27 Lessons I’ve Learned About Life
Looking back on my short and long life on Earth
This month, I’m celebrating my golden birthday—I’m turning 27 on the 27th. I decided to take some time and reflect on the 27 lessons I’ve learned in my life so far.
- Do less.
My years post-college have been about the pursuit of The Hustle. I’ve learned a lot and have formed many deep, meaningful friendships as a result. I’ve also pushed my body beyond what’s healthy and have sacrificed many opportunities to stay closely connected to my family. Taking the advice from books like Essentialism by Greg McKeown and The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, I am focusing on prioritization to build a happy and successful life.
- Learn from the margins.
Did you notice that both of the books above are written by wealthy, white men? In the past year, I’ve read books about feminism, the black liberation movement, emerging innovations and Eastern spiritual practices. I’ve also immersed myself in new environments: I’ve participated in cyphers in West Oakland, spent quality time on a farm in southern Iceland, and explored relationship anarchy. By connecting with new ideas and experiences, I have been able to empathize with people in a deeper way while broadening my perspectives.
- Prioritize health.
Self-care has been a primary focus for me in the past few months. I take the time to exercise and integrate it into my everyday habits (for example I bike into work). On the weekends, I digitally detox and get out into nature to hike, rock climb, bike and swim. As for my diet: I’m a recently converted flexitarian (a vegetarian who flexes his meat-eating muscles on occasion) and have diligently cut out processed foods and high fructose sugar. Since making these changes, I feel happier and stronger.
- Take one year to do something bold.
I moved to Iceland in 2014 to explore how music, art and storytelling could help a creative community of leaders get closer to building a more just and sustainable world. Bold doesn’t have to be as rash as my decision to move to Iceland. Bold is simply the act of being courageous and pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones. For you, bold might look like: volunteering for a cause, finally taking those hip-hop dance classes, re-building a relationship or making a commitment to meet a new person each week.
- Lean into love.
This year, I was lucky to fall deeply, maddeningly in love. I’ve been leaning into the present, and taking this opportunity to learn as much as possible. I’ve been deconstructing labels and getting to the core of what “love” means. I’ve been asking deep questions: What does commitment mean to us? What does intimacy look like? How might we best support each other? What are we grateful for? What have we learned from each other so far? What’s missing? How might we compassionately work through conflict?
- Recognize and take full advantage of flow.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that I fell in love while at the height of creative flow. Flow is a state of consciousness that allows someone to produce a high-level of output due to the removal of obstacles like distraction, lack of creativity or low energy levels. My journey started with a series of question: Have I ever felt flow? What did it feel like? How long did it last? Am I feeling it now? What environments or people help me enter flow? What part of my life should I focus my flow on?
I was just in Mendocino, CA, with a group of friends the other week. We met a 90-year-old woman and she asked us to help bring her luggage to her hotel room. Afterward, she sat us down in her petite room and began to share her epic life story. The core lesson was this: “You need to start practicing mindfulness as early as possible.” I’ve started to be more intentional about active listening, meditation and slowing my pace. MindBodyGreen has a great, tactical blogpost that can help get you started with your journey to mindfulness if you’re new to the concept.
- Seriously think about retirement.
It feels ironic to include this since I took out $15,000 in credit card debt to start a music and arts festival in Iceland. But after speaking with a lot of people, it’s the one piece of advice that comes up again and again. I started getting serious by using a retirement calculator, like this one by Vanguard, to plot out my goals and better understand how much I need to save annually. I did a lot of research to understand which retirement account made the most sense for me—Roth IRA, 401K, etc.—and learned about the importance of maximizing on offers like employer matching.
- Truly listen.
