5 Life Lessons I Wish I’d Learned Sooner

When I hit 30 years old, I realized that I was a completely different person than I was at 20. And with each year that goes by after this, I reflect more on the world and learn more.

One of the most liberating things for me was identifying beliefs that I’d long held, almost since my first training, that were not true. They did not serve me well.

Here are five things I’ve learned about the world.

1. The world my parents prepared me for doesn’t exist anymore

I was born in 1985, which google tells me is the year that the original Nintendo NES system came out. I played video games in an age that you had to stick a huge square thing called a cartridge in a slot and–sometimes–you had to take it out and blow on it to make it work. The first cellphone I ever saw was in a suitcase.

Over my short 34 years, life has changed more than anyone could have ever imagined.

My parents’ knowledge of how the world worked was that someone gave you a job, you worked at it for life, you got married, had kids, worked for your pension, and retired at 55 if you were lucky, or 65 if you weren’t.

Massive technological disruption was happening at the same time as my parents and teachers were teaching me about the world that they knew. It came just as I enrolled in a university to study an undergraduate degree that was becoming obsolete.

Nobody saw it coming.  

My guidance counselor had no idea–he funneled me into the old-world career path he knew.

So here we are.

Those of us who are Millennials, who have lived through this transition, are left with a world that no longer looks like what we were trained to expect. Even Gen Z is being taught a lot of the same stuff; most education systems haven’t caught up to the disruption yet.

We’re the monks who spent years learning to copy manuscripts by hand right as the printing press was invented.

Succeeding in this world will take constant reinvention. It will take disciplined self-learning to grow in the areas where the world is going, rather than waiting for the education system to catch up. It will take endless creativity and adaptability. And yes, it will take an attitude of embracing the change rather than wishing it wasn’t happening.

2. You need an income and a calling

“What do you do?”

Ahh the question of every dinner party I’ve ever gone to, and the one I dreaded the most.

“I’m doing a PhD” was usually met by a blank stare or a question:

“What are you going to do with that?”

When I worked for a think tank I got similar blank stares.

But when I worked for the government, I finally had an answer that was satisfactory. People my parents’ age understand that government jobs are good jobs with pensions and benefits—they check all their boxes. So telling people that I work for the government was usually met by smiles, nods, and exclamations of “oh nice.”

This is how another generation understood themselves and the individuals they engaged with: through job titles.

But–refer to point one above–that world is quickly disappearing. And the world of work is changing so fast that, even if you do have a steady job, there’s a chance nobody knows what it is anyways.

I’ve come to believe that the way we think about work and jobs need to change.

On reflecting, I think you need an income and a calling.

An income is to pay the bills.

A calling is what gives life meaning and purpose.

If those are both the same place, great. If it happens to be working for an employer you love, good. If the thing you love is working as a policy analyst for the government or a researcher for a Pharmaceutical, great. Your job and your calling match up. This is an efficient way to do this.

For some people, though, it doesn’t work like that. Some people do a job that they feel okay about because it’s amazing money, and use that money to chase their calling, whether it’s feeding the hungry or building model railroads in their garage. These people keep their income separate from their calling.

When I worked for the government, I met a lot of people who enjoyed being able to work 9-5 and not take the work home with them. They worked to live, and spent their free time doing other things. I also met people who loved the job and wouldn’t do anything else. It was their calling.

Both of these scenarios are fine. It depends on what a person wants.

There’s more.

Money doesn’t necessarily come from working by the hour. People with big chunks of money in investments make interest on it. For some people that interest can be enough to live on, maybe even more than what most people make in a year. For some people, owning rental properties brings in an income that gives them financial freedom. Some people choose to make very little money, but also live a compressed life of extreme frugality. They have all the money they need.

All of these are okay too. It depends on what you want.

Find or create these two things: an income to give you what you need and a calling that will make you come alive.

3. Stop admiring useless degrees

I’ve spent a lot of time chasing degrees that are somewhat useless, so I feel particularly qualified to say this.

I’m not sure why the university degree is so connected to my sense of self-worth, probably because of the good degree=good job bullshit of my parents’ generation. I was an oldest child who wanted to impress adults, and everyone seemed to be impressed by university–so I did it.

I recently read similar reflections from Michelle Obama in her book, Becoming. She explained that many of her education choices were shaped by the responses adults had when she told them what she wanted to study. (It’s here, and well worth a read!)

There’s nothing wrong with being educated.

But if you’re stuck in life, for the love of God don’t go to university as a way to fill the void. Don’t do further studies because you don’t know what else to do. That’s a way to be disappointed.

Nearly every person I’ve talked to who was considering a PhD believed the degree to be some sort of higher calling approaching what priesthood was in the days of yore. They use words like “meaningful” and “purpose” and express a strong desire to “advance human knowledge.” Now I’m not saying that a PhD doesn’t help you tick those boxes, but it’s not a guarantee that you will feel a deep sense of meaning or purpose during a degree. And the feeling may diminish as you go.

Meaning and purpose don’t inherently come from studying.

I don’t know exactly what will bring you meaning and purpose, but many people have gone into degrees in search of them and come out deeply dissatisfied. On the flip side, I know a lot of carpenters and bakers who have tremendous meaning and purpose in their lives. I even know stories of PhDs who have left academia to be carpenters and bakers and have never been happier.

So if a degree doesn’t offer meaning and purpose, and it doesn’t get you a career either, what good is it?

Perhaps a lot of good, you may argue. (Actually I wouldn’t disagree. My own degrees have ACTUALLY changed my world, whether I like to admit it or not.)

But don’t admire degrees in and of themselves.

4. Everyone thinks they’re extraordinary. Few people do extraordinary things

Many of us have a deep desire to be significant.  

But being extraordinary isn’t just a quality of being. Being is ordinary. What makes us extraordinary is the things that we do.

This isn’t to try to make you feel inadequate. Every life has tremendous value in and of itself. I’m not saying that “being” isn’t valuable. It is the beautiful, ordinary state of every individual on this planet.

Extraordinary is usually a quality of doing. That Greta Thunberg is a teenage girl is ordinary and special in and of itself. That she single-handedly sparked a global climate revolution is extraordinary.

5. Stop feeling sorry for yourself

I’ve felt sorry for myself way too many times in my life. One of the most recent was while I was studying for my PhD, and realized that there was an academic jobs crisis in universities. I got really mad at the world, at my department, at my supervisor, at my peers, and I felt like I’d been the victim of a system that sold me a degree I didn’t need, promised me jobs that weren’t there, and then made me feel guilty for looking outside of academia for work that could actually put a roof over my family’s head and food on our table.

Whatever struggles you’ve gone through in your career, you don’t deserve them.

But at the same time, feeling sorry for yourself helps nothing. It won’t change where you’re at.

Getting mad at the world doesn’t do much either. And hating people who are more successful than you hurts you, not them.

It’s only once you ditch this attitude and start to cultivate optimism and hope that you can change your life.

Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, focus on the positive.

You get to study for an advanced degree.

You have a tremendous skill set and an excellent mind that will be valuable once you learn how to use it and apply it to the marketplace.

And, you have gifts to offer the world that we desperately need. If you’ve been privileged enough to do an advanced degree, you have social power that will help you create the world as you think it should be.

So if you’re in your fifth year on the academic job market, and tired of being tired, take control and change your life.

You’ve got it in you.

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