25 Things I Learned Before You Were Born

Ryan Stephens
Dear Rhett
Published in
11 min readJul 20, 2016


Photo Credit: symphony of love

Dear Rhett,

You’re only two weeks old, so you may not realize this yet, but your dad doesn’t know that much. In a few years, I’m confident you’ll agree.

In fact, the more I know the more I realize I have a lot to learn.

I don’t know much (at all) about parenting yet. You’ve been giving me (and your mom) a crash course these last two weeks.

As far as we can tell you just need the following: food, sleep, play, and love. We’re doing the best we can on the first two, you’re not quite ready for the 3rd, but I can assure you that there’s an abundance of love for you.

Despite the fact that I know nothing about parenting, here are 25 things *I have* learned before you were born. It’s my hope that you, too, will learn these things and that they will help you navigate this crazy world.

  1. You should always try to go to bed smarter than when you woke up. For the best way to get smarter, see #2.
  2. You should read a lot. Reading makes you more empathetic and this world needs more empathy. In our house, you’ll always be surrounded by books.
  3. Sleep more. You sleep more than 17 hours a day right now. As you get older, there will be more demands on your time and it’s tempting to sacrifice sleep. Don’t. People who sleep more have better health, sharper thinking, improved memory and many other benefits.
  4. Practice gratitude. Gratitude is the key to happiness.

…the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic. (Source: The How of Happiness)

Out of all 24 character strengths, the only significant independent positive predictors of well-being were gratitude and love of learning.

5. Make time to play. Schools that outperform U.S. schools have a strong emphasis on play. Playing will help you use your creativity and develop your imagination. Playing also relieves anxiety.

6. Manage your energy, not your time. Time is fixed (see 6a), but your energy isn’t. Managing your energy is about being fully present when you’re trying to achieve something, but it’s also about renewing your energy when you need to to recharge.

Also, the more you learn the less energy you’ll have to spend making basic decisions. Developing good habits can also save energy.

Become the type of person who can create energy for others and the world will open lots of doors for you.

6a. Time is your most valuable resource.

“Life is short” is not just a cliche. Here’s a good visual to illustrate just how short.

Cultivate a habit of impatience about the things you most want to do. — Paul Graham

As parents, we’re going to want the safest route for you, but don’t let us discourage you from taking risks. When you confront the Crossroads of Should and Must, choose Must.

A few other thoughts on time:

  • When you invest early, your money has time to compound.
  • Invest in yourself too. Knowledge compounds like money and the more you learn early on, the more that knowledge has time to build on itself and make connections.
  • Try to acquire more time by eating healthy, exercising, sleeping more and reducing stress.
  • Savor the time you have.

7. Early in your career, optimize for learning over money and passion. This one is a bit tricky. Most people starting their career don’t really know that their passion is and don’t realize that passions emerge as your expertise grows (i.e passion isn’t something you find, it’s something you cultivate over time.)

Money doesn’t buy happiness (unless you spend it on others) and it isn’t everything, but it can offer freedom and flexibility to make your life easier. It’s also really hard to catch up to your peers that took higher salaries out of college. You shouldn’t compare yourself to your peers, but you will.

Still, if you have the rare chance to work for a brilliant mentor, on a team surrounded by talented peers, or acquire a unique set of skills, know that it takes a lot of discipline, but learning the right things from the right people can eventually help you leapfrog those who just chased the dollars.

Learning > Money > Passion

8. Willpower is a limited resource. Use it to build good habits to create rituals. Some of my favorites: exercising, reading, and building meaningful relationships. All three will positively impact other areas of your life.

When you’re ready to learn more about habits, I’ll introduce you to the work of BJ Fogg and Charles Duhigg.

9. Forget busy. I wanted to use a stronger “F” word because that’s how much I despise busyness.

This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the disease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and well-being. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave. — Omid Safi

Most things aren’t as important as other people would have you believe. And busyness doesn’t necessarily mean you’re producing value. Remember time is your most valuable resource (6a) and learn to say “no” a lot (17).

