Today I turn 23. Here are 23 things I’ve learned, principles to live by.
ALIGN YOURSELF WITH TRUTH. It’s always the best course of action. Telling lies—to others, to yourself, to the world—adds up. You are always watching yourself, and when you can’t even trust yourself to tell the truth, your self-esteem starts to crumble. Simplify your life by just being truthful, in every way: in literal conversation, and in being truthful to yourself about what you want in life.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. Treat your body well. When you are healthy, you feel better in just about every way. You are happier and kinder and you are more creative. It’s not vanity, it’s just living fully. Give your body:
- Good food
- Good sleep
- Good exercise.
SEEK OUT SILENCE. Meditate, or have a practice that centers you in some way. Having that silence with myself is one of my favorite parts of the day, to just listen.
DROP THE NARRATIVE. We love to invent stories. We are story-forming creatures, and this is often a good thing for how we translate experiences into happiness. But we also tell ourselves narratives that are often limiting and unhelpful. Because something happened in our past, we tell ourselves that we can’t do this or that. We form a narrative where there is none; where there is just life, in all its weirdness and randomness. (Social media doesn’t help.)
BE PRESENT. I know this sounds trite, but it’s astounding how much we aren’t in the present. And before you know it, your life has passed by. I still struggle with this: when you are listening just listen, when you are watching a movie just watch the movie. Just be here now. Life has more depth that way, more beauty, more richness.
SEEK OUT HELP. See a therapist. Talk to your friends. Talk to your parents. You don’t need to do this alone. On that note…
FRIENDS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN LIFE. I’m serious. Spend time with your friends. Actively make time for them. Having positive relationships is important for your health. Not only that, but if you’re in any sort of creative field the friends you make will often be the ones who give you a job, or who you work with, or who introduce you to someone else who can change your life. And beyond all that, having fun with friends is one of the most pure joys in life there is, so much so that I struggle to find anything more essential. Your relationships are the most important thing.
HAVE A CLEAR SENSE OF INTEGRITY AND VALUES. Having a clear sense of integrity and values is essential for making meaning in a chaotic world that is ripe with nihilism. When you don’t have values, you rationalize behavior that is destructive, to others and to yourself. It’s a bad place to be.
YOUR EDUCATION NEVER ENDS. It certainly doesn’t end with formal education. (I never finished.) Education is something you’re always doing. It’s some of the most important “work” you do on a daily basis. Always be learning, always be reading, always be curious. Take classes, travel, have weird experiences. Don’t let anyone tell you you need a certain formal degree. Keep on reading and learning always.
"HOW WE SPEND OUR DAYS IS, OF COURSE, HOW WE SPEND OUR LIVES." - ANNIE DILLARD. I have had this quote taped next to my bedroom door for a long time. It sounds so obvious, but it is so true: how will you spend this day—this one, right now, today? Because the days add up to form your life. So design your perfect day. Then try to live it, as much as possible. Do your work. Take a nap. See friends. Play. Exercise. Read a book. Be creative. And on that note, when things seem overwhelming, when things seem scary and sad and like you’re never going to make it, just focus on today. Don’t worry about anything else—the past or future. What can I do today? How can I focus on just making today great? Or at least as good as I can make it? I ask myself that question a lot, if I’m feeling overwhelmed by anxiety over the future, guilt or depression over the past.
YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU WANT. Seriously, you can. There really aren’t any rules. You don’t need permission. This is life, not school. Use that freedom for good: write a play. Start a business. Go live in Spain.
ALL THOSE WASTED DAYS ADD UP TO SOMETHING. From Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: “When I was done writing [the book], I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up.” Your days add up to your life, but sometimes days we thought were ‘wasted’ compound in ways completely unexpected; that the debauchery with old friends and new friends might actually be part of the point, that it makes you closer and also it makes you alive.
