35 Life Lessons I Wish I Had Learned Long Ago

Joe Donan

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Turning thirty-five has been a major life event for me. It marks the midpoint of my existence — life expectancy in my home country is about 70 years — and it’s my first birthday ever since I picked up writing.

Just like everyone else, I’ve learned a thing or two on my journey up to this point. And on this particular occasion, I want to share these findings with you, my dear reader, one lesson per year.

Most of my advice is based on my own blunders and what I have learned from them. That said, I’m confident you’ll find plenty of material here to take to your heart, and hopefully, to make a difference in your life.

Let’s do this!

1. A woman has the right to take the first step

Traditionally, when it comes to heterosexual relationships, most women’s choice of partner is narrowed down to the men who ask them out first. And the few women who take the initiative to make romantic advancements are usually stigmatized by society and labeled as immoral.

I’ve always found this nonsensical and unfair. If a man can take the lead without being frowned upon, then there’s definitely no reason why I woman can’t do the same. My wife did, I never thought she was a loose girl for doing that, and now we’re happily married.

2. Your partner is not responsible for your happiness

Many people think they’ll be happy when they find the right person, but this is a huge mistake. The truth is, if you’re not happy now, then you’re simply not ready for love.

Failing to understand this principle is one of the fastest ways to doom your relationship: your partner will be overburdened with the combined weight of their happiness and yours, and when they come to the point they can’t take it anymore, they'll jump ship.

Work on your happiness and then go looking for love. If you learn to be happy on your own, then being with a special someone will be a matter of choice, not necessity.

3. There’s no point in being jealous

You might think romantic jealousy is normal, healthy, and even cute in some cases, but believe me, it’s not. Either you trust your partner completely, or you don’t date them. It’s that simple. Relationships are based on trust, not on suspicions of infidelity.

If you’re convinced your partner is cheating on you, or you think they’d do it the first chance they got, then why are you two still a couple? Whether your suspicions are justified or imaginary, if you don’t trust your partner, then you shouldn’t be together. Where there’s no trust, there can be no peace.

4. Your partner needs some space

Some people make the mistake of spending way too much time with a special person. It sounds nice and romantic, but in reality, this practice is quite detrimental: When two people dedicate all of their time and energy to each other, they negate themselves the chance to miss each other.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, goes the saying, and for a good reason: You may be in a relationship, but at the end of the day, you and your partner are two separate individuals, and as such, there’ll be times when you’ll need your own time and space separately.

5. Don’t expect people to adapt to you

I’ve been a vegetarian for fifteen years, and for the first eight, I would get upset when my friends insisted on going to restaurants with few or no vegetarian choices.

I used to think they didn’t care about me and my convictions, when in fact, my immaturity and selfishness blinded me from the truth: It was I who didn’t care about what they wanted.

Now I understand my eating choices make me somewhat different from most people, and therefore I have to adapt to them, instead of expecting everyone else to change for me.

6. Take conflicting accounts with a pinch of salt

Whenever there’s a conflict in which you’re not involved, make sure you hear both sides. People like to play victim, even if they don’t realize it, and they can easily make you believe their words by demonizing the other party in question.

Remember: If you didn’t see it firsthand, then you shouldn’t believe everything you’re told. It’s probably either unintended exaggeration or deliberate fact manipulation.

7. Don’t try to fit in

It’s okay to try to be friends with others. What’s not okay is trying to fit into groups where they don’t want you. I tried to be accepted into a group for almost a decade, and now that I look back, I feel foolish.

Friendship should occur naturally, or not at all. So stop trying so hard. You don’t have to convince people to be with you. Just be your best self, and as a result, you’ll attract similar-minded individuals. Take my word for this: they’re the ones you want by your side.

8. Circumstances change, but debt remains the same

Your lifestyle is not meant to take your purchasing power and debt capacity to their limits. It is meant to remain significantly below them.

The benefits of settling for a relatively modest lifestyle include the possibility of saving your money, and the knowledge that you can stay afloat in case of circumstances suddenly turning adverse — 2020 coronavirus pandemic, anyone?

