Turning 31: Lessons From a Year of Lockdown

Turning 31 with all my dogs

I’m turning 31 this year. Of course, nobody has big, audacious plans for their 31st birthday. But any birthday is a good time to pause and take stock of my life.

I’ve learned a lot in the past year, including many things I never wanted to know. But I was lucky – the past year wasn’t all bad. I experienced more than my share of beautiful things, too.

For the third consecutive year (here’s what I wrote at 29 and 30), I figured I’d share what I’ve learned during a rocky year.

1. Reach out to people you admire.

You don’t have to ask them for advice, but you can. If you do, keep it super simple – and make sure they haven’t answered your question anywhere obvious – and you might get a response.

2. Ask for what you want.

There’s no guarantee you’ll get it, and this isn’t carte blanche to ask for totally unreasonable shit. But you almost certainly won’t get what you want if you never ask for it.

3. Long walks are brain medicine.

If I’m getting outside enough and spending lots of time walking around, I’m happy. If I’m not, I’m less happy. It’s a simple habit but a powerful one.

4. The greatest excitement lies in anticipation.

To make our humdrum lockdown lives more appealing, my girlfriend and I implemented the occasional Super Nice Delivery Meal program. The anticipation of a great meal is a lot of fun and makes the meal more satisfying. I’ve started applying this in a few different areas and have had great results all around.

5. As does the greatest pain.

The nerves I feel before a big presentation, tough conversation, or challenging day are orders of magnitude more intense than the feelings I have while it’s happening. We’ve all had to do a lot of uncomfortable or scary things in the past year – remembering that they’re never as scary to do as they are to anticipate is how I’ve kept plowing through them.

6. We are dying (just a little) every day.

Marcus Aurelius wrote a line that I think about all the time:

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

Death isn’t something that happens to us in the distant future. It’s happening now – bit by bit, day by day. So it’s a worthwhile reminder to occasionally look around your life and see whether what you’re doing is in alignment with your values.

7. Escape sunk costs with The Alien Exercise.

This one comes courtesy of Julia Galef, although I don’t think she’s the original author. Pretend you’re an alien who just dropped into your body. You have no history or context on the human body you’re inhabiting. Would you continue on your current path? If not, what would you change?

8. Detox from screen time with book time.

It’s easy to spend all day on screens when everyone is at home. Still, the most fulfilling time is almost always spent in the pages of a book, not on my phone.

9. Putting off important things might seem easier, but it always comes back to bite you.

A universal law: the thing you postponed will be less convenient at the rescheduled time. Just do it now. 

10. Practice making moral choices in little ways.

Someday (like, say, during a pandemic), you’ll have to make hard choices – like whether to put your desires ahead of those around you. If you got used to cutting small moral corners, you’d be more likely to cut big ones. Practice making the right choices in advance, and you’ll be ready to face headier challenges.

11. Endeavor to make sense rather than decisions.

When we get into challenging situations, we reach for our overlearned behaviors. I reach for quantitative metrics to make decisions more often than I should. I also try to make decisions when I should be trying to make sense. Via wildfire fighter Jeff Gleason: 

“If I make a decision, it is a possession, I take pride in it, I tend to defend it and not listen to those who question it. If I make sense, then this is more dynamic and I listen and I can change it.”

12. Never miss a chance to de-escalate a conflict.

It doesn’t matter who with. Cut the tension with humor. Extend the other person a small kindness. Give them the benefit of the doubt – just like you would want. Do this even – especially – if the other person is unwilling to do so.

13. Make an effort to reach out to friends.

Have you ever felt like everyone is hanging out without you? Well, have you tried reaching out to those people and making plans? Everything has been weird and shitty on this front in lockdown, but people outside your household will play a much more significant social role in the year ahead. Make sure this is a two-way street.

14. Permanence is an illusion.

One of the coolest things I did this past year was taking walks through Green-Wood Cemetery. It’s enormous, gorgeous, and peaceful – the kind of thing you can’t imagine existing in New York. Near one of the edges, you can find a field of tiny, old gravestones. Some have fallen over – others are so worn you can’t read them. The grass around them is tall and unkempt. These are the oldest graves in the place – from people who died in the 1700s. 