Let me tell you a quick story: during an interview, journalist Dan Rather asked Mother Theresa what she asked for during her prayers. She said, “I listen.” So Rather then asked her what God says to her. She said, “He listens.” In the past few years, I’ve explored how we tell stories through producing events, writing for newspapers and reading How-To books from our world’s best storytellers. Now, I’m shifting my focus to what is arguably even more important: listening. I pay careful attention to non-verbals and defer judgment. I now focus on asking questions that allow us to dig deeper, and practice the art of threading together ideas into single, cohesive narratives.
- Embrace creative confidence…again.
When I was younger, I blogged all the time. In elementary school, I taught myself to code and developed a website about Pokemon. I designed graphic illustrations and shared them on DeviantArt. Slowly, this creative exploration faded as I grew older. I fell into the trap of comparing myself to others and placed judgments on the artistic work I was putting out into the world. Nowadays, I’m consciously embracing “creative confidence.” I’m blogging more, playing with new pieces of technology—I recently downloaded Unity Game Engine—and am collaborating with others on several art projects.
- “I am enough. I am loved.”
It’s a mantra that I learned through a phone call. I now repeat the statements to myself as often as I can: “I am enough. I am loved.” In life, we are often cornered into falsely believing that we are inadequate and alone. We can’t give in to those thoughts. We must remind ourselves that there is an abundance of positive forces in our lives, and that there are people in the world—some who we haven’t yet met—who love us.
- Start more conversations with strangers.
The way this takes form will depend on your identities and context—for example, it may look different for women or for introverts. But there is something powerful that happens when we start conversations with strangers. It can take the form of a simple question like “How’s your day going?” or an unorthodox one like “What’s your favorite part of living here?” Not only might it improve their day, but it also opens us up to serendipity. Need some inspiration to get started? I penned a piece about five ways to have better conversations.
- Seek spiritual growth.
So far, I’ve had the opportunity to live with Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Christians, Buddhists and Atheists who are dedicating a part of their life to the pursuit of spiritual growth. I’ve dabbled in religious texts, taken masterclasses on spirituality, and attended both churches and non-religious gatherings like Thrive East Bay. It looks different for everyone, but for me, spirituality has allowed me to grow into a more empathetic and connected human being.
- Continue to practice consent.
All responsible adults should practice consent before sex. It’s an important part of respect. Practicing consent goes beyond sexual acts, though. For example, I’m a hugger. I believe H.U.G.S. are important for human-to-human connection and Help Us Grow Spiritually. Hugging has become a part of my core identity, and many people have told me it’s one of my most lovable traits. For many people, it’s a very intimate and personal action— which is why it breaks the ice so quickly. Despite my intentions and its potential for positive impact, hugs can sometimes violate people’s personal space. I now ask for permission before hugging people. It’s a part of my journey to continue to practice consent.
- Go a month without drinking alcohol.
While living in Washington, D.C., I heavily abused alcohol. I was blacking out often and spending insane amounts of money at bars and liquor stores. I got caught up in the city’s culture of happy hours and nightlife. When I moved to Iceland, upon the encouragement of a friend, I decided to go a month without drinking alcohol. It seriously changed my life. I now drink more responsibly, spend less money and have a healthier mind and body. I recommend reading my friend Jason Connell’s personal and inspiring story on seeking sobriety.
- Read more literature and long-form writing.
We live in a world of Reddit, Twitter and Facebook feeds. While this instant connectivity has its advantages and allows us to learn about world news faster than ever before, it also has its drawbacks. I try to balance my consumption of online soundbites by reading young adult fiction books, classic literature and long-form news stories. A personal favorite is the fiction section of the The New Yorker.
- Keep disco alive.
I’m not talking about disco music—though I challenge you to resist the urge to dance to Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat”. I’m talking about discovery. Each week, I try to take time to have at least one “discovery conversation” with someone that I am inspired by personally, professionally or spiritually. I ask them questions about their life journey, habits, motivations, hopes, fears and key experiences. Since these people offer so much, I try to find a way to thank them (a simple hand-written note with a haiku tends to work well) and also pay it forward.
- Be a better Giver.
