28 Things I’ve Learned About Life, Love, and Happiness

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“What’s the secret, Max? You seem to have it figured out.”

“I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life.  For me, it’s going to Rushmore.”


I often get asked what the secret is. So today, on my 28th birthday (the sexiest birthday!), I’d like to share 28 secrets of my own: things that I’ve learned about life, love, and happiness.

Here we go:

1) Politics are an incredibly negative suck of your energy.  Don’t get me wrong — politics can be vibrant and exciting, particularly when things are going well for your chosen candidate.

But immersing yourself in politics means immersing yourself in constant stress and negativity. I used to devour every morsel of news in every major election — every editorial, every analysis of every microgaffe.

Today, I read enough to stay informed and leave it at that.  I’m no longer mired in the muck, and my stress level has gone significantly down.

2) Perfection doesn’t exist.  Stop looking for it.  Whether it’s a job, a place to live, a romantic partner, or something else entirely, there are always trade-offs.  Not cute little trade-offs.  Significant trade-offs that you care about.

Even the Chiang Mai cheerleaders know that as much as they adore their city, they have to deal with unhealthy clouds of smog, smoke and dust every winter.

Life is a long act of compromise, and if you keep looking for perfection, you’ll never be able to settle.

3) It’s not your job to make everyone happy.  There are plenty of people who genuinely enjoy being miserable, though they’d never say so themselves.  Nothing that you say or do can convince them otherwise.  Cut your losses and go.

4) Choose to spend your time with people who lift you up.  This one might seem like a no-brainer, but don’t we all have friends who drive us crazy in myriad ways?  It might seem easier to hold stronger relationships with those with whom you share a history, or who have been part of your group for longer, but a lot of these relationships can be emotionally draining.

I’m not saying cut them off completely — just make sure you’re spending the bulk of your time with people who make you smile, laugh, and feel good about yourself.

5) Having a college degree does not mean that you need to work in a job that requires a college degree. Growing up in a town where COLLEGE-CAREER-SUCCESS! is hammered into your head from a young age, I used to feel that giving up a career for a job “anyone could do” would be a colossal mistake, as well as an embarrassment.

Not anymore.  I have friends who have left the corporate world to become yoga instructors, personal trainers, dive instructors, photographers.  They love their jobs, they make good money, and they’ve finally found work that fulfills them.

6) Being a good listener is something that takes both time and effort.  This is a quality that you should take time to hone.  Concentrate on listening to what someone has to say.  Resist the urge to jump in early and interrupt, or add empty affirmation, or one-up with something that happened to you.  Listen, think, respond.

7) Be kind — always.  When you’re tired and stressed and just trying to get through doing your errands when someone approaches you doing something that annoys you to no end — fight the urge to be rude, to make a sarcastic comment, to do anything that proves, in your own little mind, that you are somehow superior to everyone else around you.

That’s a strong urge to fight, but you have to.  Kindness begets kindness.  Kindness opens doors.  Kindness makes you a better person.

8) The easiest way to be interesting is to read contemporary nonfiction.  There are fascinating books about food, about religion, about cheap fashion, even about crazy subjects like cadavers.  You’ll always have something interesting to talk about — far more than what you can get on TV.

9) Make peace early and often.  Life isn’t fair.  You’re not going to do a fraction of the things you want to achieve.  Undeserving people will reach astronomical levels of success; their more-deserving counterparts will toil. And in most cases there’s nothing you can do about it.

Make peace with these facts, and remind yourself of them frequently.  You’ll save yourself a lot of mental anguish.

10) Entrepreneurship today is easier than it’s ever been before.  Whether you’re a crafter, a writer, a reseller of items, or a gamer of systems, the internet has made it easy to operate a small business on a global scale.  If you are ready to work hard, you can make it happen.  It’s an American Dream for the digital age.

So what’s stopping you?

11) No matter how easily you think you’ll be able to spot one, it isn’t easy to identify a relationship on its way to being abusive.  We always define abusive relationships in their most stereotypical form: a man hitting a woman, a man yelling insults at a woman.

It’s a lot harder to discern a partner who slowly isolates you from your friends, or manipulates you emotionally, or makes you feel shameful.  Movies like Twilight that glorify abusive relationships to a malleable teen audience aren’t doing the world any favors, either.

Pay attention to your intuition.  If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.

12) Trying to convince extremists is a waste of time.  Sure, you may be able to brilliantly argue your point until the end of time, but realize that that’s all you’re getting out of it — a won argument and possibly an alienated relationship.

Just don’t get caught up in the myth that if you argue well enough, you’ll change someone’s mind.  That doesn’t work with extremists.

13) Discount site emails will eat your wallet alive.  In the past few years, several major discount sites have popped up: Groupon and LivingSocial for experiences; RueLaLaHauteLook, and Gilt Groupe for fashion; Jetsetter for luxury travel.  These sites warp your thinking by making you think that 80% off Gucci shades is an unbelievable deal, when in reality you’ve just spent $120 for a pair of orange striped sunglasses.

