If you believe that life is an educational experience, then everyone you meet has the potential to be a teacher and every moment may reveal a lesson. To this end, I have been blessed with more lessons than I can count – so in honour of my 31st birthday, I thought I’d share the 31 most important things I’ve learned, divided into two posts (you’ll find the first 15 below). Perhaps some of them will serve you – or have served you – as they have served me.
Fly to Berlin, though your flowers may be wilted.
When we graduated from Marianopolis College’s Liberal Arts Programme in 2004, one of our English professors, Dr. Zsolt Alapi, took the time to send our class an e-mail of parting wisdom. Of course, a copy of this e-mail would eventually slip through the cyber sands of time, but one line stayed with me: “Fly to Berlin, though your flowers may be wilted.” Maybe it was Munich, and it was likely worded slightly differently; but fortunately, my 19 year old alcohol-drenched brain knew to hang on to the message behind the lines.
The back story – paraphrased and dredged from the cobwebbed attic of my mind – is this (and this, my friends, is also how urban legends are formed): My delightful teacher, as a young man, fell in love with a girl who left for Germany. So he bought a bouquet of flowers and boarded a plane to track his lady love down. He got off the plane, with wilted flowers, and at some point shortly thereafter, she rebuked his flowers and his love. He eventually moved on to motorbike around Ibiza, and then on to the US, where he got his ass grabbed by Allan Ginsberg, and became one of the most interesting people you’ll ever be lucky enough to meet.
Of course, I may be telling this story entirely wrong (sorry, Doc). As I mentioned, my hard pAArtying lifestyle and lack of sleep back in the 00’s has left me with foggy memories.
But what I learned was this: follow your heart, and give what you love your best shot, no matter what you’re armed with. There may be an adventure beyond your wildest dreams that awaits beyond what you’ve imagined.
Thank you, Dr. Alapi.
Success and happiness may be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have.
This lesson, which I learned through experience, was articulated as above by the ridiculously brilliant Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ve adapted it by adding happiness.
I don’t know about you guys – but nearly every major positive shift in my life required an uncomfortable fucking conversation I did not want to have.
Breaking up with my fiancee? Check.
Breaking up/ rejecting/ letting go of every other man that wasn’t right for me? Check.
Telling my boss that I was suffering from anxiety, panic disorder and depression and needed to cut my teaching contract by half? Check.
Quitting every other job that felt wrong? Check, check, check.
And guess what. None were as bad as I imagined them to be. Not only did I not die – I became stronger and gained access to better opportunities and things I really wanted.
Don’t put off your joy until tomorrow. Bite the sour coated bullet-shaped candy to enjoy the taste of the sweeter filling inside.
Quit without guilt.
When I was 14, I quit karate – just shy of earning my brown belt. At 16, I quit playing the piano. I felt like a failure for years to come – even though I never really loved practicing those things.
This past February – on antidepressants, no less – I felt extremely strong ambivalence toward finishing my teaching contract in Korea. I travelled to Vietnam, on my own, to get some peace of mind, and meditate on how to proceed.
By the end of my trip, something became quite clear to me – and the pangs of shame and guilt slowly melted away. I had never quit anything that I loved. In fact, it could be argued that I gave 110% to everything I had done in my life. I hadn’t really quit, if quitting implied giving up on something I needed to stick with; I had simply abandoned things that no longer served me, and sometimes way longer after I should have.
A few short weeks later, I quit my job; and with that decision made, I started weaning myself off anti-depressants.
If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer.
We sometimes ask ourselves – and others – questions that require analysis, research and reflection.
But how often are these questions merely edited to justify not making an uncomfortable, painful or undesirable decision?
Here are some examples of safe, edited questions I’ve asked myself in the past.
“Why can’t people just understand that men and women can just be friends?”
“Should I just tough things out?”
“What can I do to make my fiancé and family happier and prouder of me?”
Here are the unedited versions of these questions:
“Does the fact that I would rather spend more time with my male friend than my own boyfriend mean there is something wrong or missing from my relationship?”
“Should I quit the job that has literally thrown me into a clinical depression?”
“Should I marry someone that does not share in any of my dreams or values?
What I learned was this: if we can dig deeper, beyond the generalized, edited and ambiguous versions of the questions we ask, they will reveal questions that in and of themselves, reveal the answers we’ve known all along, but are scared to accept.
If you want to eat healthier food, don’t bring unhealthy food into your house.
In my lifelong quest to improve my health, I’ve tried many things: veganism, yoga, meditation, Zumba, and more. I’ve stuck with some practices and have abandoned others.
However, one simple golden rule has remained consistent through my later twenties and early thirties – I never keep junk food in my fridge or pantry.
