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20 Valuable Life Lessons

Some of the things I’ve learned so far…

Image credit: Trinette Reed via Stocksy

I recently turned 40, which seems like quite a milestone. I’ve been reflecting a little on my life thus far and so thought I’d share some of the key lessons that I’ve learned / am learning along the way.

Goals and productivity

#1: Setting goals is vital

We all have things we’d like to achieve. Some are day-to-day chores (wash the bedding, cut the grass), some relate to hobbies or interests (go running twice a week, read War and Peace), and some are larger career or life goals (get promoted, buy my own house). The thing is, it’s all too easy for an hour, a day, a week, or even a year to pass without us making progress towards our goals. There are many reasons why: life is busy, other people make demands of us, we’re bombarded by distractions, and often we’re simply lazy.

As my life got increasingly busy (marriage, house, parenthood, greater responsibilities at work) I learned the value of setting myself specific goals. I typically have 3–5 items on my “goals for today” list, which focuses my mind on what I want to complete (note that word) by the end of the day. I also have goals written out for the week, as well as a list for longer-term goals (which I try to split into smaller sub-goals). And here’s the thing: I refer back to my goals numerous times each day. For my experience of life has taught me that if I have clear and time-based goals, I tend to get lots done, but if I don’t, I don’t.

#2: “Done” is worth infinitely more than “nearly done”

It’s so easy to start things. To make a bit of progress on this and a bit of progress on that. It’s easy to have a web project that you’re “working on”, a load of articles in draft state, a portfolio that’s “nearly ready”, and a spare bedroom that’s half decorated. You see, starting things is typically a lot easier than finishing them. Finishing things means tackling the difficult parts, the boring parts, the fiddly parts. It means digging in and pushing through until the thing is completely done.

Reading about and practicing ideas advocated by the agile software manifesto and by the lean startup movement helped me to appreciate just how detrimental it is to have lots of work in progress at any one time. It’s so much more efficient if you can focus your efforts on one or two things and drive them through to completion. After all, in most cases, the value of your efforts is locked away as mere potential until the thing (website, article, portfolio, or whatever) is done and delivered. How we define “done” is a topic for a whole other article; the point I’m making here is that I had to learn to finish starting (and starting and starting) and instead learn to start finishing.

#3: Work will typically expand to fill the available time

Early on in my career, my project manager assigned me a significant piece of work and then asked me when I would have it done. It was late on a Monday and I answered, “by the end of the day on Thursday.” He looked at me and said, “I’ll have it by the end of the day Wednesday, please.” Now, the thing is, when I gave my answer, I wasn’t being lazy. I hadn’t padded out my estimate with extra time. I genuinely thought it would take me three whole days to complete the piece of work. However, I knuckled down, and to my own surprise, did manage to complete the work in the next two days. Such experiences have taught me that deadlines help focus the mind. When time is finite, we’re more likely to hone in on what’s really important and work on that, thus minimizing superfluous activities and distractions. Time-boxing effort helps you be much more efficient.

#4: Adopt a “hustle while you wait” mentality

It was Thomas Edison who said, “Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.” I’ve taken this advice to heart and made it a habit to try and make use of the many small blocks of “dead” time that we have in any normal day. For example, while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, I do the washing up. While I wait for a website to build, I respond to a couple of Slack messages. While I‘m on my lunchtime walk, I listen to a podcast. You can get a whole lot more done in a day when you start to hustle while you wait.

#5: Significant progress requires us to take ownership

The same project manager I referenced earlier also taught me that every piece of work should have one and only one named owner. This doesn’t preclude team work and nor does it suggest that the named owner necessarily does most of the work. But what it does do is bring clarity for everyone about who is driving the work and who to contact if you want to discuss it.

More broadly, I’ve learned that many people are quick to offer their suggestions and complaints (see #18) about any and every topic, but until someone steps up and actually takes ownership of a problem or opportunity, little progress is generally made. And if you’re looking to bring about change, my advice is to ignore those with the loudest voices and look instead to work with those who already have some skin in the game.

Inspiration, craft, and collaboration

#6: The importance of inspiration

It’s natural that our energy, our attention, and our drive will ebb and flow over time. We can’t sustain peak state 100% of the time. However, I’ve noticed that I’m generally more persistent, energetic, and creative when I’m feeling inspired. I think humans regularly need to be wowed, to encounter things of beauty, and to experience things that make us sit up and think.

