11 Life Lessons I Learned Before My 30th Birthday
Here are some practical, non-obvious lessons I've learned in the last decade.
Let's start this column off with a hot take: I love getting older.
I've heard the never-ending echoes of conventional thinking: "Your 20s are the best years of your life. Marriage is a lot of work. Your life is over once you have kids."
Yet here I am aging, and I can honestly say that this is the happiest I've ever been.
It takes time to find your footing, sharpen your thinking, do away with bad habits, and find people whose company elevates the quality of your life. It's nearly impossible to do that when you're young because everything is being decided for you. As you get older, you gain the freedom of choice, which allows you to build the type of life you want to live.
I turn 30 this week. It's insane to think that I started this newsletter when I was only 25.
The best part of my birthday is getting to reflect on how my thinking has evolved and all the life events I've experienced in the process. If you've been with me for a while, you know I've been doing annual reflections for the last two years (28 and 29).
So I wanted to continue the tradition, and jot down some practical, non-obvious lessons I've learned in the last decade. I hope you find them useful.
1. Approach every situation with good intent: Over the years, I've learned that many of us see the world through a distorted lens of insecurity. If you're worried about losing your job, every offhand remark your co-worker makes in front of your boss will make you think he's trying to get you fired. Is he actually an evil person with a hidden agenda or have you written him that way into your personal narrative? The best advice my dad has ever given me is to approach my life, my work, and my relationships with good intent. It's changed my life in that I've shifted my mindset from blaming others to focusing on my own actions. Malicious or not, I no longer internalize other people's actions nor do I judge how they choose to lead their lives.
2. Stop idolizing imperfect humans: We idolize, worship, and envy relationships, careers, and lives of people we've never even met. And then we gasp in horror when we find out that Bill and Melinda Gates are filing for divorce or that Jeff Bezos has been sending "below-the-belt" selfies to, well, anyone. You don't know Bill and Melinda, and you certainly don't (nor would you want to) know what Bezos does after dark. People are dealing with family drama, money problems, insecurities — all sorts of human messiness on a daily basis. Idolizing forces you into blindly worshipping imperfect humans. Learning, on the other hand, allows you to observe, synthesize, and pave your own imperfect path. (Read more about this here.)
3. Happiness lies in life's most ordinary moments: Brené Brown once said, “We chase extraordinary moments instead of being grateful for ordinary moments until hard shit happens. And then in the face of really hard stuff — illness, death, loss — the only thing we’re begging for is a normal moment.” Here’s the great irony of life — we are constantly pursuing the exciting and the extraordinary yet when we lose someone, we’re willing to give anything to hear the sound of them opening the fridge or singing off-key in the shower just one more time. Remember, each moment we’re alive is impossibly fragile. Learn how to enjoy the mundane moments today.
4. The way you judge yourself is probably the way you judge others: Strangers act as mirrors in which we can see our own imperfect reflections. When you're triggered by another person in a visceral way, ask yourself: What is it about them that irritates me? Could it be something I dislike in my own self? And are there other ways I could better gauge their personal values than this singular lens through which I have chosen to see the world? Carl Jung once said: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
5. Don't be a snob: Don't ever underestimate the power of a meal. Remember that the dish you're eating is nowhere nearly as important as where you are sitting when you eat it and who you're eating it with. As Anthony Bourdain said, "It’s something I will always at least aspire to — something that has allowed me to travel this world and eat all it has to offer without fear or prejudice. To experience joy, my father taught me, one has to leave oneself open to it." Embrace difference. Delight in strangeness. Find joy in the weird.
6. Feed your brain high-quality content: What you eat is who you are, and what you read is who you become. As author Haruki Murakami said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Don't let yourself run on autopilot. Be the one to choose what to feed your brain.
7. Learn to think for yourself: Tribalism and dogma have become dangerously prevalent in our society. Approaching the world with a healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing — even if it may not be popular. Next time you hear, "I am doing this because [insert X authority figure] said so," question, inquire, and verify. Even in these tumultuous times of uncertainty, aim to reject blind dogma and embrace the unknown. Remember what Stephen Hawking said: "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge."
8. Eliminate the drama: My husband recently made the observation that we have a really small circle of friends — and that's a good thing. Be discerning about who you choose to spend time with. Weed out the drama (and the people who thrive off of drama), and watch your life drastically improve. Surround yourself with friends who challenge you and help elevate your thinking.
9. You will never be ready — and that's OK: We're always taught to prepare. To be ready for the next phase of life. But in the last year, I've learned that you just need to jump in and do it. You learn by doing, not by waiting.
10. Put on your goggles, and face the wind: I've had several experiences this year where a) my plans burned to the ground b) things went (very) wrong, and c) trusted friends blindsided me. I could feel my stomach in knots, my heart racing, and my brain fuming. And yet the secret to staying calm and at peace is to learn how to relinquish control of the external circumstance at a moment when that control is all you crave. Here’s a mindset that has carried rock climber Tommy Caldwell through some dark times: “Hardship is inevitable, so put your goggles on, and face the wind. If we allow ourselves to be exposed to challenge, then that challenge can energize us and show us who we are." Remember, you may not have control over other people and circumstances, but you have control over your own emotional sobriety.
11. Never forget that you are the author of your life: I hope you, like me, are genuinely looking forward to every new season of your life. I once saw a quote that said: "I trust this next chapter because I know the author." That's it — every chapter of life depends on its author picking up the pen. So, it's simple then. Just pick up the damn pen and write something worthwhile.
Happy early birthday Polina.
Excellent piece! Thank you. Happy Birthday!