40 lessons from my first 40 years

40 lessons from my first 40 years

Looking at the glass half full, the world did not come to an end on December 21st.  Looking at the glass half empty, no apocalypse meant that my 40th birthday arrived as scheduled on the 22nd.  Since I wasn’t otherwise preoccupied with the four horsemen, I had a few extra hours to reflect on the past four decades.  Below are 40 things I’ve learned over my first 40 years.  They are in no particular order and aren’t necessarily the most important things I’ve learned, just some that came to mind.  I gave credit if I could remember where I learned something, but I’m sure there were some that I forgot.

1)    Curate your life.  Your life will largely be defined by what you let in and what you keep out. Choose everything—friends, hobbies, work, philanthropy, clothes, vacations, meals, gadgets, books, etc.—with a discerning eye.  Show me someone with a remarkable life and I’ll show you someone who is a tough curator.  For more, read this.

2)    The most practical career advice I’ve heard came from Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon.  He sees two paths to an exceptional career: 1) Be the very best at one specific thing (also known as the Tiger Woods approach) or 2) Be very good (top 25%) at two or more things.  By combining these “pretty goods” you eventually create a package that is very rare and likely valuable to a potential employer.  The first path is very unlikely for most of us, but the second path is fairly easy and nearly as effective.

3)    You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with (hat tip to Jim Rohn).  Choose wisely.

4)    One of the most important questions you can answer is: “What do I really want out of life?”  Once you know the answer, take it very seriously (hat tip to Chris Guillebeau).

5)    “What” is an important question, but don’t forget about “Why.”  If you don’t have a good answer for “why” you won’t have much success with “what” or “how.”  Have a strong “why.”

6)    Worrying is a waste of time.  Almost everything you worry about (95% +) will never happen.  When something worth worrying about does happen, ask yourself “Will this matter in five years?”  If the answer is no, then don’t lose much sleep over it.

7)    Read.  As Twain said, “A man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read good books.”  The information that you feed yourself is just as important (and has pretty much the same effect) as the food that you feed yourself.  Fill yourself with new, interesting and challenging information and you can expect a healthy mind.  Fill yourself with the informational equivalent of Twinkies all day and you can expect a mind that is flabby and lethargic.

8)    Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you (hat tip to David McCullough Jr.).  Don’t go through life treating everything as a potential status update on Facebook.

9)    Always be learning something new.  A language.  An instrument.  A skill.  A hobby.  Challenge yourself.  Have fun.  Stretch your mind.  Read this for more info on how and why to be a lifelong learner.

10) Don’t be afraid to screw up.  As Will Rogers said, “Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

11) Dream big.  When you dream big, something happens.  It changes how you think and how you act.  It changes the types of questions you ask.  It inspires and changes those around you.  Dreaming big has led to things like cures, computers and space travel.  Don’t limit yourself to those things that seem “reasonable” or “probable.”  Take a risk and dream big.

12) The best parenting advice I’ve heard (hat tip to Stan Parker): Parenting is all about influence and influence is all about relationship.  If you want to influence your kids, then you need to be consistently building into your relationship with them.

13) The number one key to success is consistency.  Just like money compounds over time, so does effort.

14) Given the choice between spending on “more stuff” and “more experiences” you should almost always choose the experiences. A life spent in dogged pursuit of rich experiences will usually have a much better payoff than one seeking the latest gadget or gizmo.

15) Don’t wait for a roadmap.  With most things in life you need to make due with a compass.

16) Don’t be afraid to take risks. “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage.  Just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery and I promise you something great will come of it.”  Yes, that’s a quote from the movie We Bought a Zoo.

17) When it comes to new obligations, say “yes” slowly and say “no” quickly.  When it comes to new adventures, say “yes” quickly and “no” slowly.

18) We are often under the mistaken impression that we can add sin to our life, when in reality we can only trade for it (hat tip to Ken Wytsma).  Cheating on your taxes or having an affair are not things that you add to your life.  Choosing them will eventually force you to trade something else, like your spouse, kids, character or reputation.

