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21 Mega-Important Lessons I Learned In 21 Years Of Living

Huh. Weird. I’m 21 – or at least I will be by the time this blog post goes live.

As I sit here in the San Francisco airport waiting for my flight to JFK, it’s dawned on me that this age is really only special because of the country I live in.

Having just returned from Japan, where being 20 was A-OK for ordering a vodka cola in a classy Shibuya bar, I realize that turning 21 isn’t all that big of a deal. Were I anywhere else in the world (other than Fiji, Pakistan, Palau, or Sri Lanka), it would be just another birthday. Nothing special.

And yet it is.

Turning 21 marks the true transition into my 20’s. No longer can I sit around and say, “Oh, I was still a teenager a year ago.” Nope. Now is the time when I truly have to accept adulthood; when I must take up the mantle of maturity and leave my childish past behind.

Mmmm… nope. Don’t wanna.

Wait what

I think I can afford to stay foolish for another year. Maybe ten.

However, I can say with confidence that I’ve learned a lot about living whilst doing all of this living. With age comes invaluable wisdom, and through my experiences, triumphs, failures, misadventures, and daring escapes from Moroccan pottery shops, I’ve gained a good deal of it. What’s that thing everyone says, all the time?

“Holy crab cakes, I’ve learned SO much. I was a complete IDIOT five years ago. But I don’t want to get any older!”

Sounds about right. For most people.

I, for one, look toward my last years with sweet anticipation, for they are the only time I’ll be able to give small children the finger and have people think I’m just going senile. Of couse, there’s always the possibility that I’ll actually be going senile, but hey – meeting new people every day isn’t so bad.

Before that happens, though, I’ve got some in-between time. Time that will be better spent by applying these great lessons I’ve learned. And if these lessons will be useful to me, then I’m confident that you’ll find them useful as well. So I’ve taken the time to write down 21 of them (Get it? Get it? It’s because I’m 21. The numbers are the exact same!)

21 Super-Crucial Lessons To Store In Your Brain

1. The best networking technique in the world is serving others.

It’s amazing how many great relationships you’ll build just by doing nice things for others. Yeah, it might technically be “working for free”, but I feel that serving others happily is fun, and it’s definitely preferable to walking around a convention handing out business cards and trying to build relationships by talking about yourself.

2. Don’t date the girl with eleven evil ex-boyfriends.

Seven is totally okay though.

3. Experiences > Stuff.  

Coming right off this amazing Japan trip, it’s been drilled home harder than ever before that happiness comes much easier and in much greater amounts through doing things rather than buying things. The things I did and the people I met there have created some of the happiest memories I have.

I can’t really say the same for anything I’ve ever bought. The things we buy should enable us to have more experiences; we shouldn’t buy them because we think they’ll make us happy on their own.

4. If someone sells you a mysterious pet and tells you not to feed it after midnight, DEAR GOD LISTEN TO HIM.

All the campy dialogue and cheesy laughs in the world aren’t worth the consequences.

5. Being stupid at times makes you a happier person.

When I think back the times when I’ve been happiest, most of the time I remember a moment when I was doing something absolutely ridiculous – like riding a mechanical blue teddy bear or running through Austin trying to high five as many drunk people as I could find.

There’s something to be said about acting like an idiot – it’s a huge stress killer! Seriously, how can you be stressed out when you’re wearing a Pikachu hat on a subway and starting impromptu staring contests with strangers?  You can’t. Acting dumb gives you a break from being serious all the time and lets you blow off steam in a non-destructive way.

Remember the movie The Emperor’s New Groove? Who was the only character who was truly happy for the whole movie? That’s right – Kronk. Be Kronk sometimes.

6. On no account should you ever allow a Vogon to read poetry to you.

Vogon poetry is the 3rd worst in the universe and hearing it may cause internal hemorrhaging.

7. Ground your future plans in a strong, thought-out set of values.

Instead of planning your future around a specific job that you want at a specific company, or around a specific place you want to live, I suggest that you sit down and define a set of general values you have for your life.

Here’s the thing; as people mostly in our late-teens/early-twenties, life changes for us – a lot, and very rapidly. If you plan your future too specifically and then try too hard to stick to that plan, you may miss out on great opportunities for growth and change that you didn’t even know were coming. Also, you risk being disappointed  when your specific plans don’t work out the way you wanted.

However, if you simply take the time to define values for your life instead, you can remain future-minded while still being flexible. Examples of general values I hold are having the freedom to be location-independent if I choose, not tying myself down with lots of possessions (such as a house), and staying close to my friends even after graduation. Though I don’t have specific plans for after graduation, I’m can use these values to guide myself to a situation that makes me happy.

