For 10 years, I've made it a point on every birthday to reflect on the lessons I've learned in each year of my life. While I always write an article, most of these things are reminders to myself. Most of these secrets of adulthood are things that we should remember but usually forget.
It's a very unusual time in history. You might be quarantined with an infant, sitting in your apartment alone, playing video games with friends or you might be lucky enough to be with your significant other. Who you're spending your time with determines how you feel about your life. With the wrong people, the greatest place on earth can be hell. But with the right ones, the most boring place on earth can be heaven. The people you're with are more important than the backdrop.
We live in a world of metrics, measurements and all sorts of ways to artificially measure our lives. To their own detriment, millions of people measure their lives with social media vanity metrics, relative status and other metrics they can't control. But these metrics are in constant flux. The way you measure your life can determine whether it's filled with misery or meaning.
The relationship we have with ourselves is the most important one of all. But it's the one that we often neglect the most. We are all harder on ourselves than anyone else would ever be. When I was telling my roommate Matt what a fuck up I was for something, he said, "Don't talk about my friend that way." One of the most overlooked secrets of adulthood is the power of self-compassion.
In the movie Mr. Destiny, the main character dwells on one life experience he believes altered the trajectory of his life. His baseball team is down by one run in a state championship baseball game. As the final batter, the fate of the team is in his hands. And he strikes out.
On his 35th birthday, he walks into a bar, and tells the bartender, "I'm 35 years old and my life is shit." The bartender offers him a drink that shows him what his life would be like if he had hit the baseball.
He becomes rich, successful and marries the prettiest girl in school. But he realizes that the woman he is married to in his current life hates him and he's no longer friends with his best friend. Even though he hit the baseball, he lost many of the things mattered most to him.
Something that we should remember but usually forget is that if anything about the past had been different, we wouldn't be the people we are today. We might not have had some of the bad things in our past. But it's possible we'd also lose some of the things that we value most.
When you spend a lot of time on personal development, you're always under the delusion that there's some better version of you in the future. But in doing so, you don't appreciate the version of yourself you are today. You overlook all the things that are great about your life now.
Art gives us the ability to express things that we may not be able to say in any other way. What we might struggle to say in a conversation, we can express through books, poetry or any other form of the written word. Dani Shapiro says that her mother appears in all her books and that, "Everything we say about somebody after they're gone is a eulogy of sorts."
When we make art, we can express our emotions without them getting in the way of what we're trying to say. Love, joy, sorrow, sadness and happiness can be expressed through music, lyrics and movie scenes. Something that we should remember but forget: When you're struggling to say what you want, try saying it by making art.
I used to feel hurt that my Dad didn't read my books. But I realized that I wouldn't have been able to write those books if it hadn't been for him letting me live at home well into my 30's. If that's not love, I don't know what is.
My parents don't always hug and kiss my sister and me. Indians aren't always the most physically affectionate people. They do tell me I need to dye my hair along with other suggestions for improvements to my physical appearance.
But their doors are always open, there's always wine in my glass and food on the table. They will randomly send things like pajamas for no reason other than "they were on sale at Costco."
Just because love isn't expressed in your love languages doesn't mean people don't love you.
I hated my first job out of college. Selling medical transcription software at a company where there was one shitter and everyone ate Indian food at lunch was never my dream. But I also started writing because of that job. A friend started a simple website asking us to share stories from our summer. The worst job in the world gave me the best stories to write. The worst experiences of our lives can be the catalyst for our most significant accomplishments.
Kids do stupid things that drive their parents crazy. And the opposite is also true. My mother has told me a thousand times to "put the damn cap on the toothpaste." But I still don't remember. She's worried the girl I marry will be concerned. I'm not, since the possibility of sex and love is a much bigger motivator than keeping my mother from getting annoyed. No matter how crazy we make each other, our time together is finite.
When we're excessively concerned with other people's opinions, we make choices based on their approval instead of on our lived experience. But we're the ones who show up at our jobs, live with our spouse, and deal with the consequences of our choices. Other people won't be the ones to live with the most consequential decisions of our lives.
Somebody asked me the other day if I felt successful after having had two books published. I was surprised to find myself saying no. People think there's some sort of "I've made it" moment. But that moment is a false horizon. If you were done the moment you became commercially successful:
- Actors wouldn't keep acting in movies
- Musicians wouldn't record new albums
- Authors wouldn't write more books
The greatest thing about being commercially successful with your creative work is that you get to keep doing it.
