26 Lessons from a Quarter Century of Failures, Successes and Troublemaking

26 by Katherine McAdoo

I’ve certainly more than 26 things in 26 years, but these are some of the more important ones.

I am 26 years old – and it terrifies me.

It terrifies me because I recognize that my life is at least a quarter over. Sure I might get hit by bus tomorrow, but even if I have a good run I can’t reasonably expect to make it much past 100. So I’m a quarter done. I’m a quarter done and that terrifies me because I feel like I should be further along in my goals toward achieving the life I want to live.

I know, I know – people will say to calm down and enjoy my life as it is. To be happy with what I’ve got. I am, to be honest, and this shouldn’t be seen as a complaint. While grateful for everything I’ve got I hate complacency. I’m an ambitious person, whether you apply that word as praise or as an insult, so complacency is anathema to me. You can be simultaneously grateful for what you have yet hungry to accomplish more and that is the terribly uncomfortable place I find myself sitting in now.

So – both to assist those who find themselves younger (or older) than myself and yet to seize their ideal life, and for the entirely more selfish purpose of assuaging my own dread that I’ll find myself twenty-six years hence with my goals still unachieved – I’ve collected a list of 26 lessons I’ve learned over my time spent circling the Sun.

1. Everyone Has an Opinion on What’s Right for You – You Don’t Have to Accept It

Everyone, from your friends and your family to complete strangers and society itself, is going to have a strong opinion on what you should do with your life. In my experience it’s usually a lot of bullshit. That’s not to say in the case of those close to you they don’t have your best interests in mind – when your parents push you toward a certain lifestyle they probably are doing it out of love.

It’s also not to say all opinions or advice are wrong, if you’re a crack addict and people tell you to stop that’s definitely a good (if extreme) example of advice you should take. The problem is when you don’t think about the advice you get and just follow it blindly. You go to college, find a job that you’re complacent with and dig in for an uneventful, unfulfilled life following the script society wrote for you. You spend your whole life fishing only to realize far too late that you never wanted fish in the first place.

Take every bit of advice you get with a healthy dose of skepticism. Judge each on its merits for you and then write your own story. You only get one life, don’t waste it living someone else’s narrative.

2. If You Aren’t Pissing People Off, You’re Not Living Boldly Enough

People who create, people who follow their own path, people who do things on their own terms, they inevitably piss people off. There are lots of reasons for this ranging from people just being upset that you’re challenging their beliefs to being jealous that you’re actually doing what you want while they’re still dancing to the unfulfilling tune everyone else has been following. Great things piss off small people.

That means that if you want to do great things you should expect to piss some people off.

There’s two lessons really from this realization because not only does it mean you shouldn’t let the pissed off people get to you, but it also means if you aren’t pissing people off you’re probably not being loud enough. That’s not to say loud in an obnoxious, in-your-face kind of way, but loud in the sense that you’re doing your own thing proudly and don’t care what anyone thinks. If people aren’t pissed off at you then you might need to find something else even greater to pursue.

3. If You’re Comfortable You Aren’t Moving Fast Enough

This ties strongly into the above point – in general if you’re reasonably comfortable you’re probably not moving fast enough. We just don’t learn well inside our comfort zone.

That’s not to say you should be hurtling through life in a stressed out ball of manic inertia, but you should be just outside your comfort zone. You shouldn’t be ripping your hair out, but there should be that tiny bit of pressure edging you on to do just a little more, to go just a little faster. That tiny bit of stress is what’s going to keep you improving throughout your life and keep you from stagnating.

4. Fear Can Be Healthy, but Don’t Let it Control You

I’m not going to tell you to not be afraid of anything, or to ignore all of your fears – they’re there for a reason in the general sense and definitely do serve a strong purpose in keeping you from doing stupid things and getting hurt.

The problem is most people’s fear is seriously overactive.

People wind up terrified of any sort of loss or temporary discomfort, so they sit in their same place their entire life making excuses and resenting their complacency only to die unfulfilled and secretly miserable. If anything you should be scared of that!

