I wish Elon Musk would be done faster with the Neuralink so we can download this kind of knowledge into the brains of the twenty year olds and I could download the knowledge from forty year olds, but until then, letters on a screen seems to be the only way to do it.
Here are twenty-nine things I learned the hard way for the past couple of years (I’m thirty-two now) and that I wished I knew and accepted as my own when I was in my early twenties, so I would suffer less, be less anxious and enjoy life more.
I write these words in the hope that some of them will resonate with you and make your life better in some way, as they have made mine. If they do, I would love to hear about it.
- Be content with myself. Possibly one of the most impactful things on my long-term happiness, and hardest to achieve, was learning to be — truly — comfortable with my own company. What this means is that I learned I can hop in my car, drive off and enjoy a trip by myself, I can enjoy a quiet Friday evening in by myself, I can go alone to a cinema movie and I wouldn’t depend on my friends or a girlfriend to do all of those things with. I also learned this doesn’t mean I’m alone but independent, welcoming their presence if it was possible but being OK if they weren’t able or wished to join. One of the most uncomfortable situations in this spectrum was going to eat out alone, but I eventually learned to enjoy that one as well.
- Love and appreciate myself. Another difficult one as if you’re not able to do this, it will be almost impossible for others to do it. Their compliments will make you feel uncomfortable and awkward. I remember never knowing how to take a compliment. This also goes hand in hand with item #1. I learned to love and appreciate myself more by complimenting myself and being more grateful of things I achieved. This also helped me in my romantic relationships because I understood I don’t need gifts or favors to be loved and appreciated.
- Admit that I am a work in progress. Every time I would make a mistake or say something wrong I would fret about it for days. Eventually I accepted that nobody has all the answers or is able to always be calm, content, logic, and so I became less anxious about every little fuck-up and more mindful of what I can do after. It’s also easier to learn from your own mistakes this way because you focus more on the outcome than on what went wrong and you will definitely go easier on yourself.
- Working out and eating well. This is a no brainer, working out and eating well is something everybody can benefit from. In my own case it helped me get over a tough break-up and in the process made me more attractive for future partners. I learned how to cook and that’s a killer for the ladies, I also looked better and healthier. Now, whenever I feel down I try to go for a hard work-out instead of a bottle of wine, or I start cooking. It gets me in the zone and feeling good. It’s a mood booster that helps me get through tough times now instead of resorting to unhealthy behaviours.
- Delay conclusions, decisions and gratification. Unless you’re in a life or death situation, acting hasty is almost never beneficial. Giving myself time to go over each difficult situation yielded better outcomes. Think in terms of a fight with a friend or girlfriend, a resignation, a tough call with a client, etc. This saved me anger, frustration and anxiety more than I can count.
- Walk away from situations or people that don’t work. Possibly the second most difficult thing to learn and achieve was to walk away from something that didn’t work, be that a friend, a relationship, a company, a joint-venture with friends, a client. Being able to identify early when something didn’t work allowed me to walk away from these situations with more grace instead of waiting until everything blew over. It saved me countless fights and unpleasant conversations. That is not to say you should quit at the first sight of adversity but to be mindful and aware of the situations you’re in.
- Listen. Oh boy, another hard one. I finally learned to listen, to actually turn off my internal monologue and open wide my ears and my mind. My conversations were no longer about thinking of what I’m going to say next but about understanding what the other person was saying. This helped me have better professional and personal relationships with people around me.
- Find balance. I was finding myself (and sometimes still do) seeing some people or situations in either black or white. However this brought me frustration, anger and anxiety. I learned how to look for balance in each, closeness vs. distance, partying vs. relaxing, junk food vs. healthy food, exercise vs. laziness, and I became overall more content with each state I was finding myself in.
Learning to love and appreciate yourself will empower you to feel at ease in your sole company wherever you are while finding it easier to walk away from people and situations that do not work for you.