Sometimes, these sites can be very good — like when there’s a major discount on something you were planning to buy in the next few months.  They can also be good for unique birthday gifts.

That said, I unsubscribed to all these emails and I don’t miss any of them.

14) Only you are the person who can change your life.  If you’re happy, that’s fine.  That’s great.  But if you’re unhappy and want to make a change, nothing is going to happen until you make it happen. Stop waiting for the perfect career opportunity or romantic partner to fall into your lap, or for the right person to emulate to appear on your radar.  Go after your own dreams.

15) Accountability is a beautiful thing.  Own your failures.  Not dramatically.  Not with an ulterior motive. Just own them.

16) Solitude isn’t a state of failure.  The amount of hostility that single people face in our society is absolutely ridiculous.  Choosing to be single and without kids does not mean that a person isn’t good with people or has some degree of mental problems.  Am I being overdramatic?  Believe me, this is warranted.

Some of the happiest people I know are single without kids — in part because they never settled for someone else’s expectations.

17) There is an art form to making a formal complaint.  If you’re having issues with a company, know when to complain (after you’ve calmed down), who to approach (a supervisor or someone with similar power), what to do (describe the situation as you saw it without speculation) how to act (polite and respectful), and what, if anything, you want in compensation from the business.

Most importantly, resist the urge to exaggerate.  If a situation warrants complaint, you don’t need to exaggerate.

You’d be surprised at how many people think that a complaint is best lodged with red-faced screaming.  That’s an excellent way to get people to not take you seriously.

18) The American diet is incredibly unhealthy.  I’m not just talking about fast food.  Our portions are out of control.  We eat far too much meat, dairy, carbs, and sugar.  So many “normal foods” are overprocessed.  Even when you grow up eating healthier than most (I didn’t have beef until I was around 8!), it’s still an enormous contrast to most of the world.

Consider eating differently — smaller plates, more meat-free dishes, fewer processed foods.  You’ll be surprised at how good it makes you feel!

19) Magnanimity is an incredibly overlooked quality.  Rise about negativity by being generous in success and generous in defeat.

20) Don’t sweat the small stuff.  99.9% of the stuff is small.  If it doesn’t involve death or serious injury or financial ruin, it’s small stuff.  Let it go, let it go, let it go.

21) Your photos deserve to be treated like the treasures they are.  Back them up online — every photo you take in its original format, even the bad ones, plus the edited final products.  SmugMug is a great place to do this.  Buy a quality camera and take the time to edit your photos.

Trust me — looking back, you’ll be glad you protected your photos.

22) It’s not a competition.  Really, it’s not.  It’s so easy to drive yourself into negativity while racking your brain, trying to figure out how to either one-up or tear down the person next to you.  Let it go, smile, and say, “That’s great.  I’m happy for you.”

23) Splurge on experiences, not possessions.  Several years down the line, you may not remember a handbag or pair of shoes that you got for your 23rd birthday — but you’ll definitely remember the day you spent zip-lining, or a sushi-making lesson, or a weekend getaway to a place you’ve never been.

That said…

24) Having stuff can actually be nice.  There’s a lot of backlash against possessions amongst long-term travelers, many of whom describe the newfound freedom from “stuff” as the ultimate revelation.  I know I enjoyed living out of a backpack.

But the truth is that having stuff can be nice.  Not endless piles of things you don’t need, but a few standouts: a MacBook Air, a nice pair of sunglasses, a fabulous dress that always looks great on you.

25) Higher education doesn’t always pay off.  YIKES!  That’s something I never thought I’d say, especially after having If you don’t go to college, you’ll be flipping burgers for the rest of your life! drilled into my head from the age of 5.  I’m not exaggerating.

And today, many of my college graduate friends have been unemployed for a long time.  Many more are underemployed.  And lots more are in debt up to their eyeballs, owing upwards of $1,000 each month.

Higher education isn’t the ticket to guaranteed success that it once was.  So many people I know, both college grads and not, have found their success as online entrepreneurs — either teaching themselves from scratch or from free and cheap resources available online.

Don’t get me wrong — higher education is NEVER a waste of time, and it can lead you down a path to making smart decisions about business and life.  But sometimes, it’s a waste of money.  Spend wisely.

26) Dan Savage is an angel sent down from heaven.  Yes, this man is a sex and relationship columnist — and I guarantee that reading his columns and listening to his podcast will both improve your life greatly and make you a more open-minded person.

27) Don’t spend too much time in negative environments.  A lot of seemingly benign places are surprisingly negative.  Some examples?  Snarky political and celebrity web sites, friends of yours who spend more time gossiping about others than anything else, family members who complain about everything.

Spend too much time in negative environments or around negative people and bitterness will come more easily to you.  You don’t want that.

28) Forgive yourself.  As many attempts as you make to turn yourself into a better person, you will make lots of little mistakes and some very big mistakes.  Recognize this, plan for this, but above all, forgive yourself for everything that happens along the way.

What is the wisdom that you’ve gained at your age?