You should always acknowledge your fears, because they may be helping you avoid something stupid, but don’t let them rule you. Look your fears in the eye, judge them, and if it turns out they were less lion and more housecat then give them a pat on the head, step right over them and go do something great. You own your own fears, not the other way around, so act like it damn it.

5. Aim for Big Things

I absolutely hate the saying, “Aim for the Moon because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars”. I’m sorry Mr. Stone, you were a great philanthropist and all but your saying is repeated way too much and it belies an extreme ignorance of astronomy.

That being said, I begrudgingly accept the premise. Your goals should be big enough to scare the hell out of you. Aiming for small, achievable things is a great way to build up to a much bigger goal, but if all you ever go for long term are the little achievable things you’re never going to get anywhere.

Big, ambitious, mildly insane goals are the most motivating and will provide the most inspiration for you to actually get out there and do them. There’s an inherent drive to chasing something that seems impossible not present when you only go for things you think you can do. Besides, that’s kind of self-denigrating isn’t it? Don’t sell yourself short, you can do great things so go out and actually do them.

6. You’ll Become the People Around You, Choose Wisely

No matter how much I tell you to ignore what everyone else tells you about how you should live your life, the fact is you’re going to wind up a lot like the people you hang out with. It’s unavoidable. I’m fairly staunchly anti-conformist but even I’ll start adopting the traits and mannerisms of those I surround myself with.

So what do you do about it?

Rather than fight it (you’ll lose), break out some social Aikido and turn that unavoidable fact into a benefit rather than a pitfall. Instead of worrying about being dragged down by people with habits, goals and lifestyles contrary to your own surround yourself with those living the life you want to live.

If you want to be fit, hang out with fit people. If you want to be an entrepreneur hang out with other entrepreneurs. You don’t necessarily have to ditch your old friends (though if they’re being that big of a drag on your life it might not be such a bad thing), you just have to find other people to be around who act as a positive force in your life.

7. Always Be Looking for Ways to Help People

The best way to find meaning in your own life is to help create meaning in the lives of others. Living a completely free life where you have enough passive income that you barely have to work and essentially have the funds to do whatever you want whenever you want doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be happy. You can have everything you think you want in life and still lack meaning.

So find ways to help people.

Whether that means volunteering somewhere, giving to charity or creating something awesome that helps people finding some way to make other people’s lives better will add a lot to your own. Beyond the general altruism thing, there is a self-centered side of making a rule of helping people – the more you help others the more they’ll be happy to help you.

That’s not to say you should help people just so they’ll owe you a favor, people can usually tell when you’re lending a hand for purely selfish reasons. The point is just that when you try to do a little something everyday to help others just for goodness of helping people out it’ll come back to you one way or another for your own benefit.

8. Things Are Easier the Less You Worry

Spending time worrying is pointless and wasteful. Worrying gives you something to do, but it’ll never actually help you accomplish anything. It consumes your attention and, unlike fear which can sometimes be a positive force, worry only leads to distraction, lack of action and bad decisions.

Stop worrying.

Things can be broken down into two categories, things that are under your control and things that are not under your control. People tend to spend a lot of time worrying about both which is extra pointless. Worrying, on its own, is a waste of your time. Worrying about things that are not in any way under your control, things which you cannot change, means that you are wasting time you could be spending addressing things you can change fretting about something you’re powerless to affect.

Even worrying about things you can affect is a waste because you could be spending that time taking action. If you have an hour to spend doesn’t it make more sense to spend that hour fixing the problem or taking action to avoid or correct something rather than spending an hour wringing your hands and fussing about it.

Spending your time worrying about something you can’t change just distracts you from fixing the things you can change and worrying about things you can change is like standing on train tracks pulling your hair out because you see a train coming – stop worrying and just step off the tracks.

9. Systems Will Always Beat Motivation

I have to give the personal training department head at the gym I’m working at right now some credit for this one, so Chab if you’re reading this – thanks.

It doesn’t matter how motivated you are, it doesn’t matter how diligent you think you are in whatever it is you’re trying to do, if you don’t have systems in place to make sure you’re doing it you’re going to fall short eventually. What do I mean by systems? Systems are things that are external to you that force you to do whatever needs to be done everyday to keep you on track.