- They come, go, then come back. I was holding the idea that good friends are always there for you. That’s not the case. They are own individuals with their own goals, hopes, challenges and moods. Moreover, throughout your adulthood you will probably be at different times closer to different groups of friends. Some will go forever, some will come back, and if you’re truly lucky, one or two will never go away, or at least that’s what I think now. Accepting this and just noticing how the friendship dynamics change over the course of years has made me more content with this side of my life. It has also allowed me to give up easier on friendships that didn’t work so I can focus on building new ones.
- Don’t offer my help. Weird one, I know, like shouldn’t friendship be about help and support? It is, but not in the way you think it is. Offering help vs. providing help when it’s being asked for is valued way differently by both parties. You can definitely let your friends know you are there for them in case they need you, but let them ask for your help. They will be more grateful of that which in turn will make you feel better about it too. Sometimes offering your help can be perceived as a micro-agression, or it can make your friend feel like they are incapable of getting out of a tough situation.
Friends come and go and closeness can vary with time. Focus on the people who want to be around you instead of clinging to friendships that don’t work.
- There are no soulmates. Oh boy, I believed this for the longest time, which obviously caused me great grief whenever something didn’t work or I wasn’t finding what I wished for. There’s a great speech by Alain de Botton that completely changed the way I view my relationships. Believing in the existence of soulmates or “the right one” is essentially believing there’s a perfect human out there, perfect for you, a human who will accept you with everything you have. That is, obviously, a profoundly flawed belief, as all humans and relationships have their issues. Understanding that there are no soulmates made me less prone to “press skip” to the next relationship and focus more on making each one work.
- Love or feelings of affection fluctuate. This one was a tough one to spot and figure out, but love and affection is not something that is always constant or on the rise. At different times you will feel less or more in love with your partner. I used to get scared when I felt less affectionate towards a partner, thinking “oh great, here comes another break-up”. Understanding that feelings fluctuate and it’s OK to not always feel super psyched about my partner helped me be more content and less anxious in my relationships.
- Getting advice doesn’t work. Don’t give and don’t take advice on this. Each situation is particular to you and your partner, or to your friends and loved ones. Taking advice made me think that there are secret formulas that if you apply, they will work, and I will suddenly get an ex back, or make the relationship work. Another cause for great frustration when the advice didn’t (and almost never) worked. You can definitely use your friends as a sounding board to gauge if you did something wrong but ultimately your partner has the last say in this. You’re not in a relationship with your friends. Learning to not look anymore for advice in matters of love spared me frustration and sadness.
- When something is over, it’s over. Dear lord, it took me years to learn and accept this. I used to hope, hold on and linger over every relationship I was getting dumped from, which obviously never worked. The best way for me to go about this was to walk away with calm and content, close all communication channels and wish that person the best. It’s a better ending than throwing accusations, scolding and making a list of everything didn’t work or that person (or myself) did or didn’t do. Learning this helped me move on faster and be more open and balanced to the next person that came in my life.
- There are plenty of girls in the world. Or fish in the sea, although those are on a downward trend. This one is a no brainer but hard to learn and accept. As I used to believe in soulmates I thought there’s a limited number of girls with whom I could possibly have a happy relationship. Once I accepted everyone is a little wrong and a little right for you I was more content of letting go of a relationship that didn’t work. Also having less of a scarcity mindset made me look less “desperate”.
- If they don’t respond, they are not interested. Tough one again (are any of these easy?). Took me a while to understand that conversations are like a tennis match, once you say something the ball is on the other side of the court. You can’t hit it again and again, that’s called playing solo. Once I learned this it was easier to gauge which girls were interested in me and which weren’t. Again, saved me a great deal of frustration and anxiety.
- And for the love of God, don’t get back with an ex. Sometimes, very rarely, this works and it’s a good idea. It has, however, never worked for me. Wish I knew this before I tried this a number of times. I always have to remember #5.
Soulmates are a myth because no one is perfect, relationships take work and no one has the right answer. When things end, leave with grace and kindness.
