At first I thought this might be a sign of depression, or something wrong with me, but I’ve come to realize it isn’t. It’s actually something quite positive. Because it isn’t that I don’t want to live—I do. It’s not that I don’t have a lot of things I really love and enjoy. I really do. I’m not tired of life. It’s the fact that, at any moment I can genuinely say I’ve lived a full and complete life and that everything that happens to me from this point forward is gravy. It’s lagniappe as they say in New Orleans—the rest is just extra. At 30, this is a wonderful place to be.
So while it might seem morbid to say that I’d be happy going at any moment, it’s actually a wonderful way to live. It’s something I feel quite lucky to be able to say. And yet, I also know that it wasn’t a result of luck, but of a certain philosophical way of thinking and, of course, a lot of hard decisions.
For five years now, I’ve written a piece for Thought Catalog on my birthday. 26, 27, 28, 29 and now 30. Usually I reflect on what I’ve learned in the last year. This year I thought I might reflect on how to get to this place, how to live and approach life so that at 30, you can honestly feel like you’ve left nothing on the table. That every day is extra.
1. Do Ridiculous Things — Some of the best decisions of my life came out of total irresponsibility and whim. My wife and I got a dog because I was reading a book about how Pope Leo X had a pet elephant named Hanno. That’d be a funny name for a dog, I thought. A week later, we had a miniature dachshund puppy. One of the best things I ever did. Our dog is now ten years old. There’s no story behind how we got our first goat except that we asked ourselves: Why not? So we got a goat and had Smitty’s BBQ on the way home and called it a day.
2. Not What Will Pay The Most, But What Will Teach Me The Most? — This is how I have evaluated my career and job opportunities (and book projects too). There are lots of ways to make money, fewer real opportunities to learn.
3. Quit Dicking Around — The books I’ve been fortunate enough to write were not the result of mad sprints of intensity. I get up every day and work on them. One right after another. While I’m waiting for one to come back from the printer, I am hard at work on the next one. Basically, I’m not dicking around. 30 years is so much time. One year is so much time. Wake up every day and do a little more. Dick around a little less. See what happens.
4. “The Right Time is Right Now.” — This is Casey Neistat’s line. It’s great. When I moved to a farm, do you know how many people I heard from telling me they’ve always wanted to do that? Let me tell you, it wasn’t a tough vetting process. It’s not like getting into Harvard. If you think you want to do it, do it.
5. Get Married. Be in a Long Term Relationship. — People say they want to end up with someone, they say they want to get married someday, and then what do they do? Everything but what makes that possible. Pick a person and be in a relationship already. It’s the best thing you will ever do. It’s a lot of work. It will be painful and tough at times. But it is better than the affluenza of Tinder. I’m not saying settle, but I am saying that relationships are great because you make them great, not because you search until you magically find one that’s already perfect. And enough with this polyamory nonsense. Maybe it makes .01% of the population happier, but the fact that they need to sell everyone on it so much makes me think it’s probably not working for them either. Neil Strauss wrote a wonderful book about this, don’t waste a decade of your life being an idiot.
6. Steer Clear of Charlatans and the Toxic — Regular friend purges are a must. So are influence purges (the sources of information you follow). You become who you know. You conform to your surroundings. Make sure those two facts are taking you in a direction you want to go.
7. Keep a Journal — Not for looking backward, but to force you to think about what you’re doing now. I should have done this earlier.
8. Hell Yes or Hell No is Too Simple — Most of the best decisions I made would have failed that test. I was scared. I had doubts. I didn’t know if it was what I really wanted. Life is complicated and life decisions are about weighing the odds, not black and white certainties.
9. Live in New York or Los Angeles (Or a City Like That) — …but not for long. It’s good to test yourself in a big city. It’s good to feel the energy of millions of people coursing through your veins. But leave before you become jaded by it or addicted to it. Leave before it changes your lifestyle.
10. The Quiet Moments Are The Best — There is a line from Lao Tzu. “Peace is in the emptiness. Emptiness is in the fast of the mind.” It’s in the quiet, still moments that we feel what matters in life. Standing on the shore of a lake. Looking out over a canyon. Resting your head against someone else’s. It’s a shortage of these moments that give rise to the feeling that we haven’t lived enough, that we have to keep going. Seeking them out, encouraging them is what makes you feel like you’ve done plenty.
11. Have a Philosophy — Pete Carroll talks about his turning point as a coach, when he realized he was just winging it. So he stopped and wrote down his entire coaching philosophy. Now he has something to measure himself against. Well, what’s yours? Don’t wing it through your 20s. Focus. Live by something.