That field has been allowed to run unchecked because so few people visit it. Maybe some of the people there were rich or famous. But they’re in unmarked, virtually unseen graves now. It’s a freeing thing, knowing that none of what we do here is that important. 

It’s also worth remembering that nothing – good or bad – is permanent.

15. Without a forcing function, the most important things will never happen.

I lucked out during COVID and spent three months with my parents last summer. It was an incredible experience – and one I’m unlikely to get again. It had been a decade since I permanently moved out of my childhood home, so we hadn’t spent extended time together for a long time. 

This would never have happened without COVID. Keep this in mind – what’s urgent is rarely important, and we spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the urgent things at the expense of important ones. Time with family and friends is essential. Prioritize it.

16. Remember all the ways in which you’re lucky.

I live an incredibly privileged life, and I seldom stop to think about how crazy it is that I, a collection of atoms, can think about other atoms and that I exist in this universe at this time. When you remember that, it’s hard not to go around marveling at every element of life – the beauty of trees, the wonder of having an apartment to live in, that there are other human beings also alive with you, etc., etc.

17. “There is no party line.”

That’s what Allan Ginsberg’s psychiatrist told him when he asked for a professional opinion on dropping out of college. This is good advice to apply to other areas of life. You can (and should) do whatever you want. If you’re looking at life narrowly in terms of what you should or shouldn’t do, you’re missing things.

18. You have way more options than you think you do.

If you’re not regularly questioning the boundaries in your life and the assumptions that created them, you’re missing things.

19. It’s OK to lean on the people around you.

I’ve reached out to my network much more this year than in the past few years combined. I’ve spent a lot of time relying on people – something I don’t like to do – and you know what? People have been happy to help. They’ve been unfailingly nice and courteous. And I’ve had lots of doors open because of them.

20. The problem isn’t that you don’t have enough time – it’s that you don’t have priorities.

I’ve found myself overloaded many times in the past year. I’ve had multiple things vying for my time and found there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I wanted to. In a way, it’s a good feeling – but it’s a symptom of a problem. It means you need to spend some time delineating your priorities.

21. Forge your own path, even if it means defying conventional wisdom.

Our desire for social cohesion messes with our heads in myriad ways. Don’t let perceived social pressure be the reason you didn’t do something important to you.

22. Seek out tools and resources to help you.

Thousands, if not millions, of people have done just about anything you might be considering. Ask for advice. Seek out resources. You’re not alone.

23. Take breaks.

I’ve written for more than 430 consecutive days – from day 1 of lockdown last year until mid-May of this year. It was great for building a writing habit, but my streak started to own me rather than the other way around.

24. Empathy, empathy, empathy.

You don’t know what others are going through. Be kind first. Be thoughtful. Then go from there.

25. Go big with impunity.

Your brain can rationalize an abundance of action more than an abundance of caution. So don’t do shit that will hurt you, but don’t shy away from riskier, big maneuvers.

26. Go slow to go fast.

Take time to reach a decision. Don’t allow anyone to rush you. But once you’ve made that decision, move quickly. Don’t hesitate. Just go. It will stun you how effective this is.

27. Review the full slate of options.

I’m always the guy who orders too quickly at a restaurant. I choose what to do or where to go before I think through a wide variety of options. But taking the time to review the full slate – especially on the big things – is powerful stuff.

28. Sit with unpleasant things.

Examine them. If you stare long enough at things that upset or scare you, they’ll lose some of their power.

29. Comfortably being alone is a skill.

I spent months by myself, hardly seeing another human being. As an only child, I’d had some practice in being alone, but figuring out how to hang out with yourself for an extended period is a different animal.

30. The best things are the hardest work.

Everything I’m truly proud of was difficult (and sometimes painful) to do. But, challenging things are what makes life interesting. In the year ahead, I hope to seek out more challenges and figure out how to meet them.

31. Strike while the cement is wet.

When an outside force causes you to make a change, take the opportunity to re-examine and shift around the other things in your life. This is how progress happens – nothing for a while, then a lot all at once.

Here’s to another excellent trip around the sun. I hope to see you all back here next year!

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