On Friday I turned 30. Life-changing? Not really. Looking back at the decade and scrutinize every decision, choice, failure and success? Yes, there you have the life-changing experience I’m looking for.
In this article you will find 10 life-changing lessons I’ve learned in my 20’s. I wanted to write about the philosophy behind every learning I made, not just the top layer action part of a lesson. For instance, in this article you will not find things like “it was life-changing to figure out that groceries was so expensive”. Even though this can be a rather life-changing experience to a naive 20 something girl, it’s only a top layer lesson.
By digging deeper, into unknown territory, you can explore a sea of lessons that will change your life forever.
This is a huge one. Let’s start digging.
1: For every success you have, there’s at least one substantial sacrifice following.
I think we too often get lost today. Not because of the typical statements like “we have to many options, it is too hard to choose” – but because we want everything without doing too much work for it. The typical spoiled behavior. To stop you before you start judging everyone you can think of in your life; this is not just the materialists who want a new car just because their neighbor got it, or the environmentalist who demands everyone to stop living their toxic life to save the planet right this second. This behavior goes for everyone. You and me and probably everyone you know today (that’s not 80 yet). Everyone who tries to stay in the middle and never commit to anything. Everyone who wants to get in on every little success they can. Nothing creates the opposite of success more than doing things halfway, trying to avoid sacrificing anything on their journey through life.
Defining success for yourself and understanding that it will require proper sacrifice, is a really good starting point. A meaningful life is filled with diligence, courage in the face of adversity, conscientiousness and competence. It may take a long time to reap the benefits of a success created this way, but it could not be more worth it.
2: You pay a price for being truly free, and it is not the pleasure of conformity.
“To be free or not to be, that is the question”. What Shakespeare probably would have written today, 500 years later. Understanding what freedom actually means, can scare you right back to the comfortable state of being part of a collective.
We see children as free and careless, and naively think about being a child as the best time of our life. To act like a child in a grownup body is just sad, but I think that not being able to think and act with creativity, just as you did as a child, is equally sad. We grow up and become robot-like creatures who only talk about housing, diapers, and our fancy-ass sport watch. At the same time we are the freest individuals ever to live on this world. How does that add up?
Conformity and the comfort of being part of a collective is not freedom. Responsibility and consciousness of self will lead you to freedom. So, if you could choose, as most people can today, what would you choose – conformity or freedom?
As Nietzsche would put it;
“Freedom is not just the matter of saying “yes” and “no” to a specific decision; it is the power to mold and create ourselves. Freedom is the capacity to become what we truly are”.
3: Above all, you are an individual before being part of a group
John Stuart Mill wrote in the mid 1800s; “Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing”.
This quote is just as relevant for lesson 2 as it is for this one. We stand in the way of our own freedom. We are not machines, we are trees – and the inward forces of a tree is what makes it the living thing that it is. So why do we, in a free society, act like life is determined from the day we were born? I can hear the critics while I write this – “…..easy to say, but we have to grow up and act like responsible members of society, which requires to sacrifice our inward forces”. We live in a free world, so if that is your take on life, that is your choice. But I my opinion, sacrificing your inward forces, is the same as sacrificing your own life.
Trying to be an individual and listen to your inward forces, to be a tree, not a machine, is both bewildering and exhausting. You are now to blame for each step you take through life. And you have to make sense out of every little force inside you, because that is who you are. At the same time, you have to try to live in a socialized world with others who have very different inward forces than yourself. This is probably one of, if not the biggest responsibility you will have in life.
4: The mainstream is the condition of society.
This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your mental or physical condition, but you know where your starting point is – in society. And if we are being totally honest with ourselves, we are on many levels part of the condition of society. Take today’s notion of offensive behavior for example (see lesson nr 9). The more society claims and portrays every little thing as micro-aggression and offensive behavior, either we know it or not, we become more sensitive and aware of this in our everyday life. This then becomes part of our mental and physical condition, because we are part of society.
By acknowledging that you as an individual must understand the condition of the collective society, even though you don’t feel it’s your personal condition, gives you an immense advantage. Then you can try to make some actual progress, for yourself and society, even though the amount of adversity seems unbearable.
5: Everything that’s served as a simple truth, is much more complex than most people will try to comprehend.
That does not mean most people are stupid. Most people are not, even though it can seem like it if you spend most of your time on social media. What this lesson indicates is that we live in a digital, efficient, fast-moving world where it often seems like simplicity trumps complexity. Unfortunately. This is the opposite of a long-term solution and will probably cause us a lot of harm later in life. But our flawed minds would rather settle for simple truths to gain short-term pleasures in the present, than to actually try to understand the complexity of the situation – because that risks more despair and bewilderment.
The truth is that the majority of us can handle more complexity and bewilderment about essential topics in life. We just don’t regard that we do as significant. The only way to actually build some solid foundation, and leverage your life away from the short-term seeking pleasures, is to risk the despair that follows. To voluntary take a leap, even though you can’t see or imagine the end result of your jump.
Being aware of this fact can be of huge benefit to you on your personal journey. A complex conundrum is always better than a simple truth. The latter will lead you on a false journey, and the ending is never pleasant.
6: The distinction between good and evil goes right through the heart of each human being.
A quotation by Aleksandr Solzjenitsyn. One of many from the man who helped raise global awareness of the Soviet Gulag forced-labour camp system.
