I’d say turning thirty is a significant milestone. It’s the start of a premature mid-life crisis, right? A lot of my childhood friends are going through many of the same emotions this year, good and bad. With the obligatory celebratory Facebook posts, it’s also accompanied by some sort of reflection about the past. If I had to choose one word that described my first 30 years, it would have to be ‘luck’. I could never convey the amount of gratitude to the existential forces at work that have put me where I am today. But at the same time, I’d like to think I’ve learned a couple of things along the way.
At age 20, when I graduated from one of the world’s most selective and prestigious institutions of higher learning, UCLA, I was an emotional and physical mess. Although I graduated two years earlier than most others, I have a lot of regrets about my time at UCLA. My life as an undergraduate was miserable. I was riddled with so many insecurities and deep-seated emotional problems, that it was amazing that I even got to graduation. Worse, I had no direction whatsoever when I graduated.
Ironically enough, it was In the first year after I graduated that I began to learn to be disciplined, and I mean, really disciplined. Different elements of this skill have come together in a series of seemingly fortuitous events after graduating. Traveling alone across Europe for two months definitely opened my eyes in a way that nothing else could. I had also decided to pick up long-distance running, for better or worse, as the it probably became something of an obsession. And finally, graduate school taught me what it meant to work and to be proud of my accomplishments.
Two days after walking across the stage at Pauley Pavilion, I went to Europe and backpacked for nearly three months. In a train car headed from France to Switzerland, I had a pretty significant life-changing moment that wasn’t anything particularly special at first glance. In that train car, I met another American who was headed to a PhD program. At the time, graduate school always seemed as a lofty, unattainable goal. All my TAs at UCLA were ridiculously intelligent and dauntingly articulate. It never entered my mindset to set out to become a professor. For whatever reason, that single conversation probably changed the course of my life. I thought, ‘if this guy could do it, so could I.’ And by the age of 25, skipping over most of the story, I found myself teaching my own courses at UC Santa Barbara.
In the year I turned 26, I ran a full marathon and did a 22-mile hike on the north shore of Kauai. I mention this because they are probably the most physically demanding things I have ever put my body through. And this becomes even more impressive when you consider that I was incredibly overweight and unhealthy through the end of high school and in college. Although there are obvious superficial benefits to staying fit, nutrition and exercise continually challenge me on a day-to-day basis.
And finally, with the discipline I picked up in my 20s, I earned my doctorate and became a tenure-track professor at 27. Tenure means security; a position that is becoming increasingly rare. And incredibly enough, my tenure-track position was in the city I love, close to my family, and where I ultimately wanted to spend the rest of my life. Age 30 carries a fair amount of significance for me, but it also marks the halfway point to tenure. This means my journey is far from over, and in many respects, is only the beginning. But thus far, I can say a lot of it has been luck. I never set out to do any of this. As a professor, my students always ask why and how I did it. There was no master plan to speak of. I think I made a ton of mistakes along the way and I definitely have little to offer in way of a formula for doing everything right.
Nonetheless, in my 30 years of life, I feel like that experience has led me to a number of lessons that I’ve come to through trial and error. They are pretty general guidelines, but they serve as a pretty good navigational tool for the ups and downs of life.
1. Take time to be reflective. One of the greatest investments that you can make is to allow yourself the time to think. Since I can remember, I had a tendency to obsessively assess and evaluate whatever it was I was doing with my life. The reason why traveling is so great is that you have a ton of down time, often with little distractions. Spending two weeks without a phone in New Zealand and Fiji gave me the time to think of this list. Although it can be scary and cause anxiety, self-actualization constantly pushes me to be better and better. The answers don’t come quickly, but being proactive about the future helps tremendously.
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Connected to the first point, one of the hardest parts of being thoughtful is not to be over-analytical. As a kid, this was one of my greatest flaws. I worried about every. single. damn. thing. While it’s important to give yourself the time to think, it’s also important to realize that there are some things just out of your control. Everyone deserves the time to relax and take a break.
3. Work hard. This is a big one. A strong work ethic has the ability to help you overcome adversity in a way that nothing else can. The old adage, good work is hard to find, is pretty accurate. At least in my years in higher education, I can say that most people seem to look for the easy way out. Nothing impresses people like the ability to work hard. But moreover, there’s a lot of personal satisfaction and pride behind a job well done.
4. Focus on positive energy. The energy that you give off and surround yourself with is important. If you’re around negative energy, you’ll eventually give into that energy. It’s far easier to be gracious, supportive, and friendly than to be an asshole. Although I know I have my moments, I know that giving off positive energy only invites more of it in. And there’s nothing better for productivity and success.
5. Evaluate who you surround yourself with. Connected to the last point, it’s important to have meaningful relationships with others. Interaction with other people is what life is about. And although I’m the first to say, ‘I have no friends’, other people is really what makes life worth living. That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with people that encourage positivity and only bring out the best in you.
6. Celebrate your friends and family. That being said, it’s also important to not take the people you choose to surround yourself with for granted. Although we can be hyper-focused on school, careers, and professional lives, we tend to regret the time we didn’t spend with friends or family. They’re the group that are your strongest supporters and source of inspiration anyway.
7. Maintain perspective. Whenever something goes wrong, my initial response is usually anger. But these moments always serve as a contrast to when everything is going marvelously well. Was it cool to be sitting in a beach in Fiji for my 30th birthday? Fuck yeah. But am I going to feel this way next week when I have 10-hour days, have to sit in LA traffic, and be up late at night to prep my classes? No… but that’s the point. Knowing that my life could easily be a shitstorm tomorrow gives me even more gratitude for the blessings of today.
8. Aim for the stars. One of the things about the transition into adulthood is that life tries to beat the hopes and dreams right out of you. Once you encounter the ugliness of the real world, you begin to temper your expectations and goals. And I refuse to give in. At some point, I guess you’re supposed to finally feel like an adult, but even at 30, it still hasn’t really hit me. I still think that I’m a kid and I don’t want that to change. There’s something extremely motivating about the ability to daydream and wonder.
9. Recognize that life is short and it’s okay to take risks. Finally, if this list wasn’t cliché enough, this last one isn’t really about letting loose and having fun. Rather, it’s to remind yourself that life is to short to be so structured and regimented. Sometimes, life doesn’t lend itself to neat little lists like these. Sometimes, life will present you with options with undeniable risks. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s preferred. Because what is life but without risk?