35 Lessons by 35

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Today is my birthday. So it is my God-given right to dole out unsolicited wisdom I have gained from being old. 35 Tidbits of Wisdom because I turned 35. You’re welcome.


1. Believing you can improve is the first step to success.

I have a bit of a beginner’s luck problem. I tend to be pretty good at things on my first try. I bowled over a 130 in my first game. I got a flush in my first poker hand. I’ve always aced standardized tests.

This doesn’t seem like a problem, but in performing well without trying, I was less equipped to overcome obstacles when they inevitably came. I assumed I would just continue on easily until my ability ended. I chalked difficulty as a sign that I shouldn’t continue – that I had reached my peak and it was all downhill from there.

After reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, I was extremely sad to think of the things I had quit when I had encountered difficulty – hobbies, relationships, dreams. Now I’m more likely to pick up hobbies where I might have to face obstacles. I don’t want to quit when I’m behind – I want to either never quit or quit after I know I’ve given it my all.

2. Do a little bit every day.

Now that I know I need to improve, I try to work on all the things I would like to improve on a little bit everyday. As part of my belief in beginner’s luck, I also had a certain degree of perfectionism. I didn’t believe in working through obstacles (because you should just work perfectly and never encounter obstacles) and I only believed in practicing in bursts (probably because one shouldn’t try too hard and needing to work everyday means you probably aren’t meant to do it). But I’ve found that working a little bit everyday builds a habit, and provides better long term results.

So instead of thinking about perfect practice, my only goal for every day is to get a little bit better or to try at all. If you practice a little bit everyday, you can’t help but get much better over time, even better than if you had practiced for long stretches inconsistently.

3. Believing in your dreams is important.

This is the part of The Secret that’s not crap. If you believe in something, it makes it much more likely to come true.

The people who are successful did not have perfect lives. They are not the most privileged. They are not the luckiest. Every person who succeeds believed they could. Many who fail believe they can’t – and many haven’t even tried. Belief means you’ll try, and you’ll try confidently and longer than you would if you didn’t believe. Belief is not enough for success but it’s necessary.

4. What you think about your life is more important than what actually happens in it.

I read this anecdote about a woman who, before she was shown into her nursing home room, stated that she was going to love it. Her guide asked how she could know she loved it without seeing it. The woman replied that she had already chosen to love the room no matter what it looked like. Happiness was a choice she had made and it wasn’t dependent on the circumstances of her life.

Too often we think that something needs to happen to us before we can be happy. Then when it happens, we wonder why we aren’t automatically happy. But that’s because happiness isn’t something that happens to us – it’s something we choose every second of the day (depression aside).

5. People are more similar than they are different.

I heard a commercial that said that humans are 95% similar and we spend all our time arguing over the last 5%. We forget that this person before us is basically the same as we are.

It’s a weird thing to think when we are living in such a polarized time but I’ve always been amazed at how similar people ultimately are. I think about this every time I watch a movie about family struggles. Or about finding true love. Or even a movie about finding a fulfilling vocation. There is no group of people who doesn’t empathize with these tropes.

I think when we are growing up we have this idea of bad guys and good guys. We think if we put ourselves in another person’s shoes, we would behave differently. It’s freeing to think, in large ways, we are results of our genetics and our environments. We are all reacting to different genetics and different environments and that largely makes us different people. But I think if we had the same genetics and environment, we would all be much more similar. So yes, even though I just said above it’s all about what your attitude about your life is, I still have a lot of empathy for people who got dealt a rough hand. The thing is, if you’re dealt a rough hand, you still have the same responsibility for doing the best with it you can.

We all have the responsibility to get better but we can’t judge too much. We like the music that was popular when we were 13. We are unlikely to like jobs where most of the people are unhappy. We are likely to be happy in jobs where others are happy. If it works for most other people, it will probably work for us. (But see #34). Be wary of when others make a big deal of differences between people; often those differences don’t exist. People are similar.

6. Try to remember you’re important for who you are.

Even as I say we are all similar, each person’s voice is still vital. It can be easy to think that you’re just one in a million and that that makes you replaceable.

Sheryl Sandberg writes in her book Option B: “Adam and his colleague Jane Dutton found that counting our blessings doesn’t boost our confidence or our effort, but counting our contributions can. Adam and Jane believe that this is because gratitude is passive: it makes us feel thankful for what we receive. Contributions are active: they build our confidence by reminding us that we can make a difference.”

You can make a difference. Try to remember instances where you have. You and your contributions are vitally important.