A friend recommended Give and Take, a book written by University of Pennsylvania Professor Adam Grant. In his book, Grant categorizes people into three groups: givers, takers and matchers. The key takeaway is that givers—people who altruistically provide value to others—end up making it to the top of their organizations and fields. Unsurprisingly, he also finds that some givers are exploited or burn out. In a Harvard Business Review article, Grant highlights the different ways that Givers can strike a balance between these two spaces.
- Explore your ancestry.
While cleaning out my father’s closet after his death, I found one of his kimonos which had our family mon (emblem). It had two feathers crossing each other. No one in my family knew much about the symbol and I was curious to learn more. I put a photo of it on Facebook, and one of my friends cross-posted it on the AskReddit forum. People from all over started to share insights into my family’s possible history. Though I didn’t find any clear answers, it peaked my curiosity to learn more. This journey has not only connected me to my roots, but it has also brought me closer to the elders in my family.
- Deepen your understanding of place.
After living a nomadic lifestyle, I’ve recently set roots in San Francisco. I had very limited knowledge about the city’s history. I joined walking tours, read articles and books, and talked to residents who’ve lived here for decades. A few months ago, I was at a bar in the Castro and started a conversation with two older gay men who had lived in the city for forty plus years. They openly talked about the city’s evolution, its dark patches (the AIDS crisis), and the experiences they lived through.
- Practice gratitude every day.
During calls with friends—and sometimes even business partners—I’ll invite the other person to join me in a gratitude exercise. I simply ask the question: “What is one thing you’re grateful for right now in life?” Holding space for yourself and others to practice gratitude is powerful. It re-centers us on what’s really important and reminds us of our abundance. I challenge you to take a quick break from reading and close your eyes to think about one thing you’re grateful for right now in life.
- Break through taboos.
Talking about topics that are often taboo—like sex, money and death—has allowed me to be more open and courageous. I am now more sex-positive, better equipped to manage my finances, and less fearful of death. As a result of opening up about the death of my dad or my journey as a sexual assault victim, I have also experienced deep healing.
- Deepen the child-parent relationship.
Last year I went on a 10-day road trip through Iceland with my mom. We both agree that it has been one of the most impactful and cherished moments we’ve shared in recent memory. As a friend said: “She brought you into the world, and then you got to show her the world.” It was the first time in my adult life that I had significant one-on-one time with my mom. This trip singlehandedly transformed our relationship. It brought us closer, and helped us develop a more open and fluid relationship. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but I encourage you to spend one-on-one time with the person/people who raised you.
- Identify your superpower(s).
When I was on a hike in the Berkeley Hills, my friend asked me: “What is your superpower?” He limited me to selecting one thing and encouraged me to get creative. After some thought, I decided on “sparkles”—the ability to show up to a situation with magic, energy, play and vibrancy. Ever since he asked me that question, I’ve continued to remind myself and others to identify our superpowers.
- Be with nature.
It doesn’t matter where you live, you probably have access to nature in some form. Numerous studies have shown that going into nature changes your brain in positive ways. Last year, National Geographic published “This is Your Brain on Nature,” which detailed the effects nature has on our creativity, memory and stress levels. Whether it’s a quick walk through a park or a multi-day backpacking trip, it’s important for us to get out of concrete jungles and into real ones.
- Take time to reflect.
I don’t know if anyone is actually going to read this thoroughly or find anything useful or inspiring. Regardless, writing this was important for me to look back on the many lessons I’ve learned in life. While writing this piece, I walked away with new insights and feel like I have a strong plan to move forward in life with. Beyond my golden year, I will continue to carve time for myself to explore the journey within.
- It ain’t over yet.
Though I feel like I’ve done a lot in my 20-something years of life, I acknowledge that there’s still a lot more learning and experiences ahead. By embracing humility and an open mind, I’ll continue to grow as a person. Here’s to year number 27—it ain’t over yet.