8. If your fiancée is Carrie Fisher, do not stand her up on the wedding day.

Otherwise she’ll blow up your apartment, and the telephone booth you’re in. Also she’ll try to kill your brother for no good reason.

9. Focus is one of the most important qualities we can have, but it seems to be one of the rarest. Cultivate it.

In my marketing class, we were taught that modern-day citizens live “component lifestyles”. This basically means that the dude you see walking down the street isn’t simply a “crab fisherman”. Rather, he’s a crab fisherman, part-time yoga instructor, amateur guitarist, and moonlighting hip-hop dancer who’s really into 80’s pop art, World War II documentaries, and Sherlock Holmes fan fiction.

We’re people of many pursuits and interests now, and that’s great. However, it can unfortunately cause us to be unfocused. I’ve seen tweets from friends saying things like, “I don’t know which of my 8 projects to work on right now!” The more things we have to do, the harder it is to focus and get started on one. It’s called Hick’s Law.

Beat out this law by trying to focus on just one project at a time. If you can’t, then define concrete blocks of time in your day to work on each project and don’t deviate from those times.

10. Don’t get jealous of people who are better at things than you are.

You might get crazy and knock them out of a window, and then have to save them from being blown up by a rocket.

11. The “good life” doesn’t cost nearly as much as you think it does.

When we first get to college, we’re bombarded with all these facts about graduates who get awesome starting salaries at like $50,000 a year or more. We’re told that by working our way up the ladder, we can eventually make over $100,000 a year. Students that go to be investment bankers make even more than that.

Have you ever asked yourself, though, “How much do I really need?” I get the feeling that we think we need these kinds of salaries because our idea of the “good life” is skewed. We think that we have to get a big house in the ‘burbs with at least three bedrooms. We think we need $20,000 cars to replace the $2,000 ones we bought in high school. We think we need a 55″ TV, a surround sound system, nice golf clubs, a bunch of suits, and, of course, plenty of money to hit up expensive bars on the weekends.

Well, that’s bullshit. That isn’t the “good life” – it’s just one interpretation of it. Sure, one guy might be truly happy with all that stuff, but that doesn’t mean you will be as well. Just because there’s a certain standard of living that’s “expected” of college grads doesn’t mean it’s the standard of living you’ll actually like.

Maybe you’d rather opt to own less (and be tied down by less), and get a job that pays less but actually gives you more fulfillment. If you define a standard of living that makes you happy, but doesn’t necessarily fit the “perceived good life” standard, a lot more options open up for you. You no longer have to limit yourself to high-paying jobs. Heck, you can go be a teacher!

My entire trip to San Francisco, Japan, and New York is costing me less than $3,000 – and that’s without being frugal and cooking my own food. I’m actually eating out for almost every meal, and I’m still keeping the cost pretty low. If you were to travel to less expensive areas – say, a trip to Thailand – you’d pay even less.

Take a look at the cost of the life you want to live so you don’t end up working a job that sacrifices that standard of living on its own.

12. If you want to be promoted at work, you should probably start coming in late, wear pajamas, and throw the walls of your cubicle into the hallway. 

This works especially well if you befriend a couple of consultants and don’t try to steal the company’s money.

13. Learning to say “no” to shit is a really important skill.

If I had to pinpoint what exactly was different about my junior year from two before it, it’s that I said “no” more often. Before that, I would take on any commitment that was presented to me.

“Hey Tom, wanna be on a committee that does boring stuff but can be listed on a resume as leadership”

“Yeah let’s do it!”

Seriously – I was so concerned for how my resume looked that I’d basically do anything. It worked – I did get a lot of things to put on my resume – but, well, remember my tip about focus? I was really unfocused.

Most of my time went to making the work I produced for all my commitments just “good enough”. Good enough was all I had to give.

When I finally came to my senses and decided to cut down to only a few commitments, I was able to focus more thoroughly on those commitments and produce better work. I was also happier since I wasn’t so busy.

Learning to recognize the opportunities that won’t necessarily be good for you, and then saying “no” to them, is really important. For those of you who are really ambitious, it’ll probably be a hard skill to learn. However, it’s key to finding the things you truly love to do and doing them well.

14. If you’re wearing a high-tech suit of armor that shoots energy blasts, and you’re fighting someone with electric whips, FIGHT HIM FROM A DISTANCE. 

Seriously, Tony Stark, you dumb.

“Just got my suit on – I think I’ll stand at arm’s length from this guy and charge up my blasters! Seems like a pretty good ide – OH GOD THIS HURTS SO BAD” – Tony Stark’s brain

If you very obviously have an advantage, take it.