7. Practice being happy/grateful/abundant/at peace right now.

If you can’t be happy right now, you won’t be happy when you make more money, when you lose weight, when you retire.

If you’re not happy now, figure out why. Don’t put off your happiness believing that something else is going to happen.

In some ways, it’s when you’re busiest that it’s the most important to prioritize. People know when they’re a priority. If you wait years for work to die down to see people, they will see that they were not important (this is not necessarily the case if you have a killer week or month). If you wait till retirement, even if everyone is alive that you wanted to see, they will know that they were only important enough when time was plentiful. If you wait till you’re completely safe financially to give, and that’s your first gift to your loved one, it’ll sting a little. You will have to spend a lot more.

It’s not the same to give when you have abundance. People recognize when you are giving out of scarcity and they appreciate it more. You can’t replace the sacrifice later in life when you’re comfortable.


8. This is the secret to happiness: Find a way to love the things you have to do, find time for the things you already love and minimize stuff you hate.

I saw an article that was ostensibly about cutting your expenses. Hate to cook? Well just batch cook once a week. Dude, if you know how to cook, know that you hate it, then do something else.

Life is short; there’s no reason to spend so much time doing things you hate in the name of “improving your life.” Being an adult should be about having the freedom to find the crossroads between joy and growth and health and financial stability and spending quality time with others.

9. Corollary: spend your money to increase doing the stuff that makes you happy. Minimize time and money spent on stuff/experiences that don’t make you happy.

This seems super obvious but no one ever does it. I hear people complain all the time about how unhappy Facebook makes them. Don’t read it, I say. Yeah, I guess I could do that, they say. But then they don’t.

Cut your time and spending on things that don’t make you happy or don’t have a purpose. Find the cheapest simplest things that make you happy. Do those as often as possible. And then, hopefully, you’ve freed up some money to do the more expensive things that make you happy. It’s a process but I find it’s a fulfilling one.

10. Once you have the necessities, take the time to rest.

Once you’ve set up your home, you’re mostly done.

Unless you’re a minimalist who works in a coal mine, you don’t need more clothing. You can get your shoes resoled. You can borrow books and movies from the library. You don’t need new furniture or new decor.

At 10 years, your phone probably won’t work anymore and your car will likely die. You will need a new mattress.

You will run out of food and water and toothpaste eventually. You might pick up some hobbies and some instruments. But enjoy the period when you don’t have to buy anything. Enjoy the period when you don’t have anything more to do. After you work out, rest. After your work day, rest. Don’t always be trying to get to the next thing.

11. The hardest part is being content.

You can get caught on the treadmill easily, see #10. Pick your goal, stick to it, stress less. People think achieving the goal is the hard part, but it gets even more difficult when you find new and greater goals. I’m content with my money? Why? Because I said I would stop worrying when I had saved $X and when I hit $X, I said, previous me thought it was enough and I don’t have enough evidence to say it isn’t enough. So I have no choice but to be content.

And I am.

Mental Health

12. Don’t believe everything you think.

There’s all this negativity running in our brains and a lot of it, you can’t even find the source. So much of what people believe is them repeating negative beliefs that someone said to them when they were a child. I’ve read so many of these: the kid who mocked your clothes or said this or that wasn’t cool or desirable. The girl who told you to laughed at your skinny legs. The boy who made fun of Kylie Jenner’s lips. People start believing these random terrible thoughts and they change their lives because of them. Instead of thinking, this kid’s an idiot, it’s “I have to change my lips!”

These memories are then triggered by other people who had no recollection of these previous memories or how it would affect them. And then we lash out at the triggers. And the relationships get ruined. Be careful what you think.

13. You don’t get bonus points for worrying.

I wish I could tell all women this. Yes, men worry too. But I’ve never known a man to wear his worry with pride. As in, I worry because I care more. I can out-worry you.

Worry almost never helps. And it usually hurts others and yourself.

14. Unplug.

If social media makes you feel bad about yourself, eliminate social media. Put a lock on your phone and your computer. Put yourself in places where you will be forced to put them down.

Consider unplugged dinners, camping, or just putting your tech in a different room so you can read or play. There’s a whole world out there.

15. Don’t pick your scabs.

Literally and figuratively. Don’t ruminate on the past just to self-flagellate. Don’t self-flagellate. Don’t dwell in regrets. Don’t dwell on things you can’t change.

