38 lessons learned by my 35th birthday
8 min read

38 lessons learned by my 35th birthday

I reflected on my 35th birthday and took the time to write down the lessons and wisdom I've learned that have helped me to navigate my life.
38 lessons learned by my 35th birthday

One of my (unfortunately) common observations I often complain about to my partner is that Nobody Thinks. It's not so much an insult leveled at others as a reflection of what I feel I lack the most in my life - time to think!

When I reflect, I conclude that there's only one original thought my aging 35-year-old brain can remember, and unfortunately, it's the thought that Nobody Thinks. How ironic!

I'm exaggerating, of course, but perhaps less than one may...think.

So, in the spirit of trying to exit the Nobody Thinks group and find out what exactly has been floating around upstairs, I sat down on my 35th birthday last week to see what thoughts I've accumulated over the years.

Here we go!

1. Explore widely

Luck and success are downstream of many things, but a critical input that I've tended to ignore in the past is exploration. Actively exploring interesting sub-communities, hobbies, emerging ideas, and scenes has clear benefits:

  1. Learning new knowledge / meeting new people (which are both fun!).
  2. Connecting that knowledge with your existing knowledge base. This is where creativity lives.
  3. You can catch a wave that you otherwise would have missed.
The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed.

When an opportunity is "obvious", it's likely not an opportunity at all. Go forth and explore!

2. Make time for exploration & play

Related to the above, one must also have the time to explore and to act on said exploration.

I've missed several waves in the last decade despite knowing about them relatively early. I never spent time truly exploring each space, always justifying to myself that I couldn't take action because I didn't learn the fundamentals. Small-time exploration investments could have pushed me to take action instead of sitting on the sidelines, which would have significantly impacted my life.

Try to be a bit underemployed.

3. Be deliberate about your direction

I think that many people over-invest on execution or routine work and under-invest on strategy, or direction. I've found this to be especially true in the bootstrapper/business community. We spend all of our time reacting and solving problems that arise without questioning whether we're solving the most important problems or are even on the right path.

4. Everything passes

Thoughts and emotions pass, and quickly at that. I won't be angry, sad, happy, or stressed forever. In fact, I may not feel any of these in the next moment. So experience them and let them pass. Don't give them fuel.

5. The ends aren't fulfilling (for long)

The euphoric moment of success you dream about lasts about as long as any other emotion. When it happens, it causes a momentary feeling, even a powerful one. But then it's gone, back to normal. In the end, the struggle was what it was all about, anyway. So embrace it and learn to love the process.

6. Empathy is missing

Thinking through the other person's point of view, with depth and in good faith, is one of the most absent things in our society today. It's also one of the most valuable. Nobody does this.

7. Cultivate skepticism without paralysis

One should cultivate healthy skepticism. Most things you read or hear are half-truths and should be analyzed. This shouldn't, however, lead to decision paralysis - go ahead and make your decision. But don't approach it in a right/wrong manner. Instead, think probabilistically and let new information update your decision along the correctness continuum.

8. Truth matters

Truth is a virtue and has inherent value. One shouldn't hide from the truth. Your feelings shouldn't enter the equation. Do you want to be correct and possibly uncomfortable for a time, or wrong and comfortable? I have trouble understanding people that consistently choose the latter.

9. A great relationship partner is the best unlock you can make in your career, happiness, intelligence, satisfaction, and life.

Find someone that makes you better.

10. Don't dismiss toys

Things that turn out to be important often start as toys. One can so easily brush them aside and label them as stupid. Hold off that reaction. Just play with the idea or object and don't try to classify it, judge it, put it in a box, or dismiss it. Punt the classification decision down the road and just let the thing marinate in your mind.

11. Physiology rules

We're all trapped by our physiology. When I'm sad or tired or upset, I've learned that there are things I can reliably do to improve my mood and state of mind. Pulling the levers of sleep, exercise, and socializing with friends or family always makes me feel better, and quickly at that.

12. You don't have to identify with anything

Going to the gym doesn't make you a "gym bro". Writing poetry doesn't make you soft. Living outside the city doesn't make you conservative. Your skin color doesn't decide your views for you. You're just you. Don't succumb to people trying to label you. Make up your own mind.

13. Be very careful who, and what, you let influence you

Because they will. Like water slowly eroding a rock face, you'll realize some day that you're entirely different than you used to be. Or even worse, you won't realize how much you've changed.

Is daily Reddit, Instagram, TikTok, etc, healthy for your mind? What about that constantly negative friend? We're all being influenced every day. Be deliberate about your influences, particularly the daily ones.

14. Changing your mind is a strength, not a weakness

This gets extremely hard to do when you identify with your current position and make it part of who you are. When new data appears and it warrants a change of mind, do it immediately. Truth matters.

15. Everything is hard

Doing anything well is hard. Get used to doing hard things.

"Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life."

Lean into the struggle.

16. Leave home to understand it

Related to exploration (point 1), make sure to travel. You don't know where you're from until you leave. Life isn't "solved" where you live - there are many ways to approach a problem and many tradeoffs in every solution. Soak up the good and the bad of different cultures, your own included.