10. Focus on the work/process, not the outcome. Sometimes the end goal feels big and scary. When that happens it can be hard to get started. Alternatively, a faraway outcome can cause you to get frustrated and quit.

You can’t just go run a marathon. Focus on running 1 mile, then 3, then 5 and enjoying each run until it gradually gets easier.

The final outcome is often hard to control, but if you focus on the process and build on the momentum, you can enjoy the process and be pleased by where you end up.

11. Your day job means that someone pays you to learn. I don’t know what jobs will look like when it’s time for you to get one, but know that jobs, even ones we like, are often really frustrating. Sadly, we often spend more time at our jobs than spending time with those we love.

It’s easy to let that fact discourage you, but try to remember, that your job means someone is paying you to learn. And paying the bills provides the fiscal security you need to recklessly engage in your hobbies, passions and creative pursuits. There’s nothing wrong with a day job — and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

12. Introduce people. Introducing two people who would benefit from knowing each other is one of the best ways to strengthen your network. And this matters because the old adage that “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is often true.

When you introduce two people who hit it off and benefit one another, they will remember this and you will be on their mind for future connections — ones that will ultimately benefit you.

Networked intelligence is critical because the most valuable information is almost always in someone else’s head.

13. Do what you say you’re going to do. Sadly, most people don’t. Consistently doing what you say you’re going to do (and when you do it) will separate you from others. By showing that you’re reliable, you will build your credibility and earn people’s trust and respect.

Finally, it’s a matter of integrity. There are few things you possess in this world more important than your integrity. By the way, do it even if you only told yourself. That builds discipline.

14. Take personal responsibility. Don’t make excuses. Nobody likes the person who makes mistakes and blames other people or circumstances. There will be (many) times in your life where it will be easier to pass the blame: to another person, time, the weather, etc. Resist this urge.

Taking personal responsibility means that you’re in control of your story. Don’t let life happen to you. You can’t control others, but you can control yourself and how you react.

This is hard and you will slip up, but remember: you are not a victim. Accept responsibility and learn from your mistakes. All of the best leaders I know take personal responsibility.

15. Don’t ask for permission. This isn’t about doing stupid things. This is about choosing yourself. Gatekeepers are going to tell you “no” your whole life, but understand that the world wants you to be vanilla.

Demand more of yourself. Life is short, remember?

The author of a great book on leadership, “Turn The Ship Around,” L. David Marquet told his sailors that instead of asking permission and/or seeking orders, they should come to him with intent. I like that.

There’s not a specific path. Just do things.

16. Cede credit. Unfortunately, and especially in the work place, credit is regularly assigned incorrectly. Giving others credit is the generous thing to do. Not to mention, there’s always enough credit to go around.

The very best leaders always cede credit. It keeps people motivated and it validates their hard work. When it’s earned, give credit to your friends, your teammates, your co-workers and, yes, even your bosses.

Caveat: If you do the work, don’t give the credit to someone else. You have to look out for and stick up for yourself. It’s too easy to get trampled on out there.

17. Learn to say “No” often. This is a hard one and, after almost 32 years, your dad still isn’t very good at it. Now that you’re here, I’m hoping to get better at it so that I can spend more time with you and your mother.

“You’ve got to keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.” — Warren Buffett

If time is our most valuable resource (6a), then we should free up as much time as possible to spend it doing the things we want to do: spending time with loved ones, socializing, exercising, reading, learning, playing, etc.

Your default should be “No.” That’s the easiest way to increase productivity and free up time to do the things you *have* to do and the things you *want* to do.

18. Learn how to cook. You will probably have a handful of girlfriends, countless different jobs and live in a few different places, but you only have one body. The best way to take care of it is to eat healthy.

By cooking your own food, you’re automatically eating better than 95% of what you would get at a restaurant. In addition, you’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your body, save money on eating out, increase your social opportunities, and (maybe) one or two of those girlfriends will be impressed.