Things like to-do lists, Seinfeld chains and daily schedules are all examples of systems that ensure that you’re taking the little steps you need everyday to achieve your bigger goals.

People who are successful inevitably wind up with a ton of things on their plate to juggle, usually on a daily basis. If you don’t have systems in place to keep you in line something somewhere is going to slip. Making sure you have the right systems in place will take a lot of the human error element out of your chances of reaching your goals.

10. Be a Little Better Every Single Day

If there were something of a common theme among all of my lessons or pieces of advice, I’d say it would probably be to never stagnate. I firmly believe that, given the severely limited amount of time we have here, we should do our best to get the most out of it. To that end I think what opens up the most opportunities to get the most out of life is to constantly be improving yourself.

That means that every day you should go to bed just a little better in some way or at some thing than you were when you went to bed the previous evening. This can mean you’re a little better at a skill, a little kinder, a little more relaxed, whatever. The point is to always be improving – that’ll lead to a better life and better experiences. Not to mention self-improvement is fulfilling.

11. Take Time to Play

While I stand by my conviction that you should work to improve yourself every single day, that doesn’t mean you should spend every single day working yourself to the bone. Go out and play. Not only is it good for you mentally and emotionally it’s also good for you physically (provided you go out and move).

Try to always make it some kind of physical play if you can – it’s nice now and again to just chill out and play some video games but physical play, getting up and actually moving, is going to be a lot better for you in every way. Go outside and play a game with friends, or go try some parkour or go hiking or something.

Don’t work so much that you neglect your need to have a little fun.

12. Don’t Settle for a Complacent Life

You might be comfortable. You might have a stable job, no real financial worries, a nice house and a healthy family. You might look around at your life and say, “Yeah, this is good enough I guess.”

But there’s a big difference between ‘good enough’ and ‘absolutely fantastic’.

There’s a difference between waking up each morning, flopping out of bed filled with early morning indifference and thinking to yourself, “Well, it’s time for another day,” and leaping out of bed totally pumped yelling, “Hell yeah it’s another day! Let’s do this!” If you want to crawl back in bed in the morning in dread of the coming day rather than jump out of it in anticipation of what’s to come, something is wrong.

Your life should be so great you wake up before your alarm because you just can’t wait to get the day started. If you’re just trudging along in a fog of complacency because you’re comfortable enough then something needs to change. Don’t settle. Make up your own mind how you want your life to be and then go out and get it.

13. Prioritize

How you prioritize things makes a big, big difference in your overall chance of succeeding. I’ve always liked to follow the 80/20 principle since it seems to hold true the majority of the time.

When you know what you want you can focus on the things that will do the most to get you there and ignore the things that are going to give you minimal returns on your time and energy. The smarter you are about your prioritization the more efficiently you can work and the more progress you can make. This also means recognizing when certain things need to be avoided. Is watching four hours of TV a night really a priority? Cut out the things that aren’t helping you and focus on the ones that are.

14. Embrace Failure, but Don’t Set Yourself Up for It

Failing is by far the best way to succeed.

That may sound crazy, but it’s true. You should love to fail. Everyone who’s ever been successful is successful because they’ve failed again, and again, and again and learned from each and every one of them. They try things, fall down, and then get back up and figure out what went wrong so they can do it better next time.

Take note though that this doesn’t mean you should set yourself specifically to fail. Setting yourself up to fail intentionally or to never try at all makes you worse than a failure. Accept failure and be ready for it, but don’t take a dive on something just because you’re too scared of what might happen.

15. Travel

Travel is one of the best things in life. Particularly travel overseas – the ability to meet a much wider variety of people, experience diverse and varied cultures, broaden your viewpoints and be confronted with ideas and customs you may have never considered is invaluable.

You don’t have to give up everything and become a digital nomad, but I assert that everyone should experience travel to a foreign land at least once during their lifetimes. I guarantee once you’ve gone abroad once you’ll itch to travel more.

16. Read as Much as You Can

Reading is another one of the best things in life, because it affords almost all of the benefits of travel in a much more compact if less grand package. Reading and reading often, both fiction and non-fiction, exposes you to so many opportunities.

