I turned 25 last week. I’m neither thrilled nor disappointed. After 20, birthdays just sort of are.
I don’t feel old at all, but I don’t feel especially young anymore either. It’s the feeling of being sort of caught in the middle of two vague, large spaces, on a border between a pair of giant countries but not knowing when you’ve left one and entered the other. No one asks for a passport for utter adulthood.
It’s not quite the feeling of being lost, but it’s something like it. Living after education, but before rootedness. After dependence on others, before others are dependent on me. In many ways, a gray area. Young enough to feel there’s a lot of life before me, but old enough to wonder where the last few years have gone.
I think about some of the things I’ve learned — am continuing to learn — and many of them are those typical revelations of young seafarers setting sail with the winds of inevitable change: see yourself as lovable and valuable, failures are useful for future success, life isn’t meant to be lived alone, etc. What’s below by no means summarizes my life’s lessons, but as I spend a little time now considering, reflecting on a quarter-century aboard the mortal arc, here are a few things I think I’ve learned.
1. I don’t know as much as I thought I did.
It’s the essential education, the ultra-Socratic realization, and I come to realize it more every day. I’ve learned a lot, a lot, a lot, and it only confirms how much more there is to know. The infinitude and complexity of everything, where one question demands another, one thought reshapes the next, one perspective unveils a million new perspectives. There are some important things I feel I know, but mostly there are a lot of uncertain things and a lot of “information” that, in the end, is just trivia.
2. I know what I know because I was challenged about it.
I learn most things from watching other people, from reading, and from personal experience. But often it happens that I think I know something, then have to defend it or let it go. That’s the test: challenging, reasoning, defending. If no one’s challenged you on it, do you really know you know?
3. I hoped I’d have done more by now.
I don’t say this to be self-deprecating, but rather to expose a truth about reality. When I was 15, I assumed I’d have found the career of my dreams by the time I turned 25. When I was 18, I supposed I’d be married by now. When I was 20, I planned to have published my first novel within a few years. I do feel as though I have accomplishments to be proud of, but I’m very much at the beginning and middle of things. I’ve not arrived.
4. Doing worthwhile things takes time… and usually money.
This expands on the previous point. I don’t think I’ve failed to land my dream job, get married, or publish to this point because of personal faults (well, maybe a little). I think the reason is that I underestimated how long it takes to do these things well. Things I thought I could do in days really take months, and things I thought would take months take years. And many big things take many years (and many dollars) to do well.
5. You don’t appreciate your family until you’re out of the house.
Another one of those required life lessons that struck me about the time I arrived at college… at just the time when it was, in a sense, too late. Of course it’s not too late to appreciate my parents and siblings, but I do wish I had recognized those blessings more fully while I lived under the same roof with them. It’s that “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” idea, but it’s more than that, because it’s not only that I realize now how gracious God was, it’s the realization that you can’t go back to it, can’t redo; you can only do better going forward.
6. A lot of little things become big things… so save your change!
I can’t believe I used to discard leftover coins, letting them slip into secret places in furniture and under desks. Now that I collect all my change, it’s amazing the rubberband stacks one piles up after not too long a time. This is true for the good and bad in life. If you do a lot of tiny annoying things, you will become annoying. If you do a lot of subtle kind things, you’ll become kind.
7. Make a list, set a date, do it.
These are the ways I know a person is serious. If people say they are going to make a change, do a task, go somewhere “later,” I’m pretty skeptical. The best way to make myself do a thing is to write it down and set a deadline. Highly recommended.
8. Live your own life.
Some of my friends are married now. Some are still in school. Some live in their parents’ basement and some live in Africa. Some of my friends are dead. I care about all these people. Some I want to be like and some I don’t. But as much as I care, envy, or worry for, I need to do what’s right for me. Nothing is guaranteed for me — good or bad — so I need to live the best I can with the time I’m given.
9. The world can always look darker… or brighter.
Perhaps my lifetime has been uniquely troublesome in a political, economic, and cultural sense, but I doubt it. As “old people” have always reported, watching the news is depressing. There’s so much bad in the world. And I think it’s true that it just doesn’t end. If it’s not one war it’s another. Not one famine or drought or natural disaster or recession or shooting or corruption, there’s another just around the corner. How many wars can there be in the Middle East, really? A lot, I guess. How long will we talk about climate change, political corruption, crippling policy, before things really change for good? A long time. The point is, maybe, there’s always something bad happening, so you can either look away, or look at it with eyes for grace and change. The other side of the coin is that for all the tragedy, hatred, violence, poverty, ignorance in the world, there’s plenty of good stuff going on. And, what’s more, we can be part of that great good, so take great pleasure in that!
10. She already knows you’re smart, so stop trying to impress her.
I know plenty of people — and sometimes become one of them — who are still trying to prove how smart or funny or cool they are, even though everyone already knows them. So what should we do? Try being natural. It’s fine to be smart, but don’t waste your time showing off your intelligence to your girlfriend; she already knows you’re smart. It’s great to be funny, but stop overplaying your jokes; he already knows you can make him laugh. Over-emphasizing these things can backfire, making you look arrogant, one-dimensional, and it completely overwhelms your other qualities. Don’t be one of those people who is always trying to demonstrate just how intelligent, bold, funny, crazy, attractive they are. In my experiences, your friends don’t want you to always be the genius or the comedian; they want you to be you; that’s why they’re your friends.
