10 Things I’ve Realized In The Past 10 Years

Ather Sharif
Jul 15 · 7 min read

I turn 30 today. My friends have continuously rubbed it on my face that I am now an old man. So, I’ll do an old man thing. I’ll share 10 things that I’ve realized in the past 10 years. I still haven’t gotten my wisdom teeth removed so, I’m still wise. I think.

Fair warning: this post is not necessarily a very happy one, is very opinionated (duh, do you know me), and is super long. I respect your disagreements even if they exist just as thoughts and never make it to the comments section or my email.

I also have strong opinions that Eagles, Sixers, Phillies, Flyers, Manchester United, England (football), Pakistan (cricket) are the best sports teams; that Flash should’ve been in Marvel; that universal design sucks; that Federal Donuts are the best donuts ever made; that Capogiro was the best gelato place ever; that T-Bone is cooler than Razor; that The Wire, The West Wing, and FRIENDS were the best shows ever made; that It’s a Wonderful Life was the best movie ever; that plums are better than peaches; that DMs are better than writing on walls; and that Nokia 3210 was the best phone ever manufactured. Come at me.

1. An explanation is not a justification

Often times (for me, at least once a day) we do unideal things and then try to justify it with an explanation. For example, “I yelled at someone today because I was having a bad day” (I didn’t yell at anyone, I promise, not today at least). One can be empathetic towards someone having a bad day but that still doesn’t justify turning someone else’s day bad. I think, the more we acknowledge that the more we’ll hold ourselves accountable to our actions, and hopefully try to be better. If you ever encounter me doing that, please call me out. You can expect me to do the same :).

2. Relationships need effort

Relationships of all forms need effort and commitment. Some more than the others but they all do. That’s what makes them great. In my opinion, dropping a text once in a regular while is much better than waiting for weeks or months to catch up. I’d rather be there for someone when they experience stress or joy than to hear about how they dealt with it, at a later date. Or at least a hybrid of the two. And sometimes this involves overcoming our laziness and procrastination and getting out of our comfort zone and calendar events and reminders and all those apps and blah blah, but they give us friendships that are better than Matcha KitKats (if you’ve never had those, you should, and if you don’t like them then I honestly don’t know how we’re still friends…).

3. Humans before anything else, PLEASE

This is the one conversation I’ve had with … basically, everyone I know. I might as well get a tattoo of it on my forehead. Put humans first. Systems, processes, research, projects, EVERYTHING second. Or third. Or never. We get so into our work whether that is research or the responsibilities from our employers, that we forget who and what is around us, including ourselves. None of the best paper awards, 15-minutes-of-fame articles, high paying jobs, Geek of the year awards even, would matter at the end. To me, these are all materialistic and short-lived happiness-es (I’m great at English, thanks). I fear a day will come (or maybe already has) when hearing about someone’s adversity, our first reaction would be “oh, so what about the project?”. This turns my face purple (it can’t turn red because I’m brown…I do apologize for my sense of humor).

4. Being a lab rat sucks

The world that we live in doesn’t know how to interact with minorities. It just doesn’t. Whether it’s people with disabilities, people who identify their genders as non-binary, or anything other than “two-fully-functional-legs-and-arms-and-male-or-female-and-heterosexual-and-blue-for-men-and-pink-for-women”, there always has to be at least one person representing that population (hello! *waves with a curled hand*) to take on the exhausting task of educating others while keeping all their emotions and feelings intact. Here’s a crazy idea — why don’t we all read and educate ourselves on how to interact with people, in general. I am guilty of not doing that as much as I should, and I’m still working on it.

5. Everyone has their own struggles

You know, people with disabilities are not a benchmark for adversities. Everyone has their own battles to fight. Some are open about it, and some are not. But I don’t think it’s fair to invalidate someone’s struggles just because they’re not “as much” as our own or someone else that we know. Well, invalidating anyone’s anything is wrong, period. But using that as a reason makes things even worse. I have realized that trying to respect others’ struggles without judgment has helped me get a much better perspective on my own struggles. Something that I’ve struggled with since my injury. That was a lot of “struggles” in a paragraph. I’m sorry, writing Gods.

6. Mental health is the most important

I am so glad that the world has at least started to acknowledge that. There’s less to say here other than for me, personally, the realization came much too late. I hope that we create a better environment around us where the light bulb revelation that mental health is a thing doesn’t have to dawn upon a person only once they turn 25 years old.

7. Past is past, the future is what we make of it

Recently, I have heard about too many cases where the crux of the argument is “growing up, I went through a tough time, so it’s difficult for me to do whatever the progressive things the world wants me to do now”. I was born and raised in Pakistan, one of the most conservative societies one can imagine. So, I understand how difficult it is to just start being progressive all of a sudden, I do. But again, I think, this is an explanation and not a justification. For as long as I was “in the dark”, I am not anymore. Us being educated adults is enough for us to at least proactively start trying hard to be better versions of ourselves, especially if we want the future generations to not have to go through the same dilemma. Past is what we had little control over but the future, we absolutely do. Bumper sticker this.

8. Ego should now be an obsolete concept

The one thing I’ve struggled with a lot has been my rhinoceros-sized ego. Not being able to admit when I was wrong or to say simple things such as thank you, have been pretty difficult to overcome. If it weren’t for general human limitations, I would have gotten into a staring contest with a cat until the cat lost or my eyeballs popped out. The thing about egos is, they’re illogical. They don’t make us better. I tried (and still am) to let go of it once in a while. It’s a difficult thing to do but it gets us close to being a humble person. And we all have to start somewhere, right? So, let’s?

9. Abysmal word choices can destroy people

Let’s just get words like atrocious out of our vocabulary. Using harsh words has never won hearts. There’s a place for them, yes, (mostly GRE) but I doubt we’d have difficulty in finding better words to convey the same message if we tried hard enough. I’ve encountered several situations where unnecessary use of harsh words has resulted in the destruction of a person’s confidence and even worse, caused them breakdowns. I’ve been on both ends and neither one is pretty. Our words and reactions matter — and the good news is that we can do something about it. And we should.

10. Have a passion

I strongly believe in being passionate about something, anything, that can create a social impact on this world. When we are in our prime time to contribute to this world with that unparalleled amount of energy and motivation, we spend our time following a schedule that mainly involves our work, our family (pets are family ❤), our friends, and us. But what about the world and other people? Before we blink, that prime time passes and our main contribution is limited to donating to charities. Donations are great and everyone should donate to a cause they feel strongly about. But what if we donated an hour of our time every week or two to help create a social impact? What if we contributed our skillset? Would that make this world a better place? I am certain it would.

If you’ve read this far, you’re almost about to finish this ridiculously long post. To be honest, I never thought about how the thirties would be like. And now that we’re here, I have no clue what’s next. I went into my thirties binge-watching the Season 3 of Stranger Things. But I sure hope that all these 10 things and everything else that I’ve learned so far will help me be a better version of myself and make this world a better place. So cliched, I know. I am 30 years old, what do you expect.

Ather Sharif

Written by

PhD student @uwcse. SWE @comcast. Founder @evoxlabs. Google Scholar. #philly Geek of the Year'15. Creator of @scivideoblog @evohaxhackathon @tawconf. #a11y 🤓

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