17 Life Lessons That Took Me 40 Years to Learn

Non-cliché teachings from a guy that’s over the hill (but not yet dead)

Michael J. Mehlberg
May 2 · 18 min read

Look at this guy.

He just climbed to the top of this peak only to look beyond and see a taller one in the distance.

Besides the fact that this pic is totally staged and the dude isn’t dressed for the climb ahead, I’m guessing he’s thinking one of two things:

  1. He’s monumentally frustrated and currently shouting F-bombs at the summit ahead, or…

Having just turned 40 myself, I can attest to having both of these thoughts. Now that I’m officially over the hill, I’m wondering why I’m not a millionaire Instagram celebrity while at the same time feeling proud of the few things I have accomplished.

Either way, one thing is certain. Having one foot in the grave forces you to reflect. And reflect I have.

As I typed up 40 years of lessons learned into my journal (something old people do), I realized that someone in their 20’s or 30’s might find this helpful. I figure, if you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, maybe you can teach a young dog old tricks.

So, I stripped out all the crap — stuff that everyone already knows, is cliché, or otherwise useless — and threw the remaining thoughts here, on the Internet, for all to read and heckle.

Buckle up there spring chick. You may be knee-high to a grasshopper but I’m about to help you come of age, and I wasn’t born yesterday.

1. Never assume malice.

Every time I assumed the worst in another, I’d later find they’d made a mistake, had unusual circumstances, or had no idea that what they’d done was wrong.

Every. Single. Time.

Keep in mind, I’m 40 years old. And, while I’ve lived a bit of a Brady Bunch kind of life, I’ve interacted with many thousands of people in just as many circumstances. And, even through all of that, even over all this time, hearing others through jaded ears has never served me well. Seeing others through jaded eyes has always hurt more than it helped.

“Whenever you meet someone who vexes you, ask first: ‘Has this person slept? Has he eaten? Is somebody else bugging them?’ After all, we never think of a bawling baby thus: ‘This baby’s out to get me; he’s got evil intentions.’” — Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss

The fact of the matter is, everyone makes mistakes, acts out of self-interest, or unknowingly hurts others at some point in their lives. But very, very few do it intentionally. Very, very few are malicious.

Like the principle of Hanlon’s razor states, “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” (reference)

Harsh, but a good principle to keep in mind when dealing with others. Some people are selfish. Some people are arrogant. Some people are entitled. Some people make mistakes. Everyone has exhibited one of those qualities at some point in their life.

Regardless, most are just trying to find happiness in their own way, and deserve the benefit of the doubt. When you give them that, you won’t damage their pride, make an ass of yourself, and will generally lead a less angry, confrontational, judgmental life.

2. Willy-nilly prep gets you willy-nilly results.

I once bombed an interview. So much so that the interviewer said I wasn’t a good fit, right to my face.

No courtesy call.

No follow-up email.

Not even a good old-fashioned ghosting.

No, my interview was so bad, they flat out told me “no” on the spot. Even though it sucked, I wasn’t surprised. I knew exactly why:

I wasn’t ready.

Being ready is the one thing you can do in life to get ahead.

Being ready is the one thing you can do in life to get ahead. If you want a job at a software development company, be ready to develop software by getting a degree, reading books, and practicing. If you want that promotion to manager, learn how to manage, find a manager mentor to guide you, and consume every resource on management you can get your hands on. If you want your upcoming presentation to go well, practice the hell out of it.

If you walk through life willy-nilly, you’ll get willy-nilly results. You’ll let luck guide your path.

But if you’re ready, you’ll have a shot at an opportunity that the rest of the world isn’t ready for. You’ll show others how you can bring value, right from the start.

Being ready proves to others you’re the one for the job before they have a chance to ask themselves who else might be.

3. Nothing is new.

If you haven’t read Principles by Ray Dalio (affiliate link — get the hardcover, you’ll want to keep it), you should. At least the first half.

It’s a fascinating story of Dalio’s journey to billionaire investor, but more so, it’s a reminder that the unique experiences you are having aren’t really that unique at all.

