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45 things about life I wish I could travel back in time and tell myself
I originally published this on Medium years ago as a list of 40 things. It feels a bit granola (that’s what sells on Medium) but most of it still holds up well. I revised a few of the items and added the last five based on more recent experiences.
Most of us have, at some point, considered what we would do if we could travel back in time. Maybe we would give ourselves some hot investment advice and become millionaires, or change history for the better, or witness our favorite historical event.
If I could travel back in time then, after doing the obvious– kill Hitler, cheat on the stock market, watch an original Shakespeare play– I would give myself a few words of advice.
What follows are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life- from books, from hard-fought experience, from friends, teachers and mentors much wiser than myself. Some of these lessons took me a very long time to learn- and while I wish I could have learned them faster, it would have taken me even longer if I didn’t have help.
Sadly, we can’t time travel, but what we can do is learn from others, which is a hell of a lot faster than trying to figure things out for ourselves. Here are 40 little knowledge bombs that, in my opinion, took me way too long to learn.
1. Natural talent is mostly a myth
Tiger Woods started learning to play golf when he was one year old. Most of what we think of as natural talent is really just the result of having started practice early.
2. To get good at something, you need to love the process
The people who get good at signing songs are those enjoy singing scales and doing warmup exercises. The people who get really good at basketball are those who enjoy doing dribbling and layup drills. Successful online business owners don’t just enjoy making money; they enjoy doing things like writing articles or managing ad campaigns.
Everyone wants the outcome, but in order to be motivated to work towards it, day in and day out, you have to learn to get some enjoyment out of the process. You won’t always enjoy things when you first start out. In many cases, you’ll need to build the habit of just doing it now, and let the enjoyment grow over time.
3. Negativity and positivity can both screw you over, just in different ways
If you’re too negative, you’ll intimidate yourself out of trying things, get too hung up on past failures, and won’t be fun to be around. If you’re too positive, you’ll be overconfident, fail to anticipate how your plans can go awry, and constantly let yourself off the hook for your failures, without learning from them.
Better to be hopeful, but also objective and realistic. Anticipate how things can go wrong, and make contingency plans. Analyse your failures and learn from them, without beating yourself up.
4. Never be dismissive of things you don’t understand
If someone says “I don’t understand how anyone could like X,” what they usually mean is “X is stupid.” But surely your lack of understanding is a failure on your part? Any time you find yourself being dismissive of something you don’t understand, make an effort to understand it instead. Any time you ask a rhetorical question you don’t know the answer to, try asking it as a regular question instead.
5. Get comfortable not having an opinion
It’s important to be able to justify your opinions, but not everything is important enough for you to put a lot of research into. Too often, we feel obligated to have an opinion on every topic set before us. Don’t. If someone asks you your opinion about a topic you haven’t thought about before, don’t make one up on the spot- but admitting that you haven’t thought about it yet, you retain the ability to form a well-informed opinion later on.
6. You only have so many fucks to give. Ration them carefully.
Everything you care about uses some of your limited supply of mental energy. Many ambitious or “socially conscious” people fail to grasp this- they get worked up about everything, and accomplish nothing. Practice strategic apathy; reserve your energy for a small number of important things. If it helps, don’t think of it as apathy- think of it as focus.
7. Always have just one or two goals you’re focusing on
To make big improvements in one area of your life, you need to work on that one area for at least 20 hours a week, for at least three months. 40 hours a week for a year would be better. You can only do this for one or two things at a time. You can and should have more than two life goals, but learn to focus on one or two at a time, while saving the others for later.
8. Moderation is usually just an excuse to be average
You don’t get into amazing shape by drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, eating moderate amounts of junk food, and exercising moderately a couple times a week. You don’t become a billionaire by working 40 hours a week. I didn’t gain muscle and lose fat while traveling non-stop because I practiced moderation.
When I wanted to be more productive, I got a standing desk, started following a strict schedule, used nootropics to enhance my brain, and started ruthlessly cutting back on unproductive activities. When I wanted to get jacked, I started doing pushups 10–15 times a day. Extreme results require extreme efforts.
9. Sometimes you have to outgrow your friends
Birds of a feather flock together. Unfortunately, when you grow, not all of your friends will be growing with you. Your friends tend to rub off on you; as such, they can pull you up or hold you back. Ask yourself: If I wasn’t already friends with them, would I want to make friends with them? Are they more like the person I want to become, or the person I used to be?