Reading not only makes you more intelligent by providing direct information about things but also makes you a better person by exposing you to a wide variety of human experiences. It puts you in the shoes of thousands of characters and makes you examine their decisions, motivations and actions. It leads you to reflect on yourself and your own actions, and to consider that some people might think differently than you do. Best of all it’s just plain fun and relaxing.

If there was one thing out of this whole list I would like every single person younger than me to take to heart, it would be that they should read as often as possible. The world would be a much better place.

17. Don’t Worry so Much About Accumulating Stuff

While it would be hypocritical of me to vociferously inculcate upon you the rule that others’ prescriptions for your happiness should be viewed critically and then turn around and declare a particular path the wrong way to True Happiness ™ I’m essentially about to do just that.

I’ll at least include the caveat that I may be wrong – but I think that trying to find happiness by accumulating a bunch of things is just not going to work. If you’re in the U.S. this is kind of the default modality for how to live a happy life. You have to buy the latest gadgets, own a nice car and a big house. You need to constantly be consuming in order to fill that nebulous void you feel.

It usually doesn’t actually fill that void though, and you just wind up cramming more and more stuff in there until you die without ever finding happiness. That sucks. Stop worrying so much about gathering junk and try to view things a bit more minimalistically. Chase experiences in your pursuit of happiness not objects.

18. Live Right Now, not Yesterday or Tomorrow

Remember what I said about not worrying? That also applies to spending too much time thinking about the past and the future. That’s not to say you should totally abandon all thoughts of anything outside the moment and dive into a wild and self-destructive frenzy of pure hedonism – that won’t end well.

It is to say though that you should think about the past enough to learn from it, think about the future enough to plan for it and then that’s it. Don’t dwell there. If you spend so much time steeped in nostalgia and longing for the way things used to be then you’re going to lose all the time you’ve got right now. If you spend too much time worrying and planning and preparing for the future you also miss out on the time you’ve got now- and that future may never even come.

Be present and mindful and enjoy the moment.

19. Be Social

I grew up as a fat, nerdy, socially awkward introvert.

Don’t do that.

Well, ok, I encourage nerdiness. The rest of it though contributed to a lot of the very worst parts of my adolescence. I understand, as a former victim of extreme social anxiety, that it’s not as easy as just saying, “Go be more social!” I hate that. That’s like telling someone suffering from sever depression that they just need to ‘cheer the hell up’. It displays a lack of understanding so severe as to border on the offensive.

That being said, don’t just accept your social awkwardness. There are steps you can take to gradually dig yourself out from under it, and a lot of it hinges on small, purposeful steps outside of your comfort zone. Put the work in. It’s hard, and it sucks, but believe me when I say that the benefits to working at being more social far outweigh the pain of getting there.

Not only are social interactions inherently fulfilling on a subconscious level a lot of things in life genuinely do come down more to who you know than what you know. That isn’t to say you should approach everyone you meet with the mindset of figuring out what you can gain from them, that won’t end well. You should be social for the emotional benefits, but understand that it’ll help out in a lot of other ways too.

You can still be an introvert – I certainly still need my alone time – but work hard to cultivate a solid social life as well.

20. It’s Never Too Late to Start (or Stop) Something

The Sunk Cost Fallacy is some straight bullshit.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent twenty years trudging along in a career you hate – if you hate it trudging along another twenty isn’t going to make it better. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that since you’ve put a lot of time into the wrong thing that you should put even more time into it to make all that wasted time ‘worth it’ somehow. That’s just insane. No matter how long you’ve been doing something, if it’s making you miserable stop doing it.

There’s never any time when it’s too late to start something new either. While it’s often better to get an earlier start there are tons of people who have taken up something new late in life and mastered it. Saying you’re too old to do something is basically just decided to not even try and to go to your grave having not even made an attempt to do what you want. How awful is that? Even if your 99th birthday is tomorrow, if there’s something you really want to do find a way to go out and do it.

21. Don’t Confuse Patience and Inaction

Patience is definitely a virtue. You’ll get no argument from me about that. The problem is I’ve seen a lot of people say they’re just being patient, that good things come to those who wait, when really they’re just sitting around wasting their time because they’re too timid to go get what they want.

