Life Lessons

3.1 Lessons Learned on the Way to 31

Turning 30 is a big milestone. Turning 31, by comparison, is rather unremarkable. You’re not old. You’re not young. You’re just a person. A person a few hundred days past whatever you were before. Yet there are certain expectations at this age, the most important of which is to get over the immature idea that your birthday matters very much. You’ve done this nearly three dozen times now, the world says, let’s not make such a big deal out of it, OK?

It is funny how much the perception other people have of you changes once you get past 30. I remember talking to a movie producer who was about my age now when I was in my early twenties. He was telling me how there is this arc. When you get successful early, everyone gives you way more credit that you deserve. They marvel at what you’ve managed to do and how mature you seem. But with time, this fades. Because everyone catches up. Your friends graduate from medical school, people in front of them retire and they get promoted, they finally get serious and move out of their parents house. Eventually, the mean evens out. Then you’re just yourself again, not special or better, just you.

So there is a kind of humbling that happens as you get into your thirties and it’s a very good thing. When I look at the lessons I learned this year most of them are related to that. The evening out that happens, the kind of normalization of your life and your place on this planet helps you see the bigger picture more clearly. It helps you see the things that were obvious but you were too young, too conceited or too much in a hurry, to see before.

That’s what 31 feels like. It doesn’t hit you like an epiphany, it feels like a pair of leather boots that have finally broken in and you think, “When did these things get so damn comfortable?”

  1. It Always Takes Longer Than You Want or Think

I wrote about Hofstadter’s Law in Conspiracy, which states that everything takes longer than you expect—even when you take Hofstadter’s Law into account. It’s as true for conspiracies and companies as it is for life and art. I got offered my first book deal in my early twenties and I wanted to be ready, but the truth was that I wasn’t. My first book came out when I was 26, and I rushed it because I wanted it to be out, I needed it to be out so it could be a huge hit. Considering the topic (fake news and media manipulation), I was way too early, and it would take years before people really got what I was saying.

I repeated some version of this fantasy several times since. You also think that one day, with one project, everything is finally going to blow up. Your big break, or whatever. I’m just starting to understand that that doesn’t happen. My second book did a little better than my first. My third did even better. It wasn’t until my eighth book that I got reviewed by the New York Times. Eight books! I thought this would have happened with my first. Why? Because I thought these things happened quickly.

When you are young and impatient, you want everything now. It can feel like life is punishing you by depriving you of opportunities, crushing you with those potentially transformative moments that don’t quite come to pass. This is in fact, not the case. That stupid quote from Kurt Cobain and Neil Young? Ugh. It’s way better to fade away than burn out. And the corollary to that is that a slow and steady build is to be much preferred over a meteoric rise. It always takes longer than you expect and this is a good thing because you’re growing and improving every day and thus are more prepared for whatever happens when it does happen. I’m a better writer now, and am much better off having a later book reviewed and given attention, than an earlier one. I’m more prepared for money and success at 31 than I was at 21, and ironically, care about it much less now that I have it. I understand now that this is an extraordinary gift, yet if I had been given the choice back then, I would have chosen incorrectly.

Even this understanding that I now have, I would have thought it would have come earlier in life. It is, after all, pretty obvious. But it didn’t. Instead this patience was hardwon and the result of painful experiences and disappointments, the only way I could have gotten it was by waiting, by letting time take its course. Yet…if I could go back in time to teach myself anything, this would be it.

  1. Quiet Moments Are The Best Moments

There’s this video you can watch of Mr. Rogers accepting an Emmy Award. He gets on stage and asks everyone in the audience—all these famous people who are never told what to do—and asks them to sit there quietly and spend ten seconds thinking about someone who cared about them, who pushed them to be better and helped them along the way. “Ten seconds,” he says, “I’ll watch the time.” You can see how moving it is for the people in the audience to do this, and how rare it is for them to take the time to do something like it. It’s really an incredible moment, and Mr. Rogers points out how much it means in both directions, not just to the person who spent the time thinking it, but to the person on the other side, how much it would mean to them to know how much they’ve meant to you. Anyway, these are the moments that we need more of in life.