- Everyone is self-centered. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s how we are. When I started reading “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and “Sapiens” I learned more about why that is, why it’s not a bad thing and how to deal with it and make it work in my advantage. People are more concerned with their life than anything else. This new mindset helped me take things way less personally which saved me frustration and anger.
- Assume no one is ill intended. I try to start each conversation, relationship, friendship or collaboration with the assumption that no one is ill intended towards me and at most they have their best interest in mind. I learned this the hard way, as acting the opposite for a number of years was conditioning me on making wrong assumptions and decisions.
- Treat them with kindness. Somewhat related to the above, I found that approaching people with kindness, even (or especially) in tough situations and conflicts, can ensure better outcomes and will bring you more calm. Think of someone that just cut you off in traffic, you can start swearing and cursing or you can just let them see their way. Think of someone that just dumped you. Approaching these situations with kindness helped me bring a great deal of calm in my life.
- You can’t make anyone do what you want. I always felt frustrated by friends who were late, co-workers who were inconsiderate or partners who were very self-centered. Unfortunately, trying to change this has proven an impossible task, as it is. The easiest thing I could do was to change myself and how I act in regards to those situations, and I accepted I can’t make them be or act differently unless they wanted to. This saved me a great deal of frustration and made me more content.
- Take any advice with a grain of salt. The only expert on your life is yourself. I learned this when a number of people scolded me about dropping out of college or when I was told what a terrible decision I’m making for not wanting kids ever. For a very long time I questioned myself harshly for going against the usual streams, but the only person that will have to live with a decision about your life is yourself, so make sure it’s your own and you own it.
People are more concerned with themselves and their own life than with anything else, so it’s pointless to take things personally.
- Other’s successes don’t trump yours. In my twenties I used to feel like if someone next to me, a colleague, a friend, was successful or achieved something, I meant less. With time and maturity I learned that not only I can celebrate success around me without meaning I’m less, but I can build on it and I actually positioned myself as someone who helps others achieve more. Weird, huh?! But this brought me so much joy and feelings of accomplishment than being competitive.
- Being the best is not a measure of success. I used to think being the top man and most knowledgeable in your field, doing excellent work, was the secret sauce to a great career. But going through career ladders and company politics I learned that the most successful individuals are the ones that work well with others and leave a great impression, even if, they are not the most competent and knowledgeable around. Once I learned this, things became easier for me, well, sort of :)
- Ask for forgiveness, not permission. There are a number of mantras similar to this, such as “any decision, even proven wrong, is better than no decision”. The idea behind this is to move to action when you feel strong about a matter and apologise if it proves a bad move. In my own experience I didn’t have to apologise often and in return I was perceived more as an action guy that gets things done. This is something that I’m still working on myself.
- Do something you love. Accept you won’t always love it. This is not necessarily something I learned the hard way because I was lucky enough to get things right in the first place and become a designer. I did learn, however, that I would have had a way harder time getting through tough situations if I was in a field or job that I hated. I also learned that even if I wake up excited about work on most days, on some I won’t, and some I will just hate.
- Ask for feedback often. We are naturally scared of feedback, or at least I was. It took me a long time to make this a habit. It’s the best way to get an idea of how co-workers see you and make sure you’re going the right way. It also makes co-workers heard in regards to your collaboration and you won’t be surprised by negative feedback in a performance review. It’s a great tool to course-correct early.
- Make yourself seen and heard. Going back to #1 on people, everyone is mostly concerned with their life and less with yours. I made it a point in not overly relying on others to praise me, showcase my work and convey my ideas. It has made me more visible in the companies I’ve worked in and has helped me achieve more, including that promotion I always wanted.
Soft skills are a better indicator of success than hard skills. Own your work, make it visible and make the decisions you believe in.
I acknowledge that this is my own experience and that it might apply or not apply to you, but I do hope you found some words of wisdom. I’m also constantly learning and evolving these concepts and ideas, so who knows what I’ll write at forty, maybe it will be the complete opposite.
Do let me know if any of these helped you in any way. I’d love to hear about it.