20 Lessons from my 20sApr 10, 2022
At age 30, I am excited to get out of bed and start my day. I have discipline and structure in my life that better allows me to be productive, act in accord with my values, grow stronger every day, and live my best life. I am surrounded by beautiful and loving people. I make a living doing something meaningful and enjoyable to me. When life hits me it hurts, but I don’t run away anymore. When I go out into the world, I walk tall, completely without fear or shame. When I interact with someone, I give them my full presence and attention. I laugh unrestrained. I work with love. I play like it’s Summer vacation. I make funny faces at children. I pet strange cats. I make pretty women laugh. I value every moment.
And when I put my head down at night, I sleep soundly because I am proud of who I am. I don’t sleep like a baby because I don’t wake up and cry five times a night, nor like a rock as I dream vividly. I sleep like a man at peace with himself.
This was not always the case. I worked fucking hard for this. For significant parts of my 20s, the principal emotions I felt day-to-day were shame, confusion, frustration, despair, anxiety, and longing. I was lost, had little idea of my purpose in this world, struggled with self-loathing and envy, and was at times self-destructive or hurtful to those around me. I was (and still am) the type who needs to learn everything the hard way. I share some of the most important lessons I gleaned from this time in the hope that you won’t have to.
Accept the hand you have been dealt. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. You don’t need to be taller, smarter, paler, tanner, more privileged, better looking, born into a different country or class, be a different race, be a different sexual orientation, be otherwise abled, have more or less hair, or have a different family and upbringing in order to have value and a chance at success and happiness. Embrace what you have been given and live your life better than anyone else could. Don’t rage against the universe for unfairly dealing you a bad hand. You have been given the unique gift of your life and your body. No one else has that, so don’t be so eager to trade it in.
Live by your own code, not anyone else’s. There is no single right way to be a human. Don’t allow anyone to decide for you what kind of life you are going to have. You’re the one who has to live it, so take control and take responsibility. You might fuck it up. That’s OK. It’s better to fuck it up in your own way than in someone else’s.
Your wounds are not your fault, but healing them and living with the scars is your responsibility. Do not shame or degrade yourself for your dysfunctions, wounds, trauma, etc. Most of the time these are the result of circumstances outside of your control. Even if it was your choices that led you to whatever pain you struggle with, that was a past version of you who doesn’t control your present. You cannot go back and make different decisions, but you can choose differently in the here and now.
Let go of your attachments and expectations. Hope is essential, and it is rightly in our nature to make plans based on our hopes for the future. 99% of the time, however, it just doesn’t work out like we hope. If we cling to our fantasies, then 99% of the time we will be disappointed. Instead, remain open to unexpected gifts, and receive them with gratitude. Broke your leg and can’t play your sport anymore? Use the freed time to expand your mind and study a new language; perhaps that will eventually lead you to a foreign country where you meet your spouse, discover wisdom that will change you forever, or witness beauty you never could have imagined. House burned down? An opportunity to choose a new place or mode of living. Got dumped? This is your chance to grow and become the person who will connect with your next love.
It can be easy to lose motivation when you realize that 99% of the time your hopes will not come to pass. But that’s a trap. Rarely will life come to you. You cannot predict what opportunities and wonders you will encounter or how your efforts will blossom, but take action anyway. Act the best way you know how, and have faith that the factors outside of your control will work themselves out. Take life one day, one moment at a time.
Discipline and structure are important. I am a creative person who does not like to be constrained by systems and rules of other people’s design. That said, I and most everyone else stagnate and flounder without some sort of structure to work within. This means a regular sleep schedule, morning routines, growth-oriented habits, schedules, to-do lists, time-bounded goals, exercise plans, and regular maintenance of body and environment. Your disciplines don’t have to be like mine or anyone else’s. You get to choose what kind of person who want to be. But make no mistake: we become what we regularly do. So choose your habits and disciplines carefully, commit to them, build them every day. And once in awhile reconsider them.
Beware escapism and procrastination. Drugs, sex, gambling, gaming, running, masturbation, television, movies, sports, art, reading, eating, socializing, shopping, social media, sleeping, working. You might be surprised to see all of these things in the same list. You may think that some of these things are bad and some are good, or that some are dangerous and others safe. These judgments are subjective. What matters is the how and why. Be very mindful of when you are doing anything in order to escape from or delay confronting your problems and challenging emotions. Escapism itself is not inherently harmful. Sometimes we need distraction and space before we can face our challenges, and that’s OK. But escapism is easily abused. If you fall into this trap, you will find your problems to be more and more intimidating because you have consistently chosen to escape and procrastinate rather than face up to them. Don’t allow your fear of failure and pain control you.