17. Exceptionalism should be encouraged and admired

Expect more of yourself because you might be surprised by what you can accomplish. But while you can, and should, admire exceptional people, don't yearn to be them. There will always be someone with more innate talent than you, but at the same time, you'll always be the best in the world at being you. So carve out a unique position with your unique talents and be the best you can be.

18. Just keep improving

Assuming a reasonably long timeline, slope is more important than y-intercept. Always be improving and compounding your knowledge, and in time your results will speak for themselves.

19. Things worsen unless you work on them

Everything tends toward disorder/entropy. One cannot withdraw from investing in their relationships, business, friendships, physical and mental fitness, knowledge, etc, and expect them to remain the same.

20. What little you have might just be an advantage

In your chosen path, there was almost certainly someone less fortunate and privileged than you that "made it". Except in the most extreme situations, you should ignore your lack of privilege or resources and just make it work. Be creative. How many trust fund babies have been successful, anyway? How many important companies have been created inside a well-funded larger company? Small, disadvantaged, and scrappy may be advantages that you're dismissing.

21. Be kind

Everyone is going through something. That's life. Be kind.

22. Progress is rarely glamorous

I have become skeptical of the motives of the most vocal people espousing problems and issues in society. They may appear to care about said issues, but on closer inspection, their views are often surface-level.

The levers one can pull to disproportionately impact an issue positively are often, though not always, boring, tedious, and at the system level. They are the opposite of glamorous.

Heuristic: if it sounds like, or is, a viral social media post, it's probably not an effective solution.

23. Pay the price

If you're reading this, you can probably achieve the vast majority of what you want in life. The key is finding out how much what you want costs, and paying it. The price may be very high. Few pay it.

24. Memes are stupid profound

Don't dismiss the power of memes, and the insight often contained in them. People are copying machines. There can be important truths hidden in "stupid" memes. And memes can be a leading indicator of broader societal changes.

25. Dial down the ego

It's an illusion, anyway.

26. Understand tribal behavior

We are, at our core, tribal animals. Tribal behavior manifests everywhere. You want to believe that your tribe is the best, and maybe it is the right one for you, but you should understand the limitations of your tribe and the benefits of other tribes.

27. You're already deciding

Not making a decision is making a decision.

28. Understand that all media has bias

Broadly speaking, the media has become much less trustworthy. Driven by global competition due to the internet and its zero marginal costs, profits have dwindled, and publications have had to carve out a niche and take a point of view. Combined with the fact that extreme content spreads faster than a nuanced point of view via social networks, I find myself unable to trust most of what I read, save for a few individual content creators I've managed to find.

29. Food isn't that hard

Nobody says it quite like Lyle McDonald:

Ignore vegan zealots. Ignore carnivore zealots.

You need sufficient protein, animal protein is superior to vegetable protein but a mixture is fine.

You need lots of fruits and vegetables. Only vegan petards think that meat including diets don't include those.

You need the essential fats.

Everything else is negotiable and staying lean and active will trump ALL of this shit in the big picture.

Adding: there are nutrients that are best derived from animal products not found or found in smaller/less absorbable amounts in vegetable products.

There are nutrients that are best derived from vegetable products that are less so or not found in animal products.

Anybody who says you don't need one or the other is too stupid to bother with.

30. Be aggressive

Default to aggression. I don't mean physical aggression or intimidation, but the aggressive movement towards your goals. Way back when, I played online poker for a living. One of the most important lessons I learned is that you simply cannot win without being aggressive. Choose your spots carefully, but when it's time to act, do it without hesitation. Passivity doesn't win.

31. Balance striving with gratitude

Constant dissatisfaction and striving for more are hardcoded into us. If you're reading this, you're likely among the wealthiest and most privileged group of people in all of human history. Striving is essential, and on a societal level, constant striving and dissatisfaction are certainly features rather than bugs. You can, and should, strive for better in your own life, but at the same time, remember that you are already incredibly fortunate.

32. Everything costs something

Even if it's just an idea living in your brain. Be careful what you accumulate.

33. Be mindful of Dunning-Kruger.

Stay humble and open-minded.

34. Be aware of dependencies

They can break and make you brittle. In code and in life.

35. Foster momentum

Momentum is essential, particularly when starting something new. It takes a lot of activation energy to get the ball rolling. If it's an activity you want to keep in your life, put in the energy to maintain the momentum. It's so much harder to start again.

36. Keystone habits rule

Be mindful of your keystone habits. For me, going to bed on time is so key. Because if I mess this up, the morning is shot, which means my work degrades, as does my fitness, my mood, etc.

Another one that's important to me is reading every day. Doing just a small amount of daily reading adds up to many books, articles, and the chance of serendipity each year.

37. Make the positive choice

If you're debating about whether or not to do something beneficial but annoying (going to the gym, cooking, working, etc), decide to do it right there. Stop the debate and make the right call. Once you start, it's not much harder (if at all) than the other option, and you'll feel good.

38. Give

Give without asking for anything in return. Giving inherently feels good, helps others, and inevitably it will come back to you anyways. Just give.