9. Relying on a single income stream is an invitation for disaster

I’ve always had at least two income streams. That way I can sleep peacefully at night, knowing that I have a secondary money source to back me up should something go wrong with my daytime job.

It’s even better if your income streams are bound to different markets. That way, if circumstances beyond your control hit one of the markets you’re in, you know only one of your income streams will be affected, instead of all of them at once.

10. Just because you can buy it doesn’t mean you should

I’ve always scratched my head at celebrities blowing insane amounts of money on completely unnecessary things. I mean, they could feed a lot of starving people if they bought regular toilets instead of gold-coated ones, am I right?

Likewise, you don’t need excessive luxury items to have a fulfilling, decent, and happy life. Think of the money you could save if you settled for more modest commodities. Better still, think of all the good you could do with that money you decided not to spend on those unnecessary extravagances. Just saying.

11. Beware ant expenses — they’re taking a toll on your budget!

In 2016, on my way to work, I used to buy two cookies every morning at $0.25 each. Heading back home, I would always get myself a tostada (a snack made of fried yucca-root, potato, or plantain) for $0.50. I kept that routine until the day I realized I had spent over $400 on these tasty yet unnecessary daily munchies.

Look, I’m not telling you not to treat yourself to that pricey steaming cup of coffee. After all, you work hard from sunrise to sunset, and you certainly deserve it… just not every day. The problem comes when you make your cravings a daily habit, and you end up wasting a ton of money in the long run. Just some food for thought for you — See what I did there?

12. Stop romanticizing your dream job

Even if you manage to get the job of your dreams, there will always be an inescapable part of it you’re going to hate, and that’s okay. You have to learn to accept the whole deal — warts and all — if you want to be happy, successful, and accomplished.

It’s all about balance. If you overfocus on the negative, you’ll end up feeling pointlessly miserable. If you keep pretending everything is fine and dandy… well, read the next item to find out.

13. There’s a dark side to diehard optimism

Of course, you should be optimistic and joyful, but not to the point of fooling yourself in the process. In reasonable doses, misery is a healthy indicator that something in our lives is out of place, and therefore, we have to do something about it.

Always looking on the bright side of life is a form of emotional escapism, problem avoidance, and ironically, a form of suffering itself. Speaking of which…

14. You may try to run away from your problems, but they’ll chase you anyway

Pursuing a problem-free life is pointless because life itself is a never-ending string of setbacks. Ignore them, and they accumulate. Solve them, and a new set of problems take their place. They’re inevitable. But as it turns out, that’s not a bad thing at all.

Problems encourage action. Action generates change. Change promotes growth. Growth brings wisdom. This is why problems are not only unavoidable but also an important and necessary part of life.

15. Anything may happen, literally

Did you ever imagine you’d spend several months of 2020 recluded at home because of a pandemic that came out of nowhere? No? Well, neither did I. That’s because virtually anything may happen in this tiny, blue world we live in.

One day you’re healthy and on top of your game, and the next you may lose your job or become bedridden. That’s right: your blessings may suddenly come to an end, so you’d better be prepared to deal with the ever-unexpected ups and downs of life.

Save money. Get insurance. Diversify on your income sources. Do what you can to deal with misfortune because if there is one thing you can be sure of, it’s that it’ll come knocking on your door sooner or later.

16. Life is an obstacle course — deal with it

Life circumstances are rarely ideal. Therefore, you have two options: A) complain, blame everything and everyone else, and give up; or B) keep calm, do the best you can with the hand you’ve been dealt, and spit in the face of adversity no matter how dire your situation is. The choice is yours, my friend.

17. Allow yourself some time to cool down

Be careful with the choices you make when you’re extremely angry or heartbroken. That’s the worst possible mindset to make a decision as your judgment is clouded by the negativity of your emotions.

The worst part of it is that these decisions often have permanent consequences. I’m sure a lot of people in jail would back me up on this.

18. You can‘t control life, but you can control how you react to it

One of the reasons we suffer unnecessarily in life is because of the importance we give to people and things that are inconsequential in the course of our lives.