This is the thing: I’m human. Though I practice veganism and am usually strict about healthy choices, I always opt for french fries instead of salad at restaurants. I have gorged on desserts at weddings, and I’ve given in to 3 am munchie attacks.
I know I might fail when I am faced with certain temptations (especially when alcohol is involved) – so my solution has always been to remove temptation from my home, if nowhere else. I make it even easier to resist the urge of buying unhealthy food by trying to shop at health food supermarkets where possible, and usually immediately after a workout or a yoga class.
Though other health habits have come and gone, this one habit has drastically preserved my figure and health. If you’re looking for one healthy habit to adopt – pick this one. It’s a lot easier to avoid temptation all together than to resist it when it’s in front of you.
Do it anyway.
According to legend, Mother Teresa adapted Dr. Kent M. Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments and hung the following, more spiritual version of the commandments at her home for children in Calcutta:
My mother first gave me a paper printout of this quote years ago, and I have tried my best to live by these principles ever since. If we all decided to live by these principles just a little more every day, the world would surely experience a radical shift toward peace, happiness and love. I urge you to try to put these commandments into practice, and experience the radical shift it may bring to your own life.
The main difference between James Franco and the rest of us is that he took the steps and risks to turn his dreams into reality. The same can be said of Beyonce, Oprah and everyone else we idolize.
When I was 22, James Franco stumbled into my life – and changed it forever. This is how it all went down.
My sister spotted him while we walked through the Louvre. Like the rest of the tourists surrounding us, he was wandering around, snapping photos and minding his own business. My sister ran over to him to ask if we could all take a photo together. He said yes. I walked over to him, he put his arm around my waist, and time stood still. Just not for the reasons you might think.
In that frozen moment, with James’ hand clutching the side of my waist, I observed him closely. His hair was all mussed up. His shirt was sweat stained and old. He smelled like a human.
My hair was also fucked up that day. In fact, I looked like hell. I also smelled and appeared to be a human.
My boyfriend snapped the photo, and James went on his way.
I was traumatized. James Franco was a human being, no different than I. But he was an actor. Did that mean I could – gasp – be an actor too, if I wanted to be?
Yeah, it did. A few months later, I signed up for my first acting class since the third grade and started reading Breaking into Acting for Dummies (hey, better to start somewhere than never start at all). A year after that, I quit my job in the government to pursue acting full time. In the year that followed, I got an agent, booked several gigs and even started to get paid for my acting work. I became an actor.
If James Franco can do it, so can I. And so can you.
The only thing to fear is a boring life.
Speaking of Breaking into Acting for Dummies – this anonymous quote, taken from the book, was scrawled on my whiteboard in my cushy, beautiful office overlooking Parliament for months before I summoned the courage to leave the public service in order to pursue acting full time. I’ve since passed it on to my young Korean students, as I wish I would have learned this advice – and heeded it – years before.
Forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator.
Forgiveness is hard, but living a life holding on to anger, resentment and hatred is much harder. This is a practice I have yet to perfect, but I do try to cultivate it every day. It became easier when Bishop T.D. Jakes taught me that forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator.
I urge you to watch Bishop Jakes share this wisdom in the video below.
Lasting, meaningful relationships with family, friends and loved ones will bring you far more happiness than anything else you can achieve, buy or create in your lifetime.
Don’t take it from me. Take it from Harvard.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development – a 74 year long study following two cohorts of men from different social strata – revealed that strong marriages, close relationships, and the quality of those relationships brought more happiness than other factors such as financial wealth, quantity of relationships and job satisfaction. George Valliant, who directed the study for more than thirty years, concluded that the “warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction'”. Put simply, he summarized his findings as follows: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
This basic truth only really hit home for me – pun intended – when I experienced a depressive episode a few months ago, and asked myself the following question:
If I had one year to live, what would I do?
Without thinking, the first thing I wrote down was this:
I’d spend all my time with my family and friends.
As much as I value the relationship I continue to build with myself – I learned that life is an experience that is meant to be shared with the people you love.
Travel not to find yourself, but to remember who you’ve been all along.
In the last five months, I have travelled to Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, the US and Vietnam. During this time, I met people from around the world, learned the Korean alphabet, crossed some stuff off my bucket list, fell into a depression and wrote a letter to a stranger in a Vietnamese cafe that revealed the following:
- I love and miss my family
- I love to act
- I need to cultivate my spirituality
- I need to be vocal about things that matter to me
- and I need a lifestyle that will afford me the time to write.
These were not discoveries. These were things I knew all along – most clearly as a child. I couldn’t have reached that clarity without having travelled far and wide, but I never actually “found” myself; I simply became reacquainted with the person I have always been.
If you seek wisdom, spend more time with the very, very young and the very, very old.
As a child educator, I wonder if my students have taught me more than I have taught them. It often feels that way.