19) If something is on your calendar, it gets done.  Don’t just schedule the stuff you have to do.  Schedule the fun stuff too and you’ll be much more likely to do it.

20) Respond well.  If tragedy strikes, keep your head.  If difficult times come or things don’t work out as planned, stay strong.  If some jackass builds a bunker and says the world is ending on Tuesday, wish him well and invite him over for dinner on Wednesday.

21) Done is better than perfect.

22) Be a system thinker.  Your life is a complex system with lots of different parts.  Just like your car couldn’t function without a transmission your life can’t function if there’s a major problem with something like your finances, relationships or health.  Each of those parts affects the whole.  Handle each area well and the system functions as it should.  Handle them poorly and you can expect problems.

23) When things don’t go as expected, don’t be afraid to make changes.  As Derek Sivers said, “Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently doing what’s not working.”

24) Ever wondered whether or not to take advantage of an opportunity or adventure?  Put it to the 50-Year test.  Ask yourself, “Will I remember this in 50 years?”  If the answer is yes, you should probably do it.  I think credit for this one goes to Tyler Tervooren.

25) Work on high priority tasks.  Don’t get bogged down with maintenance (e.g. paying bills, worthless meetings, pushing paper).  Focus on milestones (e.g. family, relationships, creative projects, meaningful work, education, adventure). When reflecting on your life, the milestones will be the things that stand out.  They will be the things that you are most proud of.  The maintenance will just fade into the background.

26) Most of what we do is unimportant and doesn’t need to be done.  Eighty percent of our results will usually come from 20 percent of our effort (hat tip to Pareto and Tim Ferriss).  Simplify as much as possible so you can focus on things that actually produce results.

27) Delayed gratification is overrated (hat tip to Chris Guillebeau).  It’s great if it’s allowing you to work toward something, but bad if it’s an excuse that’s keeping you from something.  Rather than starting now, we often come up with an excuse and say “Someday.”  Unfortunately, the longer you wait, the less you believe yourself when you say “Someday.”  Your dreams begin to atrophy.  Your opportunities begin to vanish.  You aim lower.  You talk yourself out of things.  Before you know it, it’s too late.

28) Don’t save the best for last.  If you retire at 65 and stay healthy and active until 75 (a stretch for many), then you’ve got 10 years to do everything you’ve been putting off for the last 40.  Ten years is not enough.

29) For the most part, happiness is a choice.

30) Get out of the lecture and into the lab.  It’s easy to talk, speculate and dream.  It’s passive.  It’s like you’re an attendee at a lecture.  Doing is difficult.  Doing is getting out of the lecture and into the lab.  It’s getting your hands dirty by experimenting and taking action.  “Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions.  All life is an experiment.  The more experiments you make the better.  What if they are a little course, and you may get your coat soiled or torn?  What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice?  Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.”  (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

31) Focus on things you can control.  When you do that, your productivity is high and your stress is low.  If you focus on (or spend time thinking about) things you can’t control, your productivity is low and your stress is high.  “The more concerned we become over the things we can’t control, the less we will do with the things we can control.” (John Wooden)

32) When making major decisions in life, think about the path that those decisions put you on.  That path will likely lead you to some great new opportunities, but it will also lead you away from other opportunities, places, people and experiences.  In that way, major decisions are directional and difficult to change.  Don’t make them flippantly.

33) While we’re on the topic of decisions, most usually present you with an easy way and a hard way; a wide path and a narrow path.  Paradoxically, narrow, difficult decisions that require discipline and sacrifice usually pay off by leading you into a place where the road is wide and our options are plentiful.  On the other hand, taking the wide, easy path ends up funneling you down a narrower and narrower chute until all good options are gone and all that is left are painful consequences.

34) Live with a sense of urgency.  Someday you’re going to die.

35) “Good” is succeeding at something.  “Great” is being able to repeat that over and over.

36) Explore.  “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  (St. Augustine)

37) Solve problems early, when the solutions are usually less painful.  To summarize Frank Lloyd Wright, you can solve problems on the drafting board with an eraser, but you need a wrecking ball at the building site.