Humans have been around for a long time. Recorded human history spans thousands of years. In fact, written language and the world's first civilizations are believed to have started between 3500 and 5000 BCE when the Sumerians from Mesopotamia started keeping records of their lives in cuneiform (https://www.oldest.org/culture/recorded-history). We still have those records, so to think that the problems we have or the challenges we face are unique isn’t just egotistical, it’s ignorant.

Given that I’m super guilty of this, I guess I’m both.

By looking to history, by looking to others, we can find that our problems are often a repeat of what has happened before — something that someone has written about, solved, and moved on.

Instead of beating yourself up and wallowing in self-pity, go find who else is having your problem or who else has had it in the past. Listen to what they’ve learned. Hear how they’ve solved your problem.

You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Pretty much ever.

4. It’s no wonder people don’t listen.

When people aren’t listening to you, ask yourself if you’ve been talking and acting with your head or your heart.

There’s no doubt that using your head is important. Thinking is something not enough people do before they speak or act. But when we’re communicating ideas, we need emotion. Take this study, for instance:

“Studies have shown that emotional content can increase the effectiveness of marketing as much at 70%.”

Facts are helpful, but boring. Statistics are valuable, but dry. Speaking and acting from your heart will turn heads. Then, once the attention is on you, you can use facts and statistics and other heady information as support.

People will listen when it affects their way of life. People will care when it changes their world.

Instead of sharing facts, tell a story from your heart. Instead of sharing information, tell people how it made you feel. Help the listener envision themselves in your situation and experience what you felt.

To start a fire of desire within others and capture their rapt attention, use your heart.

5. Your gut is (often) as good as logic.

I’m a thinker. I’m analytical. I consume massive amounts of time and brainpower analyzing every single decision… often to a fault.

But when it came time to lead a team of people to build something bigger than any one of us could have built on our own, all that time and energy spent was, largely, a distraction.

I realized, after forcing too many decisions through a long, drawn-out, logical decision-making process, that I wasn’t coming to any new conclusions. I was simply justifying the conclusion I’d already come to at the start.

You can think things to death. You can analyze a situation from every angle. But if you have some experience, a foundation of values, and a bit of guts, you can make decisions from your gut to advance in less time.

6. To influence others, care about them first.

Until my 30’s, I’d never really taken the time to get to know anyone. I’d never spent the time caring. Maybe it was because I’d moved so often.

Throughout grade school, I moved seven times. I moved again to college. Then again after getting my first job. Until my 30’s, I hadn’t stayed in one place longer than three years. Because of that, I can make acquaintances with the best of ’em. But a lasting, deep relationship? That’s a foreign feeling.

As it turns out, this attitude of building acquaintances without deep, lasting relationships was negatively affecting every aspect of my life and business.

Without caring for another, selling anything to anyone is hit and miss. The customer is never sure if I’m just trying to make a buck or truly help them.

Without caring for another, my marketing campaigns are soft and vague. My target audience doesn’t feel that I’m there to help. They feel that I’m there only to get more clicks, more likes, or more ad revenue.

Without caring for another, I can’t establish the relationships necessary to lead a group of people to a larger goal. They can’t fully trust me. They can’t fully engage with me. They never know what is safe to say (or not). As such, we do good, but not great; well, but not excellent.

Influence requires caring. Caring requires building deep, lasting relationships. Building deep, lasting relationships requires time, energy, and intentionality.

If you take that time, invest that energy, and have that intention, everything in your life will flourish because everyone around you becomes a support, just like you support them.

7. Life can beat you down. Or not. You choose.

Frank Grillo is my new Hollywood idol. He’s in his 50’s, in the best shape of his life, looks like a chiseled statue of a Greek warrior, and can fight like a gladiator in the ring.

When I look at other 50 year olds, I see all shapes and sizes, all mindsets and attitudes. For some, life is beating them up or holding them down (or both). For others, they’re designing their life. They’re living their life. They’re making life happen and loving every minute of it.

Frank seems to be doing the latter, and I aspire to be like him in many ways a decade from now. The question I’ve been asking is, “how?”

Lucky for me, Frank is a TV star and has been asked that question many times. Every time, he has the same answer:

There are no rules.

