I just turned 30. As someone who suffers from time anxiety, I thought it would feel the usual mix of stress and depression I usually experience around birthdays. But, somehow, this year is different. I feel calmer, more confident, and more excited about the future. To some who are younger than me, thirty years may seem like a lot. To those who are older, it may seem like not that many years at all. There is still much I want to explore, but I wanted to celebrate with a list of the most important lessons I learned in those few years I walked the earth.
1. Doing things right is less important than doing them for the right reasons. I have made many mistakes, and I will make many more. But the biggest mistakes I have made are not the ones were things went wrong. They are the ones where I forced myself to do something for the wrong reasons—what I imagined was expected from me, what I thought would look best on my CV, what would we the most logical next step. It took a long time to learn, and to some extent I’m still working on it, but what keeps me going is a sense of curiosity, a drive to learn, and to connect. These are much more powerful drivers.
2. You don’t only live once. This comic strip had a huge impact on my thinking. Yes, one day you will be dead. But it takes about seven years to master something. If you live to be 88, after age 11, you have 11 opportunities to be great at something. Most people never let themselves die and cling onto that one life. But you can spend a life writing poems, another life building things, and another life looking for facts. You have many lives. Live them.
3. Friends come and go and that’s alright. You get to meet many people in thirty years. I have learned that the ephemeral friendships—the ones that last one year, one week, or even one evening—can be as transformational as the long term ones. Instead of regretting the loss of some friends, I’m grateful I got to learn from them in the first place.
4. Everyone is interesting. On a related note, I have found that you can learn something from anyone if you ask the right questions. People have lived many lives, explored part of the world you haven’t been to, read books you haven’t read, had conversations you haven’t had. Getting to understand their frame of mind—especially if it feels foreign and uncomfortable to you—is an extraordinary way to grow.
5. Networking is bullshit. When I was in school in my early 20’s, we had a networking workshop. Supposedly, learning how to network was going to be key to our success. This has never worked for me. I’m uncomfortable going to professional events just to network. It feels fake. On the other hand, I can attribute most of my professional opportunities to genuine curiosity and serendipity. I can trace back my first internship at Google to a random conversation with a stranger who was sitting next to me on a plane. Most of my consulting and speaking opportunities? People stumbling upon my articles. The best events I attended? Small, informal meetups organised by people I met at parties. In my experience, putting yourself out there and being yourself is much better than networking.
6. Create more than you consume. A big part of putting yourself out there is to create. Write, Tweet, take photos, draw, launch a podcast, a newsletter, a local event, an online community. A corollary of this one is: “Give more than you take.” If you give your time, share your ideas, people will find you. And even if they don’t, thanks to the generation effect, you will learn much more in the process than if you limited yourself to passive consumption.
7. Fiction is more powerful than non-fiction. I read way too many non-fiction books this year, which is usually not the case. The only other time it happened was when I launched my first startup. What I noticed is that non-fiction books tend to make me think in a mechanical, linear way—if I apply this recipe which worked out for the author, things will work out for me. When I read fiction, on the other hand, I think in an intuitive and creative way. I make new connections where none existed in my mind. I envision possibilities instead of trying to apply a blueprint. The exception are science books and history books. Combined, they are ideas powerhouses.
8. Good things are often scary, but scary things are not always good. Getting out of your comfort zone is, by definition, uncomfortable. It’s easier to say no to opportunities that feel scary. But many of the best decisions I have made felt scary at first. Moving to Tokyo, quitting my job at Google, sharing my progress in public. Caveat: if it’s scary, it doesn’t mean it’s good. We do have a great self-preservation system embedded in our DNA, and it’s also good to at least listen to your gut feelings.
9. There’s no mental health without physical health. As you know, I’m a huge advocate for taking better care of our mental health. In my case, this has always started with taking better care of my body. When I was feeling depressed or stressed, the simple act of going for a walk would take a lot of effort, but was the first best step I could take at the time, before I could dig deeper into what was going wrong. Similarly, I think it’s impossible to achieve good mental health if you’re not getting enough sleep, not drinking enough water, not eating properly. At least in my case, my physical health is a good barometer of my mental health. Mind and body work together.
10. Your habits define you. Related to the previous point, I learned that we’re only the sum of our habits, routines, and rituals. When I was younger, I used to try to define my identity through projecting a certain persona, which sometimes was at odds with my true beliefs and values—perhaps because I didn’t know what my beliefs and values were in the first place. Today, instead of trying to define these through words, I just count on the sum of my actions to create a picture of who I am. And if that picture keeps on changing, that’s fine. But only your current habits define who you are. Are you reading everyday? You’re a reader. Running everyday? You’re a runner. It’s as simple as that. (Atomic Habits by James Clear is a great primer on the topic)
11. You don’t need to take a plane to travel. I absolutely love travelling. I have visited more than 40 countries so far. But I also had amazing experiences by connecting with my local communities. Volunteering in a homeless shelter to teach them how to create a website, helping clean my local park, working with school kids to create cool stuff on the Internet. There are beautiful minds everywhere, and some of them are just around the corner.
12. Cherish the people you love. Many people I love died in the past few years. Some were young—way too young—and some were older—but still too young. As this beautiful article by Tim Urban shows, by the time we graduate from high school, we have already used up 90% of our in-person time with our parents. I learned to make those last 10% count. Spending quality time with them has become a higher priority as I grew up. I always make sure to see them when I come to Paris, we went to Burning Man together, they came to London, and this year I’ll travel in Asia with my dad.
13. Priorities matter. While I believe everyone is interesting, time is still the most valuable currency. This means you need to choose. Taking a few minutes to really think about how you want to spend your time—and who you want to spend it with—will reduce the amount of regret you may feel in the future.
