1. Truly and genuinely, without any preconceived assumptions or expectations, question everything about you.
It’s a nasty trap we all fall into. The values we grew up with must be the right values. The belief system we have must be the correct one. The decisions we are making in life are the only decisions we can make. This stuck type of mindset is only further cemented by a culture that values convictions over skepticism, the predictable over the spontaneous, and has downright replaced rational discourse with yelling, name-calling, and metaphorical circle jerks for those who think the same things as you.
Even if you only do it once in your life, take a moment to genuinely question why you think the things you do. Question why you consider something proper or improper, right or wrong, in line or taboo. Question every assumption. Question every value judgment. Doubt every single thing about your life. Doubt your views on the world, your friendships and relationships, what you want out of life, what you’re doing with your time. Come up with an actual, cohesive explanation for why you feel the way you feel and do the things you do — an explanation that does not come from the automatic assumption that you were right in the first place.
There is nothing to lose: either you’ll strengthen what you already have because you will have found proper rationale (as opposed to just regurgitating what you have heard and seen all your life), or you’ll drop old habits and patterns that do not serve you or the world.
2. Let go of complaining.
Complaining has essentially been a rite of passage for most of us, starting somewhere in junior high and never really stopping. We’d complain about teachers, homework, friends, enemies, boyfriends, girlfriends… this morphed into work woes, boss woes, co-worker woes, financial woes. In an ironic twist, “happy hour” would typically be spent complaining about what bothers you.
And it feels good to complain! You bond with the people around you with your shared misery, you let off some steam…no harm done, right? Unfortunately, you’re doing quite a bit of harm: since it does feel good to complain, you’re creating a behavioral pattern that will only make you more likely to complain in the future. Complaining actually makes you a more negative person, making you actually seek out the negative so you can talk about it and continue that twisted “feel good” sensation.
It’s time to drop it. If you want to be happier in life, let go of complaining, even if everyone around you is doing it. Because — really — if your only way of bonding with someone is through shared misery, maybe it’s time to rethink that friendship, as well as that job (see #1).
Life is tough. Life is frustrating and unfair. People do things that tick us off. But we have a choice. It doesn’t feel like a choice at first, but it is a choice: we can let it get the best of us and let it fill our days with complaints, or we can channel that energy into something more productive, like communicating what needs to be communicated — or finding a way out of a toxic situation.
3. Find every opportunity to step out of your comfort zone.
I define “finding yourself” as, “seeing you how you act and interact in a multitude of contexts and finding the areas of your personality that overlap.” Finding these contexts mean different things to different people. For some, this means travel. For others, this means trying new hobbies. And for others, this means changing career fields. But there is one thing each have in common: each requires you to step out of your comfort zone.
Board that plane to San Juan. Step into that MMA gym. Enroll in that nursing course. Agree to try rock climbing or salsa dancing. Agree to take on a different set of roles at your job. Lace up your shoes and try jogging. Like Mary Schmich advised in her 1997 article (which later became known as, “that sunscreen song” to anyone born before 1990): do one thing every day that scares you. Your potential rests just outside of what is familiar. And you’ll never get a grasp of who you are and what you are capable of if you don’t challenge yourself.
4. Walk away from the people that do not serve us.
I had a very nasty habit for the majority of my life: I kept far too close the people that were nothing but toxic for me. From “frenemies” in junior high, who’d only let me tag along so they’d have someone to make fun of, to insecure friends as a young adult, who were resentful of every little thing I did that they didn’t get to do as well, to coworkers and family members and “real world” friends that I was better off keeping my distance from.
There was always a reason for keeping them around: they weren’t as bad as they seemed, they were good people underneath it all, I’m sure it was something I had done, eventually they’ll be nicer… They never changed, never became nicer — and, in some cases, grew more resentful or self-absorbed or mean. And all it did for me was keep my self esteem and self worth down.
I’m not saying to cut ties with people who are not constantly at your beck and call, but to recognize when people are a toxic influence in your life and be brave enough to walk away from them. There’s always a reason for keeping someone around, always a reason for letting their behavior affect you negatively. Even if it’s just an emotional distancing, leaving those people behind is a must.
5. Embrace the uncertainty.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a super famous triple threat: dancer, actor, and singer. Unfortunately, I’m 5’11”, have two (very big) left feet, never learned sheet music, and never even auditioned for a community play. When I was 12, I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I was going to churn out novel after novel and be like Stephen King — only, y’know, Stephanie King, because I’m female. I swore I would write my first novel before I graduated college, get published before I was 25, and be a megastar novelist by the time I was 28.
Well, I did write my first manuscript before I graduated college, but it has yet to be sold (much like the other two manuscripts resting on my hard drive), and, with my 28th birthday barely 48 hours behind me, I’m nowhere near ‘megastar’ status, in anything in my life. On the more pragmatic end, I swore up and down in college that I wanted a job in the publishing world. All it took was one internship to make me change my mind. In 2009, I swore I was destined to be a preschool teacher. I spent four years in the early education world before I ended up leaving the entire field behind and going back to school to become a registered yoga teacher. I also thought I’d never get married or leave Boston; I celebrated my third wedding anniversary a few months ago and have been making mortgage payments on a house in a small town in New Hampshire since 2013.
Life puts you on some serious zigs and zags. What you planned, what you expected, and what you get are three totally different things. Life is uncertain and the only thing we can do is embrace that uncertainty. Fighting tooth and nail over life going unexpectedly will only bring about unneeded suffering. Life gets a lot easier when we accept that unknown; accept that life will throw us curveballs and not go according to plan. We only get two choices: we can fret over every little detour or we can enjoy the view, regardless of what road we’re on.
You don’t have to wait until you’re closing in on 30 to do these things, nor is it too late to do them if you’ve already passed that milestone. But these are five things that can help ensure we’re not scrambling at 50 or 60, wondering what happened with our lives.