“There’s no rules, so don’t think as you get older you get slower.” — Frank Grillo

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard the quips of my elders. “Getting old sucks,” they say. “Life drags you down.” But none of these things have held true to date, and I’m inspired by someone like Frank who’s older than me and says it’s all a crock of sh*t.

I don’t know about you, but I’m following his advice.

While everyone else can let life drag them down, I’m going to kill all the rules and live my next 40+ years with intention, vitality, and spirit.

8. Never put the game above the players.

If I’ve learned one thing watching kids sports, it’s the parents (not the kids) that tend to ruin it for everyone.

I’ve seen parents kicked out of little league games, fights nearly break out in parking lots, and heard nasty back-stabbing comments in the off-season.

Fifteen years ago, I attended a girls soccer game with my wife. We didn’t know any of the kids or other parents. We were there to support a family member refereeing the game. Little did we know that I’d have to walk him off the field, protecting him from angry parents over what they thought were a series of terrible calls.

Considering the players were around eight years old, the screaming, cussing, hateful parents were an embarrassment. They were an embarrassment to the game, to the girls, and to themselves. I learned then that, when you put the game above the players, everyone suffers.

Did the ref, our family member, make a bad call? Maybe. Probably. Sure. He’s human. It happens.

But the bystanders knew that bad calls are part of the game. The girls just wanted to keep playing, and the coaches had already moved on. By yelling and screaming and carrying on, the parents dragged the game through the mud. Worse, they dragged the players down with them.

This lesson applies to more than sports. It applies to life, work, and politics.

We hear of big corporations putting massive profits above their employees far too often. We see politicians outright lying to gain a vote. These people are putting the game above the players so they can win. But in doing so, everyone else loses.

Never forget that the game is the game, but the players are human. Treat them as such.

9. Busy means nothing. Purpose makes you productive.

We’re all busy. We all have emails to triage, social media notifications to deal with, and calls to make.

Some days, those things take every waking moment of our day. Unfortunately, none of it matters.

What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter that I’m busy. It matters that I’m working toward a purpose.

Without a purpose, we can work hard and get nothing done. Without a purpose, we can get to the end of our day and feel as if we’ve accomplished nothing. Minutes of busyness add up to hours, add up to days, add up to weeks, then months, then years. Before we know it, we look back and see all that time, years of our life we’ll never get back, wasted.

With a purpose, even the smallest things we do give us a sense of accomplishment. The tasks we do take on meaning. We aren’t just busy, we are busy making progress toward our goals.

But purpose does more than that.

In a 2013 Gallup/Healthways study, having a purpose has also been shown to double the likelihood that you’ll learn something new every day. This is the same study, by the way, that showed you’ll increase your likelihood of being engaged at work by 400% (reference). More so, in a National Institute of Health study performed in 1998, researchers found that people with purpose lived up to seven years longer than people without. Imagine what you could do with seven extra years!

If we’re smart, we can align our purpose with our vision, our vision with with our goals, and live a life by design instead of by chance; a purposeful, fulfilling life with no regrets.

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? “ — Henry David Thoreau

10. Ask, “If not me, then who?” Then act accordingly.

Years ago, I left $30 million on table. Or so I thought.

I had developed a small app called Significance that would parse through a webpage, learn the main point, and summarize it for you in a sentence or two. When it was done, I did nothing with it. Less than a year later, a similar app called Summly sold to Yahoo for bookoo bucks.

I should have asked the question, “if not me, then who?”

Had I asked that question, my answer would have been, “some other guy,” and I would not have been okay with that. I’d have finished the app, published it on the App Store, and maybe, just maybe, Yahoo would have contacted me instead (long shot, but possible).

As it turns out, asking “if not me then who?” is applicable to just about every aspect of our lives, so much so that I’ve made it my mantra for my 40th year here on this earth.

Lack of leadership at your work? If not you, then who’s going to step in?

No solution in the market? If not you, then who’s going to build it?

Underwhelming parental guidance at home? Missing passion in your relationship? Not putting enough hours in your side hustle?

If not you, then who?

You see, nobody else will care about the things you care for. Nobody will help move you toward your purpose, develop your vision, set your goals, and execute on them. If you keep looking around, waiting for life to happen, it won’t.