Your Mom was pretty blown away by my chicken spaghetti.

19. It doesn’t hurt to ask. I encourage you to do some research and ask the right way. Better still, make sure your ask is mutually beneficial, but regardless — it rarely hurts to ask.

Too often we’re scared to speak up, or to ask, because it might be awkward. If you’re not afraid to ask, you can acquire information you didn’t know, negotiate a deal, and sometimes even have a unique experience or open a door that was previously closed to you.

Pro Tip: The more value you provide the person you’re asking before you ask, the more the inclined they will be to help you out.

20. Learn to be a satisficer. Your dad is a maximizer. In fact, it’s one of my Top 5 Strengthsfinder attributes. Transforming something strong into something superb sounds like a good thing, but it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. It slows me down and it makes decision making a pain.

Unless it’s an extremely important project or decision, try your best to be a satisficer. Satisficers make decisions and take action once their criteria is met. That doesn’t mean you’re doing lackluster work or making reckless decisions; just that once the project or the decision meets your criteria (whatever that may be), that you’re satisfied. Good enough, is often good enough.

In Barry Schwartz’ The Paradox of Choice he argues that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers.

21. Walk. As a young buck I hope you’ll be doing a lot of running, jumping and playing. In fact, any sport you want to play, I’ll play with you. Yes, even soccer. Maybe not golf. Golf is expensive.

Anyway, as you get older, it’s easy to spend time in front the television, or buried deep in front of a computer for long hours on end. This is especially true if you become a ‘knowledge worker’ like your parents.

Walking is free and it’s decent exercise. Beyond that, the list of physical benefits are endless. In addition to the physical benefits, there’s a whole host of mental benefits as well. Walking can also be a great social activity. And, finally, walking is a great way to just relax and think. Seriously. Smart people like Nietzsche, Thoreau, Kant and Rousseau all agree.

22. Be curious, not critical. Our first inclination is often to be critical (of ourselves and others). That’s the easy thing to do. Not to mention, you’re not going to make any friends — even if you’re right.

Instead of being critical, be curious about where other people are coming from, their ideas, why something is the way it is, etc.

We’re often dismissive of things we don’t understand, but try to be open-minded. You may come to the same conclusion you started with, but be curious, ask questions, and try to learn something new. It’s a more gentle way to navigate this crazy world. Be willing to change your mind.

23. Self compassion is more important than self esteem. Talk to yourself kindly, the way you would a friend in need.

The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion appears to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, with no discernible downsides. The first thing to know is that self-compassion and self-esteem do tend to go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem — self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened. (Source)

You will ultimately fail at things. Forgive yourself. Learn from the mistakes and keep moving forward.

24. Cut people slack. Nobody is perfect. Not even you, little man. It’s cliche, but you never know what other people are going through.

We tend to view other people’s actions as reflections of their characters and to overlook the power of situation to influence their actions, whereas with ourselves, we recognize the pressures of circumstance. — Gretchen Rubin

When people make you angry or disappoint you, don’t carry that burden around. It will just weigh you down and we’ve already established that life is too short for such nonsense.

25. “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Life isn’t always easy, but realize that life isn’t your enemy. There’s countless things in this world that you can’t change or control, but the one thing you can is how you react. Your world will be shaped by your thoughts and what you choose to focus on.

This is why it’s so important to surround yourself with awesome people and to practice gratitude (4).

Be hyper-conscientious about re-framing your negative thoughts.

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. — David Foster Wallace

I saved this one for last because, in my mind, it’s the hardest one. It’s unlikely you’ll ever master this one, but it’s also the one that has the ability to positively impact your life the most. Keep practicing.

I hope this list helps you. And if not you, someone else.

Either way, I’m really looking forward to learning many more things — especially the things you invariably teach me along the way.

I love you, Rhett.


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Ryan Stephens
Dear Rhett

New Dad | Voracious Reader | Curator | Runner | Strategist | Play Advocate | Focused on Slowing Down to Savor Life.