I know what I know
I’ll sing what I’ve said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head.
– Paul Simon, “I Know What I Know”
There is something about birthdays that reminds us of our finitude – especially birthdays with a zero on the end.
When I turned thirty, life was good: I had recently returned from an amazing adventure – backpacking some 540 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and parts of Virginia – and was back living in LA, a place I loved calling home. I was healthy, had good friends and lots of interests, and was a much more contented person overall than I was upon turning twenty.
However, there were two key things “missing” from my life that I still desired greatly: 1) a loving relationship with a genuine, compatible partner, and 2) meaningful, enjoyable work that I felt good about (and that also paid the bills). I came upon the realization around that time that there were three possible ways the rest of my life could play out in regard to these:
1) I might realize one of my Big Wishes, but not the other.
2) I might be fortunate enough to realize both.
3) I might not realize either one, despite my best efforts.
It was pure, inarguable, mathematical truth: it had to be one of these three.
In light of this epiphany, I made a conscious decision: I would continue to do whatever I could to make these Big Dreams come true, but I was not going to let my happiness depend upon the realization of either one of them. I resolved to do the best I could to enjoy my life and live it to the fullest with or without these things. It seemed like about the wisest decision I could make.
Today I am forty. And after making what I would consider noble, sustained efforts toward realizing both Big Dreams, I have managed to realize one of them in the decade that has elapsed (her name is Samantha, and we’re getting married in November on the seventh anniversary of the day we met!). The other Dream has, thus far at least, remained elusive. But I haven’t given up on it. And I did right by myself all the while by having an amazing time in my thirties despite my ongoing struggle to find/create work I truly love.
I’m not sure how much bona fide wisdom I have accumulated on my journey thus far, but here are ten things that forty years of life has taught me:
1. Never Say Never
This is a lesson I have learned a multitude of times, so I tend to be extremely careful about ruling anything out! The point is to keep an open mind, because you cannot possibly foresee all of the circumstances in which you might do something you swore you would never do (for better, worse, or even a mixture of both).
Some things I never imagined I would ever have the slightest interest in doing (let alone believed I could do) turned out to be extremely positive, life-affirming experiences: running a marathon, and completing an iron-distance triathlon, for example.
Working a boring, 8 to 5 office job is something I once swore vehemently against ever doing. So of course I have managed to do exactly that many times over already. It’s become a vicious cycle I have not (yet) been able to break. While I generally perceive this to be an unfortunate thing, in at least one instance a boring 8 to 5 job was, by my own admission, nothing short of a life saver.
Internalizing the lesson of never saying never keeps you humble. It raises your awareness of your connection to all of humanity, and can thereby increase your compassion (“There but for the grace of God go I.”). It can also help to expand your concept of yourself and what is possible. Think you would never, could never, possibly do what so-and-so did? Think again!
2. Learn to Enjoy Your Own Company
Do the things you love doing, even if you have to do them alone. I’m not saying relegate yourself to being a lifelong loner. By all means, find friends with mutual interests to share life’s experiences with. Find love! But if it’s a choice between not doing something you really want to do or doing it by yourself, go and do it alone. Take a trip by yourself for a day, a weekend, or a month. You experience things differently when you are on your own and in complete control over what to do, and how or when to do it. And in doing so you can build the muscles of self-confidence and self-sufficiency.
Arguably the most attractive and desirable quality you can have is being completely comfortable with yourself. It can take time to develop this (or relearn it, as it seems to come naturally to most young kids), but it couldn’t be more worth it. When I was single, I didn’t see the point of doing things I had no interest in (e.g., going to bars) solely in the hope that I might meet someone. By doing things I loved, even by myself, I was almost guaranteed to have a good time whether I met someone in the process or not.
3. Health Isn’t Everything, But Without It You’ve Got (Next to) Nothing
Take time to take care of yourself: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually (whatever that means to you). Make it a priority. If you don’t, it will catch up to you in one way or another – guaranteed.
