30 things I learned in 30 years

This is the article I referred to in the last chapter. I wrote this on the day of my birthday, February 7th 2017. It was probably one of the greatest things I ever wrote to myself and it’s something I refer back to frequently. I think it’ll help you too.

Today I’m 30 years old. This means a lot to me in lots of ways and I’m not afraid to admit that 6 months ago, the prospect of turning 30 scared me. That fear precipitated a lot of change in my life.

I guess the easiest way to describe me would be old-of-mind. Grown up. Responsible. I’ve always been “grown up” for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always hung out with older people as I could always have more interesting conversations with them. So turning 30 wasn’t about me feeling old. I’m in the best shape of my life and I’ve always enjoyed feeling more mature than the average 20 year old.

My fear came from something deeper, something more profound. It came from me asking myself:

“Is this all I’ve managed to achieve in 30 years? Is this it?”

Without getting too woo-woo here, I went through some kind of existential search for meaning that lead me to more deeply contemplate all areas of my life. I started journaling properly and contemplated things more than I ever have done over the previous 29 years.

That thinking and contemplation has lead to this article.

This article isn’t a “Here’s what you’re doing wrong and how you should fix it” type piece. Hopefully none of my writing, podcasts or videos come over like that. It’s a piece about the things I’ve learned that may or may not be useful to you. It’s largely a stream of consciousness discussion about the important lessons I’ve learned throughout my life.

The purpose of writing this article isn’t really for you at all. Sorry.

It’s entirely for me. It’s me taking a snapshot of my thinking and a place in time just before I turn 30. I hope to look back on this many times over the coming years and write another one at the next important milestone.

This article has the potential to become very long. You might need to read this in a few sittings. Here goes.

1. Discipline Equals Freedom

I shamelessly rip this phrasing off from Jocko Wilink, and from his excellent book Discipline Equals Freedom. Even though I’ve ripped the phrasing from Jocko, this is something I’ve been aware of for a very long time but not been able to crystallise my thinking around it.

I observed that every year I did a “thing a day for 365 days” challenge over the last 12 years I’ve become better at something. Every year I didn’t do one, I’ve become stagnant which is just as bad as becoming worse. I went through a period a few years ago of doing nothing at all in my spare time other than consuming other people’s creativity. The few journal entries I wrote that year were very dark.

This year I’m trying to do everything on the planet all at once.

To do all this stuff I have to be extremely disciplined. Instead of all that discipline feeling like it is imprisoning me I feel freed by it. I don’t need to think about what I’m doing next. I’m never bored. I’m freed from the tyranny of too much choice because I always know what’s next.

2. Creating stuff makes you happier

I’ve never ever filled my life with so much daily creativity at any other point in my life, and I am absolutely adoring it. I’ve never felt more fulfilled creatively than I do right now.

I spend about 10 hours every day thinking about new things then creating them. I don’t think I’m capable of putting in words how amazing this feels. Whenever I’m feeling down or under the weather I always feel better straight after I’ve made something new.

Creating things is such an important thing for us to do as humans. Humanity is instinctually creative and when we spend little time being creative I genuinely believe a small part of us dies inside. That’s a medical term.

The last 12 years of a happy life have shown me how important creativity is to me in every area of my life. Don’t just consume, create stuff as well.

3. If you’ve got problems, talk about them

As a man I find it difficult to talk about my problems with other people. I often feel I have to live up to the archetype of a “manly” man, and manly men just get on with things and don’t complain.

A couple of years ago I realised the problem with this way of thinking when I started to suffer from pretty bad panic attacks. When I first started suffering from them I told nobody. I struggled through, determined to continue to play my role of man and not bother anybody with my problems. At first I even hid them from my girlfriend who I was (and still am) living with.

They continued to get worse and they got to the point where I just couldn’t hide them any longer. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to talk about them with my girlfriend, but when I did everything changed. Being able to talk through what I considered a weakness with somebody else let me work through it much quicker and eventually lead to my 99.9% recovery.

Every time I tell somebody else about my panic attacks now or discuss them with other sufferers the power it holds over me weakens.

It’s so important to talk about your problems no matter what they are. In the grand scheme of life my problem wasn’t that large, but it could have turned into something far more insidious if I would have continued to let it fester. Please don’t let your problems fester too.

Everything can be solved — or at least understood better — with a good conversation.

4. Reading will turn you into a better person

For most of my life I’ve been a pretty big reader. I read at least 30 minutes before bed nearly every night of my life and I read all kinds of things. For some reason I’ve always been interested in reading various sources of self improvement books but I couldn’t really tell you why. The entire topic fascinates me.