HAPPINESS IS INTERNAL, NOT EXTERNAL. And that means it’s achievable within you. Right now. It took a really long while for me to even remotely figure this out. I used to be sad a lot. My teachers called me Eeyore. I still can be a downer sometimes. But, as long as you have your basic needs taken care of (and of course this is not a given), you can love what you have, find peace within. Because constantly chasing for the next thing that will make you happy is an endless treadmill of hedonic adaptation. It leads nowhere.
YOU ARE WORTHY OF LOVE. And, moreso, you are loved.
STOP BEING SO FUCKING BUSY ALL THE TIME. In Tim Kreider’s masterful essay “Lazy: A Manifesto” from We Learn Nothing, he writes: “More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor or a worm in a Tyrolean hat in a Richard Scarry book I’m not convinced it’s necessary. I know we’re all very busy, but what, exactly, is getting done? Are all those people running late for meetings and yelling on their cell phone stopping the spread of malaria or developing feasible alternatives to fossil fuels or making anything beautiful?” It’s best to cultivate stillness, and a certain amount of laziness. Do the important things in life, the work you need to do and the work you love. But for many of us we fill our lives with emails and shit we feel is necessary but is merely a mirage; we spend our time with pointless tasks and todos when the real life was always outside, grabbing a drink with friends, lounging in Central Park on a sunny afternoon, playing hooky from all the ‘busy’ duties we were supposed to be doing and realizing that when we didn’t do them, the world did not end.
FILL YOUR LIFE WITH MEANINGFUL WORK. The flip side to not being busy is that work does matter. Along with relationships, finding meaningful work is one of the most important ingredients to a happy life. It means putting yourself into something you love, whether that’s designing, engineering, performing, writing, volunteering, or whatever. It can really be anything. It means doing something that you think is meaningful and important, and being genuine in that. I try to fill my time with lots of “work”, but it’s all things I love to do and make me happy, even if I don’t get paid for it. (And when I do, we’re really cooking.) I treat a lot of things like “work”: I make time to read a lot, time to write, time to act, time to make things and produce. I love all of it: that’s the kind of meaningful work that is worth filling your life with, the kind of thing that makes life meaningful.
PAIN IS A PART OF LIFE. As much as we try to avoid it, we will suffer. This is the first thing the Buddha taught, and the dude was spot on. Instead of flinching away, I’ve found it’s best to embrace that it’s going to happen. We get upset about stupid things, feel heartbreak, fall in and out of love, get hurt by friends—and these are just some small, first world problems. But pain can make us stronger. We can grow through failure. When we open up to it, feel into it, and then reflect upon what happened: we can become just a bit better, a bit stronger, a bit wiser. But it’s a continual up-and-down process, of failing and rebounding, of getting hurt and bouncing back—the key is to make sure it’s trending upwards, from a macro perspective.
KEEP AN OPEN MIND. In the past I’ve been somewhat argumentative and closed-minded. I think I’m right and that’s that. I’m trying to become more open-minded, and radically so. So that even when I come in with an extreme bias, I try to listen. I try to keep an open mind in all ways: in life, in art, in thought systems, in politics. In that way, life is continually opening new doorways for me to explore. I don’t assume I know everything about anything. Because I pretty much never do.
KNOW WHAT THE BEST DECISIONS ARE, THEN MAKE THEM. This is from Ray Dalio, and this one I have taped to my wall. You have to, with the best of your abilities, determine what the best decisions are. And then—and this is by far the much more difficult part—you have to have the courage to make them. This is tricky, because I come from a generation that is obsessed with keeping our options open, of being radically indecisive, of letting things slide until the decision is irrelevant or made for you. Instead, MAKE MORE DECISIONS. And as you do, become better at making decisions. That gives you a better life, one that you have authorship over.
OPTIMISM IS UNDERRATED. I used to be pretty pessimistic and cynical. It’s easy to be. The world kind of seems like it might end soon, for starters. If not by nuclear war, then climate change seems a bit problematic, to say the least. And if that isn’t enough, everything we do seems to pretty much be completely insignificant on the cosmic side of things: we’re living our entire lives in the blink of an eye on a tiny ball of mud that is a speck of dust in the infinitely expanding universe. Even if humanity does survive the next 100 years, it’s almost certain we will eventually fade away. And even if that doesn’t happen, you will still die, and what you leave behind will fade away too. Nothing we do matters.