Like a lot of people, I had to learn this lesson the hard way. For a significant part of my teens and twenties I was completely and utterly obsessed with becoming a professional singer/songwriter. My entire sense of self-worth came from my identification with this vision I had of myself. If I didn’t become “successful” at this (both artistically and commercially), then I was, by my own estimation, a total and complete failure. I gave a lot of power to things outside of my control in determining my own self-worth. Needless to say, this was a recipe for disaster.
In one sense I was proud of the fact that I had burned the candle at every conceivable end to establish a career for myself as a musician, and that I had done so until I reached the point where I could not do it any more (translation: suffered a nervous breakdown and deep depression). In another sense, I wasn’t so sure this was something to be proud of. For me it was an “a-ha” realization that my overall well-being had to come first. It was a painful lesson. And one I, personally, probably couldn’t have learned any other way. It’s also one I’ll not soon forget.
4. Progress, Not Perfection
This is self-explanatory, and a big lesson I continue to work on internalizing. It turns out being mercilessly hard on yourself isn’t actually helpful. Who knew??? Learning to acknowledge yourself for efforts made and steps taken, and to forgive yourself for the ways in which you may have fallen short, is essential to making any progress at all.
By the way, if you have truly mastered this concept in your day-to-day life, please consider being my guru.
5. Compare, Despair
This is related to number four above. Celebrate your own strengths and develop your own talents, in your own time. Accept your own weaknesses and work around them if you can’t transcend them. Do the best you can in your particular circumstances at any given time. Being the best “you” you can be is the best you can ever hope to do with your life. Considering yourself inferior or superior to others is not only unhelpful, it’s most likely inaccurate. We are all unique. Spare yourself the shoulds. Or, as I heard it said on the Appalachian Trail: “Hike your own hike.”
6. The Secret to Discipline Is In Forming Consciously Chosen Habits
Step One: Decide that something is important to you/worth doing. Choose the habit you wish to adopt (something about it has to be compelling).
Step Two: Come up with a realistic schedule – designate specific times (appointments with yourself) for doing it. Figure this out ahead of time. Schedule it in. It won’t happen by itself or based on your whim of feeling like doing it.
Step Three: Force yourself to do it. It may be very difficult at first. Push through the difficulty. You will almost certainly be glad you did, each and every time. Start small and build up accomplishments in seeing it through. Try not to miss a session, but if you do just start right back up again ASAP.
Step Four: “Increase the dosage” gradually. Keep doing the activity, and observe the amazing process of conditioning at work. It will become less difficult to motivate yourself to do it once you have successes under your belt and are building some momentum.
Step Five: You may actually find you are enjoying it once you get started. If so, you will begin learning that starting is the hardest part.
Step Six: This is key: refer back to your experiences of being glad you did it, even if it was initially difficult to get started. It is much easier to push through that initial discomfort when you can draw upon the experiential knowledge that you will thank yourself for doing it.
Step Seven: Eventually, once something becomes a habit, you will actually start to feel discomfort if you don’t do it (think of a habit like brushing or flossing your teeth).
