Today I am 30. Attempts at internalizing this fact have included prolonged examinations of my face and torso, slow walks across empty parks with my hands clasped behind my back, and a night out in North Beach during which I tried getting collegiately drunk. This morning, then, beneath the gravity of a grievous sort of hangover––which signaled in no uncertain terms that I’m not capable of drinking as much as I used to — I strolled melancholically across my living room and asked of the open window what, if anything, I have learned. Am I on some kind of path? Am I a failure?
I stood there in my boxers for twenty minutes, squinting and scratching my chin, numb to the breeze, alarming passersby.
Now, I harbor perhaps an unusual propensity for melodrama, but I’m not the only newly-minted 30-year-old to experience this kind of thing. According to researchers at New York University’s Stern School of Business and University of California’s Anderson School of Management, turning 30 often compels people to “audit the meaningfulness of their lives.” The authors posit that “the approach of a new decade represents a salient boundary between life stages… [and] functions as a marker of progress through the life span.”
In other words, the milestone feels definitive. To be 29 and still figuring your life out is fine — at 29 you’re practically still a kid! — but to be 30 and still not yet on a path you’re proud of suggests you’ve squandered your potential, for all that lies ahead is disappointment and degeneration.
“Thirty,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, promises “a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm, thinning hair.”
Or so we fear. Which is one reason we submit to a self audit––to convince ourselves in the face of existential anxiety that our lives do have meaning; that we are on some kind of path; that there remain reasons to be enthusiastic; and that, moreover, we’ve learned a few things about living a productive and meaningful life that other people might find interesting or useful.
To verify this last fact––and to sort of officially quell our quarter-life crises––many of us then take to the Internet, where we publish a list of all the important-seeming things we’ve learned over our 30 years on Earth. That’s what I did this morning, at least, after I finally peeled myself away from my window. I wanted desperately to affirm my success, my legitimacy as an adult, and I thought writing might do that more effectively than drinking, moping, or scrutinizing my reflection.
Initially, things didn’t go well. The words I wrote down felt presumptuous, even disingenuous: attempts at absolution dressed clumsily as advice. I realized that I simply don’t have much wisdom to impart. I’m a product of privilege, after all, raised by two loving parents in the cradled palm of a middle-class American suburb which itself might appear on your web browser were you to Google middle-class American suburb right now. Comparatively speaking, I haven’t persisted through much hardship. At 18, in order to pay his way through college, my dad worked mornings as a mailman, afternoons as a tutor, and nights as a short-order cook, all while studying to be an engineer. The day I turned 18, I was fired from my part-time job at Jamba Juice. My manager — aware no doubt that he was speaking to an English major whose tuition had been paid for and who, most of the time, was either cripplingly hungover or paralytically anxious — suggested that perhaps I was just “subconsciously incompetent” at the art of blending smoothies.
Yet, as I continued on, I realized I was thinking about things all wrong; lists of the sort that follow offer a subtle, multifaceted kind of value. Fans of self-development appreciate them, to be sure––even when the author hasn’t exactly earned the wisdom they’re attempting to impart––but the real benefit resides in the composition. I’ve come a long way since my short tenure at Jamba Juice. And while in that time I’ve learned a few things that certain readers––such as 18-year-old Daniel, I imagine, ignorant, arrogant, and indolent as he was — very well may benefit from, taking stock of the lessons I’ve learned and endeavoring to lend them credence helps me live better right now. It’s proven therapeutic, too. I’m no longer gazing wistfully out my window like a lonely dog, for example.
I’m wondering now whether the best way to combat a quarter-life crisis might, in fact, be to engage in this sort of exercise, even for people who don’t have the gall to call themselves writers. Revisiting the lessons we learn––reconsidering them, excavating them from our subconscious, even sharing them with the outside world––helps preserve them, which allows them to be used. Purposes vary from living better to exacting happiness to disproving the deluded logic of our existential crises. But maybe we can only ever apply our lessons and ideas for living better––ethereal as such ideas technically are — when we so overtly articulate them into existence, the way one must bellow incantations to conjure magic.
Consider what follows, then, an attempt not to teach, coach, or otherwise advise, but rather to catalog what rules and moral North Stars I want to follow in my ongoing effort to combat my existential anxiety and manifest a more meaningful and desirable life––an effort which, as I can see now, has only just begun.