14. You can’t really change people, but you can bring out the best in them. Every time I have tried to change people at a deeper level—to make them someone different—I have failed. The reason, I believe, is that it’s not only impossible, but wrong to even try. Instead, I now try to figure out what’s the best in people around me, and offer the little help I can to bring that out in them. Everything that requires little nudges in the right direction works, everything that requires a complete change in values and beliefs doesn’t. Creative friend who lacks confidence? I can help with that. Misogynistic person? Nope. (some people may be experiencing deeper challenges that don’t have to do with their values, and in that case I’m happy to listen and support as a friend but always recommend to also get professional help)
15. Kind beats smart. As Visakan Veerasamy puts it: “There’s a subset of smart people (and people who aspire to smartness) who think that being kind is unnecessary, or tedious, or for pussies, and so on. And I think that’s extremely unfortunate. Your intelligence gets enriched by kindness.” Being smart in the conventional way takes a lot of work—learning new things, connecting the dots. Being kind can start today. Kindness makes you curious and open-minded. And I believe it can actually make you smarter in an organic, hard-to-measure way by nourishing your mind and connecting with people at a deeper level.
16. To be interesting, be interested. It’s not just okay to ask questions, it’s necessary. Ask more questions. When someone shares something, say “tell me more.” Don’t just act curious, be curious.
17. Vulnerability is the key to close relationships. Being exposed to the possibility of being harmed is terrifying. I used to want to be strong—to act strong, to be perceived as strong. But the day I decided to accept that I was as messy and lost as everyone else opened up so many friendships that wouldn’t had flourished had I decided to keep this facade. When you open up, you tell people it’s okay to be themselves, and you get a glimpse into their mind—which is the most wonderful thing in the world.
18. People can’t read your thoughts. If you think something, say something. Don’t expect people to guess your thoughts and feelings. Don’t hold a grudge when people didn’t predict what you wanted them to do. Just tell them.
19. Just do the thing. Want to learn how to play an instrument? To code? To create illustrations? Just do the thing. Stop thinking and start doing. There’s nothing you can’t learn if you commit to practicing and getting your hands dirty. When you’ll look back a few months from now, you’ll be amazed at the amount of progress you made. If you don’t know where to start, choose at random. You don’t know what you don’t know. You’ll figure it out along the way.
20. Share your progress, not your goals. I’m a huge advocate for working in public. But research shows that people are more likely to achieve their goals if they keep their intentions private. Because you often receive premature praise, talking about your goals becomes a substitute for achieving them. On the other hand, sharing their progress has been found to help people achieve their goals. That’s because they get praise for the process rather than a hypothetical, future end result. I have found this to be true for myself. So I keep my goals to myself, but share my progress in public as I go.
21. Fall in love with the process. In the same vein, don’t focus too much on the end goal. Your goals may change, you may fail, you may have to take a different direction. Leverage your passion to stay focused and motivated, and the results will come.
22. Writing is a superpower. Out of every skill I have acquired in the past thirty years, writing is the highest leverage one. It doesn’t cost anything, it’s shareable, repurposable, searchable. It can be the basis for an online community, products, events, and more. Anyone can start writing with just a laptop and an Internet connection. And I think everyone should.
23. Nobody cares if you fail. Your biggest critic is yourself. Stop worrying about what other people think—the truth is that they mostly don’t think anything about your successes and failures. They’re too busy thinking about themselves. It may seem depressing, but it’s actually freeing. You’re free to try, experiment, fail, try again—nobody cares anyway, so have fun!
24. Do things differently to think differently. You can’t expect to come up with innovative ideas if you consume the same stuff everyone does. Read different books, watch different shows, go to different events. Because your input will be different, your output will be different.
25. Always stay a student. In 2018, I decided to go back to school to study neuroscience. In 2019, I decided to learn how to code. Every year, I read books and watch documentaries. When I meet new people, I ask about their interests. You shouldn’t stop to learn once you finish school. Learning makes life interesting.
26. There is meaning in suffering. When I look back to some of my most painful experiences, I see how they also defined who I am today. I used to try to shut my feelings off. Now I embrace the whole range of my emotions. The good, the bad, the joyful ones, the hurtful ones. To feel is to be alive.
27. Anger is never the answer. It’s okay to be sad, disappointed, lost. But being angry never brought me anything good. It’s impossible to feel kindness and anger at the same time. You can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you’re angry at them. Don’t be angry.
28. Do not assume malice. Also called Hanlon’s Razor, do not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be explained by other motives. Assume good faith in people. Honest mistakes happen. Again, it all boils down to asking questions. If you do so, you’ll very often realise people didn’t mean you harm.
29. Find beauty in the little things. I used to live a rushed life—trying to do as much as possible, running away from my thoughts, never taking the time to slow down. I have learned to appreciate the little things. A friend’s smile, a cute little street, a cup of tea with a good book. Not every second of our life needs to be productive. Taking the time to appreciate the world around us and the precious moments of beauty is part of being alive.
30. Every second you spend wishing you had someone else’s life is a second spent wasting yours. In an era of sharing our lives so openly on the Internet, it’s easy to fall into a vortex of comparing yourself to others. The Internet is a wonderful place, but it can be destructive if you let it shape you instead of shaping it yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others. As Chris Sacca once said: “Be your unapologetically weird self.”
That’s it. 30 life lessons I learned before turning 30. I can’t wait to learn more in the next ten years, and I’m excited to have you all on the journey with me.
(Image credit: Charlie Mackesy)
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about mindful productivity.
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