Reading has without a doubt made me a wiser, more considerate and just better person on nearly every level. I find reading philosophy — pretty much anything from the Stoic school of thought — very nourishing for the soul.

It’s also made me a better writer and communicator. And it’s given me the gift of understanding people and situations. Seriously, there is no downsides to my life from reading 30 minutes every day. I’m thankful that I’ve always prioritised it.

5. There’s nothing better than a good conversation

As you’d expect from a person who does a podcast about conversations, I love conversations. I find myself getting lost in a good conversation, where nothing else in the world matters other than the other person you’re talking to and the ideas you’re sharing. A truly powerful conversation allows you to share ideas and thoughts in a completely open environment. I love that.

I think there’s nothing better in my life than a good conversation. I’m lucky to have friends that enjoy this too, meaning I get to do this a lot.

6. Learn to understand yourself

Because I’ve read so many self improvement books I’ve become aware of something that is often repeated in most of them: understand yourself. Understand what you’re uniquely good at and not so good at. Understand where you’re deficient and how you can improve it.

See yourself as a cavernous dark room: you’re not sure of the size of it but you should be willing to discover every last square of it with your weak flashlight.

It’s possible to walk through your entire life on auto-pilot. I spent many years doing this until I woke myself up. Since then I’ve been determined to push the boundaries of every part of myself through constant challenges. It helps me reveal a little bit more of that cavernous dark room each day.

7. Hard work will get you everything

This point will come as no surprise to anybody that knows me. Everything I’ve accomplished has come through hard work. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not naturally gifted at anything and I have no magic pill.

I was a shy, meek ginger kid at school who occasionally got picked on. I worked hard to become a confident man who loves being in the limelight and public speaking. I could never draw at school and never took an interest but ended up starting and running a successful design agency. I was never good at sports at school and I was overweight, but I found a sport I loved (American Football), played for Great Britain and England at that sport, and dedicated myself to eating healthy and stopping being overweight.

All of that has come from hard work and nothing else. I have a work ethic bordering on obsessive and I’ve never had anything handed to me. You can follow my model tomorrow and in a couple of years become as good at anything I’ve done.

The parable of hard work is one that isn’t spoken about in the media or in magazines. People are more interested in the fame once somebody has already become famous, not what they went through to get there. Hard work is boring. It’s repetitive. It takes a very long time. It’s a dedication to a process over a long period of time that eventually sees results.

Hard work is all I have and is all I need.

8. Writing will turn you into a better person

Before 6 months ago I didn’t really value the process of writing. I write a lot most days of my life — emails, tweets and such — but I didn’t value the process of writing or really understand the power of it.

It wasn’t until I began to journal and just write down my thoughts and feelings that I realised the true power of writing. Writing is the only way that allows me to look inside my own head and read back my thoughts and feelings from days or even years ago.

It’s an invaluable tool I use every day now, and not just for writing articles and emails. Whenever I feel a certain thing or I want to capture a moment in time I write it down.

Journaling most days for the past 6 months has helped me discover myself better than any other method I can think of.

9. You don’t need to pigeonhole yourself

For about 8 years I was completely obsessed with design. I never did anything else in or out of work. I just designed things all of the time. Eventually I became burned out from it and started looking around for other hobbies and other things I could do.

I tried lots of things, but the only thing that ended up sticking was podcasting. When I first started podcasting I tried to make it about design but I got bored fairly quickly. In the end I started talking about self improvement as this is another passion I’ve had for a very long time.

I struggled for a while to make sense of this new thing to myself. How can I talk about self improvement when I run a design business? Shouldn’t I be podcasting and blogging about design? It took a while for me to work out that I don’t need to be The Designer all of the time. My personality and life is not dictated by being a designer 24/7.

I didn’t need to always present myself as just as a designer. I’m interested in lots of other stuff too and I just happened to start making videos, podcasts and articles about one of those other hobbies.

There’s lots of crossover in design and self improvement and sometimes I explore it. The important thing I worked out though was that I don’t need to imprison myself by making a nice clean “personal brand”. I can talk about whatever I want and that’s just OK.

It’s OK to be messy with your interests and hobbies. It’s more interesting and will make you more interesting. Nobody is ever interested when I say I’m a designer. When I say I make a podcast, then people become interested.

10. Life is never better than right now

I used to think back to high school and college and consider how good I used to have it. I’ve had these kinds of conversations with lots of people. I used to think about how little responsibilities I had, how easy life was. I just did what I wanted whenever I wanted. I used to always think that my best times were behind me.