Humans can get used to anything. What terrifies you now can be easy in a year. I wish that someone had told me this as a child. The only way to become stronger and more capable is to step outside of your comfort zone. There will always be things that scare you, but as you face them repeatedly, they become second nature. Then you push your comfort zone again. And again. Until you are stronger and more capable than you ever thought you could be.
Think of yourself as a student of life. And I mean a true student, for whom success is learning and not a particular letter grade. When you are a student, absolutely everything is instructive and so everything is a success. Even what seems on the surface to be your worst failure can be one of your most instructive lessons and therefore something to be grateful for.
Honor your body, mind, and spirit. It is not selfish to invest time and energy into self-care. Without holistic health, you will not be able to contribute your best to the world and the people around you. So floss your teeth, commune with nature, exercise, meditate, worship, read, and nourish yourself properly.
Learn the power of “No.” Especially when you’re young, learning, and exploring, you should be saying “yes” far more often than “no.” That said, at some point you have to decide where your priorities need to be and understand your own capacity. You have the right to say no without guilt if you know that saying yes will impede your ability to live up to your priorities–even to requests and opportunities that are important and meritorious.
Respect the power of “Yes.” Don’t be a flake. Be true to your word, even if it seems like no one else will be. This world is filled with unreliable people who will flake on their own mothers, so you can be sure that plenty of them will flake on you. But just because it’s normal does not mean that it’s acceptable. You cannot control others, but you can hold yourself to a higher standard. Value your word; if you don’t, then no one else will either. And if you’re not able to stay true to a commitment, then own up to it and communicate with those who need to know. It’s completely understandable and forgivable to try and fail, as long as you are transparent and communicative about it. It’s not OK to be cavalier with your word or too ashamed to own up to a failure. That will do much more damage to others and to your reputation in the end.
Focus more on giving than getting. It is easy to get so caught up in our own lives and goals that we become self-centered, but lasting happiness is better found in giving, not in getting. Make someone’s life a little brighter every day. Acknowledge what is admirable in people. Give creative gifts. Freely express your love and affection. Celebrate and cherish others. You will find that the more you think about and give to others, the richer your own life becomes.
Don’t compare yourself to others, either favorably or unfavorably. You’ll be ahead of some people on certain paths; give them a hand and some guidance. Some people will be ahead of you; take inspiration from the possibilities that they reveal. If you need to compare yourself to someone, then look at your past self and work to become greater than you have been.
On a related note, seek to empathize with and understand others rather than judge them. When you think that you’re better than someone, check yourself. There is no way that we can ever fully understand others’ lived experiences or what has led them to be who they are or act as they do, but as long as we don’t write them off, we can try and grow together.
When people show you who they are, believe them. If you believe your fantasies, hopes, or fears instead, you will get into trouble. This applies to any relationship but most especially to romantic ones. If someone is hurting you and they do not respond to loving communication, then the best thing you can do for the both of you is to separate.
You cannot change people. You can share information with them and invite them to change themselves, but don’t count on it happening–at least not in the way you want.
Don’t try to impress anybody. Simply be genuine and true to yourself. This approach will effortlessly and effectively repel the people you won’t vibe well with, while attracting all the people who will love you for who you are. Those are the people you want closest to you. Allow the others to walk themselves right out of your life.
If you’re looking for a romantic partner to complete you and make you happy, you’re heading in the wrong direction. I won’t tell you not to date or get into a relationship if you’re not in a good place, but certainly don’t rely on that person for your happiness and fulfillment. That kind of pressure is unfair to put on anyone and leads to all sorts of problems. The healthiest, happiest, and most sustainable relationships occur when two self-sufficient people come together and choose to enhance each other’s already good lives.
Most romantic relationships are not meant to last a lifetime. This is OK. Two people can come together, bring each other many gifts of the spirit, help one another grow, and then grow apart. Learn to recognize and accept when your time together has come to an end. Trying to hold on too tightly will only hurt the both of you and spoil the beautiful memories you have created together.
I could keep going and make this 100 Lessons from my 20s if I had a mind to, but I’ll stop here. I’ve got to leave you some things to discover for yourself, after all
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