It took me until middle age to fully understand what truly matters, but better late than never.
Generally speaking, I’m not a big believer in regret, but I’d be lying if I told you there’s absolutely nothing I would do differently if I had my life to live over again. I don’t necessarily regret the mistakes I’ve made, though. Even the worst of my screw-ups taught me valuable lessons that left me better for the experience.
My priorities, on the other hand, were way off base for an embarrassingly long time.
I just turned 45 this month, and although I’m certainly still learning at this age, there’s a lot I’ve come to understand over the years about what’s truly important in life. Once I figured those things out, I finally started living the kind of life I knew I deserved.
I’m happier at this age. I feel more fulfilled, have more to be proud of, and have an easier time recognizing my blessings. My relationships are a lot better, as well, including my relationship with myself. I’m not filthy rich, nor am I living a perfect life by any means, but a good life well-lived isn’t about perfection. It’s about crucial things like the following.
1. Living My Life, Not Someone Else’s
When I was young, living up to other people’s expectations seemed incredibly important. I especially wanted my family to be proud of me and for my parents to think I was a good daughter. I wanted that so badly, I never really stopped to ask myself where other people’s expectations of me stopped and my own goals began.
My home life was pretty dysfunctional growing up, and my parents were the type of people with a lot of regrets of their own that they wound up projecting onto their children. My mother, in particular, had unrealistically high expectations of me, especially after my dad left. Unfortunately, though, she and I were very different people, especially when it came to what we thought was important in life.
For instance, my mother was hell-bent on my going into veterinary care, which I found out I absolutely loathed once I tried it. When I eventually reached a breaking point, I told her I was miserable and needed to find a profession that made me happy. Her response was to scowl at me and tell me life isn’t about being happy.
That’s when I finally realized that I had a choice to make. I could please my mother (and anyone else who thought they knew better than I did what was best for me), or I could be happy. But I couldn’t do both. So I chose happiness.
I quit my job as a vet tech and went back to working high-end retail while figuring out what I really wanted to do. Eventually, I realized I wanted to be a writer more than anything, so I started a copywriting business and worked hard to turn it into a huge success. I’ve never regretted that decision once because my mother was dead wrong. Life is totally about being happy and doing the things that light you up inside. The sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.
2. Doing Things Today, Not Tomorrow
When you’re still in your teens or 20s, life seems nearly limitless, and I remember feeling like I had all the time in the world to accomplish the things I wanted to. I also just assumed that everything in life would work out for the best without my having to do anything in particular. Then I hit my 30s and began to realize that wasn’t the case.
Now that I’m halfway through my 40s, I’m even more acutely aware of the fact that my days are numbered. As a result, I’ve gotten better about seizing opportunities when they come instead of letting them pass me by under the assumption that I’ll have plenty of other chances to do the same thing in the future. And my life is better for it because some opportunities do only come along once in a lifetime.
So, start working toward the things you want to do today. Do you want to travel? Sock away a little money, and look into opportunities to do so now because it’s not as cost-prohibitive as you might think. Want to dye your hair pink or platinum blonde? Do it before you’re working somewhere that doesn’t allow it; hair grows back, and you only live once.
Or maybe there’s something you want to learn or some way you’d like to become a better version of yourself. Have you always wanted to write a novel, master a language, or learn how to bake bread from scratch? Carve out some room in your schedule today, and get started, even if you only have a few minutes here and there to spare.
Those few minutes add up quicker than you think. And before you know it, your novel’s done, you’re practically fluent in Romanian, or you’re able to bake world-changing baguettes in your sleep. Accomplishments like those feel incredible, and they give life meaning, especially as the years start to add up.
3. Establishing a Healthy Work-Life Balance
We live in a world where people glorify being too busy to take care of themselves. They brag about not getting enough sleep or being so swamped they don’t have time to break for lunch or relax on the weekends. Not only is living like that one of the surest ways I know to wind up seriously miserable in life, but it’s not sustainable over the long haul. This I know from hard personal experience.
Remember that copywriting business I mentioned starting earlier? The one that changed my life and confirmed for me that writing was my true calling? Well, back when it first took off, I went through a period where all I did was work. I’m not exaggerating in the least, either. I worked from the minute my eyes popped open in the morning until my head was ready to hit the pillow at night. I didn’t take days off, I wasn’t taking care of myself, and — worst of all — I was proud of it.
It also wasn’t long before pushing myself to work that hard started to take its toll. My marriage began to suffer because my husband didn’t feel like a priority to me anymore. My health started to slide into the toilet because I wasn’t exercising, eating right, or sleeping enough. Eventually, I started drinking too much to deal with everything that was going wrong in my life, which only made everything worse, and that’s when I knew I needed to establish a better sense of balance.
It’s OK to love your work — admirable, even. But you shouldn’t be living for it to the exclusion of all else. What’s the point of being able to pay for a good life if you never stop long enough to live it? You’re not going to be lying on your death bed one day wishing you’d worked more. But you will almost certainly wish you’d taken more time off to spend with your family, take better care of yourself, and smell the roses once in a while. So, don’t wait. Do it now.
4. Connecting with the Rest of the World
Sometimes I think I might be the most introverted person alive. I’m not exaggerating, either. Like a lot of writers, I live up in my head a lot. I love to observe the world around me and ponder all the things I think I’m seeing. In fact, I love that so much, I sometimes forget to get off the bench once in a while and be a participant instead of just a spectator. But my life’s better for it when I push myself to do it more consistently.
Being willing to take a chance on new people when I feel connected is how I met my husband and wound up in a beautiful 16-year relationship after a painful first marriage experience in my 20s. Branching out from professional copywriting and ghostwriting to put my own writing voice out there more often has brought some fantastic opportunities my way, as well.
Plus, stepping out of the shadows once in a while, talking to people, and having more experiences keeps me inspired — always a positive for any writer. Of course, I haven’t been able to do that as much lately because of the pandemic, but I’m looking forward to getting back out there more often when the time is right for sure. Not getting much choice about being so isolated has shown me how much I miss having other options.
I know not everyone enjoys getting older, but so far, it’s been a wonderful experience that I’ve enjoyed very much. I now realize so much about living a good life is about connection, authenticity, and the savoring of simple pleasures and moments.
Yes, chasing big goals and making sweeping plans are an important part of life, but so are all the things that happen in between. These include the little lessons and insights that come to you when you least expect them. Keeping your eyes open and learning to recognize them is the key to living a life that feels wonderful and fulfilling on every level.