As I embark on my 30th year I’ve been reflecting on what I picked up during my 20s. Here are 29 things I’ve learned. These are a part of my life script that’s constantly evolving and being edited. Most of them I’m still working on.
1. You care more than they do, so argue a little
You spent hours frantically working on a mid-term paper, not them.
You scrutinized your resume and cover letter for days before submitting them. They barely glanced at it.
You desperately sought out one last bit of research to make the story or report you spent the last week on a touch better. They “reviewed” it for approximately 90 seconds.
Your superiors have a million things going on. It’s easy to assume that they’re equally invested in a major project you’re working on — they’re not. When it’s time to discuss the project, always assume you know far more about it than they do. If they’re a good leader, they too know this. When they ask for a change that you disagree with, speak up and explain precisely why you disagree with them. Oftentimes they are too busy to argue back (or simply don’t care enough) and will concede. They know you know more on the topic and will trust you.
2. Leadership isn’t about making the right decision — it’s about just making one
This one taught me a lot about life in general. I learned over the past decade, both as an employer and as an employee, that leaders aren’t chosen because they’re good decision-makers, but rather because they’re simply decision-makers. Ninety-nine percent of people just want to clock in and clock out each day and leave the hardships of work at work. Making a decision that affects others — whether it is 10s of people in my case or millions in Jeff Bezo’s case — is extremely hard. Unless your leader is a sociopath, they’ve had many sleepless and turmoil-filled nights with impactful choices weighing on them. Most people don’t want to be in that position, so they just wait for someone to tell them what to do. They gossip a little, threaten under their breath to leave no matter what the decision is, then go home and do it all over the next day.
Want to be a good leader? Just make the choice that you believe to be right. Sometimes you’ll be wrong and every time you won’t please everyone. But they’ll just be happy they didn’t have to make it.
3. You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet
This one really sucked to learn. I lived on soccer fields and basketball courts as a kid, and then tennis courts late in high school and into college. I remember in high school playing tennis from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. when basketball practice started and then going back to the tennis club and playing until the club closed. I was burning over 10,000 calories a day, which allowed for a diet of fast food between activities and plates full of mom’s leftovers when I got home. My body-fat was under 5% and I had an eight-pack.
These days, if I manage to get 30 minutes of exercise each day, I call it a success. As you can imagine, my diet has needed to change. For a while, as I finished my undergraduate, I thought I could still eat like that without exercising for 10 hours a day. I gained 25 pounds during my senior year in college.
In the years after, even when I was in a good workout routine, the sweat never kept up with the trashy diet.
If you want to lose or maintain weight, focus on the diet first.
4. Presence breeds satisfaction
This one is pretty simple. Focus on what you’re doing when you’re doing it, and only that. Start by never playing on your phone when you watch a movie or socialize and build from there. Every aspect of your life is more satisfying when you stop fragmenting it.
If you’re going to do something, just do that thing.
5. Work should be only one aspect of your life
If your entire identity is based on your job, that’s a scary place to be. What happens when you get laid off or fired? You’ll take that as a reflection of who you are as a human when that’s far from the truth. You have many, many more skills and talents beyond what your work pays you for. Compartmentalize your life. You’ll find that your anxiety will decrease if you reflect on all the other qualities of your life beyond who you are as a worker.
6. They don’t care about your age as much as you think they do
When you land that first career job you’ll be bursting with motivation and dreams of how hard work will lead to quick advancement. But you’ll also have the lingering fear that your young age will be held against you, so you may find yourself saying things like, “I may be only 23 but…” during meetings. Don’t do that. If it’s a good idea and you’re a good worker, they won’t think to question your abilities because of your age unless you put that idea in their head.
7. Knowledge doesn’t automatically come with age
If you’re like me, when you were a kid, you automatically assumed older people were smarter than you because they were older. That’s not true. You have to constantly make the effort to learn and to put yourself in vulnerable situations where you’re forced to use your mind in new ways. When you’re in your 20s you’ll meet a lot of middle-aged and senior folks who are uneducated and have been doing the same job the same way for decades. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most of these folks are kind, hard-working, contributing members of society and their lot in life is their own prerogative. But if you’re interested in being a lifetime learner and want to advance in your field or start your own business, you’ve got to make the effort. It won’t just happen.
8. You’ll never make enough money and your vacation will never be amazing enough if you hate your job
There isn’t much else to add here.
9. Trust breeds loyalty and quality
I was fortunate early in my career to have leaders who decided to take a risk and put me in leadership positions and trust me with some significant projects. This fostered great loyalty toward them and I worked extremely hard to prove they’d made a wise choice. It didn’t have a lot to do with career advancement or money at that point, though. It became personal for me. Their trust in me built a loyalty that existed in a realm outside of the job. I would have followed them to war, per se. It created a motivation in me that no amount of money could have bought.
10. Just ask
Someone uses a word you don’t know in class? Can’t figure out a math problem? Don’t know how to spell a word? Can’t pronounce an item on a menu?
Just swallow the embarrassment and ask. You’ll find that most people around you are struggling with the same thing and will respect and appreciate you for being bold.
