How to Put an Old Head on Young Shoulders

by Shawn Parr

My dad used to say you can’t put an old head on young shoulders. I didn’t agree with that back then, but now I know what he meant. Life is a journey, and along the way it presents us with particularly large or salient milestones that shake us up or wake us up in ways we may not have anticipated. Turning fifty was one of those milestones for me. It has made me rather reflective on my life up to this point, and especially contemplative about what I want life to look like going forward. But if there’s anything that we can hope to gain on this wild ride called life, it’s some sort of wisdom that we can only find with experience and time. So in the spirit of reflection, at fifty, here is some of what I think I know.

1. Love something enough that you’re prepared to make big sacrifices.

Back in 1991 I came to the United States with two suitcases, $10,000 and a heart full of love. I left everything I knew to follow the love of my life, my wife of 25 years. My life has been better than I could have ever imagined as a result. Not always easy, but absolutely beautiful nonetheless.

There’s a lot of talk about finding and doing what you’re passionate about, but it seems to me that our passion or love for someone or something should be measured by the amount we’re willing to sacrifice for them. Whether you agree or disagree, if you don’t love something enough that you are prepared to make big sacrifices for it, you should probably think again. And on the flip side, if you are making big sacrifices for something that you don’t love or at the expense of the people you love, ask yourself why. Is it worth it?

2. Life is not a bowl of cherries, so surround yourself with really good people.

Here’s the deal. Life is going to throw some sh*t at you. Some will get their fair share and some will get a whole lot more than they bargained for. There’s no getting around that. The best thing that you can do to prepare for the sh*t is to surround yourself with people who enrich your life — people who support you, who can teach you something, who care about you and who know when to listen to you, but also when to lovingly give you a kick in the ass. Pick the inner circle of people whom you trust, your friends, mentors, and advisors, wisely and with great care.

3. Your character is everything.

Do the right thing even when no one is looking. Do what’s right because it’s right, not because you are concerned with your reputation. Reputation is absolutely important, but it should always be a result of your character — and real character is doing what’s right even when others will fault you for it. Dare to stand up for your values despite the criticism you may face. Not many have the guts to risk sacrificing their reputation for upholding their character, especially in business and politics. But reputation should never be the end goal — it’s inauthentic at best and utterly toxic at worst. Live for character instead. I am confident that it will always pay off, even if it takes some time.

4. Treat other people the way they want to be treated.

Technically the golden rule is, “Treat other people the way you want to be treated.” Not bad advice, but it’s slightly misguided. It turns out that not everyone wants to be treated the same way that you do. Love people the way that they want to be loved. Take the time to understand how they want to be treated, rather than assuming that you know better. Empathy, after all, is putting yourself in another person’s shoes, not forcing them into yours and expecting them to fit. Lose yourself in service to others by learning how to best love and serve them the way that they need.

5. Life is not a dress rehearsal.

Life is the real deal, you don’t get another go around. Time is the most valuable currency you have, far more than money, though our culture would like to convince us otherwise, so spend it wisely. We are all going to have to spend a good chunk of our lives working, and like I mentioned before, if you love with your whole heart, you will certainly have to make some sacrifices in your life. But never forget that you can’t get time spent back. So make sure that you are spending your time working for something worthwhile, sacrificing for those you love, and soaking up every moment as best you can, even the crap ones. Because it’s all part of the journey.

6. Just f*cking do it.

Don’t sit around waiting for the right time to make a move or hoping that life will hand you everything that you dream of. Go after it. And don’t let any voice, including your own, tell you that you can’t do something. Life is too short for that nonsense. If something is important to you, let your actions reflect it. And don’t let the two other F words — fear and failure — get in your way. Embrace them and channel them into growth and strength.

It turns out that my dad was right when he said you can’t put an old head on young shoulders. Wisdom earned with experience is inevitably more transformative than wisdom simply repeated from others. Wisdom is only our own when we have put it into practice. We all have to forge our own paths in life, and that means making our own mistakes and learning the lessons that are unique to the areas in which we need to grow. But in forging our own paths, it serves us well to listen to the wisdom of those who have gone before us. Because if you can apply their wisdom to your life, it will eventually become your wisdom too.

Originally posted on the Bulldog Drummond blog.

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