One of the big things that keeps people out of shape is social pressure from their friends. In fact, I consider this the single most under-discussed topic in health and fitness. There are ways to deflect this social pressure, and they work up to a point– but the best solution to any problem is to cut it out at the source, and in this case that means ending toxic relationships.
10. Most of your friends are more popular than you are- but that’s nothing to worry about
One of the silliest things people stress out about is the fact that most of their friends seem to be more popular than they are. The truth is, most of your friends probably are more popular than you, due to something called the friendship paradox. Because people with more friends are proportionally more likely to be your friend, you’ll be less popular than most of your friends even if you actually have a lot of friends overall. This is nothing more than a quirky mathematical property of social networks, so stop worrying about it.
11. Close friends are good, but acquaintances are perfectly fine too
Having acquaintances you’re not close with isn’t shallow or disingenuous. Pretending they’re close friends is. Friends, best friends and acquaintances all have their place in your life- just appreciate them each for what they are.
12. Networking can be fun and authentic, if you do it right
I hated networking for the longest time, because it felt sleazy, desperate and unauthentic. Now I’ve learned how to enjoy it, and have even met friends at networking events. Here’s how I do it: take a genuine interest in people, focus more on helping people than on asking for their help, get to know people in your field before you need something from them, and when you want something from someone, be up front about it. I
13. Looks matter. A lot.
Your appearance has a huge effect on the way you’re treated- socially, professionally, and in all areas of life. Maybe this is fair, maybe not, but it’s true- and yes, it’s true for men as well as women.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to decide what impression you want to be giving out, and shape your appearance around that. If you look good, it will have a positive effect on almost every interpersonal interaction that you’re a part of.
Being in great shape isn’t that hard– if you’re just a little leaner and more muscular than average, you’ll stand out. Likewise, it’s fairly easy to dress better than most people, and to take better care of your skin, grooming, etc. Especially if you’re a man, because the competition is so weak in that area.
14. Working hard at something is less important than working consistently at it
We are what we do consistently, not what we occasionally struggle at. Hard work is important, but you won’t accomplish much by working hard for a while, getting exhausted and giving up. To achieve something great, work at it almost every day. This means you need to pace yourself; work as hard as you’re able to sustain, not so hard you get burnt out.
15. Learn when not to be honest
Honesty is nice in principle, but not everyone appreciates total, brutal honesty. Before giving people advice or feedback, get a good read on them. If they seem like they can handle the whole truth, give it to them. If not, sugar coat it. As much as you might want to help people by telling them the truth, you need to consider the social consequences if the person you’re talking to gets offended.
16. People tend to assume others are like themselves
We tend to assume other people share our preferences, opinions and values (unless we actively dislike them from the start- then we do the opposite). This leads us to be surprised when other people behave differently than we would, and to avoid that, we need to make an effort to really learn about other people.
This also means you can tell a lot about someone by what they assume about others. If someone thinks everyone is out to cheat them, they may well be crooked themselves. If someone expects everyone to be nice, they’re probably nice too.
17. You can’t argue with haters, because they’re not arguing with you
When your work attracts irrational hate from strangers, it’s tempting to defend yourself. This is pointless, because the hate isn’t even about you- you’re just being used as a stand-in for something or someone else.
For instance, as a fitness writer I sometimes get hate mail from people who are mad that I say it’s entirely possible to lose weight. What’s really going on there, is that they are trying to convince themselves that they can’t lose weight no matter what they do, so they can give themselves permission to give up. I’m just a stand-in for the voice in the back of their head telling them they’re wrong, and I can’t win that argument because I’m not really a part of it.
18. Be a quitter
If you own a stock, ask yourself if you would buy it. If the answer is no, you should sell it. If you’re in a relationship, ask yourself- if you weren’t dating that person, but knew what you know now, would you choose to start dating them? The same goes for jobs: would you take the job you have now, if you knew what it was like and didn’t have it already? If not, look for a new one. Choosing to stay where you are is as much a choice as choosing to movie; you should have no bias either way.