1. The people you love are, truly, more important than anything else.
First, the most important. People are what matter. Relationships are what matter. They’re more important than the work you do, the ambitions you harbor, and the material things you want to buy. There’s a reason everyone reiterates this on their deathbed. Internalize it, and prioritize accordingly.
2. The goals you want so badly to achieve might not prove as life-changing as you think they will.
So don’t sweat it when, occasionally, you fall short. Not getting that job or promotion, being rejected from those MFA programs––such “failures” mostly don’t debilitate or sidetrack as meaningfully as you fear. At least not if you don’t let them. If you persist, often what you end up doing instead proves just as gratifying, the detour equally as effective. Don’t let dejection kill your drive.
3. Other people are never thinking about you as much as you think they are.
4. Read widely.
Doing so, for one thing, enlightens you of the fact that many people have endured and emerged from the same horrible-seeming failures, sorrows, anxieties, and predicaments you’re struggling to endure or emerge from right now. As Fitzgerald once told Sheilah Graham in her memoir Beyond Infidel, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
5. And see more live music.
It’s hard, of course, to not take your problems and perceived failures so seriously. But it also helps to make a habit of reminding yourself of the other aspects of this existence which make it so undeniably wonderful, a beautiful and blessed accident. One of those elements is family (see #1). Another is live music. You can never see too much live music.
6. Similarly, it’s never a bad idea to go for a nice walk.
Preferably through nature. It’s therapeutic, for one thing, but also holistically beneficial. There’s a reason why so many successful people have confessed to being obsessive walkers––Steve Jobs, and Charles Dickens being only the more famous examples.
7. Endeavor persistently to find work through which you find purpose.
Conducive to flow — that state of metaphysical immersion — and tapping into a certain moral prerogative, purpose is the third rail of the human psyche. It propels. As Nietzsche once wrote, “He who has a Why can tolerate almost any How.”
The catch, of course, is finding a Why in our modern context is not an easy task. It requires strategy, curiosity, bravery, and persistence. You have to try lots of different things, fail, work for free, then do it again. It’s a search that for many lasts years and years. My dad is today a celebrated software developer. Yet he didn’t begin that career in earnest until he was almost my age. After graduating with his degree in engineering, for example, he decided to study economics. He thought he wanted to get a PhD. But that ultimately proved not quite right. And so from there he got an MBA in finance, took a job at Ford, and tried out management, moving from city to city, struggling all the while to satiate the yearning inside him to find something more compelling. It was only after signing up for computer programming classes at night that he found that thing.
Most of us only find professional satisfaction if we search for it so persistently and energetically. To succeed, in this sense, you have to embrace the experience of your personal evolution, leaning into it so as to accelerate and assist it. So far as I can tell, my peers who today are making something admirable of themselves––practicing a craft or advancing in a field they’re fascinated by––have emulated my dad’s industry. They reject their more indolent impulses. They challenge themselves to continuously expand what in their unique circumstance might be possible to do or achieve. Taking stock of their cadre of present abilities, they don’t conclude that their curiosity about writing, coding, construction, or real estate is useless, for example, but say, “Screw it, let’s give this a shot.” Then they give it a shot.
8. Once you find that thing you like, try to get really good at it.
This is an important part of finding meaning in your work and, more broadly, in your life. It’s gratifying being good at something––to be able to do what you want with words, for example, or to be able to hit that right note or inspire those you’ve been charged with inspiring. Plus, amazingly, people will pay you to do things you enjoy and are good at.
There are several specific things you should do to invest strategically in your self-improvement. One is to identify people who are already good at the thing you want to do so that you can study them. In your studies, think seriously about what that person does well and why it works. Emulate them. Take them out for drinks and ask them everything you can think of.
From there, commit to practicing correctly. The best way to improve your abilities at something difficult is to practice it over and over the right way––longer and more diligently than most probably think necessary. I’ve found this applies to writing as it applies to sports, coding, music, teaching, sales, etc. The general equation being: strategy + repetition = improvement.
9. Aspire to be reliable.
It doesn’t matter how good you are at your craft, however, if people can’t trust you to show up. Which is why you should seek always to be on time for things. Do what you say you’re going to do. And try not to be stoned or drunk at times when you probably should not be stoned or drunk. Despite what we sometimes think about ourselves––looking at you, 18-year-old Daniel––the sober version of you is typically the most effective version.
10. For similar reasons, try, as you’re able, to stay in good shape.
A sound body = a more reliably-sound mind. Plus, exercising and eating healthy makes you feel better. Life is more enjoyable––and you are more effective––when you feel better.