The best concrete example I can give of how this process works is my own experience training for my first marathon. I previously thought that running a marathon would be an exercise in self-torture, but the idea of doing one crept into my imagination and started intriguing me. It was a daunting challenge, for sure, but there was something about it that fascinated me. Could I even do it? The longest run I had ever done at that point in my life was six miles. One day I was in a bookstore (remember those?) and, just out of curiosity, picked up a book called The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer. I sat down and read the Introduction, and it basically said in so many words: if you do everything we tell you to do in this book, you will finish a marathon. For whatever reason, I believed them. I bought the book right then and there, and in that moment made the decision that I would do it (Step One). I registered for the LA Marathon, and began my training, following the book’s program to a tee. Here’s what I noticed:
Three times a week, following the book’s plan (Step Two), I would get up early to fit a training run in before work (the fourth weekly run, the “long” run, was done on the weekend). It was wintertime or close to it, it was dark and cold outside, and I had to get up really early to do this. Initially, it took a strong will (discipline). I had to fight through my discomfort and force myself to do it (Step Three). But each time I did, I was glad. After several weeks of this, my body started adapting to the schedule and appreciating the benefits of the exercise. Before I knew it, I was waking up before the alarm went off, and my body felt totally primed and ready to run. I was conditioning both my mind and body to do this (Step Four). The further along I progressed in the training program, the more was at stake and the more invested I became in it. What initially took discipline and may have been difficult was starting to become habituated and less difficult. I felt good after running! (Step Five). Everyone around me at work got sick that winter with a nasty flu. I somehow steered clear of it, and (though running isn’t guaranteed to do this) I am convinced that the reason I did not catch it was that all the running I was doing had strengthened my immune system.
I finished the marathon, and it felt like one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. I’ve also habituated aerobic exercise (running or otherwise) to the point where it is now very much integrated into my lifestyle. It doesn’t take much to get myself to do it, and it is a habit that has been strengthened through positive reinforcement. I appreciate the benefits of feeling good and being physically fit, and have accumulated enough experiences of these positive benefits to draw upon for continued motivation to exercise (Step Six). If I can at all help it, I don’t allow too much time to pass without getting exercise, because it has become both a habit and something I value (Step Seven).
7. Every Decision You Make Is A Trade-Off
The way it works is that whatever you say “Yes” to in any given moment, you are automatically saying “No” to everything else. All anyone can do in life is make a bunch of decisions and have a bunch of experiences. You can lament all that you’re missing out on (it’s a lot, no matter what!), or embrace whatever it is you’ve chosen to do in any given moment.
As the comedian Steven Wright once put it: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
8. “You Can’t Be Embarrassed Without Your Consent”
I first encountered this quote in a book somewhere – it was attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. I have thought about Eleanor’s words I don’t know how many thousands of time since. We can actually choose how we react to or feel about things. Revolutionary. Substitute the feeling adjective of your choice for “embarrassed” and it still works. It’s not like I don’t get my feelings hurt from time to time or stew unnecessarily in negative emotions any more, but this idea has changed my life.
9. Life is a Balancing Act of Caring and Not Caring, and Knowing When to Do Which
Care too deeply about every little thing and you’ll drive yourself absolutely, certifiably nuts. Be apathetic about everything and everyone and you will live a hollow, empty life. In order to thrive you have to both care and not care, let go of what doesn’t matter and invest yourself deeply in what does. But distinguishing between these things and acting accordingly? Riding that balance? This is where living well becomes an art form.
10. Life is an Unfolding Kaliedoscope – All Things in it Are Temporary and Ephemeral
After years of contemplating and struggling with what life and death are all about, this is about the best I’ve come up with: Life is an ever-unfolding kaleidoscope. Things continuously emerge and then disappear. They change, evolve, dissolve back into the ether, reform, take shape, and reappear in all kinds of ever-changing combinations. Each of us is an infinitesimally small part of this wondrous, mysterious, remarkable, inconceivable, unknowable, unpredictable, exquisite, kaleidoscopic design called Life. Maybe there is some grand purpose to the whole thing. Maybe not. It might be nothing more than a dream in the end. But isn’t it beautiful? And colorful??? 🙂
I look forward to what awaits me in my forties and (hopefully) beyond! I hope to keep having more great adventures and enriching experiences. More inspired moments and actions. I look forward to discovering new things about myself, awakening dormant interests I may not have even known were ever there, and surprising myself in positive ways. I look forward to more experiences of deeply connecting with people, and of profound friendship. I look forward to the next stage of my relationship with Samantha as we become husband and wife. I look forward to getting better at living for as long as I’m here… until I disappear – and possibly reappear, reformed(?) – in this ever-unfolding kaleidoscope.