I finished my undergrad at UC-Berkeley in December 2000 and graduated from my MBA program in April 2009. You couldn't have such bad timing if you tried. The circumstances and events of my life forced me to take the scenic route. If your life doesn't go according to plan, it might end up being more interesting as a result.
Society's life plan gives you one definition of success. Fame, status, and fuck you money combined are the pinnacle of achievement. But if you want to be successful on your own terms you have define success for yourself.
At the beginning of February, I had my assistant change my passwords for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I haven't logged in since and I've been happier. When you quit social media, you stop being a spectator in other people's lives and become a participant in your own.
Chris Sacca once said, "Your GPA only matters to people who have no other reason to find you interesting." At this point, the same could be said for a resume. The internet and technology give you multiple colors with which to paint. Depending solely on your resume is like painting in black and white.
How you spend your time each day is an indication of what your life will look like in the future. As Seth Godin says, the best way to be where you want to be a year from now and 10 years from now is to do something today you'll be glad you did.
Many of your limitations are imagined. This guy was my driver for 3 days in India. Every week, he makes a 9-hour drive from the city of Chandigarh to the mountains of India. He does this 3 or 4 times a week. He also has a wife and two kids at home. He makes about 600 dollars a month. He sleeps in his car at night, even though it's freezing in these mountain towns because a hotel is too expensive. He can't afford to eat in the places where his passengers dine.
These roads aren't like the ones you and I drive on. They're narrow, treacherous, filled with potholes and it seems like you could drive off a cliff at any moment. Every drive comes with the possibility of death. In this life, there are no 3-day weekends or holidays. Every day he doesn't work is a day of lost income. He's done this for 15 years. There's no upward mobility in his situation. There's no way out of this life. It's a real limitation.
You have real limitations too, but it's worth considering which ones are real and which ones are imagined.
Take context into consideration. If somebody stands to gain in any way from what they're telling you to do, you should question how valid it is in YOUR life.
How someone treats you over a long enough timeline is the most revealing indication of their character. When it comes to friends, significant others, co-workers and bosses, always choose people who treat with you kindness and respect.
Of course, you'll run into people who don't. But that doesn't mean you have to tolerate their bullshit. Michael Geben (aka the soup Nazi of niceness) has a zero-tolerance policy for negativity in his digital world.
If somebody pissed or shit in your lawn you'd call the cops. So why on earth do you tolerate this behavior on the internet? When an angry email subscriber sent me a vicious reply, I sent him a link to an anger management video, wished him luck and removed him from our email list.
People learn they are the average of the five people they surround themselves with. So they judge the impact someone might have on them based on perceived status. But in doing so they overlook people who could have a tangible impact on their lives.
Status isn't an indicator of qualities that truly matter: kindness, empathy, and generosity. There are plenty of people in the world with status who are assholes. A kind or poor person with limited status will do far more to improve your life than a rich asshole.
My most influential mentor had 100 followers on Twitter. I wouldn't be where I am had it not been for him. And the person who helped me seal the deal on my first round of venture funding is practically invisible on the internet.
Your definition of success will change with age. When you're young, it's all about money and status. For some reason, you can only recognize false horizons by reaching them. When you're older, you define success through significance and optimizing your life for enough. You're probably not going to be the next Steve Jobs Oprah or Beyoncé. You may not be able to make a fortune, but you can definitely make a difference.
Non-conformity, 4-hour workweeks and becoming a digital nomad are disguised as "success on your own terms." But all you've really done is traded in society's definition of success for an internet celebrity's definition.
In the summer of 2018, I learned the tragic news that my friend had drowned in Mexico. The very last picture he uploaded to Instagram was one of his feet by a pool with the hashtag #nevertakeitforgranted. Yet, all of us do.
Make a list of every little thing you take for granted and create a gratitude list. This is one of those secrets of adulthood you won't really understand until you confront your mortality.
When you make permanent decisions based on temporary experiences, you limit what's possible with your life. After a bad break up, I told a friend, "I'm done with Indian women." He said, "Dude, you can't swear off an entire race, particularly your own."
A few years later, I went on a date with a really attractive Indian girl. We had a lot of chemistry. We had matched on 3 dating apps before I made an effort to meet her. She said, "You're an idiot for taking this long." To top it off, I never made an effort to see her again.