Of course, each person will find inspiration in different things. For me it’s reading great writers, watching a Pixar film, listening to music, or going for a walk in the countryside… You will be different, but the lesson here is that when your life is starting to feel dull and pedestrian, make the time to become re-inspired.

#7: Theory is useful but action is even better

I’m quite cerebral. I live in my head a lot of the time. I love to read, to think, to come up with ideas and to discuss them with others. All of which is fine…up to a point. However, I’ve learned that if I want to really grow, develop, or achieve anything of value, I also need to roll up my sleeves and do the thing (write, design, make, test, play, eat, love). As Brené Brown has taught us, if you want to live a bold and full life, you have to get off the bleachers and step into the arena.

#8: The first draft of anything is sh*t.

I’m a writer, which is perhaps why this quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway resonates so strongly with me. If even a Nobel prize winning writer says his first drafts are not up to much, the rest of us had better take note. And, of course, this notion isn’t just applicable to writing. The insight here is that if you’re wanting to deliver anything of quality, you’ll need to plan in time to research, to draft, to get feedback from others, and to refine your work. Understanding this and acting accordingly (e.g. by sharing your efforts early and often with others) is what will enable you to produce work of quality.

#9: Collaboration is always the right choice

Many of us tend to feel somewhat protective of our work while it’s in progress and not want others to see it until it’s finished and fabulous. Life has taught me that this is exactly the wrong strategy. Collaboration (with the right people) will make almost anything better. It just does. Feedback is a gift and we despise it at our peril. For more on this topic see my previous article: Towards more radical collaboration.

#10: You already know enough to be able to help others

For a short time I trained as a secondary English teacher. While I chose not to pursue teaching as my career, the experience did teach me a lot. One of the things being that often you really do only need to be a couple of steps in front of others in order to be able to usefully teach them. Whenever I give a talk, I still get imposter syndrome, but I’ve learned to ask myself, What concrete knowledge, skills, or tips do I have that others here might not know? I then focus on humbly sharing those things—and surprise, surprise, people often seem to value what I’ve shared. What skills and experiences do you have that others might benefit from?

People and relationships

#11: Invest in getting to understand yourself and others

Over the years I’ve intentionally sought to learn more about myself. Some of this has been through using personality profiling tools, some through reading books, and some through enrolling in courses. Again, different people will find different resources more or less helpful, but the point here is to seek to “know thyself” better: to understand what motivates you, what your default response mechanisms are, and how you tend to relate to the world and to others. (In case it’s not obvious, I’m an INTJ 😉)

The second part of this one is to then recognize that other people are not like you! In fact, other people are often working off a completely different map to the one you use, which explains why life is often so, er, interesting! Again, the point here is that the better you understand both yourself and other people, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to find positive ways to interact with others. For more on this, see Taking responsibility for our communication.

#12: You cannot change other people

If I’m being honest, very often I do want to change other people! I wish that a certain colleague was more like this and that a certain family member was less like that. Many a time I have tried in some way to change a colleague, a friend, or family member. But I’ve gradually come to realize that you cannot forcibly change anyone else, however much you might want to. (Think about it the other way round: no one else can forcibly change your personality, temperament, or unique idiosyncrasies. And it’s a good thing too!)

Of course, others can absolutely help me to grow and develop if I want to do so. Likewise, I may be able to help others to grow and develop if they want to. But what we can’t do is forcibly change each other. This is a valuable lesson to learn, for so much time and effort is wasted in trying (and failing) to change other people against their wills. I’ve learned that it’s better to try to accept people for who they are and to focus more on changing myself (for example, how I respond to certain behaviors). I don’t always succeed, but I’m gradually getting better at this.

#13: Know when to let things go

I can be a bit of a perfectionist and I tend to notice details. So when in conversation someone says “10 items or less” (not “fewer”) or “between you and I” (not “me”), there’s something in me that wants to correct them. But — thankfully — another part of me generally reminds me not to be that guy. No one enjoys being around a pedant. My examples here are trivial, but I’m sure we all have plenty of scenarios in our everyday lives where we could correct or rebuke or call out something that someone else does or says (or doesn’t do or doesn’t say), but often that way lies death. Some things really are important in life, but not so very many. Most of the time, I’ve learned to do myself and everyone else a favor and let things slide. After all, many people are gracious enough to do the same to me.