12. Make Time For Real Philosophy Too — As Seneca said, “Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs.”
13. Exercise Every Single Day — Don’t let yourself get to the point where you feel like some day in the future you’d like to lose weight or be in shape. Be in shape. Make exercise part of your job, part of your duties as a human being. Let endorphins be something you give yourself every day.
14. Don’t Compare Yourself To Other People — Caesar famously wept at the feet of a statue of Alexander the Great. “Do you not think it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?” he said. Um, you were both fucking terrible. And now you’re both gone. Who cares whether so-and-so did this or that earlier than you? Who cares that so-and-so had more?
15. Sooner Is Not Better — I had this idea that I wanted to be a millionaire by 25. Where this number came from, I don’t know. I made it up, it was ego, and I didn’t hit it. But you know what the difference of getting there a little later was? Nothing. No one throws you a party. Accomplishments don’t change who you are.
16. Meditate on Your Mortality — The whole point of this post: Don’t shy away from thinking about death. Think about it a lot. I like Marcus’s line: “Are you afraid of death because you won’t be able to do this anymore?” For “this” plug in so much of the crap we waste our time with.
17. Be Responsible — I have a life insurance policy. I have money saved. If something happens to me, people I care about will be taken care of. The Avocado Toast guy was right. A lot of people are spending money on shit they can’t afford and then they want to blame other people for it.
18. But Not Too Responsible — The reason they will be taken care of and that I feel creatively and professionally satisfied, is that I have taken a lot of big risks. I dropped out of college (this gave me a two year head start on a lot of people). I left a good job. I bit off more than I can could chew many times.
19. The Two Play Off Each Other — Why could I take those risks? Because I had been responsible. I had money saved. I knew what was important to me. I had built a support network. I eliminated the tiny risks so I could take the right ones. I wasn’t spinning the “How will I pay my bills this month?” wheel like so many people unnecessarily are. As I said, do the irresponsible things—because it averages out the ultra-responsible choices you made elsewhere.
20. Don’t Live Like Every Day Is Your Last — In The Daily Stoic, I say that living every day like it’s your last is insane. That would mean zero planning or foresight. Instead, live like it’s the last day of before a deployment. You’d handle your business. You’d spend time with loved ones. You’d cherish your alone time. You’d have fun. That’s how you should live day to day.
21. Travel (With Purpose) — Nothing has wasted more millennial time than the cult of travel for its own sake. So you’ve been to Africa? And? So you’ve spent a month in hostels in Thailand? Yes? What did you really learn there, that you couldn’t have gotten from some other source? What did you really do? What was the purpose of any of it? Wisdom doesn’t come from going places. Not if you, as Emerson said, “brought ruins to ruins.”
22. Be Prematurely Old — When I hear someone say they are ‘adulting’ like it’s a funny exception to how they normally are, I think, “There is a person who is going to wake up one day and think about where all the years went.” But when you hear someone is an “old soul,” you think, “Man, they have their shit together.” Young people are stupid. Old people are wise. Which do you want to be?
23. Remember the Law of Diminishing Returns — For instance with travel—it’s great, but two years of backpacking through Europe is two years of your life. Who is to say you have that much time? Chances are, at some point, you extracted most of the value of whatever it is you’re doing, but you’re just coasting now. A year in New York can be transformative, ten years will ossify you. Be willing to call things when the diminishing returns set in, it’s how you move on when others are stuck.
24. Study the Lives of the Greats — Read Plutarch. Read Vasari. Read Caro’s biographies of LBJ. Not to compare yourself, as I said, but to learn. The dissections of the lives of powerful, ambitious people will teach you so much, and save you some much pain and heartache and disaster.
25. Don’t Waste Time Being Offended — God, how much precious energy is spilled fighting online, shouting in other people’s faces. A well-ordered person never thinks, “How dare they?” because they don’t have those kind of expectations of other people and they don’t think their own feelings are other people’s problem.
26. Buy a House — Not at 20, not before you can afford it obviously, and not some expensive albatross that weighs you down, but something reasonable, that you love. If I had bought an apartment I’d look at when I was 22, I don’t know if I would have left my job to become a writer. If I hadn’t bought a house when I was 26, I don’t think I would have truly understood what I wanted out of life and where I was happy—I’d still be moving, still be too busy. Owning a home is having a home. It’s somewhere I want to get back to. The center I revolve around. My friend Nils likes to say that people who don’t own walls with art on them are running from something. I think he’s right.