Meaning will sustain you over the long haul. Metrics will temporarily inflate your ego. The Unmistakable Creative is something of an anomaly in the podcast world. We started before most people, grew slower and have a smaller audience. Obsession with metrics leads to envy and comparison. Focusing on meaning leads to joy and creation.
Throughout my life, my Dad has said, "Whatever happens, it's for your own good." Getting dumped, fired, insert setback of your choice doesn't seem that way at the moment. But, in retrospect, we say, "It was the best thing that ever happened to me." Or, in the more eloquent words of Ashley Ambirge, "Every shitstorm has a silver lining."
Communicating boundaries is one of the biggest challenges of being human. When we fail to express our boundaries out of fear, we compromise our values and standards. Not expressing your boundaries might help you avoid conflict in the short run, but leads to leads to resentment in the long run.
Develop frameworks for low-stakes decisions. Think about how much time you waste every week scrolling through Netflix for a movie or comparing prices on Amazon. When you waste your mental bandwidth on low-stakes decisions you have none left for high-stakes decisions. As my friend Nick Notas jokes, people spend more time on their Amazon purchases than on picking who they date.
Resentment is the most toxic thing you can carry in your heart. For years, I resented the bosses who fired me, the girls who dumped me and friends who betrayed me. Resentment doesn't change what happened in the past. It just ensures that the future looks a lot like the past. When you let it go, you'll be free.
The fabric of friendships changes with age. “The thirties…. are sometimes described as the decade where friendship goes to die, killed off by marriage, children, jobs, relocating. Mismatched friendships- one has kids, the other doesn't- can be especially hard to sustain” says author Lydia Denworth.
This is an inevitable part of life. I met my best friend 20 years ago. We were in high school band together. But we didn't become friends until 2013. It wasn't until 2018 when he asked me to the best man at his wedding that I realized he was my best friend. There's one condition that makes a friendship last: reciprocity.
Have a long slow dinner without any screens or phones. Get completely trashed or intoxicated in whatever way you please. You'll bond with whomever you're with.
Turn off your phone when you're on a first date. There's something magnetic about giving another person your complete and undivided attention. Treat the other person as is the world around you has disappeared and you're the only two people in the room. Any time I've had a first date like this, it's led to a second date.
To do anything extraordinary, you have to acknowledge reality and ignore it. If you want to start a business or pursue a career in the arts, you have to acknowledge the reality that failure is a possibility. Then you have to ignore that and believe you'll defy the odds. This takes practice.
Don't underestimate the power of starting small. Drastic changes might seem sexy. But incremental changes are sustainable. When people ask me how to write a book, I say, "One sentence at a time."
The only person worth comparing yourself to is who you were yesterday. It doesn't matter how successful you are. Someone is always ahead, behind or beside you. But as Chris Brogan once said to me, "Nobody ever won a race looking sideways."
The version of a person's life you see on the internet isn't reality. It's more like reality TV. It's carefully curated, edited and uploaded. Next time you get envious of someone's life on Instagram, ask yourself, "I wonder what's happening between the panels."
Everybody has a story worth telling. Just because someone isn't famous, successful or extraordinary by societal standards, it doesn't mean they can't make an invaluable contribution to the world. The most fascinating people I've ever interviewed on the Unmistakable Creative are the ones who nobody has ever heard of.
The birth of the influencer led to the death of hobbies. This is unfortunate since hobbies add so much meaning to our lives. When I sent my friend Natasha Scripture my documentary, she said, "Is this a new direction you're going in?" I can't blame her. Somewhere along the way, we stopped doing things just for fun.
Curiosity, not earning potential, is a good starting point for discovering your passion. You may not cash in on your curiosity and contrary to popular belief you don't have to profit from your passion. Many people lose their passion when they profit from it. I love surfing, but I don't want to run a surf camp.
In the movie City Slickers, Curly tells Mitch (the Billy Crystal character) that there is one thing. And that one thing is different for all of us. But ask anyone who has received that thing and you'll find that it's an illusion.
Your life is not a puzzle with missing pieces. It's a portfolio of meaning, an interdependent system. The more diverse it is, the more meaningful your life will be.
These kinds of secrets are easy to say, but hard to live. As I said at the start, I write them down as a reminder to myself.
Before you Go
If you enjoyed this, I’ve also ship a creative project on each birthday. This year I created The Unmistakable Book of Wisdom. It’s free, no email required.