I completed 36 years in my present state of existence yesterday (7th December). That’s 13,150 days, or around 55% of the average life expectancy of an Indian male.
While spiritualists would want me to believe that I have existed from anadi (before the beginning of cosmos) and will exist till ananta (infinity), I see thirty-six years as a good enough time to find some meaning in one’s life. At least, my greying hair help me realize that.
Now, while it amazes me that I’ve been around that long — I feel like I’ve barely begun.
I’m not usually one to make a big deal about my birthday, but as always, it has given me an opportunity to reflect.
I thought I’d share a handful of lessons I’ve learned — lessons on life, work, family, health, and money – which may serve as a helpful guide for those just starting out.
These are just a few of the many lessons that I have learned in my life, and you may find no wisdom in them. Even I realize that wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. Sometimes age just shows up all by itself.
Also, as you get older, three things happen. The first is your memory goes, and I can’t remember the other two. 😉
So before I forget the lessons I learned in thirty-six years of my life, let me start right away.
36 Lessons from 36 Years of My Life
1. The present moment is all we have to create our life, and we have to prioritize things we want to do NOW. Regretting about the past is like wasting time and energy on the impossible. And worrying about the future is like having no belief in your capabilities. The best possible way to prepare for tomorrow is to concentrate with all your intelligence, all your enthusiasm, on doing today’s work superbly today. Just focus on what you’re doing, right at this moment. In this way, any activity can be meditation.
As the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote in his 2,000-year-old treatise On the Shortness of Life …
The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.
2. People would occupy a large part of your life, so choose those you want to spend your time with very-very carefully. Of course, you can’t always control who walks into your life but, you can control which window you throw them out of.
If someone is a drag on me, I cut them out. If someone lifts me up, I bring them closer. My family comes first for me, then friends, and then other people I love – I always try to be there for them and help. But I don’t get close to anyone bringing me down (I’ve stopped doing that!). Life, after all, is too short to spend owing someone an explanation.
You are a combination of the five people you spend the most time with. So choose those people well.
3. There are no mistakes, only lessons. In fact, I have learnt the most from my mistakes – be it my relationships, work, or investing. Now I am not afraid to make mistakes. Of course, I try not to repeat the same mistakes too often. As I’ve realized by paying an expensive price, it’s very important to learn from others’ mistakes (reading helps here) than trying to make all on your own.
4. Accept who you are (unless you’re a serial killer), with all your shortcomings, fears, and doubts. Enjoy being you, and you will never be unhappy and lonely. There’s no point tying to fit into what others would think of you. No one has that time!
5. Accept others as they are (unless they’re serial killers), with all their side-effects. I’ve learned that it’s extremely difficult to change people (try changing your kids!). However, it’s easy to inspire people to change, from bad to good. I try to do that each day, and that seems to be working.
6. Accept that you will be wrong, often. Nothing hurts more than that moment during an argument when you realize you’re wrong. Appreciate such moments, and move on. You lose nothing by losing an argument. In fact, you save a lot of time.
7. Failures are the stepping stones to success. Without failure, we’ll never learn how to succeed. So try to fail, instead of trying to avoid failure through fear.
I have learned a lot of life lessons just seeing my daughter grow up. Like when she was just a year old and was trying to take her first steps and repeatedly fell down, she tried again…and again…and again. Sometimes she laughed. Sometimes she cried. Sometimes she laughed and cried at the same time. But she kept trying and trying…laughing and crying. She did not labelled her experience as a “failure”. She just enjoyed it.
Unlike us adults, our babies don’t know the possibility of a failure, so they happily keep falling down until one day they take a few steps, and then a few more. Before long, they’re jumping and running. All their trying pays off.
They fall but never fail. As grown-ups, what if we also simply choose not to fail?
8. Patience is truly a virtue. Of course, patience is something you admire in the driver behind you, but not in one ahead. But be painfully patient and you’ll often be rewarded. Being a parent has helped me a lot in building patience. Sitting quietly for some time daily, observing nothing but my breath has also helped. Try it out. It works. And then, patience works.
9. It’s important to slow down. When I look around, I see people living their lives always running behind time. I see parents who, in the race to move ahead in their careers, have left their children’s childhood behind. I also find people who have ruined their relationships because they were chasing “something” in the future while not having time to live and love people around them in the present.