My favorite part of my day—when I am at home—is when I get up early and take my son for a walk. We’ll do as much as three miles in the stroller, on the dirt road that leads to our house, or in the backwoods and pastures on our farm. We see rabbits and deer and cow and armadillos. We stop and pet the donkeys. If we have extra time, we’ll finish at the lake and fish for a few minutes as the sun comes up in front of us. He doesn’t totally understand how peaceful this all is—he’s just happy that he has an applesauce—but I do, and it’s my favorite thing.

These are the very best moments in life. When it’s quiet. When we’re just fully present and there. When we’re around people we love. When we are experiencing the ordinariness of the world around us, and appreciating what makes it so extraordinary. My friend Sep Kamvar did this amazing project a few years back where he scrapped all sorts of social media and texts from blog posts and found that young people and old people define happiness in distinct ways. Young people tend to speak about happiness in terms of excitement. Older people tend to speak about happiness in terms of peacefulness and contentment. Which do you think is a wiser approach? Which is more sustainable and readily at hand?

  1. Not Doing Is Harder Than Doing

This isn’t true for everyone, but it’s true for people like me. Earlier this year, I got on a bit of a roll and accumulated a couple uninterrupted weeks in my Apple Watch where I hit my move goal of 1,000 calories of exercise every single day (some days I had doubled it). The number creeped past thirty and up to 36. 36 consecutive days of 1,000 calories of movement. I’ll tell you, stopping the madness on Day 37 was probably harder than all the work that went into all the other days combined. Because for people like me, not doing is harder than doing. It takes more self-discipline to say no than yes.

It’s something I’ve been working on getting better at. When I’m sick, I have to use my self-discipline to rest. When I’m tired, same thing. When I get some cool opportunity and want to say yes, I have to stop and think about whether it’s actually as great as it seems, or think about what the costs of saying yes will be—what other projects will suffer. When I’ve been away working or been busy, as good as it might feel to go for a swim, I have to ask myself, “Do I really have the time for this? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that time with my family?” Usually on my birthday, I try to do some physical feat that pushing what I thought I was capable. I ran 26 miles at 29. Last year I swam three miles. This year I was going to do the Leadville Marathon that has 13,000 feet of elevation climb. But then in April and May I wasn’t feeling well and it became clear that doing it would probably be a bad idea. The commitment to not do the marathon took much more out of me than the original commitment to do it. When you build up good systems and habits in your life, the doing becomes the default. So to consider other factors—health, family, priorities, etc—takes a conscious effort. This year for my birthday my physical feat is seeing if I can not do a physical feat.

It’s not natural for me, but it is important. As I wrote a couple years back, we’re called human beings not human doings for a reason. Compulsion to do is the opposite of being. It’s the opposite of being present. It’s instead a desire to escape, to chase endorphins or validation through accomplishment. And even if those things seem healthy to the outside world (Look, he’s in such good shape. Look at the cool things he’s done), you have to have the self-awareness to know that it isn’t healthy. To not do can be as impressive—or more impressive—than doing.

And that’s the point about those quiet moments or those moments we have alone with ourselves. They take a lot of work to get to. They don’t just happen. It’s a discipline in and of itself, with far more impressive rewards.

3.1 Less Is More

This sort of ties into the last two lessons, but you’ll notice that my pieces for previous birthdays have dozens of bulleted observations and realizations. This year I’m doing 3 (3.1 to be clever). As I have been trying to work on doing less, I’ve also tried to incorporate a general philosophy of less is more. I’m writing less, but I think better. I’m saying no to projects to focus on really doing well on the ones I say yes to.  


Like I said, 31 is not a landmark year like 21 or 30. It’s a settling in, an ensuing, in the best way possible. Because when you have gotten comfortable, when you have waited long enough for the water to calm down, you can finally see the things you’re supposed to see. They are simple lessons but essential ones:

Patience is Key (and more patience on top of that)

Silent, Quiet Time Must Be Cultivated

Doing Less is More

See you next year (if we’re both still lucky enough to be here) and if you want, check out what I learned at 30, 29, 28, 27 and 26.

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