It’s about them — five lessons from my 20’s

These are five things I’ve learned in my 20’s. I hope some of these work for you, but please sprinkle salt before you taste.

1. It’s usually about them.

David Foster Wallace said that “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”

We expend much of our energy thinking about what others think about us, and imagining their perception through our own biased lens. In a course called Touchy Feely, I learned that others fall victim to this pattern of emotional cognition, and one way to short-circuit it is to say what you actually are feeling, inviting others to do the same. The next time you’re unsure whether to ask for extra vacation time from your boss because she may judge your worth ethic, just ask. What’s the worst that could happen? Chances are that your boss is actually thinking about her to-do list or her kids’ report cards or any number of other things that revolve around her.

2. Practice making decisions and sticking with them.

Decisions are really hard. C-level executives can make loads of money to do nothing but make decisions. Whether you’re struggling to decide what to order or whether to switch jobs, accept that its hard; make a strategy and see it through. One strategy I’ve found helpful is to give myself a set amount of time to make a decision and then move on. If I’ve gotten it wrong, then I got it wrong in the context of new information that I didn’t have at the decision time. It’s empowering to know that I may not make the right decision, but if I own the outcome, I can make that decision right. Don’t expect yourself to be clairvoyant when you are just human.

3. Spend time with people you like and admire

Since college, time has felt more scarce. Even as the working days are long, the weeks and months pass in a blink. Spend time around people whom you admire and aspire to be like. Their energy will rub off on you. Don’t waste your time with people who don’t value you.

4. Be your own thought editor

The Buddha said: “If you get struck by an arrow, do you then shoot another arrow into yourself?” I think this means that if you carelessly forget to pay the parking meter and get a ticket, being a little mad at yourself is okay because you’ll teach yourself to pay it next time. But after you’ve mined the situation for learning, telling berating stories about yourself is not productive. Apply this concept to the thoughts that you have every minute of every hour. We can’t control our thoughts, but we can potentially control the judgements that we attach to them. Those judgments — the second arrows in my experience — can be insidious.

5. Your competitive advantage in life is you.

Martha Graham put it best: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open….”