Good things come to those who wait when they need to wait and who act when they need to act. Inaction, laziness and indolence are not going to help you reach your goals. Sitting around and waiting to just know a new language one day isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have to work for it. Hard.

The same thing applies to fitness. If you’re overweight do you think you can just sit around and be patient until you’re fit? No. You’ve got to work your ass off for it. Where patience comes in is the understanding of the necessity of delayed gratification – that right now, tomorrow, maybe the next few months, are going to suck. They’re going to be painful. You’re going to have to do a lot of things you don’t want to. In time though, if you’re patient enough to persist and not give up great you’ll reach your goals.

22. Treat Your Body Well

Speaking of fitness, in a lot of ways your body is the only thing that’s really yours. Don’t trash it.

Aside from all the ways being fit opens up countless opportunities for experiences, additional freedom and just general happiness the fact is you are your body. We can argue about identity and mind/body dualism all day long, but everything that makes you you is just the particular combination of chemicals, electrical signals and neurons that make up your brain.

While we may get there eventually, we don’t currently have the technology to separate your mind from your brain. That means that you are essentially your brain. Given that we also don’t have the technology to keep that brain of yours alive without your body in what could generally be called a fully functioning way you basically are your body.

So why let it fall apart? You’re not in your body, your body is you and you are your body. We’ve come a long way medically, but you still basically only get one, so treasure it and keep in good shape.

23. You Don’t Necessarily Need a Degree

I think more and more people are coming to this realization on their own, but you really don’t need a college degree anymore in most cases.

There are certainly fields where you definitely do need one, but when I was going through school it was impressed on us that every single person needed some kind of degree or they would never get beyond the realm of sub-poverty line minimum wage serfdom. To not go off to college was like occupational suicide – you were ruining your chances to amount to anything.

Anymore though it really doesn’t matter so much. You can do plenty of great things without a college degree, and not being yoked with crushing student debt can even give you an advantage over your peers in a lot of respects. I’d never say a higher degree is useless either, the point is just that you should understand it’s not necessarily a requirement. Look at your situation, goals and options and evaluate for yourself whether or not it’d be a good investment to pursue.

24. You Don’t Necessarily Need to Work for Someone Else

This follows the above point. When I was young the sole goal in life as pressed upon me by the educational system was to choose my function in society and find a nice stable job at a good company doing whatever it was I decided to do on a steady 9 to 5 schedule for the rest of my life.

The concept of starting a business, of freelancing, of pursuing something creative, none of that was even considered.

With the Internet it’s easier than ever to find your own work or start your own business, provided you’re tenacious and persistent enough. I’m not going to suggest everyone start a business, because it’s hard, risky and takes a certain type of person to find success. It’s just not for everyone. You shouldn’t feel like you have to work for someone else either though or get some 9 to 5 that you despise just to pay the bills. Find were you work best and are happiest and go with that.

25. Meditate

Modern life is stressful as hell.

Meditation provides one of the best ways to deal with that stress and find some peace and happiness in a chaotic world. Meditation leads to contentedness (not to be confused with complacency) which will make your days much more pleasant overall while you work toward improving yourself and the world around you.

Meditation also leads to introspection and a better understanding and control of yourself – something that is absolutely priceless in the pursuit of self-improvement. There’s nothing spiritual about meditation, and even if you’ve never done it before meditation is easy to start. Even five minutes of quiet reflection every day will make a big difference.

26. Only You Can Define Your Happiness

After everything else, this ought to be self-evident. No one else can decide for you the best way to be happy. Take time and consider it, deciding what makes you most happy is not something to be decided upon in haste lest you come to the end of your life finding you were mistaken. Mull it over and test things out, try a little bit of everything. You’ll know when you really find it, and once you do don’t let anyone stop you from going after it.

There you have it – 26 things I’ve learned in my time here so far. Hopefully reading it has provided as much motivation and catharsis as I’ve found in writing it. Now go out there and do something great.

Do have anything to add? Any lessons you’ve learned in your time here, however long that’s been, that you feel should be included? Leave a comment and share them!

Photo Credit: Katherine McAdoo

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Olya

    I enjoyed reading this, thank you.