16. Discomfort is a great thing.

I saw this article once that said to be uncomfortable everyday and then listed ideas like biking and turning off the a/c. I’m surprised he didn’t add “walk through sketchy neighborhoods.” Ok people die without a/c and when biking when unfamiliar. I mean, small discomfort is something you should do. And it builds resilience. It keeps you from staying on the couch all day. It keeps you changing and learning and growing. Discomfort can be a great thing (see #1).


17. Communication is an art, not a science.

It’s hard to convey the right messages in our words. People say it’s a text problem but it’s an every-medium kind of problem. I love this quote that people use music exists to speak the words we can’t express. Our understanding of communication is much more limited than we realize. People hear someone say one thing, and they think it means one thing. Or they believe it means something completely unrelated to what the person said because it triggers some thought in your head. Try to be graceful to others as they figure out how to learn to communicate effectively. Be graceful to yourself as well. Also, read this book and this article: Oprah’s 3 Questions for Effective Communication.

18. Learn not to take things personally.

Two lines that resonated with me.

It doesn’t matter what people say about you. If someone called you a purple elephant, would it be true? (From It Takes One to Tango)

Gabrielle Union in Health Magazine: “No one who’s ever said anything super negative to me has an amazing life. Once I realized that, it’s different than, like, J.Lo saying, ‘Her squat form wasn’t right.’ Because she would know. But you, in your mom’s basement, really?”

So now, if it’s not J.Lo speaking the word of Truth, then it doesn’t matter.

Just because someone said it, doesn’t mean you have to internalize it, react to it, or even acknowledge it. You don’t have to take everything to heart.

19. Be kinder than you think the situation warrants.

You will never regret giving someone the benefit of the doubt. (Just don’t give them any money.)

Something I try to do everyday: take the 30 day Most Important Person Challenge.

I also liked what Whitney Cummings wrote in Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans. Imagine the person as a small child. Imagine the person having a bad day. Always think in your mind “I love you” when speaking to someone to whom you might get angry or be mean to. Even if it’s a stranger. Particularly if it’s a stranger.

20. #19 includes being nicer to yourself.

Try to take the advice you give to your friends. Not because I think you’re a hypocrite, but people tend to be much nicer to their friends than themselves.

21. You can bring good or bad into the world every second of every day.

Every news story you click on is a vote. Every social media post can make or break someone’s day. You change the world every day. You know the butterfly that flaps its wings turns into a tornado, or something like that? Imagine if a person does one thing good or bad and the results it has on the word.

This was the situation for a friend of mine who worked in social media. She tweeted what she believed to be hilarious political burns on her personal account. Some people found it funny. But her company was afraid of the effect it might have on clients. Her boss had warned her multiple times already.

It was at this point that my friend complained to me about this event and how she felt she needed to post freely. But I imagine it’s hard to find a job in social media if you’re fired for impropriety on social media. The lack of income puts a strain on your marriage. You complain about the marriage stress constantly to your friends, who would like to support you but are embarrassed at your lack of responsibility for the whole situation. And you’re thinking, why do you have to post negative stuff? Simply, why?

I think we have grown accustomed to believing that negative stuff is more important than positive stuff. And while it’s important not to believe everything is perfect when it’s not, I think negativity is only useful if it can lead to positivity. If you post about something terrible, it should come with some understanding that we can help. It doesn’t help just to be outraged day in and out. Negativity CAN lead to positivity but it doesn’t necessarily lead to it. We are just making the world a little bit worse with every negative post and negative comment. And with social media, we’re all public figures now (not necessarily in a legal context).

I try to post positive content as much as possible. If it’s a mocking tweet, it’s mocking an idea or teasing a friend. I try to retweet positive stuff as much as possible. Because every tweet is a vote for good news.

There’s a Rumi quote I like that is often misinterpreted:

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.

It’s not that you give up changing the world and instead focus on changing yourself. It’s that if you change even one little action you make, you’ve already changed the world. They also say environment is more important than willpower. Can you imagine being surrounded by positivity for the day – what that would do for you – what that would do for all people who have to deal with negativity? Be the positivity in the world.

One more point for positivity: see #12 above where I mention that Kylie Jenner got lip augmentation because one boy made one comment. Those lip implants led to Kylie Jenner’s $1B lip makeup fortune, an uptick in lip implants (up 43% since 2000) and very likely increased lip envy for millions of women. If that one butterfly boy had shut his lips maybe more women could be content with theirs.

22. No one cares what you look like or how your life looks.

You’re not Kim Kardashian. (Unless you are. Hi Kim!)