So why be positive and resilient in the face of certain annihilation? Why not give in? Because life is better when you have a deep-seated optimism. Not a surface-level, self-help, smiley version. But when you believe that we can work together as humans to make this world a slightly better place, just for the time being, and that you can make a difference: by being kind, by creating art or doing whatever it is you do. By rippling out, positively influencing the future of humanity.
I also find it’s helpful when I take a step back, go to the ontological, and realize what a remarkable thing it is to even exist at all, to be alive and be able to read this and to be able to think and be conscious. Existence is a mystery, there being something rather than nothing, and we won the lottery just to be born, let alone to be born with enough privilege to read this, let alone to be born during the most peaceful and prosperous time in the history of the human race. (Despite all the horrors that still exist, for so many people.) There’s too much to be grateful for for me to be negative.
And as one final point: negativity does nothing. It will make you angrier, it will make others around you angrier, and you will act not from a place of love. Even if the world is going to end, having this essential optimism is important for a productive worldview because it makes you be able to act at all. And being optimistic leads to being kind, and being kind leads to being happier. And if we’re going to die, we might as well spend this short life being as happy as we can be.
I now try to carry optimism with me in most matters. I assume that my best growth is ahead of me and that the world will continue, that it can be redeemed. I do this because I have no other choice if I want to be able to be a productive, sane, and happy member of society. It’s not delusional—I strive to understand reality as-it-is, and I am still pessimistic about certain matters. But again, it’s a deeper thing: it’s acting from a deeper place of optimism. Not necessarily “everything is going to be alright” but “everything is going to be, and that’s alright." I should write fortune cookies.
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. This is another radical shift I made in the last year, and it must be carefully explained, but here it is: take responsibility for EVERYTHING in your life. Yes, everything. That doesn’t mean blame. It doesn’t mean beating yourself up for things you did, or things that happened to you. It just means owning your life, really taking complete authorship over it. When you do this, something strange happens, and that’s that things start to seem like they’re more in your control. By taking responsibility for things that weren’t even our fault, it means we don’t flinch away from reality. It means not blaming, but taking things in stride and saying, “OK, this happened, what can I do about it now.” Owning our actions and their consequences. Owning everything in our lives.
TRUST YOURSELF. By this I mean trust your intuition more. Trusting your gut is actually a biological thing; we’ve had millions of years of evolution to get here, and humans have long relied on trusting their guts. In this day and age it’s easy to second guess it, or defer to an opinion you read online. But when we really listen to ourselves, really get in touch with our intuition, we almost always make better decisions, and decisions we are more satisfied with. It’s something I’m still learning.
WRITE. Writing, along with reading and perhaps meditation, is one of the great meta-skills. That is, it’s useful no matter what you do, and its value is widely applicable and compounds. I have been a somewhat obsessive journaler in the past, and I think that this can sometimes lead to us telling ourselves a narrative that is false—this has happened to me—so I wouldn’t recommend becoming obsessive about it. But I journal almost every morning and/or night, just to get down all the crazy shit that bubbles up from the subconscious. I find that when I do, I am more centered, and I get more ideas. Both of those are big wins. But diaries are also, as Austin Kleon puts it, “evidence of our days”. And then, when you do it enough, it becomes something to look forward to. Writing becomes a way to think, a way to process, a way to articulate what has been brewing around in the back corners of your brain for too long. And then, when you’re ready (or not), you might try sharing some of it.
Okay. That’s 23. I hope this list expands and refines over the years. I’ve been surrounded by the most remarkable people in my life, and I hope to continue to meet new people and have the opportunity to spread more love. I love you all, and I love life.
If you have any comments or responses, feel free to shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.