“It’s good to be young – but let’s not kid ourselves it’s better to pass on through those years and come out on the other side” – Jon Darnielle (“You were cool”)
As I see youngsters around Belgrade, getting drunk to mark the end of high school, I realise with some horror, that it is almost exactly ten years since I did the same.
Although the past ten years taught me is to be very sceptical of “life learnings” and under-30s dispensing life advice, in honour of youthful guilessness and cluelessness I want to compile a list of things I (think I) learnt that would have benefited that enthusiastic, go-getting, quite delusional youngster that I was back then. This is not to say that I could have known any of this back then, or that any of this can be learnt by anything rather than trial and error… or that any of it is correct. It would be great to hear what you wish you knew when you were young(er).
1. Expecting life to be easy is a recipe for misery
A wise Greek friend put it nicely as “Life doesn’t owe you shit”. The most miserable people I know are not those who endured the greatest hardships in life, but those who agonize over the smallest problems and fail repeatedly to grasp that life, after all, is hard for everyone, including themselves. The worst offenders tend to be people who think because they were good in school and are smart, things will always be great. They won’t.
2. You may not be who you want to be, but you need to accept your strangeness and limitations regardless and work from there
For a long while, I thought that accepting and living with my imperfections and strangeness (or more poetically… uniqueness) would be a cop-out, and a recipe for failure.
Even after I abandoned my plans of moulding myself into some picture-perfect being, because it made me miserable, even in attempts to find “my true self” I hoped that it would be an ethereal idealised yoga-pants-wearing version of me.
Once I came to terms with the fact that the only self I was realistically going to find is the one looking at me from the mirror, warts and all, I felt better. Of course I still try to improve on some aspects, but I also recognised that there are many traits, preferences and eccentricities, that are probably permanent.
3. Be aware of your needs and indulge them when you can
Sfter being asked about his controversial marriage to his wife’s adopted daughter Woody Allen said that “Heart wants what it wants. There is no logioc to these things”, and for better or worse he was spot on. Much of the wringing about not knowing what you want comes from not wanting to admit your need something you find embarrassing or inconvenient.
Since I was a child, I was embarrassed that I needed to be close to my family, which I saw as a weakness. Similarly, I felt that preferring a job like writing over a highly paid corporate job is silly, which led to a lot of agony. Denying own needs, rather than working to build the best life possible around meeting them, is not a winning strategy.
Moreover, from my limited experience, the only way of keeping enthusiasm in life, is when you are feeling you are actually going for something you want badly, so trying to extinguish own passions will also diminish your inner spark. Don’t make your life needlessly hard. But also, if you can help it, don’t fall in love with your adoptive step-daughter.
4. Optimise, don’t maximise
It took me a few injuries to realise that running 60 minutes is not 6 times better than running 10 minutes. Similarly, in my environment I realised that earning $100,000 and feeling miserable is much worse than earning $30,000 are having an ok life.
Doing and having more will make you win cock-measuring contests, but knowing your limits and distributing your energy to suit your individual needs will make you happier.
5. The only thing more painful than destroying your illusions is striving to keep them alive
I often felt frustrated and sad whenever life turned out to be different than I expected it to be. Even when I realised that pursuing a lifestyle I thought would make me happy no longer fulfilled me, I clung to it because I was afraid that anything else would be worse. What was worse, I was frightened by the fact that I would abandon something I belived in for a long while, despite seeing it is not true, and that without a new world/view I would be rudderless.
Enormous effort and guilt went into keeping illusions for myself, that would have probably been better spent on literally anything else.
6. Be a sharp critic, but know what you love
Unfortunately, much of our education and upbringing is geared towards making us good at fault-finding. Unsurprisingly, society also gives a lot more credit to clench-jawed critics than wide-eyed enthusiasts: we always enjoy reading scathing reviews or seeing our enemies being put down. The flip side, however is that it is often an act of courage to publically declare something to be good and stand for something, as it opens you up for criticism.
Although, of course, nothing is perfect, nihilism and snark, might make you seem very wise, but will ultimately stunt you. Knowing what things, situations and people you value, while being aware of their short-comings is more difficult, but infinitely more rewarding approach as it provides you a beacon towards which you can steer yourself.
7. Maturity is not knowing it all: it’s managing to live and not be afraid despite not knowing it all
As a teenager I believed that in order to be mature, I would need to “know it all”: to understand myself fully and comprehend how the “world” works. In my mid-20s, I realised that the former is difficult enough, while the latter is completely impossible and I resigned myself that I will always feel a bit childish and afraid of the big world out there.
However, once I made some tough decisions based on gut feeling, I felt mature for the first time: not because I knew all of their consequences, but because I had to trust my own judgement rather than follow fear.
8. Fulfillment does not lie in any given path, but in clearing your own way
As a product of my socialisation into the mindset that a happy and successful life entails living in one of the global cities, working in a high-paid high/powered white collar job, getting a flat of your own and a partner by 30, I belived that an yabberation from this path would lead to certain misery.
Stepping back, which is difficult while surrounded with similarly clueless 20 year olds, and meeting a more diverse bunch, I realised this is nonsense. While this path can indeed be great for some, it is certainly a sure path to fulfillment for all. Of course, neiter is a radical abandonment of this path and devoting your life to yoga and meditation (despite all the inspirational stories).
On my travels I met perfectly content nurses who decided to travel around the world jobbing about, a woman fulfilled by her passion for cooking in a remote town and, of course, thousands of people living lives that are all that notable at all, but being happy with their imperfect families, silly hobbies and small jobs. One thing the relatively happy ones had in common is the feeling that they are shaping their lives, given the circumstances, in big or small ways, from plunging into adventures to deciding to spend more time with their partner.