It took me a long time to fully comprehend the meaning behind this short, powerful sentence. We are, consciously and unconsciously, taught how to spot good and evil through life. Everything we consume from news media to movies to books tell a story about the good guy and the bad guy. The narrative about good and evil are cyclical, so every decade or so we’re experiencing movements in the world that aim to rewrite history and find the “new” bad guy of our time. For instance, what is happening in the US (and partly worldwide) as we speak.
And maybe this is human nature; to always be on the look for “the new evil”, so that we are not caught of guard by some evil force we don’t recognize. But can we lead ourselves into willful blindness? The only way human beings can distinguish between good and evil is because of our superpower, the thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom; consciousness. And that must mean that we all have the capacity for evil in us.
Pure evil is rare but being vacuous evil is mundane.
7: A religious pragmatic is better than a nihilistic fundamentalist.
This seems really weird writing. When I started the 2010 decade, I once told my parents “religion is the cause of all evil”. Luckily for me, my parents let me figure this one out for myself (as well as letting me know that I had some more learning and living to do). The knowledge of this lesson is more about how you choose to live your life, rather than what you identify as.
Growing up in a Western society in the late 20th and early 21st century, we’ve been carefully taught by society and our culture to be aware of fake religious prophets. This is the bad side of religion, the dogmatic approach to a belief system which excludes everyone who are not obeying to the rules of that particular religious ideology. In contrast we are not taught to spot the secular version of this, which is equally dangerous; the radical, postmodern-activist type, who are out to destroy civilization, culture and everything that comes with it.
Many secular movements in today’s society have very similar features as dogmatic religious behavior. If we are too obsessed with spotting the latter, we will not acknowledge the sensible, interesting people who just happen to be religious. Because what you believe to be of higher value and importance in your life, aka what God or creature you believe in, is totally your decision in a free society. If you are not dogmatic in your belief system, but have a sensible, pragmatic approach to life, I absolutely believe that we can live together in harmony without sharing the same religious beliefs.
It’s a great danger in believing that everything about religion is evil and that nihilism is the better approach to a modern life. The end result of nihilism is too often authoritarian, totalitarian societies.
8: Playing identity politics can lead to tribalism and eventually war.
In today’s world you hear many justifications for playing identity politics. And sometimes, maybe, it’s necessary, to truly make a change for the better for most people. Recognizing where our evolution features inequality and use our conscious minds to think and act in the direction of better outcomes for everyone, is something any sensible human being should want for the world. But too many times identity politics leads to tribalism.
When you’re advocating for and are organized in tribes, the natural aim is to always support and centre the concerns, agendas, and projects for your particular identity group – no matter what. Human evolution has primarily occurred in small groups, as opposed to mass societies like today. So what is the inevitable outcome of tribalism in mass societies like ours? War.
Lesson 3 – being an individual before being part of a group – plays a huge role in how identity politics plays out in the world. Humans naturally maintain a social network and our flawed minds try to understand the world better by grouping similar people in the same groups. But that doesn’t mean anything. We are all individuals, even though you are born a particular place, believe in a certain religion or your profession puts you in a special box. The possibility of exploring who you really are and how you can contribute to the world, in your own way, is located outside the realm of our group identity. Advocating for tribalism is like walking backwards into the future.
9: Not being easily offended is the best resilience in our modern world.
Language. Communication. Speech. Another superpower we humans have in the face of complex issues. Human beings actually have the capacity for reasoning and self-consciousness, and I totally agree with those who say that the only thing that can help us when we face universal, complex adversity is our ability to have open, honest conversations about it.
At the same time I think that in order to have an open, honest conversation about complex issues, we risk being offended. Think about all the times you misunderstood the circumstances, because of your biased perception of a person and/or context, and your dogmatic stance to a self-serving narrative. Maybe that person was not deliberately offensive? Maybe they were just slightly ignorant to where you are coming from? And maybe that is partly on you for not trying to honestly explain where you’re views are coming from? Nevertheless, does your perceivable offensive notion about this person automatically mean that they are a bad person? Does that mean they deserve to be withdrawn from the surface of reality? Or do you actually believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt? If you want people to grant you the benefit of the doubt, you know where you stand on this.
If we talk about leverage points; how much you can get back for investing time and energy in something – I would argue that communication is highly beneficial even if you invest as little as 5% in getting better at your communication skills. If you can better articulate what you think and feel about something, other people can more easily understand you and your point of view. You will learn to not be as easily offended, and the conversation has a better chance of being beneficial for each participant.
Better for you, better for everyone around you.
10: Being afraid of the right things in life can set you free.
A countless number of times during my 20’s I’ve encountered what I perceive to be dangerous. From murderous underwater currents to irresponsible alcohol-induced incidents to being dumped by someone I loved. Even though I probably would not engage in many of these things, in the same way, today, I’m more than grateful to have experienced them. The rebel inside of me feel kind of proud looking back.
Today I perceive danger rather differently than I did in the beginning of my 20’s. Of course I see many of the same things as dangerous and life risking, but what I’m most afraid of today is to live an empty life. A hollow, determined life where you are just another bug on this planet, who eventually dies of boredom.
This doesn’t mean I think it’s wrong to live a normal life, with a 9 to 5 office job, eating the same lunch every day, vacationing to the same place each year. The difference is whether you choose that life for yourself or not. I would argue that society and peer pressure makes that decision for most of us. What do we actually know about life? About ourselves? About what makes life worthwhile and meaningful to you?
To stop exploring unknown territory, to stop being curious and die not trying to figure out what is meaningful to me in life – is in my opinion the most terrifying thing of all.
I will end this in-depth article with an apt quotation from Immanuel Kant: