12 Bits of Advice for my 42 Year Old Self
Today is my 42nd birthday. Last year on my birthday I published “11 Bits of Advice I Would Tell my 21 Year Old Self.” This year, I’ve decided to write another letter to myself, but this time I’m writing to my current self, because the 42 year old Edward needs advice just as much as ponytailed 21 year old Edward did. Let’s be honest…we all do.
- Wear a Speedo if You Feel Like It. When I go on vacation abroad, I like to sunbathe in a speedo. Yep, I’m that guy. I was on the swim team in high school, and I came to like the feeling of freedom of not having my legs wrapped in cloth. For years I packed my speedos away in fear that my American friends would make snide comments or look at me like I’m breaking the law or something. F that. Doing something that makes you feel free and joyful is never wrong (unless it involves actually hurting another person, of course). Never diminish your joy out of fear of judgment. Today, I’m the speedo king, and the butt of dozens of jokes (see what I did there? :) But who cares?! Yes, there are some places and situations where I would not wear a speedo, like in a church, a mosque, or a funeral. But otherwise, there are few times when you shouldn’t let your freak flag fly. Life is short…wear a speedo if you feel like it.
- If it Tastes Bad, Spit it Out. My father told me this when I was 8. I had put a peanut in my mouth, and I learned only after that it was rancid. He could see the look of alarm on my face, but my upbringing kept me from spitting the peanut out at the party we were at. My father leaned down, looked me in the eye, and said, “If it tastes bad, spit it out.” This is great advice for everything in life. Every day we are presented with people and situations that leave a bad taste in our mouth, figuratively and literally. Our gut tells us something is off. And too many times, we swallow anyway out of a sense of obligation or decorum. F that. If it tastes bad, spit it out, no matter what it is.
- Dance. Dance. Dance. My grandmother taught me square dancing and partner dancing when I was 5 or 6. She and my grandfather, for whom I am named, danced all the way until my grandfather’s last breath. Literally. He passed away on a dance floor at 63 just 2 months after I was born. Dancing brought them so much joy — just as it has to me over the years. But not just the solo dancing we do today. Partner dancing, square dancing and the circle dancing they do at many weddings connect us to others in a way few other activities can (with a few obvious exceptions!). When you move to the same rhythm with someone, you communicate in a way words would never suffice. You feel a joy together that language can never describe. And as the Argentinians say about Tango, you make a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. I love dancing, but I don’t do ti enough. F that. I’m setting a goal to dance, dance, dance…with someone…a lot more. It really makes everything better.
- Apologize. Fifteen years ago my father had a heart attack. He actually died on a golf course and was miraculously brought back to life by a dentist in his foursome who administered CPR (Go Dentists!). After he underwent septuple bypass surgery (yes, 7 bypasses!), he awoke to find me and my mother standing at his bedside. He had been to the edge. He had seen the light. And he had come back to talk about it. But instead of describing what it’s like to die and come back to life again, the first words out of his mouth were an apology. He apologized for all the ways he’d messed up, all the ways he’d been a bad father and husband, all the ways he’d hurt us. He realized in that place he’d gone to that he had so much to apologize for, but he feared in those final moments it was already too late. Coming back gave him another chance. Don’t wait like my father did. Apologize today. You’re a human. You hurt people. You say things you wish you could take back. You do things you wish you could undo. But there is no taking back. There is no undoing. There’s only apologizing for it, learning from it, and trying your best not to do it again. So apologize. You know to whom and for what.
- Eat Alone Sometimes. Conventional wisdom says, “Never eat lunch alone.” The implication is that we should always be networking, always building relationships, always looking for the next big thing. F that. People who live by that rule are afraid of being alone. Solitude is one of the most important aspects to a healthy life. And few things are more sacred than taking nourishment into our bodies. I sometimes forget this and feel bad when I eat alone in a bustling restaurant surrounded by people who are closing deals or falling in love over small plates. But then I remember that in those moments, I get to fall in love with myself again. I get to take the time to enjoy the subtle pleasure of letting prosciutto dissolve on my tongue. Or eating a chocolate mousse with my eyes closed. Or just looking out the window and watching the world go by. Solitude is sacred. Eat alone sometimes. Walk alone sometimes. Sit alone sometimes. It feeds you in a way nothing else can.
- Speak Well to and of Others. Admit it, you sometimes speak to and of others in a way that is not consistent with your values. You let fear or feeling hurt turn into words of anger or resentment. First, you should apologize (see #4 above), but more importantly, you must work to avoid such indiscretions in the future. My teacher told me that the best way to avoid saying things you later regret is to build some space between the thinking and the saying. Even just 2 seconds of breathing can bring you awareness that the thing you’d like to say isn’t the thing you should say. Space gives you wisdom and perspective. It helps you connect with a higher, less defensive version of yourself. It helps you speak well to and of others.
- Capture Lightening in a Bottle. At the age of 46, Benjamin Franklin took a kite to the top of a church spire in Philadelphia during a rainstorm to learn about lightening. He ran the kite string down into a Leyden Jar (and early form of a capacitor), and waited. To his amazement, he literally captured lightening in a bottle and became the first person to prove that lightening was a form of electricity. Learning is one of the most effective ways to expand your life. The accumulation of skills, knowledge, and experiences far surpasses the accumulation of wealth, property, and material objects, yet most of us spend the majority of our energy on the latter, and next to zero on the former. We think that childhood is the period of life for learning, and that once we are adults we should be “fully developed.” F that. Be like Benjamin. Always be developing. Always be learning something new. Always be trying to capture lightening in a bottle.
- Make the One You Love Feel Free. You might not choose to get married, but if you do, remember the immortal words of Rainer Maria Rilke: “The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”
- Run a Triathlon (or whatever). When I was 32 I ran my first half marathon. Halfway through the race, I heard footsteps coming up behind me. I imagined some young track star had started late and was making up time. But instead, I soon saw a mid-sixties man was passing me. Not to be outdone by an old man, I picked up the pace and ran with him for a while. I learned his name was Jim and that this race I had trained for months for was simply his training for an Ironman Triathlon he was doing in a few months. “But, Jim,” I protested. “You’re obviously pushing 65! Is that safe?!” To which he responded, “I’m just sad I didn’t start sooner, buddy!” And with that he sped off to finish a full 10 minutes ahead of me. We only get one body. We need to use it well. So stop filling it with junk food and beer. Move it. Use it. Love it. And go run a triathlon! Or run a half marathon. Or whatever. Just do SOMETHING that Jim would be proud of.
- Don’t Believe a Word People Say When They are Angry. When they are angry, people will often say things they don’t really mean. That’s because anger is a “replacement” emotion. It something we feel when we don’t want to feel sad, alone, desperate, hurt, or inadequate. And 90% of the time, when people are angry they say things they don’t really mean. Their words and their emotions are not in sync. If you don’t have the wisdom to listen for the underlying emotions you will always feel offended, attacked, disregarded, or unheard, and you will react in kind, further escalating the disagreement. So, don’t believe them. Let’s their words fall away like leaves from a tree. Instead, listen through the words to the underlying emotions. Have compassion for what must be hurting inside them and respond to that instead.
- Look for the Gift. As the Buddha says, all life has suffering, but we increase our suffering through attachment and expectations. It is only through letting go of the illusions of permanency and possession that we graduate into a place of being able to look for the gift in just about any situation. Every hardship I’ve ever gone through in my life has steered me to the amazing place I am today. Every failed relationship prepared me for something deeper and more fulfilling. Every failed project freed me to work on something even more exciting. Every broken bone healed stronger than before.
- Get on Stage and Choose Courage Over Comfort. In May, 2010 Brené Brown was a little known author and researcher with a mild case of stage fright. The comfortable thing would have been to continue to write books in anonymity and hope she got picked up by Oprah. The comfortable thing to do would have been not to step on stage at TedX the following month and speak in front of a few thousand people. The comfortable thing would have been to continue to live the status quo and make incremental improvements on the track she was on. But she didn’t choose comfort. Instead, she chose courage, and in June 2010, Brené Brown got on stage in spite of her fears and delivered a Ted Talk that has now been viewed over 30,000,000 times. As a result, her books sales sky rocketed and she is now a household name. But most importantly, she has delivered her messages on courage, vulnerability and self acceptance to millions of us that so desperately needed to hear them. What message of yours do people need to hear? Why are you letting the comfort of the status quo keeping you from stepping on to the stage? F that. It’s time to get on stage. It’s time to choose courage over comfort.
Love you, man.
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Edward Sullivan is the Managing Partner of Velocity Group — a boutique coaching and training organization for start-up founders and Fortune 500 executives. With offices in San Francisco and New York, Velocity helps leaders and their teams optimize their performance and overcome obstacles to growth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.