So many of people’s beliefs of what they look like and how they compare are formed from some random kid in elementary school. People will make snap judgments, sure. But that kid doesn’t think about you anymore. Stop thinking about him/her. No one is looking at you and judging you. And if they are, they don’t matter. No one who matters is wasting their time like that.

23. Say your thanks to the people you love.

I heard this on Tim Ferriss too – (ok fine, I’m a Tim Ferriss fan. My ears perk up when I think about him. I’ve had a lot of breakthroughs just listening to him). But he gets on a plane and wonders if he dies whether he would be happy with his life. And I always think about whether I’ve told everyone I loved them enough. Told them everything that has changed about my life because of their influence and guidance and love. Do it. You won’t regret it.

24. Spend time with people who know different and more than you.

It makes me a little weirded out that people spend so much time with people similar to them. And I’m not even talking about their families, which I think is pretty normal. I’m weirded out by Christians who only hang out with Christians (btw I’m Christian and that’s why I’m picking on Christians). I’m weirded out that so many people don’t know any Trump supporters. I’m weirded out by Asians who only want to hang out with other Asians (sorry West-coasters, there just aren’t that many here). Millennials who only hang out with millennials.

I definitely default to an rich well-educated bubble, but I try my best to get out. I volunteer, I date, I travel, I used to meet randos on Craigslist personals. This has greatly expanded my understanding of the world and my empathy.

25. The answer is rarely the atomic bomb.

You have bad bacteria so you use antibiotics. The problem with antibiotics is that they don’t discriminate – they kill the bad along with the good.

The problem with cleansers is that they kill everything. Acne medicine kills the bacteria and dries out your skin.

When you dislike one part of the person, people will throw the whole person out.

When making decisions about people, it always seems like people are very willing to discard people without thinking about where they would go. Oh let’s treat white supremacists like trash. Ok, but humans are social creatures and will find another place to congregate away from you. What then? Oh, felons shouldn’t have jobs. Ok, but what happens if you have an ex-con who doesn’t have money? They’ll commit more crimes. Ok illegal immigrants are sent back to their country but they’re in poverty. Oh that sexual harasser doesn’t work here anymore, he works over at that other company.

So many “solutions” to our problems are thrusting them on weaker populations. It’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s getting rid of the bad, but it also gets rid of the good. There’s no chance to be redeemed. And even if you don’t care about the “bad people,” it’s not an easy solution when you throw everything out. It’s like getting rid of a predator in an ecosystem – it’ll come back to bite everyone.


26. Alcohol, bad foods, and bad habits will kill your looks.

It’s not that youth is more beautiful than age. People are more beautiful when they’re young because their bad habits haven’t caught up with them and most people have bad habits. The young have a reprieve from consequences for a period of time. You can become stronger and more beautiful as you get older. In fact, I believe people are most beautiful after their 20s because you see the compounding of good habits.

27. Look at your body but don’t obsess over how it looks.

It’s very important how your body looks – but not in the way that most people care about. If you’re bruised or your leg is broken, well that matters a whole lot how your body looks. You need to be able to see that to get help. If you are breaking out in a rash or acne, that’s a sign that something is going on with your body. Figure out the cause. That’s the important thing.

Looking at your thermometer is to ascertain the temperature, not to see how beautiful the thermometer is. You look at your body to make sure you’re healthy first, not to assess how beautiful you are. There’s a movement so that people won’t be forced to see their weight at the doctor’s office or won’t be weighed because it makes them feel bad. Get weighed! It’s important to see weight fluctuations for your health. It’s not important because of beauty.

28. Health before wealth.

People pay such lip service to this idea. I liked Tim Ferriss’ quote after he faced Lyme Disease that he would cancel meetings if he really needed the sleep. How many people would give themselves grace to get sleep if they need it? (And I know everyone will say, well I can’t do that because I have to go to work. But how many other things are you sacrificing for your health that have nothing to do with work?)

29. There are no magic beauty potions.

You will get cellulite. Personally, I don’t think it looks bad.

You will get wrinkles. Hopefully where you were once smiling.

You will get sun damage. Well, you should have worn sunblock! But you got your Vitamin D. and Vitamin D is important.

Aging is inevitable. It doesn’t mean you are less beautiful. Don’t spent too much on products that claim to do the impossible. Moisturize and then live your life.

30. Take care of your hands and feet.
I always thought it was weird when magazines would ask celebrities about their favorite beauty products and some would have the gall to list a hand cream. Hand cream! How boring is that?