Last year, I tutored a bright young kid in Montreal. One day, he told me he had heard about two men that had grown up in poverty and abuse. One would become a murderer, and the other became the successful journalist that would write about him. He told me that upon reflection, he realized this world was made up of only two kinds of people – people who use their suffering as a means to justify generating more suffering in the world, and others that draw strength from their suffering to do good in the world. He was only 11 years old.
The elderly people who have graced my life – both relatives and otherwise – have taught me it is better to live without regret, to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and the importance of being armed with warm memories for comfort in our later years. Most recently, a brief and simple conversation with a Balinese healer in his 80s changed my life.
These two demographics are an untapped resource for wisdom. Seek them out, and reap the unimaginable reward that comes with it.
Be larger than life.
When I was very young, I was opinionated, brilliant, and well spoken. I made sure everyone heard what I had to say, and I successfully fought to get into the fourth grade drama class even though I was in third grade. I had sass. I had dreams. I had big words and tons of confidence. I was larger than life.
Then I grew up. I was told, repeatedly, to shut up. I was told I was too loud and my words were too big. I made myself small. I started to get nervous when I had to speak. I doubted myself. Maybe I wasn’t as special as I thought.
Then I grew a little older, and I found the stage. When I started acting, I experienced the same feelings I felt when I was a child. I was grounded in the truth of who I am, and who I am is larger than life.
The thing is – so are you. When we are “in our element” – which I believe is the act of doing anything that is a reflection of love, grounded in truth and presence –we are larger than life. And really, considering the odds of us even being born at all – how can we not be?
There is a difference between being busy and being productive.
For years, I prided myself in being busy. I scheduled everything down to the minute, and my friends would always tell me I was the busiest person they knew. I was so busy that I learned how to successfully apply eyeliner while driving, replied to e-mails at the movies and ate lunch as I walked from my car to the office. I was busier than Obama, Oprah and Beyonce put together – but made less than 1/ 1,000,000 of their earnings and even LESS of an impact on – well, anything. And yet, Obama has dinner with his family at 6:30 pm almost every night, Oprah makes time to meditate twice a day and Beyonce goes for a run every single day.
In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tom Ferriss sums up this anomaly with one bold statement: “being busy is a form of laziness–lazy thinking and indiscriminate action”.
When I started to get VERY specific about what my priorities were, set realistic goals, cut distractions, eliminated time suckers and made taking care of myself a priority – the world did not fall apart. Paradoxically, I started to achieve far more.
Here are some things I did to become less busy and more productive:
- I invested a few hours facing over 6,000 unread e-mails in my inbox (not a joke: see below). For years, I told people I was “horrible with e-mail”, and I was – it had gotten out of control. So I deleted everything and unsubscribed to all but five mailing lists. Since then, I have managed to answer, read, and action every e-mail that comes into my inbox.
- For years, I toiled and researched plays, trying to find the perfect part to produce and star in. Earlier this month, I decided done was better than perfect. I wrote a short list and whittled it down to two plays. I read them both within a day, and made my choice. Done. I had released myself from the need to read every play ever written to find the “perfect” part.
- I made a meal plan consisting of a few simple meals that I liked and knew how to make well and stopped switching up my breakfast choices.
- I limited my to do list from ten+ tasks to three a day, and resolved to accomplish one in the morning before work. In giving myself less daily goals, I started to complete my to do lists instead of avoiding them altogether.
- Instead of working on the millions of things that go into a blog in all my spare time, I now simply focus on what is most important – content. I stopped researching and decided I had learned enough for the time being, shifting my focus to what I love most about blogging – actually writing blog posts.
My life has dramatically improved, and I am more productive – and happier than I have felt in a long time.
Don’t ask what’s wrong with it. Ask what’s right with it.
For years, I justified some of my vices and bad behaviours by telling myself stuff like “What’s the harm in smoking once in a while? What’s wrong with getting smashed and enjoying life? What’s the big deal if I try *insert drug here* just this one time? What’s wrong with having a little fun? #YOLO! Life is short! Ha ha ha! Blah blah blah!”
A friend of mine introduced me to motivational speaker Eric Thomas a few years ago. In his mixtape The Blueprint to Success, Vol. 1, he says the following:
“Listen to me very closely, I have guys coming up to me all the time, you know, ‘ET, what you trying to say? Something wrong with smoking weed’. When you become successful, you don’t ask what’s wrong with something, you ask what’s right with it.”
It took me a few years and lots of bad choices before this lesson really sunk in. Recently, I have started asking myself “what is right” with a decision I am faced with , as opposed to what is wrong with it. When I started asking this different – less convenient – question, I started eliminating harmful behaviour that ultimately limit my success, health and happiness.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Lessons 16-31.
Thank you for reading. Share your own lessons and thoughts below. <3