So ask yourself, if not you, then who? When the answer is “nobody,” get to work. You’ll know what to do.

11. Give away everything you know.

Hoarding information feels natural. It seems like a way to get ahead, to know more than the next guy, to “protect your turf.” But keeping what you know to yourself does only two things:

  1. It keeps others dependent on you

Having dependents feels great at first. People will come to you for certain advice or tasks. But after a while, you’ll find it incredibly limiting. Like my first boss used to say, “when you’re the only one who can do the dishes, you get asked to do the dishes a lot.”

And, if you’re spending all your time “doing the dishes,” you won’t have time to grow. If you’re not training anyone else to do the dishes, you’re stuck being a one-trick pony.

If you want to surround yourself with good people, give away everything you know. They’ll flock to your inner circle.

12. Only do what only you can do.

I’m guilty of trying to do it all. I’m guilty of running with every task that’s in my wheelhouse, solo.

What about you?

I bet the answer is “yes.” It’s hard to give up tasks you can perform to someone else, after all. All kinds of questions come to mind:

  • What if they don’t know how?

These are all fair questions, but largely invalid.

That’s because the more time you spend doing things other people can do, the less time you have to hone and refine a gift that only you have. Tiger Woods didn’t become a great golfer by waiting tables at a country club, he became a great golfer by golfing every f**king day.

…the more time you spend doing things other people can do, the less time you have to hone and refine a gift that only you have.

Now wait, you say. Tiger isn’t the only golfer on the planet. Therefore, he’s not doing what only he can do.

Fair point, but he started early, built on his gift, and practiced his heart out to become the only one who could do what he did. There were other golfers, other competitors, sure. But none of them were playing his game. He leaned into himself, capitalized on his strengths, and became one of the greatest golfers of all time.

Only do what only you can do. Leave the rest to others.

13. Demand better from those around you.

It was the most uncomfortable conversation of my career.

Our CTO and me (VP of Engineering) sat in a room with our team of engineers who were preparing for a big customer presentation. Our team was there to show us what they had prepared, but after thirty seconds, we both knew they weren’t ready.

I was prepared to let them finish, give them some meager feedback, and let everyone leave thinking they had accomplished something. My CTO wasn’t.

He stopped the presentation short, pointed the massive oversights we were both seeing, re-emphasized the importance of the upcoming customer presentation, and told everyone they needed to go back to the drawing board and get it right. The team tried to argue. They were holding onto lower standards. But my CTO wasn’t having it.

The conversation was uncomfortable. Frankly, it sucked. But it was necessary.

By holding our team to a higher standard, we ultimately ended up with a presentation we were all proud of; a presentation that convinced our customers to buy. Had we not done that, we would have done a disservice to our customer, our company, and ourselves.

You should never think twice about holding others around you to higher standards.

Be direct, be honest, bring your feedback from a place of love, but always bring your feedback. Holding back takes us all to the same place: average. Demanding others’ give their best effort pushes us all to be better at what we do and who we are.

14. Lost? Stop immediately and find clarity.

When there’s a lot to do, all your tasks dance around in your head making it hard to know which one to start. It’s like a dryer full of shoes tumbling around in front of you. Sure, you can pick out one shoe here, one shoe there. But finding a pair is nearly impossible.

You have to stop the churn, and that means getting all the shoes (your tasks) out of the dryer (your head) and laid out on the floor (paper).

But you can’t stop there.

While getting your tasks, projects, worries, and thoughts on paper frees up mental space, it does no good to stare at them all. You must choose the highest priority task and get to work.

When you feel overwhelmed, stop the tumbling dryer and get your thoughts down on paper. When you feel lost, stop the tumbling dryer and prioritize your thoughts. When you feel uncertain, stop the tumbling dryer, choose your highest priority task, and get to work.

15. Save your criticism for the right people.

Early on in fatherhood, I’d find myself being overly critical of my children. I suppose many fathers are.

But, as I doled out judgment to three budding minds who were trying their best to love and learn and experience the world around them, I’d simultaneously found myself being silent with pleasure-seeking adults who were carelessly hurting others or not giving their best.