19. Most dating advice is self-centered and useless
Most of us want a partner who is good-looking, empathetic, fun, has a great career, sense of humor, has a cool life we can be a part of…and the list goes on. And yet, how much dating advice tells us to just “be confident,” or use some magic pickup line? How come the standard is so high for the people we want to date, and so low for ourselves?
The way most people gather information about dating is just as bad. Women look at the fashion models in women’s magazines, and figure that must be what men look for in a woman. Men look at the men in men’s magazines, and figure that’s what women like. Why not look at the women in men’s magazines and the men in women’s magazines? Why not read romance novels to learn about women, or watch action movies to learn about men?
20. If you want honest feedback, make it painless for the other person to give
If you ask someone who knows you to give you their honest opinion about you, something you’ve done or an idea you have, they’ll usually choose to be nice rather than honest. It’s easier to give honest feedback if you’re not talking directly to the person you’re talking about. Ask people for anonymous feedback, or tell them you’re asking for a friend.
21. Statistics lie all the time.
Most crack smokes smoked marijuana first….but most marijuana smokers never smoke crack. The average American has one breast and one testicle. Statistics can be entirely true, and still lead you to believe something false. 57% of all statistics are bullshit, including this one. That’s why you need to know how to spot bad science and misleading statistics.
22. Bad salesmanship is infuriating. Good salesmanship is a crucial life skill.
Pushy, dishonest salesmanship is a pet peeve of mine. Buy my stupid tchotchkes! It’s unique, I’m the only stupid tchotchke seller in town! Buy it now, I’ll give you a good price if you buy now! But good salesmanship isn’t pushy or dishonest- instead, you inform the prospect of all their options, and help them to pick the best option for them, without pushing them to buy at all. A bad salesperson is a predator, but a good salesperson is a trusted advocate for the customer.
23. It’s better to be loved by a few than liked by many
OkCupid once did a study that looked at how attractive people were rated, on a scale from one to five. It found that the more people rate you a 5, the more messages you’ll get- but ratings of 3 and 4 were worse than useless, being negatively correlated with number of messages.
If you’re a blogger like me, you may have thousands of readers who like you- but your money comes from the much smaller number of people who love you enough to buy your stuff. There’s not much reward for being mildly liked- it’s better to be loved by some and hated by some than liked by everyone, so swing for the fences.
24. Judge yourself by your inputs in the short term, and your outputs in the long term
When people want to lose weight, I tell them to weigh themselves once a month. On a daily basis, they should ignore the scale and judge themselves solely by whether they followed their diet and did their workout.
If you want to start a business, you probably won’t have revenue on day one- but you should be working hard on day one. If you’re in college, you only earn credits once a semester- day to day, you focus on your assignments, not your transcript. When working at something long-term, check your outputs occasionally to make sure you’re on track, but focus on your inputs- whether you’re following the plan and doing the work- day in and day out.
25. Screen people, invest more in them later.
If you’re meeting a lot of people, getting to know all of them can take more time than you really have, and spending time with all of them is just not a realistic possibility. You’ll ned to screen them out, purely as a matter of necessity. If you screen people more stringently up front- in dating, hiring, friendship, or any other realm- you have fewer people to deal with, and can give more attention to those who meet your standards.
In the old version of this article, I phrased this as “judge people harshly up front,” but that isn’t quite correct. It’s not about being harsh really– you should be aware that you’re making snap judgements based on relatively little information, and willing to re-evaluate those judgements later. It’s more about filtering people out because you have to, without necessarily thinking anything particularly negative about them.
26. When you’re told you have two options- you almost always have more
My kung-fu teacher once told me that where he grew up, there was a church and a liquor store on every corner. He was told he could either be a church person or a liquor store person. Instead, he became neither- he’s not a criminal or a drunk, and he’s spiritual but not involved in organised religion. He knew there had to be other options.
Think you have to get married or stay single? You can be in a lifelong relationship without marriage, or even be non-monogamous. Think you have to work 9–5 or put up with irregular shift work? You can freelance. When you have two options, that often gives you just enough of an illusion of choice to conceal the fact that you actually have more.
27. Money can buy happiness, if you use it right
People are always debating whether money can buy happiness, but the research is clear: it can, depending on what you spend it on. Collecting crap you’ll barely use won’t make you happy. Spending your money on experiences will make you happy- as will giving it away to a good cause, or saving it so you become more financially secure. So make the effort to earn more money, but just don’t waste it on dumb shit.
