As my 40th birthday looms, I’ve been reflecting on the ups, downs and in-betweens of the last four decades. I don’t wish for “do-overs”, but I’d love to go back and talk some sense into my younger self. I’d tell the 12-year-old Dana who was teased for being ugly and getting good grades that those mean boys weren’t worth listening to. I’d tell the 20-year-old Dana who couldn’t eat or sleep after her college boyfriend dumped her that she’d meet the right man in the fall of 1999. I’d tell the 29-year-old Dana to stand up to the vicious boss who said she wasn’t smart enough to work at Microsoft. And I’d tell the 33-year-old Dana to stop spending 15 hours a week on bike racing if she wasn’t having any fun.
Here are 40 of my lessons learned over the last (almost) 40 years. Bring on the next four decades!
1. Don’t wait to tell people you love them. One of the saddest parts about memorial services is that the people who die will never hear all the wonderful things their family and friends have to say.
2. Trying to be someone you’re not – for a partner, for a job, to fit in with a group of friends – will only make you miserable.
3. If someone ends a relationship with you, no matter how sad you are, don’t beg them to reconsider. (Yes, I did that. And it wasn’t a good idea…)
4. No New Year’s Eve Party will ever meet my impossibly high standards. My best New Year’s Eves have been spent on couches with good friends, wearing sweatpants.
5. Don’t go to a Halloween party dressed as a Playboy Bunny unless you want all the smarmy guys to hit on you and all the women to hate you.
6. Being happy is your responsibility. If you don’t value yourself, no one else will, either.
7. “Be the change you wish to see in the world – Gandhi”. Surround yourself with people who make you laugh, challenge you to be better and love you for who you are.
8. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. Holding a grudge takes energy, and forgiving people sets you free.
9. Do not, under any circumstances, comment on the size of a pregnant woman. The rule of Thumper applies here: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all”.
10. If you’re having a bad day, force yourself to smile and say hello to everyone you see. You’ll be amazed how quickly your mood turns around.
11. Who you marry is a big deal. Choose wisely. Marry someone who challenges you and ultimately makes you a better person.
12. My boyish figure is great for sports and ensures that men will always look me in the eye.
13. Cultivate relationships at work. Learn about people. Be a team player. You’ll get a lot more done if people like you.
14. Even families that look perfect on the outside have skeletons in the closet. Count your blessings and be grateful for what you have.
15. Know when to say goodbye to that toxic friend – the one who’s super-fun but would flirt with your boyfriend without a second thought. She’s just not that into you…and you shouldn’t be into her, either.
16. Sometimes people are cruel for no reason at all. Remember that everybody is fighting some sort of battle and move on.
17. At some point, you’re going to wind up with a truly awful boss. Learn all you can about what kind of manager you don’t want to be, decide what you will – and won’t – tolerate and find something new before you lose your confidence.
18. The right relationship doesn’t always come along at the right time. I met my husband three weeks out of a serious relationship. My mom called him “Rebound Man” and told me to wait before getting involved with someone new. Thank goodness I ignored her. (This is the one – and only – time that my mom’s advice wasn’t spot on.)
19. You know you have great friends when you don’t see each other for years and pick up right where you left off, like no time has passed.
20. Getting good grades is cool. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t worth listening to.
21. If you’d like to break a bad habit, ask your kids for help. There’s nothing that will make you put down your phone faster than your 4-year-old screaming, “Mommy! No phones at the dinner table!”
22. Find out what makes you feel happy and full and make time for it.
23. People change and grow apart. Be open to making new friends and accept that as one relationship fades, another can grow.
24. Be kind, be positive and encourage others. What goes around comes around.
25. I wasted way too much time wishing I was beautiful. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that beauty can be more of a curse than a blessing.
26. Always wear a bike helmet and buckle your seat belt.
27. Don’t waste time trying to change your partner. If you can’t love them for who they are then it’s not meant to be.
28. What other people think of me is none of my business. (Easier said than done, but I’m working on it.)
29. Children grow up far too quickly. Focus on appreciating every stage of life, be present, give hugs and tell your kids you love them 100 times a day.
30. If a girlfriend expresses an interest in someone, they’re off limits. Guys come and go, but dear friends are few and far between.
31. You know you’ve found the right life partner when you stop caring what your friends and family think and just trust your gut.
32. When something awful happens, your true friends will rally around you and carry you through. You’ll be surprised by some of the people who stand by you – and saddened by those who don’t.
33. Adopt a dog. That way, someone is always happy to see you.
34. Sometimes life’s greatest gifts come from the biggest disappointments. I made a lifelong friend after we were both sent home four days early from a huge bike race because we raced so terribly. When one door closes, another one opens.
35. If a friend hurts your feelings, speak up. You’ll feel better. Conflicts are inevitable if you spend lots of time with someone. If you really care about the friendship, tell your friend how you feel and give them a chance to make it right.
36. Develop a support network of trusted confidants – and make sure those people are not your partner. You’ll want a co-worker to vent about work with, someone who’s always up for a good time and a “2 a.m. friend” who will drop everything for you – no matter what.
37. When you have kids, your life will change – but you will control how it changes. Don’t let people tell you what you’ll do or how you’ll feel.
38. Learn when to let go. I watched a once-confident colleague lose her moxie because she was told “no” one too many times. At one point, her boss even told her that she smiled too much. When a person or a job breaks your spirit, it’s time to say goodbye.
39. I’ve held on to feelings of inadequacy for decades because I was bullied as a kid. Getting stuck on the past takes away from your ability to enjoy the present. As Elsa would say, “Let it Go”.
40. Never underestimate the difference you can make in someone else’s life with a kind word or gesture. Compliment the woman who’s pregnant, say hello to the custodian cleaning your office and encourage your child to play with the lonely little boy on the playground.