The first few years out of school are unique. Until this point in your life, your life has been pretty structured. 3 years in Middle School, on to High School. 4 years High School, move on. Your goals and metrics of success and plain and constant, it’s all very straight-forward.
It isn’t exactly uncharted territory. People have set sail into the ‘real world’ for generations now, but for each person, that journey is unique. Before, you could only move the rudder a few degrees usually with someone over your shoulder. Now, it’s just wherever you choose to steer.
I’m getting side-tracked here. The point is that these first few years are great learning opportunities because it is so different, your choices and their consequences are your own.
What follows are the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past two years. Nothing here is especially novel, but I do have my own interpretation of them.
Hopefully, you find these useful in this new year.
1 – Simple and easy are not synonyms.
They are easy to conflate but it’s essential to understand the difference.
For example, losing weight is simple. Consume food at a calorie deficit, cut back on carbs and sugar especially, be consistent and eventually, you will lose weight. Doesn’t mean it’s easy. Temptations lurk, routines are shaken, discipline and motivation are tested, patience is difficult. Likewise, saving money is simple. Make a basic budget, buy discount items, do research into cost-saving techniques. Easy? Not always, for many of the same reasons above.
2 – Motivation is fickle, discipline is not.
This follows because it is related to the point above. Anything worthwhile takes patience, consistency. Simple concept, difficult to execute.
Nobody is motivated all the time. Even a truly great athlete like Michael Phelps wasn’t motivated every day to wake up at 5 AM and jump into a cold pool to exercise for four hours. However, he was disciplined enough to the point where it didn’t matter.
Habits are a powerful tool. If you can use the little bit of motivation you have to fuel the discipline to do something unpleasant for a few weeks, the habit will be created and you can kick your dependence on mustering motivation to accomplish things.
People that appear super-motivated are just motivated enough to deal with the pain of creating multiple, more difficult habits.
3 – Most of the time we chase desires and run from problems.
You know what sucks? Thinking about the difficult things that truly distress you. Who wants to spend their time wrestling with some of the uncomfortable thoughts about your personal problems (your job, relationships, meaning) or societal problems (cultural conflict, global warming, injustice around the world)? At best, you feel inadequate to address these problems, at worst, you become depressed.
Our society is filled with ways to distract us from facing our problems. Of course, there’s always been entertainment, but more so now, we turn to quick hits of social media on our computers or especially on our phones. They can go with us anywhere so we never have to be alone with our thoughts. Whether it’s a bit of entertainment, validation, information, whatever – they’re just temporary fixes, highs, papering over the cracks.
Here’s some tough love. You’re always going to have problems, no one is going to solve them for you, and you can’t ignore them away. Be honest with yourself and your problems, where they came from and what it will take to resolve them. Trust me, the sooner you just suck it up and start chipping away at these, the better.
4 – What it really means to make the most out of anything.
God, you hear this so much it’s almost lost all meaning. “Just make the most of it!” All cheery like it’s that easy.
I think the right way to frame is to not let anything be fully a negative. You are going to be in shitty situations, that’s just inevitable. Sometimes they’re going to be your fault, sometimes not. Regardless, you’re usually the only one who has the power to make it better for you.
Make a mistake, that’s fine, just make sure you learn from it. Break your hand, that’s just an opportunity to become ambidextrous. Flight delayed by hours? That time is going to pass no matter what you do, might as well use it to do something you’ve been waiting to have a few hours for. Even if you’ve utterly wasted a day, you can spend a little time prepping to make the next day better or text your Mom that you love her.
Shitty things are shitty, but exactly how shitty is up to you.
5 – You are the sum of your actions.
Intentions are great. They’re fun and easy. I intend to be a lot of things. A good musician, writer, friend, athlete. We love to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. However, you will be defined by your actions.
Each of us makes hundreds of decisions every day. Most of them are small and it’s easy to justify them as inconsequential enough to take lightly. Picking up a snack in the office or fast food a couple times a week seem too small to make a difference but they add up.
Deciding to spend your free-time watching an hour of television doesn’t seem so bad but after a few months you’ve now got a couple days worth of TV and everything has an opportunity cost.
Maybe like most people you intend to be healthy, wealthy and wise, but if the hypothetical person above sounds like you, don’t be surprised when a year later your savings aren’t what you thought because $8x2x50=$800, the 200 calories from snacks keep the weight on, and instead of practicing a skill you watched TV.
In total, your actions will reflect your values. You may tell yourself and others you care about being well-read, but if you spend your time browsing Facebook instead, then you value that more. That’s fine, just acknowledge it.
You are the sum of your actions, every action, so watch them carefully.
6 – Self-reflection is important.
Like I explained before, it’s easy to get sucked into a routine where you rarely sit and think about your life, your beliefs, values, etc. You can go full months where you simply cycle from attention-grabbing aspect of your life to another without taking a break to evaluate.
One nice thing about being a student is that things were nicely structured. Even if you disliked a class, teacher, subject, whatever, you knew there was a definite end to it, which makes it easier to stomach. The next step on your ladder was also laid out.
The rest of our lives are nothing like this. You can be in a job or industry for 4 months, 4 years, 4 decades. You just don’t know. There’s no structure for telling you to move on, there’s no grade system to let you know how well you’re doing. You’ve left the well-marked kiddy pool for the murky ocean. It’s up to you to take the time and diligence to figure this out for yourself.
Do I like where I am and what I’m doing? What would I change about myself or my setting? Am I where I thought I would be? Where do I want to go now? What are the things I care about and what can I eschew from my life?
This advice is especially unoriginal because Socrates urged this 3000 years ago but its wisdom keeps revealing itself to me. Complacency and ignorance of our own selves come easily. Fight this with routine examination of yourself.
Right, so I don’t mean to pontificate and I hope this doesn’t sound preachy. It’s always good advise to learn from others, so I hope you can take something from this and let me know what you’ve learned recently.