Last week I turned 30.
This seems as good an occasion as any to memorialize some learnings from the past three decades.
Since thirty trips around the sun doesn’t qualify me as wise enough to tell anyone else how to live, I’ll address this to my future self.
That said, I hope you’ll find a few gems in here that will bring you more of whatever you’re seeking.
1. Control your environment
Don’t trust yourself to make good decisions. Instead, design your environment so the right decision requires the least amount of effort. This might mean you avoid bringing unhealthy food into your home or you turn down a job offer where you may be pressured to compromise your morals. Whatever the case, you’ll have a better chance of making a good decision by setting up the right inputs rather than relying on yourself to create the right outputs.
2. Cure your ignorance
Whenever you’re embarrassed by your own ignorance in a certain subject,resist the urge to convince yourself that it doesn’t matter. Instead, try reading a book about it. Then you can decide whether it’s important.
3. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind
This comes from a quote I like by Maria Popova. History is littered with examples of seemingly smart people who ended up doing or saying dumb things because they were too attached to obsolete mental models. Even for beliefs that have served you well in the past, don’t hold on to any so tightly that they can’t be abandoned in the light of better evidence.
4. Align yourself with those who matter to you
The foundation of any valuable relationship is alignment. This goes for romantic relationships, professional ones, friendships or any other type. You want her to achieve her goals. She wants you to achieve yours. Your relationship works because, together, you both have a better shot at getting what you want. As soon as that that changes (e.g. her professional success damages your ego) the relationship will start to deteriorate. Make sure that you stay aligned with the people who matter to you. Thanks to Russ Klusas for teaching me this one.
5. Create more value than you capture
This quote by Tim O'Reilly encapsulates a great operating principle for businesses and individuals alike. The market typically forces companies to create products that customers value more than the money they offer in exchange. Businesses that can’t accomplish this usually cease to exist. Individuals, however, can hang on for quite a bit longer extracting resources from their relationships without offering much in return. Rarely, however, does this lead to happiness. Eventually, those who extract value without giving to back, end up alone.
When meeting new people, it may be tempting to ask yourself: what can I get out of this encounter? Instead try asking: what might this other person want from our encounter, and how might I deliver it? Whether this impulse strikes you as altruistic or ultimately self-serving, it tends to be a great way to build long-lasting relationships. Put another way, I’ve rarely met anyone who focused on creating value for others that didn’t reap their fair share in return.
6. Use humor wisely
Humor has always served as my defense to keep unimportant things (politics, relationship drama) from taking on too much significance. I’ve found it to be a great way to turn mountains into molehills. Unfortunately, I’ve also used it to prematurely diminish things (like eating healthy, personal finance, exercise, etc.) that later turned out to be hugely valuable. In those situations I used humor to justify my own lazy choices. Ultimately, embracing humor has made for a richer, happier life. Just don’t use it as a way to delude yourself out of trying things that are hard.
7. The obstacle is the way
Few great stories concern a hero who wants something and has an easy time getting it. We instinctually admire those who must overcome massive odds to achieve their goals. Yet, when obstacles show up in our own life, it’s easy to fall into self pity. While I can’t claim to have been tested by truly overwhelming obstacles, I like to challenge myself to take what problems I do encounter and try to identify the opportunity. I’ve found that each time I do this, the next problem feels less weighty. I hope this practice will keep me antifragile in the case that I end up facing something that truly tests me.
8. Don’t react. Respond.
There’s a story I read somewhere that’s always stuck with me. It involves two dining companions at a fancy restaurant. Suddenly, one of the guests screams at the sight of a cockroach in her salad. She swats at the bug which flies off her salad and lands on her dining companion’s jacket. As the bug scrambles around his jacket the man starts furiously smacking himself in an attempt to squash it. Meanwhile, the waiter, alerted by the commotion grabs a wine glass and napkin, scoops the bug off the diner’s jacket with the napkin and traps it under the wine glass. He carries the roach outside and lets it free on the sidewalk.
The diners reacted and created chaos. The waiter responded and fixed the problem. I can’t tell you how many problems in my life could have been better solved by taking 5 minutes to formulate a strategy rather than reacting impulsively.
9. Expand your internal locus of control
Crappy genes. Bad parents. Poorly designed policies. There are all sorts of forces outside your control that can cause you to suffer. Ultimately though, the final layer that reality has to pass through is your own interpretation. You have the ability to reframe whether you feel like you can make your life better or whether you’re at the whim of oppressive external forces. While choosing the latter may feel good, and may even be justified sometimes, it will not better your life. Developing a strong internal locus of control allows you to believe you have the ability to control your circumstances.
While I’m unsure to the extent which I believe in free will, I have seen first hand that those who have a strong internal locus of control tend to fare much better than those who fixate on external forces (regardless of how many problems they are facing). So, while there’s a chance this belief may be rooted in self delusion, it certainly seems to be a useful one.
10. Time is your most precious resource. Spend it well.
If you want to understand what someone truly values, look at how they spend their time. It’s a telling indicator because time is everyone’s most limited resource. Sometimes it may make sense to spend your time doing things you don’t like in exchange for other assets like money or information. However, this is a risky strategy as no one can tell you how much time you have left and there’s no way to get any more of it. I try to spend my days as if I’m going to make it to 100 while still remembering that a satellite chunk could fall on my head at any moment. Balancing respect of death and hope for a long and happy life, seems to have incentivized me to make good decisions about my time, thus far.
While you may not be able to get more time, you can slow down how fast it passes (at least in your mind). To illustrate, have you ever gone on vacation and noticed how the first day in a new place seems to last a long time? This has to do with a theory about how the brain processes novelty. When you encounter new things your brain recruits more cognitive resources to make sense of it and capture details. This extra expenditure of brain power makes the encounter seem longer. Conversely, when you’ve repeated the same commute a few dozen times, your brain doesn’t need to expend much energy capturing details, making the time seem to fly by. I’ve taken this as a license to try new things as often as possible. Traveling to new places or just taking a slightly different route on my walk to work.
I hope next time you read this, you’re still trying new things. At best, it may give you the feeling of just a bit more time and at worst it will make your life all the richer for trying.