The most memorable birthday wish I ever received was my dad’s in 2017:
“Stay as you are by changing every day.”
I’ve tried to heed this advice ever since, but it never seemed more relevant than today. 28 does feel different. At 27, I still thought of myself more as “a kid in his 20s” than “an almost-30-year-old.” But I don’t think it’s the numbers. They’ve never mattered to me all that much. I think it’s the experience.
In the past twelve months, cumulative growth has really kicked in. Personally, professionally, financially. I don’t feel like a greenhorn anymore, struggling to build a foundation. More like a survivor, sitting on a base plate made of concrete. Battered, but here to stay. Here to make a serious dent.
There’s much foolishness left in me, but it’s a lot less than it used to be. I now am, as Oscar Wilde said, “not young enough to know everything.” I am, however, old enough to realize I know very little, that it’ll always be very little, and that that’s okay. As I keep finding more dark spots on the map, I question which ones I need to shine a light on. If I really need to close all the gaps.
The following lessons have been 28 years in the making. They’re both from and for a 28-year-old. Reminders about which gaps to close and which ones to leave alone. Hang in there, kid. Stay tough. Keep surviving. Here’s to 28!
1. If it’s not easy to start, it’ll be hell to finish.
I believe in hard work. But I don’t believe in struggling just to struggle. All the best things in my life — work, hobbies, relationships — were easy to begin. Frictionless. But that’s why they felt worth enlarging, worth persisting through the difficult parts.
Writing, video editing, friends, girlfriends, fun carried me into them and grit carried me through. If that initial bit of fun is missing, however, that moment where you clench your teeth will never happen. It’ll just be pain all the way.
2. Less is room for more of what’s not there yet.
At 27, I would’ve thought I need 27 life lessons. At 28, I’m wondering if even 14 is too many. When I first explored minimalism, I loved the simplicity, the freedom, the feeling of less.
Eventually, though, I realized it’s not so much about what you subtract, but about what you make room for. Room to think. To add meaning by solving life’s big challenges one at a time. That’s where true equanimity lies. And whenever there’s no challenge, it’s still soothing to know you have this space.
3. The older you get, the slower you should decide.
At 28, my next year will only account for 3.6% of the entire time I’ve been alive. As their relative share gets smaller, we worry less about committing more years to singular causes as we get older. That’s a good thing, as long as you deliberately and slowly pick the right causes. But most people don’t.
They panic looking at an arbitrary number, like 30, or 40, or 50, and jump into huge obligations in an instant, not realizing how “quickly” they’ll find themselves wondering where they took a wrong turn ten years later.
If you’re 28 and haven’t found the right partner, wait longer. If you haven’t found the right job, sample more. And if you don’t like where and how you live, please, move. Don’t settle just yet. Step back. Think. Then decide.
4. Happiness is mostly about not being miserable.
For the last three times I was sick for more than two weeks, I can tell you exactly which source of stress caused my physical ailment. If you enjoy your work, money isn’t a big problem, and you keep your emotions in perspective, there’s quite little that can really throw you off your game.
I used to think I need to accomplish all these big things to be happy, but now I’ll gladly settle for not having to do things I don’t like. If you’re here for 30,000 days, 27,000 will be boring. Life’s about learning to love those days.
5. Deserve what you want and want what you have.
Besides overestimating how important it is to achieve our goals, we also tend to double-cross ourselves in trying to reach them. Instead of creating a moral contrast between who we are and who we should be to deserve what we want, we pretend we already are that person — and now we just need to wait.
In the quartet of being and having, now and in the future, we focus on the wrong ends: our now of being and our future of having. Flip that to what you have now and who you could be, and you’ll eliminate not just a lot of disappointment, and impatience, but the desire for many goals altogether.
6. The “next big thing” is still the internet.
A side effect of dreaming intensely about the future is missing the opportunities to create it with the tools you have available in the present.