11. Seek wealth, not riches
Rich is the car you can’t afford with a $600 monthly car payment; wealth is the nest egg you built up by driving a reliable old car that allows you to travel and invest.
You get the idea.
12. Disagreeing with a superior is the best test of if you want to stay at a job
When you disagree with your superior, respectfully speak up. And if they’re aghast at your audacity? Good. It’s better to find out early on if your leader is unfit.
13. Just write it down
Groceries, new business ideas, plot ideas. Write it down.
14. Stop making discipline so hard
Increasing your discipline is a lifelong endeavor but it doesn’t have to be so hard. Instead of facing down your enemy and relying on willpower to defeat it, just remove it.
I’m an English major so many of my classmates in college wanted to write books. They’d bemoan on an almost daily basis their writer’s block, but nearly all of them would also have passionate discussions about video games and Netflix shows. Creative thinking is extremely hard. Why would they ever gravitate towards something so difficult when they could binge Netflix instead? You’ve got to hide the distraction or do away with it completely.
Want to stop snacking late at night? Don’t have snacks in your house.
Want to get to bed earlier? Put your phone in your car overnight.
Stop making it so hard.
15. They’re not watching as much as you think
Just do your thing. Everyone around you is usually just focused on himself or herself. They’re not watching as much as you think and don’t really care.
16. Comparison kills
I was poor and homeschooled growing up so, as you can imagine, comparison was never a winning battle for me. You might say I “learned my lesson” but no one ever really does. You will never get to a point of contentment organically. You must make an effort to reflect on all the ways you’ve been blessed on an almost daily basis.
Comparison is toxic. It has led to shocking levels of debt and that results in equally shocking levels of anxiety.
17. Spend money on things that promote an active lifestyle
Once you have an adult-ish job, you’ll have a little expendable income. Think about what lifestyle you’ll promote with certain purchases.
Will a slightly larger and clearer TV bring you more happiness and satisfaction than seeing new parts of the world?
18. Work for betterment, not to impress
This one takes some mustard.
Every day when you show up at work, the questions should be “What can I do to better this organization?” It shouldn’t be, “How can I impress my boss?”
19. Put down your phone and listen
People have incredible stories to tell often containing enlightening lessons. Put down your phone and listen to them.
20. Each night reflect on the good and the bad and write it down
For a writer, I’m incredibly bad at journaling. But a few years ago I discovered something I’ll actually do. Each night I write down at least something good from the day and something bad. Sometimes I write much more, but I only require of myself those two simple sentences.
The good thing: you can’t rely on yourself to just randomly remember good things that have happened. It’s been fun reading back through my journal and walking through the positives of a random day.
The bad thing: reflecting on a negative event of a particular day months later gives you context. You’ll think, “huh, that doesn’t even matter now,” which then leads you to say “Hm, will this matter in a month? Is it worth being so stressed about?” in the moment of a setback or frustration.
21. Buy a pair of work pants
Spend the money on a quality pair of work pants. I’m talking about at-home pants for working on the car and doing yard work. Being comfortable and safe while adult-ing is worth every penny.
22. Don’t fight your disinterest too long
There are thousands of great books and you won’t be able to get to them all in your life, so if one you’ve been recommended doesn’t catch you, just bail on it and read something else. I usually read about a quarter of a book before I decide to bail since some are slow starters (even if it clear from the first chapter that it’s a dud). Books are just one example. I usually give new TV shows one episode to grab me and new musical acts about three songs.
The point is, stop punishing yourself with stuff you find boring. There’s enough edifying art out there to appease everyone.
23. Paper towels are worth every penny
My parents never have paper towels around and they’ve probably saved lots of money that way. I respect that — but they’re just too good. I will die arguing that the convenience of paper towels are worth every penny.
24. Carry cash
Write out a budget and then carry in cash the amount of money you plan to spend within a given period of time. Cards make it easier to forget how much you’re spending on coffee, golf, etc. Watching those paper dollars dissolve is a good reminder.
25. Micro-improvements matter
Trying to lose a few pounds? Park at the farthest parking spot away.
Trying to read more? Just 10 minutes before bed works.
Take advantage of small opportunities and be proud when you do them.
26. You can’t go 120 all the time
When you only play tennis once a week, don’t try to serve 110. You’ll hurt your shoulder and be out for six months. When you only play basketball once a week, don’t dive for a loose ball.
You’re getting older and stiffer by the day. Take it easy.
27. Keep a spare set of clothes at work
There’s going to be a time when you need to present something to very important people and you spill coffee down the front of your shirt and it’s terrible and you’ll rush to the Goodwill and buy a new dress shirt for $7 but you’re in too much of a rush to check the size and it’s way too small so you clean the coffee-stained shirt in the sink but while you were at the Goodwill the stain set so you’re very sad and stinky.
Don’t do this to yourself; keep a spare set of clothes at work.
28. No matter what, get a sweat in
I can’t overstate the positive impacts of exercise as a way to regulate the anxieties of life. Your confidence will skyrocket, you’ll sleep better and you’ll have more clarity. Just get a sweat in.
29. You can only do your best
What a relieving thought. No matter what happens, we’re only responsible for the results of our very best effort. There are other things far more powerful at play and you can’t shoulder the burden. You can only do your best and walk away satisfied.