20 Lessons in 20 Years

20 Lessons in 20 Years
Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo / Unsplash

About two months ago I turned 20. Here are 20 lessons I would give my 19-year-old self.

That thing you’re worried about–you don’t need to be. Relax. Remember all those things you fretted over in the past? Was it ever necessary? Did it ever help? No–so breathe and let it go.

Feedback stings, but it’s necessary. Nothing stings more than staring your inadequacies in the face (and realizing that other people see them too). However, if you want to grow, the most helpful thing someone can do is hold up a mirror in front of you. Though it doesn’t feel like it in the moment, the kindest type of love is tough love.

Your Decisions. Your Life. You can ask others for advice, but in the end, they’ll never have as much skin in the game as you do. If you follow their advice and it doesn’t work out, that’s on you not them. Blaming gets you nowhere because the consequences are yours to bear.

Think for yourself. Dogma is powerful. The more I examine my beliefs, I’m shocked by how many of them are not my own but were adopted from others. Learn to think for yourself so you can maximize the beliefs that are helpful and debunk those that aren’t.

Lean into the silence. (i.e. listen!) I struggle with this one every single day. The slightest pause in conversation will have me grasping for something to say because the silence makes me uneasy. But sometimes the chasm of silence is what opens up the opportunity for authenticity. So don’t rush through the pauses. Maybe they’re not fires to be extinguished but the wind that ignites the embers of vulnerability.

There’s no traffic on the extra mile. Most people I meet are shooting for the bare medium. They don’t want to be bad at what they do, but they don’t want to put in the effort it takes to be great either. Society has conditioned us to be average–to contribute as little effort as possible to gain as much reward as possible. This leaves a blue ocean of opportunity for those willing to go the extra mile.

It turns out the long way is the shortcut. I heard that from Seth Godin. As much as we all know this to be true, in the back of my mind, I find myself scanning for ways to get “there” faster. In reality, building something that matters correctly takes time.

Get a real-life alarm clock. Stop sleeping with your phone in your bedroom! It will drain you of sleep, health, and peace. “But it’s my alarm clock,” is a lame excuse. Alarm clocks are $15. Buy one. I invested in this one a few months ago which slowly wakes you up with sunrise lighting and a soothing sound. It’s been worth the $40 to not wake up to a jarring dump-truck sound, but get what you can afford. My sleep is better. My mood is better. I’m a better person because I sleep on a different floor from my smartphone.

Burnout hurts productivity more than missed time. (i.e. take breaks) I’m one to push through what feels like temporary exhaustion, but doing so is long-term detrimental. Even if I squeeze a little more productivity out of this extra hour/day/month, the compounding effects of running on empty will make me less focused and more tired than I would have been if I had just taken a break. Live your life in a way that gives your family something other than “workaholic” to inscribe on your tombstone.

You can handle more than you think you can. Yes, taking breaks is important, but don’t be afraid to push yourself. Stress-test your current system. Don’t assume you’ve reached your limit until you push up against it (unless you’re thinking of trying drugs, daredevil stunts, or a hotdog eating contest).

This is all there is, and that’s enough. When I travel outside of my hometown and switch up my environment, sometimes I feel a sense of emptiness that sounds like, is this all there is? When I tune into that emptiness instead of trying to run from it, fill it, or cover it up (like I normally do), I realize it’s not emptiness, but stillness. Stillness feels so foreign because I usually numb myself to it. It turns out what feels like nothing at first is actually everything I need.

Wherever you go, there you are. I don’t mean to sound like a hippie, but peace comes from within. If your thoughts drive you crazy now, if you’re discontent now, or if you’re angry now, that won’t change with a trip to Tahiti. No destination can give you lasting peace, and you don’t need to be a globetrotter to go on a spiritual journey. Figure things out right where you are. Ryan Holiday says another way, “don’t bring ruins to ruins.”

Don’t idolize people. Idolize God. People cannot bear the weight of your expectations. When you put them on a pedestal, they’ll let you down not because they’re are bad, but because they’re human. God is only the one who can carry the weight of your soul without letting you down.

There’s no easy life. Only an easy yoke to bear it. An “easy life” doesn’t come from a circumstance, city, job, or partner because such a life doesn’t exist. We’ll all always have problems. But even though there isn’t an easy life, there is an easy yoke to help us shoulder whatever burdens we’re carrying. It’s offered by Jesus.

Jesus was the way as much as the truth. To have the peace, purpose, and connection to God Jesus had, we have to live as he did, meaning the way he lived was important. Jesus wasn’t just teaching us principles. He was also showing us the lifestyle that would bring us closest to God.

Keep journaling. It doesn’t matter if it’s coherent. You’re not writing for anyone else. You’re not even writing for your future self to look back on. You’re writing for your sanity in the current moment. Anne Frank said, “paper is more patient than people” and Julia Cameron aptly calls journaling “spiritual windshield wipers.” Clear the mental gunk by getting your thoughts out of your head and onto a page. 90% of the time, you’ll feel better for it.

Don’t impose happiness. For years, I found myself frustrated with people I love because I thought they needed to change their lives for the better. Recently, I’ve realized even if they did follow my advice, it might not make them happy. Who am I to determine what’s “better” for them?

It’s ok to let go. Some friendships fizzle out, some jobs aren’t forever, and some relationships come to an end. That doesn’t mean any of these were bad. Sometimes it’s time to let go not because it’s bad but because it’s time.

You can’t make old friends. At the same time that it’s ok to let go, don’t do it out of laziness. All relationships take time and effort to maintain. The good ones are worth it. When you’re older, you won’t be able to make old friends. You can’t re-create history, so nurture the ones that matter and don’t let them go.

Keep asking questions. Always stay a student. There’s so much you don’t know. You can figure out a lot by trying things on your own, but if you want to accelerate your learning, ask as many questions as possible. Most people won’t mind. I used to feel bad for asking because I was afraid of wasting peoples’ time. However, I’ve found most people are very generous with their time and are more than willing to help. They know everyone starts somewhere, and they were once in the same shoes as you.