The internet exists since 1990. If you were born in a 40-year-span around that, this is your shot. This whole web thing is 30 years old. New technologies take decades to fully reach the globe. Half the world isn’t even online.
Yet most people bank on VR, AR, AI, blockchain, and a dozen other trends, instead of leveraging the single-greatest tool that’s not just proven, but bound to stay. Don’t wait for the next big thing. It’s already here. Now’s the time.
7. Reinvent your industry by reassembling yourself.
Everyone wants to be a pioneer, but no one wants to let go of what’s working. Historically great companies have successfully disrupted and cannibalized themselves. Apple went from computers to music to phones to wearables. Netflix sacrificed DVDs for streaming and licenses for original content.
Reinventing yourself before you need to is hard, because in order to reassemble, you need to tear yourself apart. The good news is if you do it, it creates a positive, reinforcing cycle of humility. And the more success you rack up, the more important this becomes.
8. Money is a habit just like health, love & happiness.
I guess it takes making a lot of money in a short time to see, but a full bank account is the same as a fit body, a rewarding relationship, or an optimistic mind: it’s easy to lose if you’re not careful, but with the right habits, you can always get it back.
Again, I’m not sure how to show this, but I know it breeds a lot of confidence. It’s a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-card for our lifelong scarcity mindset with money.
9. Forget completion, make progress amidst chaos.
I only ever accomplish long-term goals by the date I initially want to when I set them and completely forget them. The more targeted my effort, the less likely I’ll be on point. It’s just human nature. We misjudge time all the time.
Therefore, focus on minimum stress, not maximum output. Manage your expectations, not your calendar. Track good-enough days, not just complete victories. Make progress amidst the chaos of life. Eventually, you’ll get there.
10. Low standards now beat high standards later.
Accounting for chaos means making room to fail. A low, but meaningful, achievable standard for today goes so much further than a high, powerful, challenging one for tomorrow. Or next week. Or the end of the year.
Do stuff. Do stuff. Do stuff. Then look around. Chances are, you’ll like what you see behind you. Gazing at the top of a mountain only exerts pressure.
11. If it’s not up to you, it’s up to you to change.
Since we control so little, most of our work should be done on the inside. Sometimes, it’s our attitude we need to change. Sometimes, our actions. But when the outside world won’t comply, we’ll always, always, need to update our perceptions.
Did you do everything right? Is this a slog to push through? Or is your tactic not working? What obvious aspect did you miss? “What can I change about myself here” is a question almost always worth asking.
12. Don’t hate anyone. Just don’t.
Will Smith is a big hero of mine. On Christmas, he said: “Love is help.” He also said that “everyone is having a hard time.” If that’s true, then peace is, at the very least, the absence of harm. And we all need peace of mind.
This means beyond not harming ourselves, we also can’t afford to harm one another. Life is short. And, until we offload it, our anger is our pain. I think the best we can do is skip it altogether. Ignore toxic people, share your frustration, get curious, do what you need to do, but make sure it leads to forgiveness.
13. Trust yourself first.
Because everyone is struggling, everything is chaos, and no one really knows what they’re doing, you might as well trust yourself. I know it’s a cliché, but he put it so succinctly, I always keep coming back to this Steve Jobs quote:
Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
More often than not, what we accept as given reality is only one of many possible outcomes. You can create your own options, but only if you run your own experiments. Your unique experience is the only data that matters.
14. The only person who can truly forgive you is you.
For every one thing you get right, ten others will go wrong. But everyone is busy fixing their own mistakes, so they won’t have time to hold your hand while you cry about yours.
Ultimately though, none of that matters, because you’re the only one who can grant yourself the power to continue. To move on and reject regrets. Think of it this way: you can survive everything except death. And that, none of us can.
I wonder how many lessons I’ll see when I’m 29. I hope less than 14. For now, this is all I’d like my 28-year-old self to know. If he comes back to this on occasion, I think he can stay who he is — and change every day.