“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” ~C. S. Lewis
I got the phone call on a chilled October night. I had just left the lecture hall at York University in Toronto, lugging my textbooks, mind filled with all the classic worries of a student — financial woes, tests looming, group projects underway, the future as clear as mud, the commute home waiting with its promise of the same old same old. That phone call was perhaps the first time was I snapped out of that illusion.
Reality checks and hard decisions have a way of doing that.
It was my mother’s number. I was expecting a typical phone call — when would I be home, how was my day, how did the test go, etc, etc. Instead I was told that my grandfather had suffered an accident and was now on life support in the ICU. Brain dead.
The family had already come to the decision to let him go, and they wanted to know if I wanted to be there for it.
“When?” I asked.
Have you ever learned a lesson and wished you could go back and do it all again? To be better this time? To avoid the foolish mistakes that are now so obvious? I think we all do.
In life we learn many things too late to avoid their consequences. We learn the lessons the hard way, the painful way, and afterwards have all the knowledge and awareness but no longer the opportunity to use it as we wish we could have.
I know this because I’m very good at it. If I sat alone in a room and tallied all the lessons I learned late, all the mistakes I made that I wouldn’t make had I been able to give it another go, I’d have a tome.
Perhaps all of us would. Hindsight is, after all, the sharpest lens that unmasks many truths.
Here are six essential — and universal — life lessons I had to learn the hard way . . .
#1: Deliberately Cherish The People In Your Life
“A thousand moments that I had just taken for granted — mostly because I had assumed there would be a thousand more.” ~Morgan Matson
Some things we can’t really forget or easily forgive ourselves for. My lack of treating my family with the importance it deserved is one of them.
That phone call was a wake up call, and a painful one, because it was something I could never take back. The next day drove it home more. He had always said he wanted to live in his house until the day he died. Perhaps, in a way, he had. I knew he was long gone when I held his hand and watched the ventilator do its macabre work. And what did I feel, more than anything?
- Shame for taking him for granted.
- Shame for all the times I bemoaned having to do the two-hour drive to visit.
- Shame for the boredom I felt when I was visiting, the lack of interest when I could have been sharing a moment with him instead.
- Shame for my impatience during family visits, for wanting merely to go home and “get back to work.”
That day, I remembered the last time that I had hugged him, a frail gentleman shaking from Parkinson’s yet a man so kind and wise, and wished I had hugged him longer, that I had told him that I loved him more.
I hated myself for a long time after that.
Visiting relatives feels like a nuisance until it becomes a regret — because when they’re gone, you’ll sure as hell wish you’d taken that time. What’s a day? What’s an hour spent on the phone? What’s the drive there and back to see them face to face?
And how much more we take for granted the ones we see every day! Our friends, our immediate family — how often do we even tell them we love them? How often do we stop and realize, ‘this may be the last chance I get to share a moment with them’?
Cherish the ones you love, and the ones that love you. Every day, remind yourself that they may not be there tomorrow. Life can be cruel. Don’t shortchange yourself by buying into the illusion that you’ll get another chance.
We often don’t.
“If we remembered everyday that we could lose someone at any moment, we would love them more fiercely and freely, and without fear — not because there is nothing to lose, but because everything can always be lost.” ~Unknown
Lesson #1: Deliberately cherish the people in your life. Neither they nor you are guaranteed even another second on this planet. They are transient. They are fleeting. They are precious. Now act like it.
#2: Don’t Be A Perfectionist. Celebrate Every Small Victory, No Matter How Imperfect.
“Perfectionism is Self-Abuse of the Highest Order” ~Anne Wilson Shaef
If there’s one habit I regret most from my earlier years, it’s perfectionism.
I was a shy kid, antisocial, and terribly afraid of the opinions of others. But I was very good in school. So what did I do? I attached my very self-image, my identity, to perfect outcomes.
I became a perfectionist because I believed it would keep me safe from pain.
I demanded better from myself no matter how well I did. I became my own worst enemy — and some part of me enjoyed it. And what did all that attempted “perfection” bring me?
All that mindless effort was nigh fruitless. It came at the cost of making a child lonely, unsatisfied, stressed, and reclusive.
But people would call me smart — that was the only consolation I really got, and how shallow it was, that little glimmer of satisfaction of other people’s praise. It wasn’t love. It wasn’t friendship. It was merely an observation one might make about the weather, “this is that,” and no more.
I drove myself into depression, anxiety, pessimism, self-doubt, and complete and total dissatisfaction for the majority of my teen years, and early twenties:
- I never felt like I was good enough.
- I never celebrated what I had accomplished — in fact, I berated myself for not doing better.
- I never stopped and thanked myself for any progress.
- I never thought that perhaps the process, not the outcome, was more important.
The poor Perfectionist is addicted to unrealistic results and is never satisfied, and that goes beyond academics and into every other aspect of his or her life: a recipe for living that doesn’t work. The Perfectionist is terrified of failure in a world that necessitates failure for success.