11. But also, treat yourself.
Life is less fun if you never allow yourself a cookie or a beer or several cookies and several beers. Reflect on what activities, treats, trips, and toys bring you joy. Then indulge appropriately.
12. Invest in your mental health.
This, of course, requires more than treating yourself. For me, effectively taking care of my mental wellbeing starts with admitting that I need to. For a long time, I felt sort of ashamed about struggling with things like anxiety and depression. But that was dumb of me because perhaps the best way to continue feeling anxious or depressed is to pretend you don’t feel that way in the first place. Bad feelings fester.
To struggle with anxiety is to be alive. Don’t feel bad about investing in or worrying over your mental health. Treat your mind as you would any other essential muscle or tool.
13. Listen to your body.
Not all anxiety is bad, though. If come your fifth hour sitting on the couch you begin to feel anxious or antsy, that might be a sign that you’re not following rule #10 and should do something else, even if that something is merely going for a walk (see rule #6).
Your body and your mind are employees of the soul. Listen to what they’re telling you.
14. Practice moderation.
Don’t get me wrong, enjoying life is important (see rules #1, 5, 6, and 7). Moreover, I believe we all must try to avoid what Tim Kreider calls, “The Busy Trap”––or, the tendency to delay or avoid having fun in favor of mindlessly working.
But there is such a thing as having too much fun––indulging too much. Watching T.V. becomes less fun and even physically draining the longer you do it. Cookies become less satisfying the more you have. And drinking, especially, becomes more taxing the longer and harder you do it.
You can’t operate as you did in college forever, back when the eminent goal of life was having more fun. Trying to do that as an adult turns you into kind of an asshole, as that fixation on having fun only serves to alienate your more level-headed and moderate friends.
You have to find a different speed and style. This will make you happier in the long run.
15. Work to be empathetic, patient, and kind.
This one is big. If, young Daniel, you pay attention to only one rule here, let it be this one. It amounts to being a good and decent person. Which is an admirable thing to be.
Of course, being empathetic and kind is hard, in that it requires more than just lip service. To actualize those qualities, you have to do good things. Tell your mom, partner, sister or friend they look great when they’ve obviously exerted effort to this end. Help others with projects they’re working on. Show people you care about them. Recognize people for their efforts. Don’t lie. And when someone in your party or group does something wrong or even calamitous–-accidentally delaying the departure of a trip such that you miss a fun-seeming event, for example — don’t jump down their throat. Resist that impulse and try instead to take up arms beside them in finding a new solution.
16. Also: support artists any way you can.
This includes giving money to street performers as it does retweeting essays, stories, and articles you find fascinating or important. This is part of being a kind, empathetic person, but it’s also simply a smart investment––good art being one of the things unaffiliated with work or the competition of career-building that makes life worth living. (See rule #5.)
17. Of course, the main thing that makes life worth living is love.
This is why spending time with the people you love and appreciate is so important (see rule #1). But it’s also why committing to one person — and engendering the unique sort of love you share only with them — often proves so critical. The kind of love you cultivate with a partner is probably the most powerful variant that exists. Not everyone believes in things like monogamy, I know, but I can say that my life got meaningfully and demonstrably better — as I personally became meaningfully and demonstrably better — after I committed myself to Alex. And not just to being faithful to her, but to making her happy, and working alongside her to build a life that’s beautiful and fun and safe.
You give little bits of yourself to everyone all the time. You give larger chunks to the people you strategically decide to keep in your orbit. But it pays to save for one person the whole damn pie.
18. Speaking of pie, celebrate others every time you have a semi-coherent reason to.
Much of life is sort of a slog that we proceed through and ultimately forget. Celebrations, though, we remember. They punctuate life. A well-executed celebration accomplishes the important task of treating yourself and your friends––such that life becomes more enjoyable (see rule #11)––but it also serves to recognize people and things as worthwhile and important. (See rule #15.)
So, throw your friends lavish birthday parties. Toast to your brother’s promotion. Get excited, even about the little things — they’ll take up outsized space in your mind when all is said and done.
19. Don’t do dumb shit.
Or, don’t intentionally endanger yourself or others. Consider this a word of caution, since we’re speaking about celebrations and all. Stay smart. For example, don’t try operating any kind of vehicle while fucked up. This very much includes bicycles you think you might want to ride in the afterglow of the New Orleans St. Patty’s Day Parade. Resist the temptation. Bad things will happen. Trust me.