28. People care about what you can do for them, and that’s okay
If you want a job, the hiring manager is wondering what you’ll do for the company. She doesn’t care how badly you need a job. If you’re trying to start a friendship with someone, or start dating someone, they’re wondering what you’ll add to their life. You have no right to be mad about this, because you think the same way. To get what you want, make an effort to view things from their perspective.
29. “I don’t care what people think of me” is bullshit
Whenever someone says they don’t care what people think of them, it just means they really want to be seen as someone who doesn’t care what people think of them. In truth, you should care what people think of you- but not everyone. Figure out who is a good judge of character, and view their opinion of you as useful feedback- but ignore most everyone else.
30. You can change your personality
People’s personalities generally don’t change once they’re grown up- but they can. Personality change requires you to grow and strengthen new neural pathways. This actually works the same way that physical exercise works- you have to stress those neural pathways to the point of fatigue, then rest them, and they grow stronger when they recover.
In practice, this means you have to engage in new, desired behaviors, and keep at them past the point where they start to be mentally tiring. If you want to become extroverted, you need to go out and socialize, and keep talking to people for at least a half hour past the point where you really just want to go home. If you want to be more productive, you nee to force yourself to work past the point where you’re dying to take a break. It’s tough, but it gets easier over time.
31. New years resolutions are for losers
If you make something a new years resolution, you’re actually less likely to get it done. Consider this: did you really think of that resolution on new years day? Or, did you think of it a month or two earlier…and use new years resolutions as an excuse to put it off?
New years resolutions are, almost by definition, things you’ve been putting off. A better time to start your new years resolutions would be November. The best time to start working on a resolution is as soon as you think of it- don’t put it off until some arbitrary date.
32. You can’t reason people out of something they weren’t reasoned into
That’s an old Mark Twain quote, but it’s actually backed by science. There are two kinds of beliefs- those that are cognitively based, and those that are emotionally based. Cognitively based beliefs are based on logic, and can only be changed with logic. Emotionally based beliefs can only be changed with emotional arguments. If you want to change someone’s beliefs, you need to first understand what their existing belief is based on.
33. Being an asshole costs you more than you think
Being disliked can have a lot of consequences. You won’t get invited to parties. You won’t get referred for job openings. People will be reluctant to introduce you to others, making it hard to network.
And the thing is, nobody will tell you about it. You won’t know that that party ever happened, or that job was available. The cost of being a jerk is largely invisible to you, and measured in missed opportunities.
34. Not everything is someone’s fault
When something goes wrong, people’s first impulse is often to try to figure out whose fault it is. And once they find someone to point a finger at, often they’ll stop there, as if that alone solves the problem. Not only does that not solve anything, but many problems have no human culprit. The growing gap between rich and poor might be because the rich are doing something evil to make it happen- or it might be impersonal market conditions. Women might outlive men do to public health policies- or it might just be biology (it’s almost certainly biology). When searching for the cause of a problem, don’t assume it must be someone’s fault, and remember it doesn’t have to be someone’s fault to be solvable.
35. Not wanting to change isn’t self-love
There’s a growing trend on the internet of people writing essays that basically say “I suck at something, but that’s okay and I love myself.” The authors will talk about how they struggled with their weight, lack of social skills, or go-nowhere career, but then stopped trying to change and started loving themselves.
That isn’t self-love; that’s laziness and resignation. If you love your kids, you’ll want them to have friends, to get good grades, to be healthy, to have a good life. If you love yourself, you’ll want to have the best life you can possibly have- and that means making the effort to build that better life for yourself.
36. Fight Club was wrong- you are your job
Aristotle had it right- we are what we do repeatedly. Anything you spend 40 hours a week doing is a big part of who you are, and there’s no getting around that. If you feel the urge to disassociate yourself from your job, it’s time to find a job you care about.
37. “Follow your passion” is vapid and self-centered career advice
Just because you enjoy doing something, doesn’t mean you’re good at it, or that people will be willing and able to pay you for it. The universe isn’t obligated to give you money for doing what you love. Instead, figure out what you’re good at that people will pay you for, and pick something that you either enjoy doing, or can see yourself growing to enjoy (you can build your passion over time). If you want to get paid for something, you have to think of the customer first.
