Forty things I've learned since 1975
Jul 9 2015

Introduction

Well, here it is, the big 4-0 as of July 15. It seems to be an impossible milestone considering I still feel so young at heart. I'm in a reflective mood so I've decided to enumerate some of the things I've learned over the past four decades. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Being the oddball isn't a bad thing.

I never managed to find my clique in high school or college. An optimist might say I was a "floater" while a pessimist might go with "oddball." Either way, looking back it's clear that my approach allowed me to shape a more holistic view. I avoided tunnel vision and my independent spirit was kept largely intact. This would have a profound influence later in life.

2. Teachers are vastly underrated.

My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Ken Hasz from Tinicum Elementary School, made me realize that writing was one of my strengths. He'd occasionally let me break away to a separate room where I could concentrate and type up stories. He made me realize I had something to contribute. He changed the question from "What happens next?" to "What will I accomplish today?"

3. Dogs are wonderful.

It doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing, if I see a dog my eyes light up. Maybe it's the unconditional love. Maybe it's the dangling tongue and wagging tail. Maybe it's the association with my childhood dogs Shane (collie), Bear (border collie), and Oreo (pekapoo).

Whatever the case, any day I get to see and/or pet a dog is a good day indeed.

4. It's important to forgive yourself.

When I was 19 years old I landed myself in trouble with the law, a trespass offense that could partially be attributed to a toxic combination of hormones, heartache, and culture shock from college life. But mostly, it was me being an insecure kid with poor judgment.

Over 20 years later I still find myself explaining this embarrassing misstep on occasion. The difference is I've forgiven myself and no longer attach apologies to the explanation. It feels good to be free.

5. You really can't love others until you love yourself.

Certain old-school clichés like this one just happen to be true. Throughout my 20s I took the "serial monogamy" approach, jumping from one dysfunctional relationship into the next. I kept myself mired in this volatile cycle because I was woefully insecure and had no idea who I really was.

I broke the cycle by not dating throughout the majority of my 30s. During that time I was able to reflect on the highs and lows, what went right and wrong. This ultimately led to a much better version of me, one that I genuinely like. Now I enjoy my own company, which (perhaps counterintuitively) makes me better equipped to enjoy a healthy relationship.

6. As Theodore Roosevelt said, comparison is the thief of joy.

I wasted way too much time believing I was second-rate material because I lacked certain traits, possessions, or milestones that were enjoyed by others. The good news: I now realize that trying to keep pace is a hollow and pointless endeavor.

It's the main reason I'm not a big fan of Facebook; its entire economy hinges on comparison.

7. Ducks are the best.

I don't understand why ducks don't get more of the spotlight. They can't help but be hilarious with their adorable waddling and enthusiastic quacking.

But it's more than that. They're also some of the most versatile creatures on the planet. Think about it. What else can fly, walk, and swim with the ease of a duck?

8. Introversion is an asset, not a liability.

I've always been one to analyze before I speak, and "small talk" has always exhausted me. It took me 35+ years to realize I was an introvert. As the Facebook group Introverts Are Awesome and Susan Cain's book Quiet will attest, extroverts have historically been coveted in American culture while introverts have been dismissed as odd ducks. The tide is shifting, though, and I've arrived at a point where I'm proud to be an introvert!

9. Balance is everything.

The moment I moved to the Seattle area I started burning my candle at both ends, doing whatever was necessary to survive at Microsoft. Years flew by in the blink of an eye, and though I'd built a half-decent professional portfolio, my social life was non-existent.

Today, work-life balance is not something I hope for but something I insist upon. Nobody says on his/her death bed, "I wish I would have worked more." No job on Earth is worth the sacrifice of memorable moments and meaningful connections.

10. Nothing should extinguish your childhood spirit.

Getting old doesn't mean I have to be uptight and stodgy. I'll forever be determined to keep things simple, positive, and pure, and I'll continue to look at the world with eyes full of wonder.

I borrowed this philosophy from Jim Henson, a creative genius who reminded grown-ups of the importance of preserving their childhood spirit.

11. It takes all kinds.

At one time I might've lamented the fact that I don't have the brain of a scientist, the build of an athlete, or the vision of an artist. But I now realize that we all bring something to the table with our unique and complementary talents. We all have a role and we should be proud to call it our own.

12. We should never apologize for what we enjoy.

As a child I tried to conceal my enjoyment of pro wrestling. In college I felt pressure to suppress any desire for sex. When it came to dating I didn't dare mention my love for computer games. It wasn't until my 30s that I realized I was stifling my own identity for no good reason. We like what we like, there's no need to obtain a stamp of approval from anyone else.