20. That said, don’t be afraid to try new, scary-seeming things.
Just affirm they’re not inappropriately dangerous first. Somewhat dangerous? Fine. Do it. Expand your horizons! Acquire experience! (If something is likely-to-land-me-in-jail dangerous, however? Think twice. (See rule #19.))
21. In fact, do everything you can — as often as you can — to broaden your perspective.
We’re limited in our factory-level setting to one pair of eyes, ears, etc. But there are many ways to interpret or consider a given problem, situation, or scene. To lend credence only to the interpretation you arrive at most immediately proves a less effective means of solving problems and inspiring people, as well as a less interesting way of living life.
22. That said, seek to establish a productive daily routine.
Strategic repetition makes you better. This holds true in the focused practice of a particular skill, sport, or pursuit as it holds true generally. I only started becoming a half-decent writer––such that people started paying me to write for them (see #8)––after I created a routine centered around two or three hours of daily writing time. I only got in half-decent shape after building cardio and weight lifting into my routine. The list goes on.
In many ways, you prove a product of your routine. Construct it accordingly.
23. There never comes a time in your life when you can afford to stop practicing or working to become better.
To practice is to keep the proverbial blade sharp. To remain either skilled, happy, empathetic, or self-aware, you have to work continuously. You have to stay loyal to your strategically-designed routines. You must continue trying to be a better son, husband, daughter, mother, wife, colleague, coach, or boss. You can never afford to become complacent, at least not if you want to continue improving. Because to improve, ultimately, is to live. To let your abilities atrophy or rot, meanwhile, is to begin to die.
24. Remember, too, that you’re always practicing something, even when you don’t mean to.
When you waste hours scrolling through Facebook, you’re practicing indolence. When you get drunk four days in a row on your buddy’s couch, you’re practicing carelessness. When you flake on your friends, you’re practicing flakiness. Strive to be self-aware.
25. Invest in friends, meanwhile, who appreciate the importance of continual practice.
The old adage about being a product of who you surround yourself with has become an old adage for a reason. More practically, though, surrounding yourself with people who themselves try to sustain developmentally-aspirational mindsets will make it easier for you to do the same.
26. Do your best in every group setting to be a team player.
It pays in certain settings to step up and assume leadership roles. Remember, though, that collaboration in service of the communal goal is infinitely more important than any selfish concerns of pride or accomplishment.
To this end, respect your peers. Never be a jerk (see rule #14). Maintain perspective.
27. Speak and act considerately.
A lot of people try, I imagine, to be good team players, remain self-aware, and live empathetically. But then they say something without first considering the implications of their tone or the potential misinterpretations of their words, and as a result, they upset people they care about.
This is sort of unavoidable––the other day in a matter of about 30 minutes I unintentionally upset three separate people I care genuinely about––but you can mitigate your risk by making a habit of thinking before you speak. Simply put, the things we say are important, as well as immutable. Our words are like Tweets, in this sense. And as the venerable Barack Obama once advised, it’s always best to “Think before you Tweet.”
28. Apologize when appropriate.
If, as is bound to happen, you don’t think before you speak or Tweet, however––and as a result, you hurt or slight someone––apologize. And do so genuinely, with remorse and with apparent understanding of why you feel bad. Admit when you’re wrong.
29. That said, stand up for yourself.
You’re not always in the wrong, however. As someone who tends to jump to the worst conclusion possible and who desperately fears disappointing others, this is something I struggle with mightily. But you have to be willing to advocate for yourself, stand up to bullies, and demand what you’ve earned. Stay present in uncomfortable conversations. Don’t buckle or acquiesce. It’s as Priyanka Chopra once said: “There’s always a time in life where you get scared or you get afraid…[But] if you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will.”
30. Finally, remember that these lists are not purely charitable.
Seriously, they serve more to value the author than the reader. In reading them — whenever you run into them on — don’t interpret them as scripture. Distill from them what morsels of wisdom you deem relevant to your life, then discard the rest and move on. Call your mom (see rule #1), text your significant other (see rule #17), or go for a walk (see rule #6). Better yet, sit down and write your own list of rules for living better. If you’re in the grips of some kind of existential crisis––whether of the quarter-life variety or not––it will serve to remind you both what you have to be thankful for and what, ultimately, remains for you to focus on.