Did the cashier give you the wrong change and they refused to recognize their mistake? Well, you have two choices there: kick up a fuss and threaten to sue the whole store; or walk home, put the incident behind you, and go on with your life.

The thing is, most of the matters we get upset about don’t even deserve our attention. And the less we care about them, the happier we feel. This is what most people refer to as maturity.

19. Be a secret Good Samaritan

One of the highest forms of good is doing something for someone who can never repay you. However, in this age of telecommunication and instant gratification, we tend to brag about our good deeds online in exchange for a few likes and words of praise.

The problem of this is that any form of generosity is empty and meaningless when we do it for a reward, be it monetary, material, or based on recognition.

So be secretly generous. No spotlight. No selfie. No bragging about it later. Generosity is more gratifying when that person you helped out doesn’t even know where the help came from.

If you can afford it, then just do it. Let your sole reward be the satisfaction of knowing you lent a hand to someone who needed it. It can make you really happy in return.

20. Your days are numbered, and that’s a good thing

Funerals can be either dreadful or wonderful. On the one hand, no one likes to pay their last respects and say goodbye. On the other hand, funerals remind us about the inevitability of our demise, and the limited time we have been given to dwell on Earth.

It’s this awareness of death that makes our lives worthwhile. It’s what makes us reflect on how wisely or foolishly we’re spending our precious little time. It’s the knowledge that we’re temporary that makes us take action to right our wrongdoings, to make up for the time we’re wasting, and to seek a life of legacy and significance.

21. Love yourself the right way

Self-love has nothing to do with instant gratification or unnecessary and exuberant expenses, like junk food, the latest smartphone, or luxurious footwear.

If you can afford your extravagant purchases, you definitely have the means to cultivate your mind, soul, and body. And that, my friend, is what self-love actually is about.

22. You have two types of flaws, learn to tell them apart

I bet you’ve heard you should “love and accept yourself just the way you are.” Well, that is both good and terrible advice.

On the one hand, there are specific individual traits you may perceive as flaws but you cannot change anyway (e.g. your height). Fair enough, then. You do deserve your love and acceptance.

On the other hand, there are certain defects you can do something about: You can stop being a procrastinator. You can work on tuning down your over-perfectionism. You can build up your confidence. You can learn to zip it and listen to others.

Accepting yourself means you have the personal responsibility to become the best version of yourself you can be, not lazily settle for your mediocre current state.

23. You are your own gold standard

Many people will try to assess your worth based on their expectations, and you may fall for the trap by trying to please them. My advice? Don’t do this to yourself. You’re the one to set the goals and expectations for your life.

Remember: The only person you should be as good as, and eventually better than, is none other than yourself. Today, be better than you were yesterday. Tomorrow, be better than you are today. That’s is the only valid metric to evaluate your progress.

24. Beware absolute certainty

Here’s the deal: you don’t know everything, and you might be wrong about your most enduring convictions. Therefore, if you don’t want to become a slave to your way of thinking, you should question your knowledge and your principles on a regular basis.

You might learn the truths you’ve always held most dear are probably flawed, and this realization will be the push you need to broaden your horizons. Those who dwell in absolute certainty prevent themselves from growing and changing, leaving no room for improvement.

25. Change starts with you

People are always expecting a sort of political messiah to take control of the rather chaotic situation our societies are in. But not only is this pure fantasy, but it is also a shameless way to escape the collective responsibility to change the world for the better.

A real societal transformation can only occur from bottom to top and not the other way around. Be the change you want to see in the world and start raising your children with absolute integrity. That’s the only way things can improve. It won’t happen overnight, but it will someday if we all start now.

26. You’re raising your neighbors’ children as well

If you think you’re raising your own children only, you are mistaken. Children tend to copy other children’s behaviors, which are usually the direct reflection of their parents.

In other words, your values are passed onto your children, who in turn pass them onto their friends. And that’s how society is shaped, for better or worse.

27. Your double standards are harming your convictions

The main reason why others tend to mock our philosophical or religious beliefs is that there is a disparity between what we say we stand for and our actual deeds.