I grew up practicing a set of rules that DON’T WORK!
How did it affect my life? Well . . .
- My romantic relationships: I failed at because I expected too much from myself, and feared not being able to live up to that.
- My peace of mind: Shot, simply because I couldn’t give myself a break. I was the least mindful person I knew.
- My family life: Poor, because I always took it for granted and focused on the work I had to do, shutting myself up to study or work. Like I did with my grandfather. My perfectionist mind didn’t see it as worth my time.
- My personal growth: Stunted by virtue of a habit I believe was helping me.
- My academic career: Terrible. Good marks, but no direction, because I never thought about what I enjoyed but simply about getting good grades.
Perfectionism is deadly. I’m still getting over it. Have I learned my lesson? Yes, the hard way, and at the price of years of my life. I wish I had at least celebrated a little more. But all I ever did, even when I got a perfect grade, was nod and move on to the next one.
Please don’t be like that.
Instead, embrace imperfection, love yourself, and celebrate every small victory, no matter how little it may seem. These, in the end, build the momentum towards happiness and achievement.
Lesson #2: Don’t be a perfectionist. Celebrate your imperfect victories, no matter how small. The price of perfectionism is misery and discontent — forever.
#3: Don’t Let This Moment Pass Unnoticed
If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present.
~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
I ruined many potentially wonderful days simply because I never focused on them, instead focusing on what would happen in a day, or a week, or a year, and so on.
Even when I traveled, I worried so much about what I had to do when I got home that I stopped enjoying the trip and even took hours to write LISTS! “This has to be done, and this has to be done, and this . . .”
You can imagine what sort of life this kind of obsessive thinking created!
A life not grounded in reality.
For what is reality but this present moment? The future is merely a figment of our imagination, and the past is no more. All that is real is encompassed in twenty-four hours and no more.
The illusion of the future, the obsessive demands of time, makes slaves out of us all — though only if we let it.
“Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time — past and future — the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.” ~Eckhart Tolle
I’ve ruined countless days worrying about the past or the future. I let what might happen tomorrow poison my focus on the present, and in doing so, I went through the day distracted, anxious, and miserable.
I can’t help but wonder what things would have been like had I not worried so much, wasted so much energy and focus on things I couldn’t change — and most of all, what I missed in those moments I let pass me by.
For that’s all we really have: this moment.
Look back at the happiest memories you have. What sort of moments were they? For me, I find that all of the happiest memories I have all have one thing in common: I was inexorably tied to the present. I wasn’t thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. I was focused entirely on that experience — and it thereby became a beautiful memory.
How many more wonderful, happy moments would we have if we stopped focusing so much on the past and the future? How much happier would we be if we took life one day at a time, instead of five or ten years at a time? Yes, there’s a time for planning, for making goals — schedule that time then. But don’t let every hour of your day fall victim to it!
So as Jim Rohn taught, focus on whatever you’re doing right now.
- When you’re at the beach, don’t think about the office.
- When you’re at the office, don’t think about the beach.
- When you take a shower, focus on doing that, not the letter you’re going to compose afterwards.
- When you’re driving to work, enjoy the way to work, not thinking ahead with anticipatory anxiety about the coming day.
This lesson has been around for ages. Lucius Annaeus Seneca so eloquently got it right:
“Life’s finest days, for us poor human beings, fly first. . . Every day as it comes should be welcomed and reduced forthwith into our own possession as if it were the finest day imaginable. What flies past has to be seized at.” ~Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
Lesson #3: Live each day with presence. Don’t let life pass you by. Give the past and the future their place, and no more — the present is all you really have anyway, and from it you must craft a life or not at all. Life is passing you by. Therefore, as Seneca said hundreds of years ago, let us learn to seize the day.
#4: Love More, Give more, Take Less
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” ~Winston S. Churchill
We’re all selfish at one point. The important matter is whether we outgrow it.
I certainly took a long time to do that.
As a child I was selfish. As a teen I was selfish. As a young adult I was selfish. I wanted things, I needed things, and I so rarely gave space to the idea that, perhaps, happiness wasn’t only in getting.
I only began to truly understand this lesson five years ago, when I started volunteering. And, to be honest, I began volunteering for selfish reasons: for a passing grade.
My professor, Walter Perchal, challenged the entire class to change the world. That was our term project. Not an essay. Not a presentation. But a bold challenge to make a difference.
It turned out to be one of the most transformative experiences of my life, and what had simply been a six-credit course to meet degree requirements became the most life-changing endeavor of my undergraduate years.
I worked with the homeless, the elderly, and patients in the hospital who had no one to visit them — people forgotten by our blind society, yet people whom we can learn so much from. It changed me even though it wasn’t my initial intention. It opened my eyes to how much a of a selfish bastard I was.
I found something I had been missing for so many years, and it was something so simple, so human, that I felt ashamed for not noticing sooner:
Kindness is generosity. Kindness is giving. Kindness is sacrificing your time for someone else with no expectations of getting anything in return. When I first started giving, I didn’t do so out of kindness. I had an agenda.