Rushing is rarely worth it. Your life is too short to be wasted in the fast lane. Life is better enjoyed at a leisurely pace. I can vouch for that.
10. There are few joys that equal a good book, a good walk, a good hug, or a good friend. Try all of these at least once a day. They are all free.
11. Expect people to lie. Hundreds of conversations with hundreds of people over the past few years have taught me, among many other things, that people lie. They lie about almost everything. In fact, we all lie, and then we rationalise our dishonesty by giving our lies nicer-sounding names to appease our conscience and ego. Expect others to do this as well. This is not about being negative or paranoid; it’s about being realistic and practical.
12. Let go of expectations. When you have expectations of something, you put it in a predesigned box that has little to do with reality. Expectations plague your daily life, causing you to be disappointed and disillusioned. Expectations are so dangerous that you can persist in maintaining them even after you have clear evidence that they are unfounded.
Try to experience reality as it is, appreciate it for what it is, and be happy that it is.
13. There’s far more happiness in giving than getting. I see selfless service or seva as the world’s most authentic and pure religion. Give with no expectation of getting something in return, and it becomes a beautiful act. Try to let go of that expectation, and just give.
14. Gratitude is one of the best ways to find contentment. We are often discontent in our lives, desire more, because we don’t realize how much we have. Instead of focusing on what I don’t have, I am grateful for the amazing gifts I’ve been given: of good health, beautiful family, reasonably good senses and simple pleasures like music, books, and the ability to create and share.
It’s good to be grateful every day. Also, if you feel gratitude towards someone, express it. Don’t wait for tomorrow.
15. Do less. Learn to say ‘No’. Figure out what’s important. Stop being a machine and focus on what you love. Do it lovingly. When you do less, you accomplish more meaningful things in life. You also have less anxiety and more time and space.
16. Master your fears. Fears will try to stop you. It will happen in the recesses of your mind, where you don’t even know it’s happening. Become aware of your fears. Shine some light on them.
In our life, the issue is not really ‘fear’ but rather, what we do despite it. We can either get managed by fear, or manage it. We can either acknowledge fear or fall into an emotional whirlpool. We can either accept fear or pretend that it doesn’t exist at all. We can either give up or get up in the face of fear. But remember – Only when we are no longer fearful do we begin to live.
17. Don’t compare your life to others’. You have no idea what their journey is about. The more energy you waste comparing your life to someone else’s and trying to be like them, the less energy you have to be who you are, to share your gifts, and to access and experience the profound level of health, wealth, and beauty that come along as a result of you being YOU. You are unique. Appreciate it and live happily with it. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”
18. Know what to avoid, and avoid it. Charlie Munger says, “Don’t do cocaine. Don’t race trains. And avoid all AIDS situations.” It’s important to know what we must avoid in life. I have been through times when it was easy for me to fall prey to requests from a few of my friends for taking just one puff of cigarette, and just one glass of alcohol. Thankfully, I knew within my heart what I wanted to avoid. And thankfully, I have avoided those and a few other such things.
19. Your “family” is not just your spouse and kids. It also includes your parents. Don’t ever forget them. Respect them like you want your kids to respect you. Listen to them. They’ve lived longer than you, and they don’t just talk to hear themselves speak.
20. The best way to get a good spouse is to deserve a good spouse. So, be deserving. Talking from my personal experience, a man does not control his own fate. The woman in his life does that for him. So choose your wife wisely and carefully. I have been extremely lucky on this account.
21. You could be very happy with almost nothing if you had a loving family, and you weren’t competing with a lot of other people who had more than you did. Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.
Never walk away mad from a loved one. One moment someone is here and the next moment they might be gone. So treat every last word with loved ones accordingly.
22. Your child needs time with you. She needs your undivided attention. She needs to make happy memories with you. She needs to laugh with you. Life can pull you in a thousand directions, and you might ignore it especially when your child is little. Remember – Children don’t stay little for long. So, slow down…take some time…give some time…invest some time.
23. Good health doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process, a learning process, something that happens in little bits over a long period. I’ve been trying to get fitter for three years now, and I still have a lot to learn and do. But the progress I’ve made has been amazing, and it’s been a great journey.
