Last December I turned 22, and it’s put me in a very reflective mood lately. There’s a lot of change going on — aside from the obvious crazy state of the world right now, I also moved out from my parents place a couple months ago, I’m on my 22nd year of life, I just finished my last semester of University, it is now 2021, and I just started a new chapter of my life with my career. Anyways, with all this change happening, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve got to where I am now and what I’ve learnt in my 22 years of life on this earth.
So I thought I’d write it down to remind myself of some of these lessons. This is really like a letter for my future self. It’s for me tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after — so that the version of me in 5, 10, 15, years from now can hopefully be living his best life. I’m not going to pretend I know all the answers to the perfect human life, but these are things that I find make ME happy, allow me to stay grounded, stay true to myself, or just to keep me out of trouble. For future Paolo reading this, hopefully I got some of these right, and that some of these lessons still ring true in our future, or I guess your present?
Anyways, these aren’t in any particular order of importance, and some might overlap a bit, but I’ll start off with quicker ones that don’t need as much explaining. Then I’ll gradually get to the ones that would benefit from more context.
1. Romanticize life
If you’ve been on Tiktok or Instagram lately, you might’ve heard this sound. The narration goes:
“You have to start romanticizing your life. You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character because if you don’t — life will continue to pass you by. And all the little things that make it so beautiful will continue to go unnoticed. So take a second, and look around and realize that it’s a blessing for you to be here right now.”
Yes it might be a bit overplayed, but it’s so true. You are the protagonist of your own story. Don’t let the little things in life go unnoticed. The easiest place to start is by going for walks during sunset. You will never regret it.
2. Every good story requires conflict
Almost every story is made of both good and bad experiences. Without conflict and tension, there is no resolution or payoff. So when life is hard, think of the story you’ll be able to tell about that hard time — stories that your grandchildren will hear and think “oh grandpa was so cool.”
3. Keep your area clean
Let’s admit it, life gets messy sometimes and you just have to accept this (see #2). Having a clean environment helps make life feel less messy. Every time you take a moment to actually make your bed, or clean up your desk, or fold your clothes properly into your closet, it helps bring peace of mind and clears up background mental energy worrying about these things.
4. Seek the Vuja De moments
These are the moments or sights that you know you’ve experienced before, but somehow this time it hits different. Whether it’s the building that you knew was there but never noticed that aesthetic detail that makes the building unique, or maybe it’s the friend that you’ve known for years but never realized how their smile looks a certain way when they laugh, and it makes you smile too. This will help with hedonic adaptation, and it makes the moment — right now — even more special.
5. Stay spontaneous
Spontaneity is a big part of our personality. Some of our greatest friendships developed off of being spontaneous. In just randomly calling those friends, or asking if they’re free for a quick bike ride, it opens up more possibilities to do things we all enjoy. Even if they say no they’re busy, it’s better than never getting around to hanging out. Then, go do the thing — whether or not there is someone there — because it’s something you enjoy. In doing this more, you will learn how to better listen to and trust your gut.
6. Have a backup plan
Related to being spontaneous, it’s easier to have that flexibility when you have a safety net to catch you if things do go sideways. It’s okay not to have a “plan a” sometimes, or to even schedule in the time to be spontaneous and flexible. A lot of people do this when travelling, allowing themselves to just see where the day takes them. But it’s never a bad idea to have a “plan b” — just in case.
7. What you can do is not always what you should do
Now that I have moved out, there is so much more freedom available to do whatever I want in a given day. However, this also presents a bigger responsibility to actually use time wisely. Yes, I can now sleep in till noon every day, eat whatever and whenever I want, or even have a bottle of wine every night. Are these good ideas? Maybe on a Saturday sure. But long term, it just wouldn’t work. Mom isn’t around to baby you on the daily anymore. You have to keep yourself accountable for your own responsibilities. As Max said – all of human history has led to this point and given us so many cool tools and opportunities, just for you to spend your day sitting on your phat butt? No.