13. When it comes to success, happiness is the only metric that matters.

We're a society that obsesses over superficial things and we're eager to define success based on a job title. But here's the reality: it's better to be a genuinely happy cashier than a perpetually miserable CEO.

14. Travel is essential.

You don't need to become a vagabond, but you should take an occasional trip that provides insight into other cultures and perspectives. It will stimulate your mind and replenish your soul, and with any luck your world view will be continuously refined.

Don't assume you know what a country is like; take the time to experience it for yourself.

15. A relationship is defined by you and your partner — and nobody else.

You've seen them around, elderly couples who still walk hand-in-hand. What do you suppose their secret is? If I had to guess, they probably didn't rely on others to define their relationship.

It doesn't matter if cynical people say chivalry is dead. It makes no difference if people believe that fidelity and marriage are outdated concepts. Determine what's important to you, find someone who shares those values, and don't settle for anything less. Nobody defines the parameters and timelines of a relationship except you and your partner.

16. Labels aren't inherently evil but they're dangerous.

Liberal. Conservative. Jock. Brainiac. Christian. Atheist. Introvert. Extrovert. Such labels provide a ballpark idea of one's view of the world, but we must resist the temptation to use them as shortcuts while assessing one another. It's lazy and counterproductive.

17. Questioning authority isn't just recommended, it's essential.

Tools of fear and suppression have kept people in line for millennia. Only recently have certain parts of the world woken up and realized that nobody has a divine right to tell you what to think, say, or do. Collectively we grant authority to fellow human beings, and collectively we strip it away.

18. Holding hands is underrated.

Children, adults, and even otters understand that holding someone's hand provides a level of comfort that's pretty tough to beat.

In the context of a relationship it's a romantic expression of unity, an entirely separate mode of communication. I'd even take it a step further and say it's one of the most sensual things we can do.

19. There's a fine line between "gut instinct" and self-fulfilling prophecy.

This one took me a while to figure out. Like many others, I once prided myself on having a good "gut instinct" but in reality I was engaging my defense mechanisms. This can spell disaster in the context of dating, because once you believe your "gut" has warned you about something, you're very likely to steer things toward that result no matter what.

20. It's OK for men to cry.

We shouldn't have to address this in the 21st century, but here we are. It's not a show of strength to suppress or deflect one's emotions. It takes real strength to allow oneself to be vulnerable.

21. The NeverEnding Story got it right.

A life without creativity and imagination is a wasteland indeed. A world full of nothing.

22. A relationship either fits or it doesn't.

When I think about the turmoil I experienced in the dating world, most of my problems stemmed from making the same mistake: ignoring the fact that the pieces just didn't fit.

Sure, every relationship calls for a measure of compromise. But the people we're dating aren't pieces of clay waiting to be shaped and molded into what we want. They're either compatible in their current form or they're not.

23. Listening is more important than talking.

Over the years I've witnessed countless misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and failed projects because many people have forgotten how to listen. I mean actual listening, not merely staying quiet long enough to formulate the next response.

Dalai Lama said it best:

When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.

24. Rowlf the Dog is the coolest Muppet of them all.

This item may seem purely subjective on my part, but I dare you to crank up on the volume on this video and then tell me I'm wrong.

It's also interesting to note that Rowlf the Dog is one of Henson's first designs, even before Kermit the Frog. More interesting tidbits can be found at the Muppet Wiki.

25. Failure is just as important as success.

It really doesn't matter if the context is relationships, sports, careers, or something else entirely, the truth remains the same: you can't appreciate the sweet taste of success unless you've experienced the bitter taste of failure.

26. Human beings are inspiring, in spite of themselves.

It's true that we're constantly finding new ways to hate and kill each other. And yeah, we want to pretend we're not capable of trashing the very planet we live on. But just when it seems all hope is lost for the human race, we land a spacecraft on a comet, help a woman hear herself for the first time, and print prosthetic legs for a disabled dog.

27. We need to look up.

Smartphone and internet addiction is rotting us out from the inside. The poignant video Look Up said it much better than I ever could.

28. Diversity is not a threat but a sign of hope.

I've worked on teams that included people from China, Ethiopia, India, Australia, Russia, Mexico, the UK, and beyond. When people from all different backgrounds tackle the same problems, or even laugh at the same jokes, there's an element of magic there that's hard to describe. All I know is that we need more of that magic and less fear of the unknown.

