I realize that thirty is not that old. I honestly feel more energetic, full of life, and young-at-heart than ever, which I think is more of a testament of a state-of-mind rather than how many years I’ve been alive. Thirty is a great age, because you are old enough to have had hard experiences and learned enough difficult lessons to know that life is better on the other side. Life has likely been cruel in one way or another and you know that more hard things are coming, but you are better equipped after each one to handle the next. You are also old enough to be confident in your own skin and far more sure of yourself and your beliefs. There is less defensiveness and taking comments personally because you know who you are and hopefully have come to point of actually liking that person.
To put it simply, at some point during young adulthood, one begins to live life with less fight and more grace.
I do not claim to be profoundly wise, I have plenty of older and more enlightened people in my life to bestow that upon me, however, I do think that I’ve learned to be a better human in the three decades that I have been graced to wander this earth. People often ask what I wish I could have told my younger self, so in the spirit of self-reflection that so often comes with milestone birthdays, here are the pieces of advice that would have saved me a lot of struggle if I had known them more fully in my earlier years.
1. Nothing you do will change your value.
I cannot take credit for this idea, since it is something that my older brother Nate has instilled in me. He once said to me that as humans, what we are all striving for in life is to be seen by someone and know that they like what they see. It’s a part of our DNA to crave this sort of acceptance and we change all kinds of things about ourselves in efforts to accomplish this goal. In reality though, every human life has value. I have value. And it doesn’t matter what I do or do not do in my lifetime, I will still have value, simply by being human. Knowing that we each have value is a lifelong process and I am not convinced that any of us come to full enlightenment of the idea, but I do believe that if I had embraced this more as I embarked on the journey of adulthood, I would have saved myself a lot of pain. When you are first starting your career, getting involved in politics, caring about your community and meticulously carving out who you are, you can’t help but keep looking around and waiting for that pat on the back for each of your choices. Sometimes that pat will never come. Especially as someone who loves affirmation, this is a tough lesson. I do not claim to practice this virtue perfectly, however, it certainly has helped to repeat it to myself in times of self doubt.
2. People and relationships are a gift, not a right.
As many of you know, I grew up overseas in Beijing. Unknowingly, I picked up many cultural norms from Chinese society that I did not necessarily realize until I became closer friends with people in the United States. One highly Confucius ideology that permeated my subconscious is that every person has a responsibility to each type of relationship in their community. There are expected patterns for how each person should function towards another human depending on what that individual’s role is in your life. For example, there are social norms for how a child interacts with a parent, how an older sibling engages a younger sibling, authority towards subject, etc. Some of these assumptions were also because of how I was raised in a big family. Regardless of all the contributing factors, I falsely assumed that other people followed these same relationship structures. One of those assumptions was that just as I felt a responsibility to act a certain way towards the people in my life, I assumed that they would act a similar way in response to me.
The reality of life is that each person has their own choice as to how they want to relate to you. This can be a really beautiful thing because it can also bring about unexpected surprises. And if a person decides to care for you or be giving towards you, that is a gift and not an obligation. I think I almost believed that relationships were more transactional — I give you x and you give me y. Simple.
That philosophy was quickly shattered when I found myself in the middle of a divorce. As I’ve said before, it takes two people to contribute to those circumstances, so I am not placing blame with this statement, but when I was going through it, I could not help but question everything he had ever said to me. When someone promises to live their entire life with you and all of a sudden that promise is no longer true, it completely shakes up your world. You question everything that person said, but also everything that anyone has said to you. I put 100% of my faith into another person, yet at any point they have the right to change their mind. I am not using this example to shame people for changing their minds about a relationship. Quite the contrary, actually. I wish I could tell my younger self to treasure every moment with the people I interact with. There is no guarantee those moments will last forever. Love is a choice, no matter what kind of relationship, so be grateful for the precious experiences where you are blessed with that love.
3. You are not your job.
“Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.” ― W.B. Yeats
This relates to my first point, but is important to separate out as its own idea because of the intense pressure of overworking that our culture forces on all of us. Somehow in the US we have decided to create this sick competitive game where the more you work, the more bragging rights you have with your peers. It doesn’t take long in the workforce to recognize this tension. Especially as someone who graduated amidst the Great Recession, it was reinforced over and over again during the beginning of my career that I will work hard, I will work overtime, I will be paid nothing, and I will be grateful that I have a job. This was not the American dream I was promised in college, but I consciously decided in my 20s, that was the time where I was going to work hard, as hard as I had to, to get ahead.
