18 Life Lessons

Last year the parents of one of my piano students asked me to contribute something to a book for their son on his eighteenth birthday. “I thought it would be cool if it was something that you would want to tell your 18 year old self,” his Dad wrote in an email. “18 Life Lessons” was written for a young man on his eighteenth birthday, but I now realize it may have something to offer all of us.

  1. Listen deeply (there’s always more to notice and to learn).
  2. Prioritize the people, places, and things you love most. This requires constant effort and vigilance, but you won’t regret it.
  3. Life is short. It’s impossible to understand this at 18, but one day you will realize it’s true. If you know what you want, give it your very best shot. Don’t put it off. If you don’t know what you want, try out different options and learn as you go. As the poet Rilke says, “Live the questions.”
  4. Own your life. Take responsibility by being proactive and charting your own course. This doesn’t mean you can control everything in life — and you wouldn’t want to — but by living this way you will experience better outcomes, even when circumstances are beyond your control.
  5. Don’t take anything for granted, but especially your health, friends, family, and life itself. Everything is subject to change, and you never know what might happen tomorrow.
  6. Protect your time and attention. Both are sacred. Limit screen time and engagement with social media, which are distracting and addictive and offer very little benefit to yourself or others. Call a friend rather than “like” their post. When you do use digital technology — which certainly has its uses — do so on your own terms as much as possible.
  7. Prioritize your relationships with other people. Money and success come and go and will never keep you satisfied in the long-run, but solid relationships built on trust, love, and respect will stand the test of time.
  8. Cultivate patience. Life is a marathon and most good things take time to reach fruition. Learn to love taking small steps and be sure to acknowledge and celebrate your progress along the way.
  9. Cultivate a community of caring people whom you respect and who respect you. In the words of poet John Donne, “No man is an island.” You want to choose your company carefully because this will shape the person you become. Don’t tolerate people who are abusive or negative. It’s not good for you or for them.
  10. Take time to educate yourself about injustice and inequality in the world and be honest about what you can do to address this. Actively seek out and honor the perspectives of women and people of color, whose voices are marginalized and ignored at great cost to us all. Always seek to empower and protect folks who are vulnerable and less privileged than yourself.
  11. Actively look for opportunities to help other people without seeking anything in return. Always be kind to others, even when you don’t have to. Always be kind to yourself, even when you don’t have to.
  12. Never stop learning. Fall in love with a subject — or many subjects — and embrace simple pleasures like reading, studying, and connecting with others who share your interests. You will gradually gain skill and mastery. You will never get bored.
  13. If you ever feel lost — and we all feel lost sometimes — slow down, step back, and take time to connect with the people, places, and things you care about most deeply. Never lose faith in your ability to heal — to find your way — again and again.
  14. Find the right balance between humility and confidence, and understand that these qualities are not mutually exclusive. The people I know who are truly confident in themselves don’t brag or put other people down. But you must also learn to recognize when a situation requires you to be assertive: sometimes you need to speak up, for example, or sell yourself (in the best sense). You can do this without corrupting your integrity by always seeking to use your gifts and talents to contribute to the greater good and well-being of others.
  15. Take time to reflect on your gifts and talents. We all have certain things we are good at and any of them can be cultivated. Are there any particular gifts or talents you possess that you would like to cultivate further?
  16. Take time to reflect on your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We all have certain things we are not very good at. Some matter more than others. Be honest with yourself about whether any of these might be interfering with your ability to live the life you really want. They can usually be addressed, but are unlikely to go away on their own. Are there any particular weaknesses or vulnerabilities you would like to address? Anything you want to get better at?
  17. Cultivate a healthy and creative relationship with mistakes. The point is not to get through life without making mistakes, which is not possible anyway (even if it was possible you wouldn’t actually want such a life). Mistakes can become great teachers — a vital source of wisdom about ourselves, who we really are, and who we’re not — but they can also get in our way if we refuse to be honest with ourselves about what we can actually learn from them. Cultivate a healthy and creative relationship with mistakes.
  18. Life is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be miserable. Reflect carefully on advice from people you trust and square it with your own insight, knowledge, and experience, which are essential. The Buddha said, “Don’t just take what I say as true because I say it. Really test it with your experience.” By testing life with your own experience, you can face the hard stuff head-on so you can get on to the best part, which is living.
Img 1909