29. Nature can recharge the body and spirit.

Only in recent years have I come to appreciate the healing powers of nature. When you're standing in front of an alpine lake that's surrounded by snow-capped mountains, stress from everyday life really doesn't stand a chance.

And the more I explore the Pacific Northwest, the more I crave the rejuvenating power of Mother Nature.

30. Intelligence comes in many forms and they're all important.

We've all got varying degrees of social, academic, and practical intelligence. Academic achievements tend to hog the spotlight, but the truth is all forms of intelligence are equally important in helping us lead fulfilling lives and forge meaningful connections.

31. If the grass is always greener elsewhere, water your lawn.

A little bit of wanderlust is a good thing, but we shouldn't chase the next shiny object at the expense of what's truly important. Sometimes we just need to invest a little time and effort to improve our circumstances and make the roots take hold.

Ernie from Sesame Street offered a similar message back in the day.

32. The 80s were truly special.

Most people think their formative years were the best, but there's a really strong case for the 80s. Technology and pop culture combined for a creative explosion, and since TV networks were fairly limited, there was a strong national culture. Everyone was tuning into the same thing. Everyone was talking about Michael Jackson, Miami Vice, and MTV.

Given how technology has fragmented our culture today, we may never experience the cohesion and optimistic spirit of the 80s again.

33. Nothing beats a random act of kindness.

Every now and then I'll pay for the person behind me in the Starbucks drive-thru, not because I want some karmic reward or think it constitutes charity. I do it because it makes me feel genuinely good inside, knowing that I'm catching someone completely off guard and potentially making their day. It also tends to be contagious, and it's fun to think I may have triggered a chain reaction.

34. Sleep is the key.

I didn't catch onto this until my 30s, but plenty of my decisions over the years were negatively influenced by fatigue, stress, and/or lack of sleep. It's uncanny how a conflict seems so heavy when you're not fully rested, then after a good night's sleep you're basking in clarity and wondering why everything felt so murky the night before.

35. Dandelions have the right idea.

I love my family and therefore struggled with guilt when I moved from Pennsylvania to Washington in 2006. But it was the right decision.

I understand why people are content to stay close to the nest, but I can't help but wonder if they realize what they're missing. There's something to be said about nurturing one's roots, but there also comes a time when it's wise to break away.

36. Humility takes you further than shameless self-promotion.

I take great pride in my work but I've never been one to "sell" it to others. The value either speaks for itself or it doesn't. This strategy hasn't failed me yet, in fact I've been told by a few colleagues that I was pleasant to work with because I didn't toot my own horn.

37. The way you touch someone speaks volumes.

Even if you're not particularly adept at expressing feelings to your significant other, there's another language available to you. It's a no-brainer, right? But many people forget (or lose interest in) the importance of touch! Tip: some areas of the body are better candidates than others. Personally I'd recommend the arms, shoulders, cheeks, and eyebrows. Bonus tip: don't go straight for the reproductive organs unless you want your partner to think you're a single-minded jackass.

38. Comfort zones should always be expanding.

When I reflect on the best moments of my life (so far), a majority of them have something in common: I needed to break out of my comfort zone to make them happen. Whether it was skydiving, hang gliding, or walking the streets of Paris, the first step was having the courage to disrupt the status quo.

39. You're probably not mourning for the reason you think.

In the pilot episode of Frasier, a caller tells Dr. Crane that she can't stop crying after breaking up with her boyfriend. She can't seem to move on and she feels like she's in mourning. His response is deceptively simple, but it's absolutely true and I've never forgotten it:

"You are in mourning. But you're not mourning the loss of your boyfriend. You're mourning the loss of what you thought your life was going to be. Let it go."

40. You've met the right one when you can truly be you.

For as long as I've been dating, I've only been able to present a limited version of me. I'd given up on the idea of someone accepting the unfiltered version, so I've been careful to de-emphasize aspects of myself that have historically baffled, bored, or annoyed the other person.

But I've come to realize that the only chance I'll have of finding a "happily ever after" is if I stay 100% true to myself, quirks and all. The right partner will have quirks of her own and we'll feel completely comfortable in our own skin.

Conclusion

Not long ago I viewed this milestone with a slight hint of dread. My mind was already churning out assessments of various aspects of my life, and they weren't all flattering.

But when I consider the lessons above, I realize I have many reasons to be grateful and optimistic. The first forty years were certainly an interesting ride, but I have a feeling the best part is still ahead.

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