You’ve already read 100 “Best Of” year-end lists, so let’s recap something more useful from this year: 15 life tips I learned the hard way.
When in doubt, do. If you’re on the fence about something, try it. If you’re not sure if you should risk something, risk it. If you have a choice between doing something new and doing nothing at all, do the new. Will you succeed every time? No. But the succeeding isn’t the important part; learning from the process of trying is. (Yoda lied; there is try.) And the more mistakes you can recover from, the more resilient and confident you’ll become, the less afraid you’ll be of new challenges, and the less pessimistic you’ll be about new opportunities.
Study your mistakes so you can understand yourself better and make improvements. Are you not where you thought you’d be by now — in your life, your love, your career? Odds are, that’s on you. So figure out what you’re doing wrong, or what you’re not doing at all, and do it better. This means it’s okay to dwell on your past mistakes, as long as you’re doing it for the right reason — which is:
If you’re going to get introspective, do it with the intention of improving, not regretting. I made two big choices in the past year that, given a chance to do them over, I would choose to do differently. One was a professional error and one was romantic. The professional choice screwed up my finances, but recovering from that has taught me to be smarter about my money — and to diversify my revenue streams, so I’m never reliant on any one source of income.
The romantic choice also seemed like the right move at the time, but I spent most of the year regretting it. To move on, I needed to reframe the situation as an opportunity to avoid whatever had gone wrong this time. Ultimately, I had to admit that I’d overreacted to a short-term challenge and I’d lost sight of the overall upside of the big picture, which caused me to end something that should have continued. It hurt to process that, because it meant I had to admit I was responsible for screwing up something good. But if I didn’t take the time to identify where I went wrong in my thoughts and actions, I’d be setting myself up to make the exact same mistake in my next relationship. So, as much as it wasn’t a fun lesson, it was necessary.
It’s not about you. We tend to take things personally, because our lives are happening to us. As such, we presume that everyone else is paying waaaaaaaaaaaay more attention to us than they actually are. But other people are rarely out to get you; they’re just living their own lives, where they’re the most important people in the world… just like you are, in your own life. So get over yourself and you’ll get a lot more done — and you’ll make (and keep, and help) a lot more friends in the process.
All that matters is how useful you are to others. Everything else is just details.
The possibility of a new opportunity is your secret weapon against loneliness, depression, and feeling stuck. Another word for this is “hope,” but don’t just think of this in strict Hallmark Channel terms. A breakup can seem less painful when you have other romantic possibilities. An unfulfilling job can seem like less of a dead end when you have a large network of people who can provide you with new employment opportunities. The more touchpoints you have in your life, the better your odds are of having a rich, fulfilling, meaningful life — for you and for others.
Take your resource management seriously. Money, time, and health are three resources you have complete control over, but you keep forgetting that. I forget it too. Then I find myself broke, or sick, or stressed out, and I think back and realize it’s because I made terrible use of my time… or I ate and drank fewer healthy things and more unhealthy things… or I surrounded myself with people (or links) that I know bring me down. But when I make smarter choices about how to take care of myself mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, and financially, better things happen more often. (You’d think I’d know this by now, since it’s total common sense, but every year it seems like I need to relearn it.)
Spend less time online. Does this really need an explanation?
If you can’t do anything about it, don’t absorb it. Twitter and Facebook and CNN and Fox News and your relatives are endless sources of information about all the terrible things in the world that you, personally, cannot do anything about. Not easily, anyway. And since we just talked about resource management, ask yourself this: will your life be better if you spend more time immersing yourself in everything that’s wrong in the world? (Hint: no.) So if you, like me, find your ability to be helpful and productive gets derailed the more time you spend reading about sexism and racism and police brutality and global warfare and everything else that’s terrible about modern society… stop.
And spend that time doing something good instead.
However, if something REALLY bothers you, do something about it. We can’t all turn a blind eye to all those injustices I mentioned above. We can’t all presume that someone else will solve those problems. We can’t all tell ourselves that worrying and praying is “enough,” because it isn’t. Action is what solves problems. So when you’re confronted with a problem you CAN fix, fix it. And when you find yourself losing sleep over something — from a local issue to a global catastrophe — that’s a sign that you should probably change how you allocate your resources, and use them to start solving that problem.
Listen to people with different experiences. This also seems like common sense, but in this era of The Bechdel Test and people boycotting Star Wars because it doesn’t star a white guy, it’s worth spelling out: the more perspectives you expose yourself to on a regular basis, the wider your own frame of reference grows, and the less likely you are to keep living in a bubble where you process any POV other than your own as “wrong.”
But wait… didn’t I just say “don’t expose yourself to problems you can’t fix”? Yes I did. But there’s a difference between wallowing in someone else’s misery and understanding that someone else has a reason to be miserable in the first place. Empathy is a good thing. So is not being afraid of people who aren’t exactly like you. If we do more of that, we might just find a way to work on life’s big problems together, rather than perpetually being locked in endless wars over basic resources and the illusion of power.
And yes, that can start with something as simple as watching a movie that stars someone who doesn’t look like you, or reading a book by someone who has nothing in common with you. It has to start somewhere, and art is the easiest way for us to step into someone else’s perspective. Which is why it’s so important for all of us to…
Make something. It’s easy to criticize, or to read and watch passively instead of actively creating and building, or to tell yourself you’re “not ready” to follow your dreams. But you’re wrong. You have skills. You have passions. You have stories you want to tell, things you want to build, art you want to create, and problems you want to solve. So go do it. It will change you, because the act of creation is the act of changing the world, even if only in your own personal microcosm.
The act of making something teaches you about yourself, it keeps you busy, and it gives you a product in the end that you can be proud of and share with others — or, if you’re not proud, it gives you a result that you can work to improve upon next time. Making something gives you a way to define yourself, because you’re not just someone who wants to be known for accomplishing X someday; now you’re someone who actually makes X. And you never know who will be affected by what you’ve made, so make it and see.
Don’t burn bridges. Forming meaningful connections with other people can be hard enough. Don’t take them for granted. What seems like a good reason to remove someone from your life now when you feel angry or hurt by them may quickly reveal itself to have been an impetuous overreaction on your part, and then you’ll wish you still had that connection when you need it someday weeks or months or years from now. Give yourself space from the people you need to separate yourself from, but unless your differences are irreconcilable, don’t shut them out completely. Future you will be thankful for current you’s patience.
Prepare for the worst, but presume the best. Keeping your fingers crossed and blindly hoping everything works out is no way to go through life. But neither is keeping your arms crossed and believing that a catastrophe awaits around every corner. The best recourse is to manage your resources well, become increasingly competent and confident in yourself and your abilities, and give new people and new opportunities the benefit of the doubt… while still allowing your survival instincts to guide you.
Of all the personal traits you could be improving, kindness and willpower will take you the farthest. Willpower matters because everything you want to accomplish in life will require you to overcome mistakes, flaws, failures, weaknesses, and doubts. Kindness matters because everything you want to accomplish in life will require you to empathize, learn from, teach, lead, and help others. Put them both together and you just might do something remarkable… and even if you don’t quite get there, you’ll actually enjoy the journey.
Thanks for reading, and cheers to an amazing year ahead.