8. If you never heal from what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people that never cut you
It’s worth investing the time to reflect on what has caused you pain in your life, and if maybe your more recent pains are derived from things that have happened much earlier in life. If you don’t properly heal old wounds, you’re less likely to bring people down in the future that you love or don’t deserve to be brought down. This self awareness is key to living a sustainably healthy and happy life. Most people just focus on trying to find what brings them happiness, but if you don’t also understand what brings you down and why, then you’ll keep getting hurt, while likely hurting others in the process. Intention doesn’t equal impact. So even if you intended for the best for someone, your actions might just have had the opposite impact.
9. You have to put your oxygen mask on first
When plane cabins lose pressure, flight attendants tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others (the “mask” also has a double meaning in 2020/2021). You can’t help others if you run out of oxygen first. This is the same with life — you can’t help others if you haven’t taken care of yourself first. Another way I’ve heard this is “you can’t fill someone else’s cup if your own cup is empty.” So once you’ve reflected on what hurt you previously (see #8) and become self aware of what has potential to bring you down, you can set up the systems in place to deal with it properly in the event that it happens (aka “when the cabin loses pressure”).
10. Don’t forget to still help others put their mask on
Ben told me this, and it’s related to #9. Once you’ve got your oxygen mask on, you can’t just forget about those around you — as Ben says it “Put yourself first, but not last.” If someone needs support, and you’ve taken care of yourself / are capable of providing that support, then support them. Self-care shouldn’t be a call to care only about yourself. It’s about managing priorities, as well as your energy / capacity for helping yourself and others.
11. You didn’t come this far just to come this far
You are at this point for a reason. Quitting is not an option, and delaying growth in strive for perfection won’t get you anywhere. It’s only the first quarter of the game right now, and just because you’re down some points in the first quarter, doesn’t mean you can’t still win the game.
12. If you want to build the tallest tower, don’t do it by knocking other people’s towers down to make yours look bigger
Doing this just makes you immature. Focus on actually building your own tower, and respect everyone else who’s trying to do the same. Your success should be independent of others’ success, because not everything is a win-lose competition. A lot of things have a win-win scenario, and by looking for those win-win scenarios, you ultimately win even more.
13. Memento Mori
The general concept may be cliche, but the stoics were onto something here.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius
Remember that you are not invincible. You could die today, or tomorrow, or this week. How would that change how you live today? On the flip side, you could’ve died yesterday, but you didn’t — be grateful for another day.
14. Remind yourself that one day this will be part of “the good old days”
I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about how I feel ending my university career, and during the entire month of December, I was under the realization that I am at the end of “the good old university days.” That makes me happy, but also sad — it’s like nostalgia for the experience before it’s even over. The whole month I’ve thought to myself “I want to be done, but I also want it to not end.” This feeling makes me cherish the last bit of it even more. This is compared to people who get jaded in the middle of uni and just can’t wait for it be over, I honestly enjoyed the experience for what it was worth — both good and bad experiences.
15. It’s not about the absolute value, it’s about the trajectory
Max told me this. It shouldn’t matter if you have 10 dollars or 10 million dollars, or if you have 10 friends or 10 million friends, or if you have 10 pounds of body fat or 100 pounds of body fat. As long as you are developing on the things that matter to you, you are on the right track. In a very basic example, you could have 10 thousand followers on Instagram, but if you’re losing friends / people to be there for you and actually give you true support, then I don’t know if having those followers actually matters. But if you have 100 followers and you continue to develop your relationships with your close friends and make great memories together, then I think that’s an upward trajectory. In another example relating to the stock market (the originator of this idea) you could have a stock worth $10K but if its trajectory is going downward then I don’t know if it’s worth holding onto. But if you have a stock worth $10 and it is showing consistent patterns of growth, this might be a stock worth holding onto. This can apply to habits and activities that have a positive impact on your life and generally push you to grow as a person.
16. Stress is a calling — listen to it
In first year, we had an induction ceremony with speaker Dr. McGonigal, the lady who made this Ted Talk. She mentioned these ideas about stress that stuck with me to this day. When you’re hungry, you should eat. When you’re tired, you should sleep. Stress is the same. It’s another feeling caused by a need. It’s a calling internally for you to do something, because you care about that thing. Don’t ignore it. Go do the thing.
17. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with others
Opening up actually allows others to relate and connect better. Every time you feel scared about opening up to someone new, or even someone you’ve known for a while, just remember that they might just be feeling the same fear of opening up or sharing things. By taking the lead and being vulnerable, they will more likely trust you.
18. Take care of your media diet
Just like how your actual food diet affects your physical health, the information and media you consume affects your mental health — a lot! This has been really hard for me lately during this pandemic because it’s so easy to lose track of time scrolling a social feed. But by being intentional about who you follow based on the content they share, you can take at least a bit of control of what you end up consuming, and ultimately what ends up influencing your perceptions of life and the world around you.
This is something my violin teach used to say. Yes, you’re a quick learner, but you can’t expect to achieve mastery of a skill, or anywhere close, if you’ve only put less than 20 hours of practice into it. You have to strive for 10,000 hours to get to ling-ling level.
20. Keep in touch with your friends
Don’t wait until your friends initiate / make plans to hang out with them. Our birthday was the only time I felt like I’d get to justify asking everyone to hang out because it’s a literal celebration for us. But you have to remove the fear of being judged and accept the smaller wins. You are not reliant on others for a happy life — you know who adds value in your life and you shouldn’t wait for them to hit you up for things. Like I mentioned in #6 about being spontaneous, just ask. There’s no guarantee they’ll say yes and that’s okay, you can still go do the thing because you love it regardless of who’s there, but the thought of asking definitely counts.
21. The number one company you should invest in should be your own company.
What stock would you hold until you die? What company is it, what are it’s values, what does it do, and how does it impact society? Why would you hold it until the end? Probably because you believe in it so much — you believe that it will grow a certain amount by that time and that you will ultimately benefit in the end. What if you yourself were that company? How much do you believe you’ll grow by the time you’re 70, 80, 90? How much would you be willing to pay to help be a part of that growth? This is the value of the sacrifices you should be willing to make for your future self. Believe in yourself. Believe in your growth. Invest in yourself.
22. Life is like a rubber band
I know I said I wouldn’t put this in any particular order, but this is probably the most complex but also biggest lesson I’ve learnt in my life, and it relates to how deontology is hard to practice. A lot of decisions in the micro might feel like a light switch — on/off. You either do something / don’t do something, or you are either good at something / not good at something. This can lead to a feeling of having to box yourself into a “rule book” and be consistent with every micro decision. That might be alright, but over time, you’re also allowed to face similar decisions and approach them very differently than previous times. This leads to a macro thinking of life as a rubber band of decisions — some days you pull harder on one side, and other days you pull harder on another.
For example, humility vs pride. You might have to choose to be either humble or proud in a given micro scenario, but over time, you can be both humble and prideful. Humbleness allows you to leave room for yourself to grow and be aspirational, while pride allows you to be grateful for what you’ve accomplished and maintain self esteem despite not having achieved certain goals. So the answer to happiness can’t just lie in being solely humble, or solely prideful — you can’t expect to be one or the other 100% of the time, but having a balance of both in life is important. From there, it’s just about which one you do lean on or apply in a particular scenario, and that micro decision is up to you to decide what will work best in that time.
With that said, this lesson applies to every one of the previous lessons – take them all with a grain of salt because some may work in certain situations and not work in other situations. Some of the lessons clash or contradict each other, and that’s fine. They’re not meant to be blanket rules like “always do this and you’ll be happy.” That’s not how it works. Life is complicated. Humans are complicated (funny how a lot of personality visualizations look like a rubber band being stretched in different directions). I don’t have all the answers. These are just some that I think have worked for me in the past, and like #7 mentioned, you could follow any of these lessons but it doesn’t always mean you should.
Thank you for reading, yes you (not future Paolo — he’s off living his best life). I’m thanking YOU — you made it to the end. This was kind of long, but I know I could make 22 separate articles further explaining each of these lessons (maybe a 2021 project?). Hopefully this was at least somewhat valuable, but even if it isn’t then that’s fine because it’s mostly for me anyways (psh who needs external validation — that stuff is for losers). If it was valuable though, I would also be curious to know which lessons are most relatable!
And to future Pao — keep killing it.
Bonus lesson: Use spell check. Your sister won’t always be there to correct your lack of proofreading. Thanks Mara.