38) Always look for opportunities to help other people.

39) Be curious.  It will lead you to some interesting people, places and experiences.

40) You will be who you are becoming (hat tip to Gavin Johnson). You’re never going to wake up one morning and be something that you haven’t been becoming little by little, day by day, for years. Take a small step today that moves you in the right direction.  Then do it again tomorrow and the next day and the next.  Before you know it, you’ll wake up one morning and you’ll be the person you’ve been becoming all along.

Do you have any life lessons to add to the list?  I’d love to hear them.  Just share in the comments section below.  Thanks!

~ Joe


Schedule your good stuff

Schedule your good stuff

I was looking at my calendar the other day and it’s loaded with things like meetings, lunches, conference calls, article deadlines and doctor/dentist appointments.  I put those things on my calendar for one very important reason: If it’s on my calendar, it gets done.

If I schedule a meeting, I’m there five minutes early.  If I have a lunch appointment with you, don’t expect to get stood up.   If I tell my trainer I’ll be there at 4 o’clock on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then the gym bag is packed and in the car on those days.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Most people are disciplined with the things on their calendar.  As I thought about that, it occurred to me: Why don’t we schedule our fun stuff?  Too often in life we have hopes, plans and dreams that we want to pursue, but they get crowded out by the tyranny of the urgent.  In a cruel bit of cognitive dissonance, we pack our schedules with all the things that we HAVE to do, and then try to fit the things that we WANT to do somewhere in the cracks.

What if you started scheduling the good stuff?  What if you actually blocked out time on your calendar for a date night with your spouse, time with your kids, time to read, time to learn a new hobby, time to go for a walk or time to take a trip?  My guess is that if it was on your calendar, you’d treat it like all of your other appointments and actually show up to do it.  Not only that, but you would gradually get better at using your time to accomplish the things that you wanted to in life, which is a skill that will come in handy during retirement.

Year End Review

While we’re on the topic of using our time wisely, I wanted to point you to a few articles in the Intentional Retirement Archives.  As many of you know, I spend time each December thinking about the past year and planning for the next.  You can read about the process I use in these two articles:

I’d encourage you to set aside some time this month to think about the coming year.  Whether you follow my process or create one of your own, don’t underestimate the importance of planning.  The type of life you want to live—one filled with meaning, accomplishment, and purpose—does not happen by accident.  You need to be intentional.

Have a great weekend!

~ Joe

A short lesson in perspective

A short lesson in perspective

Late last month an advertising executive (a real life Mad Man) named Linds Redding died of esophageal cancer.  After being diagnosed in 2011, he would regularly write about the disease, his treatments and his thoughts on life at his blog.

Earlier this year he wrote a post called A Short Lesson in Perspective in which he reflected on how wholeheartedly he had thrown himself into his career over the years.  As he rapidly approached the premature end of his life, he wondered aloud if it was worth it.

His insights and conclusions were so raw and honest that I wanted to excerpt a small portion of his post below so that you and I could reflect on our own priorities as we live life and plan for retirement.  One day (hopefully not soon) we will be where Linds was when he wrote that essay.  How great would it be if we could heed his words of warning so we could look back on our life with pride, satisfaction and few regrets?

A quick note: Linds refers to something called “The Overnight Test.”  When creating advertising campaigns, he and his team would often let ideas simmer overnight.  If it still seemed like a good idea the next day, they would say that it passed “The Overnight Test.”

From A Short Lesson in Perspective:

“Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause.  It would all be worth it in the long run…

This was the con.  Convincing myself that there was nowhere I’d rather be was just a coping mechanism.  I can see that now.  It wasn’t really important.  Or of any consequence at all really.  How could it be?  We were just shifting product.  Our product, and the clients.  Just meeting the quota.  Feeding the beast as I called it on my more cynical days.

So was it worth it?