11. Find something to hope in and something to laugh about.
I don’t believe in building false hopes for myself. If you think your hope is folly, don’t hope for it. But there are good, reasonable, amazing hopes, and without them, life seems hardly worth living. And, in the same breath, be able to laugh about things. Laugh about life; laugh when jokes are only a little bit funny; laugh when things are stupid; laugh when things are great; laugh at yourself. Hopes and laughter make life so, so much better.
12. Have a moral compass.
It seems obvious to me now: you’ll always be able to find an excuse to not do something you know you should and a justification for something you did you know you shouldn’t have. Because that’s the case, we need to know what our morals are. We need to have something we can hold ourselves accountable to, something to move our consciences, some kind of ethical defense that doesn’t sway with our daily whims.
13. If you don’t act on it, she will go to a guy who will.
This isn’t an excuse to be a creep or persistent after she’s made it clear she’s not interested; all it is is a reiteration of the age old truth — step up to the plate. For men and women — and not just in the dating scene — be confident, have boldness, take a risk. You’ll never get anywhere standing still.
14. Be at least kind of healthy.
We’re taught from a young age to get exercise and eat well, but I see more and more how important healthy living is. As I near 26 — the age when I’ll be responsible for getting my own healthcare coverage — it is increasingly on my mind that I had better stay fit. For my own well-being, but also because fixing something that’s broken costs money! Also on this note, I’ve realized that I almost never feel 100 percent anymore. I used to feel indestructible, but now there’s almost always at least one ache or twinge or mental lapse happening. Don’t take health for granted… but also don’t get paranoid about it. You probably don’t have a life-threatening illness right now; it’s almost certainly just a headache or a bug-bite.
15. Go places. And often.
If you can go abroad, do it. If you can travel to another state, go. Another city, yes please. I’ve been blessed with a lot of memorable experiences in my life, but my travel experiences are near the top of the list. Seeing other people, other places, other cultures, and taking in the wide world are hugely transformative experiences. They’re not just cool in a touristy way; they show you the world is bigger than you and your way of thinking. They make you humbler, more aware, more curious. They make you less ignorant. And, hey, they give you something to talk about at parties.
16. Your degree doesn’t get you your job.
This may not be universally true, but I think it’s the norm. By no means am I one of those people who thinks higher education is worthless; to the contrary, I think it’s incredibly valuable for one’s thinking, learning, relationships, and personal maturity. But as I’ve perused the job market — and seen all my friends do it — it’s become obvious degrees don’t equal jobs. Experience, proof of ability, value-added, and connections get jobs… and a little luck. Not that piece of paper with your name on it.
17. Read lots of books.
We have thousands of years of human wisdom and beautiful stories at our fingertips. You can live so many lives, go so many places, learn so many things, and all for incredibly cheap. Many of my friends don’t read, and I think they’re missing out. I know movies and music can teach and entertain us, but if we’re honest, these don’t come close (at least not yet) to replacing the brilliance and beauty of the world’s great literature. Read. It’s how you grow. You wouldn’t starve your body; why starve your mind?
As a writer, I’m biased, but I think everyone should write. I don’t mean everyone should write fiction, but I do think everyone should write down their ideas, their lines of thinking, and some of their personal stories. Remember all those great ideas you had when you were younger? Remember those little gems your grandparents told you? Remember how you felt in that one situation? You’d remember it better if you’d written it down. And, frankly, in the long term, most of us will be lost to history if we don’t write our lives on paper, which is just sad. (Beyond the practical importance of writing, it’s also a good way to process, think, and create.)
19. Force yourself to do things.
Don’t be a quitter… most of the time. That’s part of it. But the bigger part is that we should demand ourselves to develop habits. The only way I started writing everyday was by writing everyday, even when it was hard. Same for reading. Now I can’t sleep at night if I haven’t read. On the other hand, the reason I don’t run everyday is because I’ve failed to make it a habit. Most of these things don’t just happen. We have to make them happen. And once you make them happen long enough, only then do they start to happen on their own. So do hard things; they make you better.
20. We believe whatever we want, unless we have people to keep up grounded.
This is something I’ve been thinking lately. I think I would believe a lot of things because I want to believe them (not because I have good reasons to) were it not for people I trust checking me, challenging me, asking me why. I think we do what we want and believe what we want — not what’s best or true — until someone challenges us. So surround yourself with people you trust (that doesn’t mean people you always agree with). Talk about your thoughts; discuss things; challenge each other. Otherwise our beliefs will change with the wind and its trends.
21. God is faithful.
Not too many years ago, I might have said this to please people, but now I know and believe it for myself. Because I’ve seen it. Things work out. One way or another. Don’t worry. Even the bad has a silver lining. Even the worst day passes. Even the best day fades. And we go on. And things work together, if only we have eyes to see how.
22. If your list is over, end it.
I’d prefer this list to be 20 or 25 because 22 is not a great number for a list, but I’ve learned to do my best not to add words for the sake of adding words. The same goes for speaking: rarely should we talk just to talk. Ask, “Is this worth saying at all?” And when you come to the end, end.