15. If you eat well, you can stop using soap in the shower. I’m not kidding.

It wasn’t until this year that I learned just how powerful eating healthy food can be for your entire body. Last March, I started eating a Paleo diet for a time. While I was doing it, I decided to try an experiment – I would go a month showering with water only – no soap, no shampoo, and no deodorant.

The results were really interesting. While I was eating really well – lots of veggies, good meat, not so much grain, and almost no sugar – the showering experiment worked like a charm. Water was all I needed to get clean, and I kept smelling good all day unless I went out and got sweaty.

However, as the month went on, my diet started to decline. As it did, I noticed that water wasn’t really enough to get me clean anymore. The bad food I was eating caused my skin to get greasy, and I had to go back to soap.

Basically, I learned that the things we eat affect a lot more than our guts. They affect our entire health, and you can do some amazing things by fixing your diet.

16. Don’t be a hero.

Wait a minute – screw that.

Don’t be a hero.

17. Getting up early in the morning is amazing.

It’s reeeeaaaallllyyyy hard to do, and it sucks, but if you can get yourself up in the morning way before your first commitments and fully wake up, it’s an amazing thing. Being able to sit down and chill for a while, knowing that you have three or fours hours before you absolutely have to do something, is one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Being up early gives you time to work on projects you might be too tired to tackle at the end of the day, when all your other work is done. You can also use that time to work out, learn something new, or simply veg out and enjoy the fact that you’re awake.

I’ve found that I can easily run on six hours of sleep a night – if (and only if) I have something compelling to make me wake up at the end of that six hours. If not, I’ll easily sleep for nine or ten.

So the trick, I’ve discovered, is having something compelling to get you up.

An alarm doesn’t do it – I’ll just get out of bed and snooze it. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I think I’ve come up with some compelling ways to get yourself out of bed that aren’t commitments.

  • Set and alarm and put it outside of another person’s door. If you don’t get up and turn it off in time, it’ll wake them up and they’ll stomp your face.
  • Get a group of people together and form a “get up early” club. Everyone puts $100 or so into a pot, and every morning you all have to meet at a central location and check in. If someone misses three mornings, their money goes to charity.
  • Make friends in Japan or India and promise that you’ll Skype with them when it’s really early in your time zone. They’ll already be awake and will be expecting you.

Whatever you have to do to get up early, try it out and see if you like the results. Personally, having that extra time in the morning is amazing. Martin has been doing the same thing and he agrees.

18. Never trust a superhero named Red Mist.

He’s probably a poser. Also, that’s the dumbest hero name I’ve ever heard. Big Daddy is great. Kick-Ass works well. Hit Girl I can understand. But Red Mist?


19. Most of our incompetence is second-order incompetence.

Second-order incompetence is basically the idea that you’re ignorant to the sheer amount of stuff you’re actually ignorant about. It’s why you don’t see the problems with certain things until you know a lot more about them.

This is why things seem so easy at a glance until you really dig into them. It’s why, for example, I always feel good when walking to a multiple-choice test; at that point in time, I don’t even know what questions will be on it. There’s so much I don’t know; in fact, all that I do know is that I’ll have four answers for every question. Easy, right?

Then the test comes, and the realization of the sheer amount of material I don’t know finally sinks in. I’m reducing my second-order incompetence by learning more about what I don’t know.

It’s important to realize that we have second-order incompetence in almost every facet of life. Unless you’re in the thick of things, you probably don’t even know that there are things you don’t know about. It’s why I get annoyed with people act like there’s a dead simple solution to political problems. Yeah – when you’re sitting on your couch and your only knowledge of the issue is the three bullet points Glenn Beck is talking about, the solution seems obvious. When you’re actually doing the job and dealing with the issue – not so much.

Think about this the next time you want to criticize someone or share a solution you have. Think about the parts of the issue you don’t even know about, and try to educate yourself so you know the true scope of the problem.

20. If you ever become a news anchor, read the teleprompter’s words in your head before you read them aloud.

Otherwise, you might tell your entire city to f**k itself and end up having to eat dog poop to redeem yourself.

21. Don’t peg potential friends as competitors.

I learned this one for good during Adobe Days.

Life isn’t a zero-sum game, and in most industries it’s good to build relationships with the other people who do the same things you do. When I met all the other college bloggers at Adobe days, it wasn’t an atmosphere of competition; it was one of mutual admiration and interest. We came out of the experience as good friends, all wanting to collaborate and help each other.

However, I’ve met lots of people who look at the other players in their industry and see them as a plague to be kept as far away as possible. This is a terrible mindset to have, and it isn’t worth it! The chance that someone is going to “steal your thunder” is much, much smaller than the chance that the you’ll be able to build a good relationship and collaborate. So don’t be afraid of the competition. Befriend it.

Boom. This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list of the lessons I’ve learned, but it’s good enough to provide some value, I think. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!


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