But good deeds have a way of changing you, whether you like it or not.
Now, years later, I’m happy to say that I’ve turned that around. But it still hurts to recall all the time, all the opportunities for kindness, that I wasted. When I approached things from a position of need, of desperation, of wanting, I always came up short, I never did well, and if I did “succeed” it never felt like a victory. But when I gave, I felt more connected with the world, more alive, and more inspired to do more.
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” ~Pablo Picasso
You’ll not care what you have in the end. You will, however, care about how much you gave — the legacy you will leave behind, your inspiration of others. My professor inspired me to change. Now I wish to do the same for others.
Lesson #4: Love more. Give More. Take Less.
#5: Comparison is Deadly
“Comparison with myself brings improvement, comparison with others brings discontent.” ~Betty Jamie Chung
Do you often compare yourself to others? I sure as hell used to, and I never realized what it was doing to me — until I had made it a bad habit.
Our lives, as Jim Rohn once said, are affected not by how things are, but by how we think they are. And I thought in a depressive way. I would compare myself to others I knew of — and not just anyone, but only those who had more than I did.
I would look at people in my age group — the stars, the ultra-successful, the one-in-a-million strokes of luck, and so on — and measure myself up against them. And every time I did I would ask myself:
- Why haven’t I been able to generate the same results?
- Why can’t I have that?
- Why am I so far behind?
I felt like a loser.
I convinced myself that I was a failure, going nowhere, a pitiful existence simply because I was not on par with the top 1%. Every victory would lose its glimmer because I would immediately compare it to someone else’s better victories. Doing “well” wasn’t enough. I wanted to be the “best” no matter what it was — and with my habit of comparing myself to those who were, by this world’s paltry standards, better, I virtually guaranteed my own incapability of ever achieving that.
“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” ~Steve Furtick
This sort of habit is not only a disservice to yourself, but a poison that does the exact opposite you think this habit does. It uses other people’s successes to distract you from crafting your own success.
Every second you spend comparing yourself to someone else is a second not spent crafting your highest potential.
What could I have accomplished with all the time and energy I WASTED comparing to and bemoaning the success of others? Too much. Comparison is the thief of all happy achievement. It’s akin to perfectionism in that way.
I know it’s hackneyed, but the only person you should ever compare yourself to is who you were yesterday. Seek to improve on that, and you will never be wanting for personal growth — and you’ll be happier too, because you’ll be focusing on your own journey, not someone else’s. And wherever you arrive at, you’ll be certain that it’s a destination fit for you, that you’re not living someone else’s life, but your own.
Lesson #5: There is only one person to compare yourself to: yourself. Comparison to others is a sure-shot way to sink your chances of success and your enjoyment of living. Compare only to your advantage. Not to your detriment.
#6: Say ‘Thank You’
“Gratitude is riches. Complaint is poverty.” ~Doris Day
We all need to do this more.
Growing up I was taught to say thank you. But what I didn’t quite learn was to actually mean it. We get taught things, and we emulate them, but so often we don’t actually feel them in our hearts.
Practicing the art of gratitude is something I had to learn the hard way. I was so ungrateful, so focused on what I didn’t have, that I failed to be thankful for what I did have. Working with the homeless, the sick, and the forgotten finally opened my eyes to it — and to the fact that so much of my unhappiness was simply due to an illusion created by lack of gratitude.
When I started practicing gratitude, I felt happier. The days were brighter. Even in hard times, when so much was pressing down me, I found that the simple act of finding things to be grateful for amidst it made even those difficult times filled with many moments of joy.
For what is happiness? Happiness isn’t about an absence of difficulty. It isn’t about a lack of needs or desires. It is simply a state of being, a decision, a discipline, an art that must be practiced. Though it’s impossible to be happy-go-lucky all the time, it is possible to craft a life of joy through gratitude . . .
So that, at any moment, you can draw from a wellspring of joy that never leaves you: the joy that comes from being grateful.
One of the greatest antidotes for unhappiness is simply gratitude. So be grateful. Deliberately grateful. Not for formality, but from your heart.
Lesson #6: Be grateful as much as you can. Say thank you as often as you can. A spirit of gratitude is the water that nurtures a joyful life.
“Anything that hurts you can teach you, and if it keeps hurting you, it’s because you haven’t learned.” ~Unknown
Life is a hard school. That’s how it is. But we can — and must — learn from our mistakes, and we can help others learn by sharing them — even if that means pouring our hearts out once in a while. Believe me, I had a hard time admitting to some of these things, but there’s a lesson in that too: the less we let ego rule us, the more we can help others.
Though these lessons I’ve learned are by no means special, they mean a lot to me — and I hope they can help you in some way, even if it’s small.
We can’t go back. We can’t change how we were. Mistakes stand as permanent markers of our errors in judgment — what matters it how we use them.
And we can still change the future, by changing how we handle today . . .