I experienced some really crappy jobs in the beginning of my career, and even one incredibly boring one (which was way worse than working hard for very little pay, btw) and then eventually after getting my MBA, landed the job of my dreams. I had sacrificed every other part of my life and finally it was starting to pay off. I loved my job. I loved the work. I loved the people I worked with. And I continued to climb the ladder. I felt so satisfied and it was the one thing that I was sure that I was good at — my job.
Until I got laid off. Then all of a sudden, the thing that I had wrapped my entire identity into was ripped away from me. I had to completely reevaluate what was important in life. I just wish I could go back to the woman who was graduating college and tell her that her job is just one part of her personhood. That she can still be a feminist and also care about more than just work. That she shouldn’t give up her creativity and artistic outlets. That she should value relationships and her family just as much as her career. It’s so so hard to do that in your 20s because the pressure to succeed is overwhelming at best, crippling at worst. Yet, I was and am not my job. My job is a piece of who I am. I often stop and look at so many other cultures in the world, and realize again the ridiculousness of our career rat race.
4. There are so many advantages to being a woman.
When I first started getting into the workforce and especially when I started learning about business, the message that women are at a disadvantage was like a ton of bricks that hit me over the head day after day after day. Women are underpaid. Women don’t have a seat at the table. Women don’t negotiate hard enough. Women aren’t in enough leadership roles. Women are always the note-takers. Women aren’t learning STEM subjects. On and on and on. I am not arguing that these realities don’t exist, but I do feel like there was a bias in how the story was being told. The story was not that women are underrepresented in certain circles, and therefore, women have an opportunity to fill the gaping holes and provide incredible value. There is so much to being a woman that can be used to my advantage, but I had very little insight into this story early on in my career. Being a women with a career was about fighting and barking and being assertive in order to force yourself into where you want to be. Looking back, I just don’t believe that has to be our reality.
I am die hard optimist. I would much rather think about the positive aspects of a piece of myself, even if it’s minuscule compared to the disadvantages. But that has been a learned skill over years of practice. I wish I could have helped my younger self develop those skills earlier. I’ve learned that I become paralyzed if I focus too much of the negative and it sinks into my soul. If am I too aware of how the cards are stacked against me, I become discouraged. So in all honesty, I would rather live in ignorance to some degree and believe that I can change the world just as much as the next man, even if my chances are tiny.
This is something that I wish people would have told me more often as a young woman. I didn’t need to know that only 4% of fortune 500s have female CEOs, what I needed to know was that I have unique leadership traits that 96% of the fortune 500 CEOs do not have.
I don’t want to live in a world that is self-prophesying because we talk so much about the roadblocks for women. Is that how we want to raise this generation of girls? I wish I had changed my internal conversation to how being a woman equips me with an incredible advantage in so many ways because I bring a unique set of skills that is vastly under represented in the world of business. That sounds like a competitive advantage to me.
5. Love hard, even though you know it will hurt.
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” ― Winston S. Churchill
I’ve never regretted being generous. Or doing something kind for another person. Or acting in love towards someone else. Or being in love. I have endured incredible pain because of those choices, but I do not regret them. Yet as a young adult, I was so scared to get close to people and I honestly believed that my closest friendships were in time periods that were behind me. I didn’t think I would ever be as close to someone as I was my high school best friend. I felt so betrayed with how our friendship fizzled out that it was not dissimilar to a terrible break up. There is baggage that comes along with that. And I wasn’t willing to risk getting close to friends again for a long, long time. In fact, it wasn’t until grad school where I met some of the my best friends to this day, that I opened myself up again.
Looking back, there were a lot of wasted years where I could have been growing friendships and giving more love. If I had done that, I likely would have been hurt again. I likely would have had added frustration. People are frustrating. People can be the worst. But people are also the best. The best, most joyful parts of our lives emerge because of people. I wish I could tell my younger self that was a risk I should have been willing to take. Because the rewards are indescribable.