#14: Look for the positive intent behind people’s speech and actions

One of the NLP presuppositions is that behind every behavior there is a positive intention. For example, behind the behavior of the disruptive child in the classroom, there is a “positive” intent to be noticed, to contribute something, to get the attention of others, etc. Note that this does not mean that you need to agree with everything someone says or condone everyone’s behavior— far from it. But what this mindset does encourage me to do is not solely react to the immediate speech or behavior of others, but first to consider the other person, where they might be coming from, and what their values, hopes, and fears might be. As Brené Brown reminds us, people are generally doing the best that they can with the resources they have available. I try to think about this and to be kind (after all, I know I certainly need the kindness of others). I don’t always get it right, but I hope I’m learning.

#15: You spell love T-I-M-E

I know this is a cliché, but I also think it bears repeating and pondering. We often say that certain people and certain things are really important to us, but often our actions belie our words. What I mean is, saying “I love you” or buying gifts for loved ones is all well and good, but if you’re going days or weeks without giving them any quality, undivided time, the words and gifts will likely seem hollow.

I’ve learned that love is as much a choice of the will as it is an emotion of the heart. If I want a great relationship (whether with my wife, with my daughters, or with my friends), then I have to work at it, prioritize it, protect it, invest in it. It won’t just magically happen. And first and foremost, this involves the giving of our time. And as a task-orientated person who likes to get things done (see #1—#4), I’ve had to learn that regular periods of doing nothing / anything with loved ones is actually often the very best possible use of my time.

Personal development

#16: You have choice

“If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something different.” This advice is disarmingly simple, yet so often we don’t try doing things differently. We remain in unhealthy relationships, in jobs we’ve outgrown, and repeat patterns of thinking and behavior that are clearly not serving us well. This is so tragic. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Certainly there are many things in life that are indeed outside of our control, but it’s also true that there is always much over which we do have choice — and recognizing this can be very liberating. Here’s a little tip: when you catch yourself using words such as “can’t”, “should”, “ought”, and “must”, stop and remind yourself that you have choice and then reassess your default assumptions.

#17: The only constant in life is change

Anthropologists tell us that humans have survived so long partly due to our ability to adapt, yet day-to-day I find that most people are pretty resistant to change of any kind. We tend to find comfort in what we know and conversely we often find even the possibility of change threatening. However, the world will continue to change all around us, whether we like it or not. Spending too much time looking at the news or social media will tend to make anyone depressed about the future, yet change can be and often is positive and full of opportunities. And, ironically, sometimes there is danger in being too safe. So instead of worrying about what might be, I’ve found that a better use of my time is to look for opportunities and to focus on developing skills that will enable me to better adapt to whatever the future holds.

#18: Complaining is a cancer

Our society seems to be addicted to complaining — round the water-cooler, on social media, and even in our interior monologues. Instead of actively doing anything, we simply whine and whinge, highlighting endless problems and pointing the finger of blame. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t help us, it doesn’t help anyone else, and very often it actually makes things worse. If you constantly listen to complaints (whether your own or from other people) you’ll soon start to feel depressed, anxious, and cynical about everything. This is why I really believe complaining is like a cancer.

What I’ve found is that when I move beyond grumbling to actually doing something about an issue, I immediately feel more in control and more positive about life. Furthermore, practicing gratitude, finding beauty and goodness in life, and working with others on positive initiatives helps me stay healthy and sane. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

#19: Money won’t make you happy

Some of you will disagree with me about this one, but for me this is another important life lesson. Sure, we all need to make a living and money can certainly help enable a lot of other goals in life. But my observation is that the acquisition of money as an end goal in itself is a mistake. The person focused primarily on making money will never have enough of it. Also, the focus on money itself tends to engender a scarcity mentality, where we view the world as having finite resources, which we must then compete against others to obtain. This can lead to all sorts of selfishness, meanness, and pain. For me, it is people and relationships that matter most in life, and to help me prioritize accordingly, I’ve learned to think of money as being a good servant but a very poor master. I want to count quality time with people above pennies and pounds.

#20: Each day can be a new beginning

I’ve intentionally saved this one until last. So often we limit ourselves by continuing to tread the same well-worn paths we’ve trodden before, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Remember, you have choice. Probably a lot more choice than you might at first think. And today is a fresh opportunity to exercise that choice.

So, what choices are you going to make today?

Artwork by Charlie Mackesy (from The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse)

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Tom Waterton

Tom Waterton

Content Designer at IBM Design. Also husband, father, dog walker, bookworm, brewer, thinker, inventor, and writer.