I imagine most people who lose a parent at a young age to a disease - as I lost my father to cancer when he was 44 and I was 18 - have a certain amount of trepidation about milestones like 40.
However, as today that milestone is now upon me and no 40th birthday can be properly marked without some sort of reckoning with your accomplishments and experiences, here are five things I’ve learned over the previous four decades:
Move regularly and you’ll live an interesting life. Although I miss it dearly, I left New Zealand when I was 22 for the United States. I left DC for New York when I was 26. I left New York for Minneapolis when I was 36. Moving has forced me to change industries and introduced me to people, ideas, and perspectives I would have never had if I’d stayed in one place. This is true for life and for careers: take on something that scares you, work hard at it until you can enjoy being good at it, then abandon it for something that scares you again. In the immortal words of Anthony Bourdain “If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
Don’t live for your deathbed. Life is unfair and unpredictable and as far as we know, only lived while we are actually alive. While I’m a believer in making decisions that future me will be happy about one day, I don’t believe in basing life choices on how I might feel about them at whatever point death closes in. The experience of reflecting on life from the end of it — for those of us lucky enough to be able to do so — is just a fraction of our total time spent on earth. There is no passing or failing grade before oblivion. Life should be enjoyed while we have it. Most bad choices along the way can be fixed by making good ones afterwards. Better a lifetime of happiness than a brief period of self satisfaction before the darkness sets in.
Life is a search for prestige. Once you realize that everyone is propelled through life by the need to feel respected and admired it becomes much easier to make sense of human behavior. Some people crave mass adulation. Others just want the respect of a single individual. The circumstances are always complicated but the rule seems both simple and universal. Why else would I be writing this post?
Doing > saying. Sometimes saying the thing that needs to be said is indeed the action that needs to be taken. Ever since the internet arrived, however, the world has had a lot more words in it — and not nearly enough of the change we need made. Words are powerful influences on people but they do not change things by themselves. Raised awareness was not enough to stop the catastrophic climate change that now appears inevitable. Eloquent speeches from the Senate floor could not prevent Republicans from trampling on norms. Fundamentally, calls for change are an expression of hope that someone else will come along to fix our problems, rather than an acceptance of the ultimate responsibility we all share for doing so ourselves.
Ends, not means. Despite the example provided by American politics in my adulthood, I’ve begrudgingly accepted that outcomes produced by debate are probably more sustainable over time. But I’ve also learned that, for many people, the ultimate goal in life has become the winning of arguments. Without sustained effort to find and vocalize shared ends capable of bridging differing perspectives, we have become mired in arguments about means. In 2020, we have the resources and technology to collectively reimagine the world and create better futures for everyone. We seem to lack the ability to even imagine what a future everyone would want to live in might look like. In life and in politics, keeping the big stuff the big stuff and the small stuff small is critical to our ability to make things better.