Since I started reading about Stoicism daily I’ve changed my tune on this a lot. It made me realise a couple of important things.

  • The only thing you have is right now.
  • The past doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist.
  • Therefore, the only thing that is “the best” is the time you’re spending right now. The present.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan for the future or look fondly on the past. The people who solely focus on living in the present are deficient in all sorts of ways.

It’s just a gentle reminder to say what you have right now is good enough. Not only is it good enough, it’s the best.

11. You’re not in a secure job

No matter what job you’ve got right now it isn’t secure. You like to fool yourself that the company you work for will be around forever and that they’re making a lot of money and paying you well so you’ll be OK.

I’ve seen so many friends and other people lose very secure jobs that I believe the only way to secure your future is to work for yourself. Work out what you’re good at and sell it.

Making the scary leap to work for myself 8 years ago was the best thing I’ve ever done. The freedom and opportunity it has afforded me has been invaluable.

12. Things are changing and you can never stand still

I worked this thing out from working in the creative industries. I started out as a web designer and still run a digital agency, and things are moving so fast. I also teach people web design and it’s incredibly hard to keep up.

The day you decide to get comfortable and just chill out for a bit is when you start to decline.

Things are changing so quickly and the people who don’t react and evolve get left behind. It’s a harsh truth but it’s true.

13. You should learn to make your own mind up…

I’ve always been a contrarian (I used to debate/argue with my mum all the time even when I was a kid) so this comes naturally to me, but I’ve learned that you shouldn’t accept anything at face value. Sometimes it’s easier to accept what your friends think about something, and it’s definitely easier to fit in that way, but you never should.

Always think about things for yourself. Make your own mind up, consider your points of view may differ. Be fiercely independent.

14. …and be willing to have your mind changed

Facts change, new things emerge, old things become less relevant. It’s impossible to have a fixed perspective on something and it’ll make you stupid if you do.

My girlfriend often asks me about believing in ghosts. I always tell her the same thing: until I see one, I won’t believe that they exist. I’ve studied the current evidence that is available and decided that they don’t exist.

If I finished writing this article and a ghost popped up in front of me and said hello I’d change my mind quickly. There’s a fine balance between being strong-minded and being a dick.

16. Being healthy is vital to live a good life

I spent about 25 years of my life being unhealthy. I didn’t care what I ate, I sat down for 14–16 hours a day and I never exercised. Eventually it caught up with me. I still remember the day I got on the scales and it said “18 stone 4 pounds”. From that day I decided I was going to lose weight.

At that point — and for a long time after — my focus was on losing weight. I didn’t even understand what being healthy meant, but now that is my complete focus every day of my life. I exercise daily, meditate, journal, have a good time and eat healthy most of the time.

Doing all of that stuff gives me endless energy to work hard and work on the things I’m passionate about. Even if I live only to 50 years old I know I’ll have been able to do whatever I wanted for 50 years because I was healthy. It isn’t about the length of time you live, it’s about the quality of life you have every day.

16. Anything worth doing takes a long time

It takes 10 years to become an overnight success, as the saying goes.

I spent my early twenties thinking I’d learned everything I could possibly learn and I was excellent at my craft. Funny thing is though, every year I look back and think how much I’ve improved.

Even now, 12 years later, I look back on the previous year and see how much better I am at things. I can even look back on my podcast from 20 episodes ago and see how much I’ve improved. I can look back at my last piece of design and see how much I’ve got better.

I’m still not perfect at anything, and anything worth doing takes a long time.

17. Think in years

I learned a while ago that a more effective way of looking at improvement is over a year period: 365 days. I learned it through doing daily challenges but then applied it to lifting weights and other areas of my life.

I’ve only been seriously lifting weights for two years, and I’m now into my third. That isn’t a long time at all when you think in years. In fact, I’m at the very beginning of my journey.

Losing weight, getting fitter, becoming skilled at something. They all become easier when you focus on improving over a long period of time instead of watching yourself not improve every week. Small improvements over a long period of time wins every time.

18. You’re never complete

I’ve always been obsessed with improving myself constantly, trying new things and becoming better. I’ve long since understood that you’re never a complete article. There’s always something that can be improved, changed or studied.

That’s all part of the fun of life for me. Every day I wake up and know that by the time I go to bed I’ll have improved just a little bit in one small way. That’s the game.

I’m not arrogant enough to think I don’t have room to improve. There’s always somebody you can learn from who are farther ahead in their journey than you are. You can even learn vitally important things from people who are behind you in their journey too.