27. Work a Lot — Everyone loves to repeat that line, “On your deathbed, you won’t be happy you worked so much.” Um, I’m very proud of what I do. I will be reflecting happily on all of it. What no one sits there and thinks is how glad they are that they got good at video games, how many restaurants they ate at, the time they spent chasing girls or boys, or political arguments they got into. There are many many many more wasteful and regrettable things we do than work. Pouring yourself into something you believe contributes to the world is one of the best ways to feel content and accomplished. Don’t sell this short.
28. Drive across the United States — No one should die before they have done this.
29. Hallucinogens Are A Dead End — I certainly have smart friends who will disagree with this, but I haven’t heard a single person tell me something they learned on psychotropic drugs that couldn’t have been learned quietly sitting with their own thoughts. I haven’t heard anything from them that I haven’t heard in a book. If your trip to the jungle in Peru is the magical solution to all your problems, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. You’re looking for shortcuts. Life is not found in shortcuts, but in doing the hard stuff (and if it really did work, then why are do they need to them over and over and over again? Hallucinogens are to insight what Oxy is to pain relief).
30. Don’t Be A Hater — My biggest regret is time I have spent being envious or jealous or hating. Hating doesn’t make anyone better. It only makes you unhappier. “Hate will get you every time.” Life is too short. Find what you love about people, what you can be grateful for in them, even if that is a minor part of them.
31. Read Books. Lots of Them — Any fool can learn by experience, I prefer to learn by the experiences of others, is how Bismark put it. The amount of dumb things I’ve managed to avoid because I learned the lesson in advance? Too many to count.
32. Have a Kid — I used to see people in restaurants with kids and sort of pity them. The other day I was in a restaurant with my kid, having a great time and then I realized: Shit, these people have been having all the fun. I was the one being an idiot. Obviously I would like to live until I’m 90 so I can spend as many years as possible with my son, but as Paul Kalanithi says in When Breath Becomes Air, every minute you do have is a blessing and comfort.
33. Seriously, You Can Do Whatever You Want — That Steve Jobs line about how the rules were made up by people no smarter than you. Make sure you’re not conforming to needless constraints about how to dress, how to live, what’s important, how things must be done. The more value you deliver in life, the most freedom and power you have.
34. Avoid Competition — Sometimes competition makes you better, but more often than not, as Peter Thiel explained, it just eats up resources. Don’t spend precious years of your life in trench warfare or in a stalemate. Go where there is no competition—seek out the blue oceans. The best way to do that? Be you. Do only the things you can do.
35. Know Your Why — You have to know why you do what you do—what you prize and what’s important to you. Or you will be endlessly comparing yourself against other people, which will not only be a major distraction, it will make you miserable.
36. Know What’s “Enough” — If you don’t know what “enough” is, then the default answer is always more. More money, more promotions, more attention. You have to know when you can say no—so you don’t overreach and lose it all.
37. Get the Big Things Right — There’s the old Benjamin Franklin line about being a penny wise but a pound foolish. It’s the same thing with time management. Most people get the little things right and the big things wrong—and then wonder why they don’t get much done.
38. A To-Do List Every Day — Every day have a to-do list. Even on the weekends. Not because it’s about drowning yourself in work, but so you can always be moving forward. Check the stuff off, don’t wing it. Use Tim Ferriss’s question: “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?”
39. Design The Ideal Day — So many people have big goals for the future. I think it’s better to know what your perfect day looks like. Then you can ask yourself with each opportunity and choice: Is this getting me closer or further away? I know my ideal day and more importantly, I know when I have gotten too far from it. Life is too short to not live the way you want.
40. Learning Is Not Enough — It’s very easy for learning to go in one ear and out the other. Making a concerted effort to record and process what you’re observing and being taught helps prevent that. If you read a lot, take notes on what you read and transfer those notes into a commonplace book, where you can organize your thoughts. Repeating and reiterating what you’ve learned helps make connections and improve memory. Organizing it into a system means it will be so much easier to retrieve when you need it.
I’ll end this post with a paragraph from Mozart, who lived to be 35 but filled those years with many, many decades of life and work.
“I have now made a habit of being prepared in all affairs of life for the worst. As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relationships with this best and truest friend of mankind that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me but is indeed very soothing and consoling, and I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that—young as I am—I may not live to see another day. Yet not one of all my acquaintances could say that in my company I am morose or disgruntled. For this blessing I daily thank my creator.”
See you next year—if we’re both lucky enough to get there!