Well of course not.  It turns out it was just advertising.  There was no higher calling.  No ultimate prize.  Just a lot of faded, yellowing newsprint, and old video cassettes in an obsolete format I can’t even play any more even if I were interested.  Oh yes, and a lot of framed certificates and little gold statuettes.  A shit-load of empty Prozac boxes, wine bottles, a lot of grey hair and a tumor of indeterminate dimensions.

It sounds like I’m feeling sorry for myself again.  I’m not.  It was fun for quite a lot of the time.  I was pretty good at it.  I met a lot of funny, talented and clever people, got to become an overnight expert in everything from shower-heads to sheep-dip, got to scratch my creative itch on a daily basis, and earned enough money to raise the family which I love, and even see them occasionally.

But what I didn’t do, with the benefit of perspective, is anything of any lasting importance.  At least creatively speaking.  Economically I probably helped shift some merchandise.  Enhanced a few companies bottom lines.  Helped make one or two wealthy men a bit wealthier than they already were.

As a life, it all seemed like such a good idea at the time.

But I’m not really sure it passes The Overnight Test.”

Discipline vs Motivation

Discipline vs Motivation

Before talking about discipline and motivation, I want to give you a quick update on the most recent 30 Day Challenge.  As many of you know I do periodic learning challenges in life and then write about them here at the site.  So far I’ve learned all the countries of the world, gotten SCUBA certified (followed by some amazing diving in Anguilla) and learned to make croissants with my wife.

My next challenge was to learn how to use a new presentation software called Prezi.  I’ve spent some time teaching myself to use it, with mixed results.  I have the basics down, but the presentations I have created so far are less than mind blowing.  Not only that, but my typical 30 day window has grown to about 90.  In today’s post, I go into a few of the reasons why this challenge has been less than successful so far and what key lesson we can learn from my struggles that will apply to any big goals we set in life.

Discipline vs. Motivation

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”   ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

As I thought about my struggles with the most recent challenge, I realized that there was a significant difference between it and the first three:  I actually wanted to do the first three!  For example, I had a desire to learn to SCUBA dive.  I practically skipped to the classes each week.  The same is true for the countries and croissants.  They were fun, interesting and things I wanted to do.  On the other hand, Prezi was something that I felt like I should learn so that I could communicate my ideas more effectively when presenting, but it wasn’t really something that I had a burning desire to do.  At the core it came down to a difference between discipline and motivation.

In my mind, discipline is consistently doing what you don’t really want to do, but know that you should.  Motivation is being impelled to do something that you actually want to do.  One is forced and the other is natural.

Not surprisingly, I feel like we will all have more success in life if we actually focus on the things that we’re motivated to do rather than trying to find the discipline needed to overcome our lack of interest or desire.  Sure, there will always be a place for discipline.  It will help us eat right and get to the gym.  It will help us set aside for the future.  But we will be much more effective if we can actually focus our time and efforts on things that we’re already motivated to do.

The more motivation you have, the less discipline you need.  The less discipline you need, the more likely it is that you’ll actually stick with it and accomplish what you’re trying to do.  So as you think about your own life, don’t litter your day with things that you’re not already motivated to do.  Focus on those things that you’re excited about.  And if you come across something that you need to do, but you’re not excited about, try to come up with ways to inject motivation instead of just discipline.  Find some friends to do it with you.  Make it into a contest.  Promise yourself some sort of reward.  Do that, and you’ll achieve more than if you just rely on willpower alone.

I’ll cue up the next challenge soon, but for now I want to finish up with Prezi.  My wife actually just learned to use it for a presentation that she needed to give.  I told her that if she teaches me everything she knows I’ll finally get around to that guest bedroom remodeling project I’ve been promising.  Hopefully, that will be all the motivation she needs.

How about you?  Are you running into roadblocks with your to-do list?  That could be a sign that you’re spending too much time focusing on things that you don’t actually want to do.  Life is too short for that.

~ Joe

Houston, we have a problem.

Houston, we have a problem.

For the past year or so, I’ve noticed a disconcerting trend.  Each time I step on the scale, the number gets larger.  Has there been some sort of change in the gravitational pull of the earth or am I putting on weight?