If you’re incapable of living up to your principles, don’t expect anyone around you to take you or your convictions seriously. Be consistent, and others will start showing you some respect.

28. Instant success is a rare occurrence

One of the worst things you can do to yourself is believing in the fantasy of instant success: It is probably the #1 dream-killer you have to watch out for.

That influencer you look up to didn’t become famous and successful overnight. Most likely, they had to struggle and persevere through all sorts of obstacles for several years to reach the point they’re currently at.

Be patient. You can get there someday too, but understand that it’ll take time, perseverance, and a hefty amount of hard work. There’s no other way.

29. Initial success can be intoxicating

Ever seen Philip Seymour Hoffman in Along Came Polly? He plays Sandy Lyle, a middle-aged deadbeat actor who had spent most of his adult life believing himself above everyone else, all due to his only prominent role in a big motion picture early on in his career.

When you see that on the big screen, it is hilarious. In real life, not so much. The problem with initial success — especially when it comes a bit too soon — is that it requires you to be mature enough to handle it, or else it can inflate your ego to harmful levels.

So no matter how big your achievements are, always be humble, have a down-to-earth attitude, and above all, don’t let it go to your head.

30. Make sure your dreams don’t stay dreams forever

There are two kinds of people:

  • Those who dream big, look into the distance, and say “someday” with a smirk on their faces and
  • Those who also dream big, set reasonable deadlines for their projects, and work their butts off to reach their goals.

Any project without a deadline is an intention, but no more than that. If you keep telling yourself “someday” without actually doing something to get there, you’re fooling yourself.

31. Fear of failure is normal yet pointless

Fear of failure stops most people from living the life they dream of, and it manifests in hesitation to even begin their journey toward the reaching of their goals. However, when you think about it, getting started isn’t really that hard.

Just take the first step, and your feet will naturally move forward. And even if your plans don’t go as you expected, you’ll learn that failure is still the best teacher there is. It allows you to reflect on what you’ve done wrong in order not to do it again.

Remember: All those who have reached success have one thing in common: They embraced each of their failures and learned from them. That’s why they’re on top of the world now.

32. Success never comes out of half-hearted efforts

We often make the mistake of pursuing success without a passionate devotion to our projects. This usually ends in lackluster and mediocre results that we naively expect to be awesome.

Always do your best, and make sure you love what you do. Passion for your endeavors is key to achieving excellence; then success — be it personal, monetary, or professional — will naturally follow.

33. Success is the sum of a constant string of small efforts over a relatively long time period

To win, you have to persevere, one step at a time. If you try to stay afloat, you have to swim up. The moment you stop, you start sinking back down.

Similarly, you may be doing the right moves to win, but the moment you stop, you lose momentum, and all you worked so hard to achieve starts falling apart.

34. Always follow up

There’s only one way doors will be opened to you: by knocking on them. So knock on doors. If you get no response, keep knocking. Don’t be afraid of being annoying, for they might end up opening if you insist.

Don’t assume silence is a negative response. If they don’t reach out to you, then you reach out to them. In the absolute worst-case scenario, they’ll say “no,” and if that happens, just move on and start knocking on another door.

35. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

We all dream of success, but we also tend to give up at the first sight of hardship and the first taste of failure. And that’s because we focus mainly on victory and rarely on defeat; which is an understandable approach to reaching your goals, but a deeply flawed one nonetheless.

Instead, keep your hopes high and your expectations low. Psyche yourself up to deal with disappointment and defeat. That’s the way forward, as you do your best to live the life you want while getting ready for the inevitable — yet necessary — episodes of failure along the way.

Bottom line

At school, you first learn a lesson, and then you’re given a test. In life, you’re given a test first and then you learn the lesson. That pretty much sums up where the content for this article comes from. Stay tuned for my upcoming “Seventy Lessons Learned in Seventy Years” post in 2055. You’re going to love it.

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Salvadoran writer, father, husband, educator, and artisan. I write about love and relationships, family, life lessons, and personal growth.

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