19. Listen

I meet lots of people in the average week and quite a lot of new people too. Whenever I go to a new place with lots of new faces and I get chatting to somebody, it never fails to amaze me how little most people listen to the words coming out of my mouth.

I can be stood across from somebody and I can blatantly see they are paying zero attention to what I am saying. Don’t be that person.

When you listen to people you learn things. I know that’s a radical concept and it may even surprise you. I feel stupid that I have to write this down and even more stupid that I have to tell you to use your ears in the way they’re intended to be used.

20. Your interests will change

Your priorities change, the things you enjoy change and ultimately your interests will change. This may or may not mean that you become bored of your job which has been a big part of your life for a long time. Some people would choose to ignore the signs of boredom and lie to themselves that they still enjoy what they do for a living.

Just by being aware of the simple fact that you may become bored of what you’re doing now can save decades of heartache later down the line. I’m lucky I work in an industry that’s constantly changing and I’ve already seen my job change several times in 12 years.

21. Good friends are hard to come by

I’ve got quite a few of my high school friends I’m still lucky enough to call friends now. I’ve got a small collection of friends I’ve known for way over 10 years and meeting friends has always been a big part of my life.

It’s important to discuss ideas with people, have fun and do fun things.

22. Find a hobby you enjoy and do it

I had no hobby for the longest time and I never realised the hole it had left in my life. Whilst work gives you a purpose to life I often find it doesn’t give you a meaning. It gives you a reason to wake up every morning but it doesn’t give you answer to the question: what’s the point?

I’ve got lots of hobbies now and I fill up all of my spare time with them. I’ve literally got no time for anything else and that’s the way I like it.

Why is it like that? Well, because of Number 23.

23. Become obsessed with learning new things

I became obsessed. Whenever I start a new thing or learn something new I always want to go out and discover EVERYTHING ON THE PLANET about it. It isn’t possible and it isn’t really healthy but damn, do I enjoy doing it. Learning new things is one of my favourite things in life. There’s just something really nourishing about learning something new. That little “ah-ha” moment can’t be replaced by anything else in life.

24. Don’t be an idiot

Self explanatory, but I’ll explain it a little bit anyway. If you’re doing something over and over and complaining about it, you’re an idiot. Stop doing it.

25. Be nice to people

I’ve lived my entire life by the mantra of Work Hard and Be Nice To People. I saw it on a poster once and it made me realise that I’d been unknowingly living like this.

There’s no excuse big enough to for being nasty to any animal on this planet, and yes that includes humans. It takes no time at all to be nice, to smile and ask somebody how they’re doing or compliment them on their new hair. You might just make somebody’s day.

I’m nice to everybody no matter what they’ve said about me. I don’t hold grudges and I like to judge a person by what they show to me when I look in the whites of their eyes.

You don’t need to be ruthless or any of those other business-tosser terms to get ahead in life. Nice guys don’t finish last, they finish with their conscience intact knowing that they gave it their best shot.

26. Give and help others openly and honestly

Some of the most rewarding things I’ve done in life have come from just helping people and asking for nothing in return. I’m always available to help anybody who needs it, and I’m a big believer of paying it forward rather than asking for something from people when they ask for my advice or help.

It’s why I teach, it’s why I share everything I know by writing, podcasting and creating videos, and why I find it all so rewarding.

27. Don’t be a pushover though

Being nice and helping people can sometimes lead people to believe that you’re a pushover. Whenever I get this part of my personality tested I immediately shut it down.

Being a pushover is closely linked to being an idiot. Develop some confidence in yourself and your abilities and start standing up for yourself.

28. Learn to be comfortable alone and in silence

I didn’t really learn the importance of this one until I started to seriously explore meditation. The power of meditation is something that can’t be explained second-hand through an article, but it also taught me how to do something else I never realised the importance of: being comfortable with silence.

If you’re capable of sitting in a room by yourself and doing nothing but listening to silence, everything else above that should make you incredibly grateful.

29. Watching TV is wasted time

Yeah. This is pretty much true of 99% of television. If you’re wasting 3 hours every night sitting on a sofa, well, you’re wasting 3 hours every night sitting on a sofa.

30. Sometimes you have to burn the boats

You can’t make real change in your life without giving up your old ways of thinking and doing. As the saying goes: if you want to take the island you must burn the boats.

If you want to change something you must remove any possible way of returning to your old way of being — burn the boats. That can be the hardest thing to do in life and I’ve discovered it first hand, but it’s very rewarding.