But my hands do a ton of work and frankly they’re a mess. When your hands are a mess, peeling and cracking, cuticles in disarray, it hurts like a …well it hurts a lot. And your hands age quite early. We talk so much about self-care these days. I wonder if we are just doing the self-care that gets noticed the most – like in our face – and ignore the parts that we think matter less – like our hands. Take care of the things that are less glamorous. That’s how you really know you care about yourself.

31. The secret to social skills is to try.

It’s very hipster to be scowly. It’s very average to be on your phone. It’s very normal to think, oh that person is boring, this conversation is boring, I’m bored. It’s very extraordinary to be interested in someone else and to take the onus of the conversation on yourself. This is basically how all good conversationalists do it – they let the other person talk but lead the conversation somewhere interesting. Good conversation is not about talking a lot; it’s about making the other person feel heard. See Oprah.


32. Value your privacy.
So I live in DC, which means half the people I know are off social media because of privacy concerns. (Honest, I have more friends than it seems). I have a piece of tape over my camera. Everyone knows everything about everyone these days. It all becomes less special. Privacy is important.
33. It is all holy ground.

As an ENFP, I’m always trying to make connections in my life. What does this mean as a symbol for my life? What is this all leading to?

I loved what Rob Bell said in his tour. He gave a series of hilarious but unrelated stories and just said, this is it. Some would say none of it has meaning but Bell says it all does. Life doesn’t have a coherent theme. But all of this random stuff is the beauty and meaning of life.
34. If it works for you, it works.

In contradiction to #5, I heard this from my doctor and I was astounded. I went to go see her about my one meal a day diet, worried she would chastise me for doing something so stupid. But she noted, I looked and felt fine and my vitals were good so it was probably ok. It didn’t matter what others might say. People are different and what works for the experts might not work for me and vice versa.

This list is an excellent example.

These things work for me. They may not work for you. I love reading tips and tricks from other people, not because I think there are some magic bullet cure-alls. But they are ideas that I can think about and try out. Maybe I’ll find a little improvement there or there. Maybe it won’t work at all. But the beauty of the internet is that we can share all these stupid things that work for us.

I mean Monoi oil was a game changer for me (repels bugs). It might not be for you. But you never know what little trick you have may help someone else. Don’t intrude. But share what you know.

35. Everything is a waste.


Whatever you’re spending your time on, I mean it’s stupid. We are all going to die. You can’t take the time, the achievements, the loved ones. There’s nothing objectively more useful than anything else. The time is going to be spent whether you want to or not. The money will be spent or disappear. It’s all wasted. It will all be forgotten someday. Try to have fun with how you waste time.


All in all, be wary of listening to other people’s advice, including mine. We get to where we are and we have theories about what helped us to get here, but we didn’t conduct double blind controlled studies. We just lived our lives and made our best guesses, sometimes finding cause and effect where there was none. It may be helpful to you but it might not. Take whatever is helpful to you and disregard the rest. I hope there’s something in here that is helpful to you. But as you can see from reading this list, it’s a little bit contradictory.

Ultimately, this is a list that shows what I have learned and how I live my life. It may be completely irrelevant or even immoral to you. But I invite you to make your own list of lessons to show what matters to you. I’d love to read it.


9 thoughts on “35 Lessons by 35

  1. Really thought provoking and deeply introspective writing. Loved it. Great lessons I’ll try to remember myself

  2. Happy birthday!

    There are so many thoughtful tips here; some I’ve succeeded at and many that are still a work in progress. I have a couple more years before hitting 35 so hopefully I’ll be able to improve on a few more.

    1. They’re all still a work in progress for me too. I’m just spouting the lessons – I don’t follow them perfectly!

  3. Happy birthday!! This is a very thoughtful round up, and actually not what I expected! I expected something like (save X amount of dollars or save X% of your income by now). You sound very self aware, and the best thing about being in your thirties (ughhh mid thirties!! I’m right here with you sister) is learning how to be self aware.

    I cut facebook out 3 years ago and I listen to my friends say “I really should cut it out and delete it” every time I meet up with them. I love being Facebook-less.

    1. I mean, you should save x% of your income. =D I think growing older has, oddly, been about becoming more self-aware. And something I’ve found out about myself is that I love face-to-face time and I think finding out about people’s lives on Facebook is creepy. I guess I’m an old. Thanks for reading!

  4. Happy Birthday! I enjoyed reading this tremendously. Love the embracing obstacles mindset, I’m certainly guilty of not trying when I think I will fail.

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