarely do regrets come from making a decision too soon. It's usually made later than what is optimal. You can't plan everything. Life's not a linear path from A—>B, there are twists and turns. Make decisions.
It's not a phase: my online friends are real.
"Your online friends aren't real friends." That phrase has been ingrained in me since I was a child. I've never been a videogame person, and haven't formed many friendships strictly online. Until this year. Spending so much of 2020 online in close circles of strangers-turned-friends has opened my mind to the power of connection online. If done correctly, the full range of emotions can be shared through a screen. Some of my favorite online communities have sprung up through online mastermind groups, Untappd, the altMBA, and a monthly book club. An online community of people all willingly cultivating meaningful connection can be a quick way to challenge ideas, build perspectives, and think differently.
Knowing Myself, and Digging Deeper
It's easy to learn about someone you've spent twenty-five years with! I've uncovered some truths that will be meaningful foundations for my next twenty-five years.
The power of letters. Ah, the lost art of writing. Over the last decade, writing letters has shifted from an obligatory holiday 'thank you' to a fulfilling yearlong venture. I like that there is no obligation to respond to a handwritten letter, and the joy and effort of writing and sending the letter demonstrates care and thoughtfulness. Rarely do I travel or go somewhere without letters, envelopes, and stamps, and I often pick up more along the way. Letters materialize thoughts, offer positive affirmations, and leave a lasting impression. Who wouldn't want to be remembered by a thoughtful letter?
I'll never know enough. Life stops when learning stops. So many of my decisions through school and career have been in pursuit of learning. Learning requires me to recognize that I don't know a whole lot and to rethink some things I thought I knew. Learning from others is like a shortcut to wisdom and knowledge because you get pre-screened lessons built in. Moving through life with curiosity and humility will take you far.
Loyalty goes a long way. I'm fiercely loyal. Sometimes it's been blinding, like not being able to see negative effects. Loyalty to a person or cause, though, is powerful. It shows in words and actions. Remaining loyal through good times and bad proves to both parties that support and commitment are life-enhancing.
Creativity is a must-have. My first college class was ceramics (not something every engineer can say). One of the first things I did when relocating was to seek out a ceramics studio. I've learned I need creativity in my life, in whatever form that might take: ceramics, writing, movie making, etc. It sometimes comes as a surprise how creativity can rear its head, but for me to be functioning at my best, it's vital to have a creative outlet to decompress, create, and experiment.
Seek subtle comfort. Being comfortable without being showy feels good. It's a gift to myself, because feeling physically good boosts mood and mindset. I don't buy the nice pants for the trend, I get them because of the inherent value for mood, comfort, and longevity. I'd rather have 1 pair of pants that I can't wait to wear rather than 5 pair of trendy pants that might pinch in the wrong spots. For the things that matter, subtle luxury is worth seeking out.
Give permission to relax. I'm hyper-focused on personal development. Heck, I structured and led a class on the subject at work for fun. It's easy to be self-critical about how I'm spending my time when relaxing on the 'gram if there's work to be done. Learning to allow for periods of R&R and inactivity has made the structured periods that much more productive. Knowing my limits and what burnout can lead to has taught me the importance of rest, whether physical, mental, creative, or emotional.
Fulfilling work means a LOT to me. It's something ingrained within me. Just read this from my Myers-Briggs indicator write-up: "Many INFP's long for a career that doesn’t just take care of the bills but also feels fulfilling. They want to spend their days doing something they genuinely love. ...These personalities may drift in frustration, waiting for the perfect job to present itself." Anyone that knows me knows how strongly I feel about this, and how real it is and has always been, even when I couldn't necessarily articulate it.
Cheat Codes for the Level Called Life.
These are lessons that feel like superpowers. Understanding these has opened my eyes to learn about the world. They are constant works-in-progress.
Move your reference points. Life, I've learned, especially this past year, is about reference points. We always have reference points, but we're not necessarily the best deciders of what reference to pick. Pushing myself to grow physically and emotionally has opened my eyes to an enormous amount of new reference points: the different decisions people make through life, relationships with family, benefits of a coach, etc. By being aware of these new reference points, and adjusting as necessary when social comparison creeps in, I've been able to grow according to updated references.
Feedback is vital. I wish I read Thanks for the Feedback when I was 16. Instead, I read it last year, and it cemented in me a new way of thinking about feedback that I think about weekly. There are so many gems in the book (here are my favorite two). It has helped me separate identity and opinions. I've always wanted direct feedback and often initiated conversations with superiors asking for it. The book validated so much of what I thought about and gave me a lens for the rest of my life. *This is not a book ad, I promise.
The body moves back to its baseline. Help it. Health is everything. When health is lost or at risk, everything else falls into perspective. As my role model Jesse Itzler says, "If you have health, you have hope; if you have hope, you have everything." The body acts according to the same principle as hedonic adaptation: there is a tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level despite major recent positive or negative events or life changes. Understanding what helps my health, including mental and emotional resilience, helps the natural process of healing to a baseline. Technology, diet, and scheduling can all help too.
The value of silence. Silence, I've learned, is a Swiss Army knife. Parents can get their child to talk using silence. Clients can have a moment to think during silence. Tension is created during silence on the phone. Silent retreats nurture growth. Silence can be comforting. Silence can be terrifying. By learning to intentionally pause in conversations, it allows for tension and growth. "The greatest effect coming out of silence is the clarity one has in listening. Every note stands alone." Good thought from Jack Dorsey.
Begin at the end. Being intentional creates motivation. Work backwards: start with why, create a plan, and work to get there. I've fallen into a trap many times thinking I'll figure it out as I go, but then I find myself unsure of what the next step should be. All because I'm not clear on why. Decisions are reversible and combinable. Rarely will a decision lead you to a point of no return, especially after starting with a really good why.
There are lifetimes within a life. Our journeys are "about getting relative with the inevitable. The arrival is inevitable: Death. ... The approach is relative: Life." Matthew McConaughey hitting us with his wisdom. I love journeys, and I've learned to understand there are various seasons of life. There are doings and dones, thoughts and dreams, and everything in between. Life will look so different after the next twenty-five years that it'll feel like a different life.
Aligning Tools and Values. Align your tools with your values. This is an idea I will come back to, but for now bear with my first-draft graphic inspired by Adam Grant. Identify areas of ignorance that are also high on your values list and learn to shift them into a place of competence. It can lead to a life that is better aligned for the long-term. One example I've consciously worked on myself is gaining financial savvy. Five years ago I was ignorant; now I can claim to have some competence as I keep learning rules and strategies. Things of high value that you've deemed important should have a sense of competence to complement.
This list will be a reference for me to look back on during the ups and downs of life. Life has a funny way of teaching us lessons, and hopefully you can find guidance from these experiences.