24. A good, slow walk cures most problems. Want to lose weight and get fit? Walk. Want to enjoy life but spend less? Walk. Want to cure stress and clear your head? Walk. Having trouble with a life or work problem? Walk.
25. Don’t sit too much. It kills you, slowly. In fact, sitting “comfortably” is one of the worst things you can possibly do for your health. Stand up and walk. Stand up and work. I do. I read and write standing more than I do these sitting. And it has helped me a lot. Sitting is the new smoking. Please avoid it…at least, too much of it.
26. Rest is more important than you think. People work too hard, and forget to rest, and then begin to hate their lives. Don’t try to do too much. Rest is where your body gets stronger, after the stress.
27. Do work you love. Work ought to be chosen for its intrinsic value, and for its sense of enjoyment, sense of purpose. Life is much too short to spend doing something you don’t like, even for a few years. There’s no harsher penalty than to wake up and go to work at a job you don’t like.
28. Our lives are made up of two important things: work and love. If one of those is off balance, you know, you have a problem. So, if you fall in a career and you know that it’s not your cup of tea, if you did it because of your parents, or you thought it was what you wanted and you were wrong – get out right away!
29. Never worry whether you’re too small to make a difference in the lives of others through your work. If you love what you’re doing, and you do it with complete dedication and integrity, the difference will be created. Still, if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.
30. Once you decide what work you want to do for the rest of your life, do it like a duck: Calm and composed on top, kicking like hell underneath. No other process works better.
V. Money & Stuff
31. Spend less than you earn, and go without until you have the money. The odds of going to the store for a bottle of water and coming out with only a bottle of water are three billion to one. So be very careful when it comes to spending money.
Save at least 10% of your net take home pay during the first year of your career, 20% in the second year, and so on. Plan to increase it to 50% in five years. Saving more is always good, but 50% is a number you must certainly target. The best way to meet this target is to follow this simple equation of “Income – Saving = Spending”. First save, then spend of what remains.
32. Use the magic of compounding. Invest early – as early as possible – and it will grow as if by alchemy. If you want to multiply your money 100x in 25 years, you want your investment to return 20% every year. In other words, Rs 1 growing at 20% per annum will turn to Rs 100 after 25 years. But if you stop this process after 20 years (instead of continuing for 5 more years), you will get just Rs 40. The remaining Rs 60 would come only between the 21st and 25th years.
That’s how compounding works. The longer you let your money grow, the faster will be the incremental return you would earn.
33. You don’t want stuff to own you. Possessions are worse than worthless — they’re harmful. They add no value to your life, and cost you a lot. No matter how much you earn, a lot of others you know will always be earning more than you and possessing more that you. The only way you can win this game against them is to not play it in the first place. It’s an utter waste of time and money.
34. Practice minimalism. It brings simplicity to life. Living a minimalist life spares me a lot of time to focus on the bigger, more important things – taking greater care of my health and family. Minimalism isn’t the destination you want to reach. It’s the path you must follow.
35. Avoid debt. That especially includes credit card debt, student debt, personal loans, and auto loans. We think they’re necessary but they’re not. They cause more headaches than they’re worth, they can ruin lives, and they cost us way more than we get. I have been debt free since thirty three, and I’m loving it!
And the 36th Lesson is…
Life is exceedingly brief, especially because we don’t know how to use it.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
So, while there’s a huge mass of time ahead of you, it passes much faster than you think. Your kids grow up fast. You get gray hairs before you’re done getting your bearings on life. Appreciate every moment.
You see, it’s ironical that it often takes us a lifetime to learn to live in the moment.
We seem to think that we’ll live forever. We spend time and money as though we’ll always be here. We buy stuff as though it matters and is worth the debt and stress of attachment.
We put off “living happily ever after” for another year, because we assume we have another year. We don’t tell the ones we love how much we love them often enough because we assume there’s always tomorrow.
I have these words from Steve Jobs as my screen saver – “Remember – You will be dead soon.”
Jobs said this in his Stanford commencement speech…
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
There’s nothing better I can leave you with after spending thirty-six years on this planet – thirty-six beautiful years.
Thank you for reading!