In 2003 I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C.  I weighed about 185 pounds and could run 10 miles without breaking a sweat.  Now I weigh 215 pounds and get winded chasing my daughter around the park.  If that trend continues, in 10 years I’ll weigh 245 pounds and will be pricing mobility scooters.

In life, there are certain problems that are easier to solve sooner rather than later (more on that below).  I turn 40 in December and getting into shape is not getting any easier.  Not only is my body clinging to calories like a tiger clings to its kill, but finding the motivation is getting harder as I get busier and take on more responsibilities.  If I want to be around for another 40 years, however, I need to put the excuses aside and reacquaint myself with physical activity.

Fit by 40

And so, about a month and a half ago I started going to a personal trainer.  I had been lamenting to my boss that I wanted to get in shape, but 1) I needed some accountability and 2) I needed to workout during the day because mornings and evenings were too busy with work and family.

As luck would have it, his son (who plays college football) had gone to a trainer for years.  My boss had recently started going as well and he invited me to come along.  Not only that, but he told me to take off work early three days a week and he would pay for it.  Hard to argue with that.

My first day at the “gym” was pretty humbling.  First off, it was not a gym, but a converted warehouse.  Imagine that barn in the middle of Russia where Rocky trained in Rocky IV and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.  Lifting rocks—check.  Chopping wood—check.  Pulling Paulie on a sled through a snowstorm—well, you get the idea.

The people training there were serious: Elite high school, college and professional athletes; ultimate fighters (all wearing oxygen depravation masks to simulate altitude); and…me.

So far my time there has been great.  My mantra is “Fit by 40.”  The pounds have started to come off.  I have more energy.  Most of all, I feel good that I’m actually being proactive about a problem that I (and millions of other Americans) struggle with.

Why am I mentioning this?  Two reasons:

First, I don’t want to publicly fail in front of hundreds of readers who I respect and admire.  Thanks for the motivation!  🙂

Second, and more importantly, I wanted to get you thinking about issues or problems in your own life that need some sort of solution.  Too often we sweep our problems under the rug because we’re too busy or scared to deal with them.  Then someday, when we shed the competing tasks and responsibilities that used to drown out our problems (a.k.a. retirement) those problems come bubbling to the surface.

Rather than enjoying a meaningful, rewarding retirement we spend our time trying to salvage our marriage, get in shape, recover from a preventable illness, mend neglected relationships or figure out what we really want out of life.  Don’t ignore your problems.  They’re only going to get worse.

Is there something you need to fix?  Start down that path today.  If I can help, just let me know how.


Photo by Laura Gilmore.  Used under Creative Commons License.
The dual processes of an ideal retirement

The dual processes of an ideal retirement

When the Pope asked Michelangelo how he knew what to cut away when he was sculpting the statue of David, Michelangelo reportedly answered “Simple.  I just chipped away everything that didn’t look like David.”

There are two kinds of processes that artists use when making their art.  The first, used by Michelangelo when sculpting David, was a Subtractive Process.  You start with something—a block of marble or a hunk of wood—and you slowly chisel, carve and otherwise remove bits of that something until what you’re left with is the finished product.

The other process is an Additive Process.  There you start with nothing—a blank canvas, a hunk of clay, an empty lot—and then you paint, shape, mold or build until you have the finished product.  Think Van Gogh, Alberto Giacometti or Frank Lloyd Wright.

To create the life you want in retirement you need to use both the Additive and Subtractive Processes.

You need to channel your inner Michelangelo and remove everything that doesn’t look like the life you want.  You need to make the “Stop Doing” list that I’ve talked about here many times before and then begin to chip away, purge, streamline and simplify.

At the same time, you need to figure out what you really want out of this life and start adding, shaping and building.  What will you do?  How will you pay for it?  Who needs to be there?  What skills do you need?  You have a blank canvas.  Paint a Rembrandt.  You have an empty lot.  Build Fallingwater.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  ~Michelangelo

Photo by Scott Ableman.  Used under Creative Commons License.