The people who try their best but make mistakes deserve our encouragement. So long as they’re learning and not making the same mistakes twice, we should save our criticism for those who aren’t trying, those who are passing harm to others without awareness of their actions. The people who make mistakes but aren’t “man enough” to fess up, take responsibility, and hold themselves accountable to a higher standard? They’re the ones we should come down on.

It’s hard to criticize an adult. But not doing so is vain. When we are worried about how the other person will see us, we’re thinking of ourselves and not of holding others to a higher standard. But ask yourself, what good is it to me or anyone to look good in front of others if the world around me never improves?

It does no good. Which is why it’s important to learn to deliver (constructive) criticism effectively, planting seeds in others that will affect powerful and positive change.

16. Neither smarts, strength, hustle, nor experience are as useful as persistence.

So many people are smarter than me. So many people have more experience. So many people have more money, more fame, more everything. On these qualities, I literally can’t compete.

But I can out-persist them.

I can keep working, keep learning, keep trying until long after they’ve given up. And when they do (give up), that’ll leave an opening for me. I’ll use that as my door to opportunity.

Persistence is the most valuable quality I’ve found.

Persistence leads to creative solutions to challenging problems; problems that haven’t been solved before. Persistence leads to intelligence and wisdom; as those of us who never give up on learning always grow in each. Persistence leads to experiences people have never had; the experiences that are to be had right after not giving up.

17. Work for others while doing it for yourself.

They tell you to do the work for something. Family. Friends. A better world. Whatever.

But that’s the biggest pile of bullsh*t self-righteous self-help gurus dish out to unsuspecting life-hack junkies like you and me.

All those reasons sound like great reasons. Family is deeply important. Friends support us, and us them. Making the world a better place is a given. But, none of these reasons will sustain you for the long haul, some of those reasons won’t support you or your cause, and all of these reasons can cause resentment when the going gets tough.

The truth if the matter is that drive you feel to get up in the morning can’t come from outside; it has to burn from within.

You have to rise with fire, attacking the day with the knowledge that, by working your tasks, achieving your goals, living your vision, and realizing your purpose, you’ll have done what you’ve been put on this planet to do.

Not what your family wants you to do.

Not what you’re friends think you should do.

Not what the world wishes you would do.

No, you have to do it for you.

At the same time, what you work on can’t be about you.

You can’t read self-improvement articles like this 24/7 and work toward your life’s purpose. You can’t greedily pursue more money, fame, or power at the cost of everyone around you without leaving a deep black mark on your soul.

“The best way to become a billionaire is to help a billion people; that is what it means to change the world.” — Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss

Make your life’s work about others but do it for you. A deep, fulfilling, satisfaction will follow, and nobody will be able to stop you.

In closing, I leave you with this…

That uncertainty you feel right now about your future? It won’t ever go away. It shouldn’t ever go away. Certainty means you’ve reached the summit, and there’s nowhere to go but down.

But, in an ever-changing world with ever-changing relationships, you never reach the summit.

Once you’ve reached one peak, the next one will be off in the distance — another mountain to climb that will require all the strength you’ve gained to date — one that will give you an even better view of the landscape below.

Your career, your relationships, your life is a march.

When you stop thinking you’ll “get there” or “make it” and instead start treating it like the journey it is, you’ll enjoy the voyage, the small successes, and even some of the failures along the way.

Different ideas. No bullsh*t. Join my newsletter today.

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Michael J. Mehlberg

Written by

Thinker | Writer | Bestselling Author — Subscribe and read 10 Ways to Massively and Immediately Improve Your Life (www.michaelmehlberg.com/subscribe).

The Ascent

The Ascent is a community of storytellers documenting the journey to a happier and healthier way of living. Join thousands of others making the climb on one of the top publications on Medium.

Michael J. Mehlberg

Written by

Thinker | Writer | Bestselling Author — Subscribe and read 10 Ways to Massively and Immediately Improve Your Life (www.michaelmehlberg.com/subscribe).

The Ascent

The Ascent is a community of storytellers documenting the journey to a happier and healthier way of living. Join thousands of others making the climb on one of the top publications on Medium.

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