38. Be an independent thinker, but remember that the majority is usually right
Over the past ten years I’ve seeing a growing number of people falling prey to what I call “red pill syndrome.” They find out that one or two of society’s deeply held beliefs is wrong- for instance, that buying a home isn’t usually a good investment, or that a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good career. Then they decide that society is wrong about everything- college is a waste of time and money, 9–5 jobs are as good as slavery, dating and marriage are a huge scam, the stock market is rigged, voting is pointless, and everyone is wrong about everything.
It’s good to be a skeptic. It’s good to question conventional thinking. It’s not good to always think the opposite of what most people think. Not only is that just as mindless as always siding with the majority, but you’ll be wrong more often, because the majority opinion is correct more often than not.
39. Do whatever you want, unless there’s a good reason not to
Most of us go through life doing what we’re supposed to do, instead of what we want, subjugating our own dreams and desires to our perceived social obligations. When you have to make a decision, don’t start by asking yourself what you’re supposed to do. Instead, first ask yourself what you want to do. Then, ask yourself if there’s any compelling reason why you shouldn’t do that. If there aren’t, go ahead and do what you want.
40. Invest in yourself sooner rather than later
I’ve invested a lot of money in myself over the years- by buying courses, or by hiring coaches, and in areas as diverse as business, social skills, fitness, kung-fu and singing. Every time I’ve invested in myself, I had been thinking about it for a long time before I finally decided to spend the money. And every time, once I invested in myself, I ended up kicking myself for not doing it sooner.
It took me three years to build my fitness business to the point where it makes me a good living. It takes 2–5 years to go from obese to shredded, and that’s if you’re doing everything right. Being great at something important takes a long time, so you need to start early and give yourself every advantage you can early on.
Whatever goals you have, your success in reaching them will be proportional to your willingness to invest time and money in them. Join a gym. Start seeing a nutritionist. Take a coding bootcamp. Get a mentor. Hire a habit coach. Join a mastermind group.
Much as with financial investing, the most important key to investing in your own skills is to start early. Getting good instruction in the beginning changes your entire learning trajectory. Don’t make the mistake I did- invest in yourself early and often.
41. Say yes to new opportunities by default
If you get the chance to do something new that you haven’t tried before, and you’re not sure whether you’ll like it or not, go ahead and give it a try.
The risk and reward here are asymmetrical– if you don’t like something you just won’t do it again, but if you do like it you can keep doing it. You’ll also make new friends and in some cases, have experiences you cherish for a lifetime. I’ll be posting stories about times I’ve done this soon.
42. Cross your networks
By that I mean, introduce people to each other who you’ve met through different activities and social circles, if they have something in common. I’ve introduced friends who I met through mutual friends to people I me through photography, I’ve introduced my sports friends to my photography friends, my work friends to my nightlife friends, the list goes on.
People will be grateful for the introduction, and they’ll eventually return the favor. Word will also get around that you’re a great person to know– this tends to happen organically as people get asked how they know each other, and they say “Oh, John introduced us.”
43. Live somewhere that supports your number one goal in life
Where you live has a profound impact on you and your lifestyle, and your choice of where to live should reflect your life goals.
Want to lose weight? Live somewhere highly walkable at high altitude.
Want to work on your solo business with few distractions? Live in the middle of nowhere.
Work hard, play hard and get rich? New York City.
Find a partner and get married? Depends on your gender and what kind of person you’re into, but move somewhere that supports that goal.
44. Be the organizer sometimes
Organizing events and outings can be a lot of work, but it’s worth doing from time to time, especially once you find a particular type of activity you enjoy. Whether it’s game nights, hiking trips or beach volleyball meetups, taking charge and organizing outings helps you to meet people who share your interests while further exploring activities you enjoy. And again, people will repay the favor by inviting you to events.
45. Seriously, cut back the alcohol
I know I touched on this earlier, but I recently quit drinking and it feels amazing. I have more energy, I sleep better, I feel more confident, I’m losing belly fat, and I can focus better. Most importantly, the combination of energy and focus effectively give me more time– and that’s the thing that’s hardest to get more of.
If I had known then what I know now, I could have sped up my personal development by at lest a decade. I can’t time travel- but I can share what I’ve learned with you, just as others have shared their own knowledge and experience with me.
Also, if anyone actually does know how to time travel- please email me.