* Michelle Thoughts, Intentional Living

30+ Life Lessons From 40 Years of Life

Life lessons, reflections, and observations from my 40 years on Earth

I’ve always appreciated learning what wisdom others have gleaned from their experiences, and I hope perhaps something here might be helpful to someone else’s journey.

40 is a lot of things so I’ve started with what I have and may continue to add more as this year progresses…

  1. Perfect is the enemy of good. The sooner we realize that perfection isn’t attainable – for ourselves or to expect it of others – the better. Yes, we should all strive for excellence when it matters, but more often than not, just getting something out there in the world (like this blog post) is more important than anguishing over whether or not it’s just right.
  2. Surround yourself with good influences. I’ve heard “You are the sum of the people around you” in different ways throughout my life but I credit this lesson to a much-revered choir teacher who shared it in high school.

    I was fortunate to find a small group of girls in high school who enjoyed good, clean fun and accepted my reserved, goofy, and sometimes overly-blunt ways. Those friends had such a positive impact on my life choices, and most of us are still friends today.
  3. Small things with big love. I used to think I needed to do something big with my life for it to matter. None of us are so important that we can sway the cosmos. Still, the impact we make within our own small spheres of influence do matter. How you treat the person right in front of you can change their world. Even if one person is better off for having known you, it matters to that one person.
  4. Go love. That’s the plan. The meaning or purpose of life doesn’t have to look a certain way. I used to think I needed to start a non-profit or save the world somehow to fulfill my purpose. Over time, I’ve shed this rigidity and accepted the more general principle, inspired by Bob Goff, that the meaning of life is to love.
  5. The world is utterly broken. It may sound pessimistic, yet I find it important to mourn how profoundly our world is “not as it should be”. It is beyond any of our human abilities to save, and at the same time, I believe we’re each called by an innate sense of what “should be,” that comes from beyond our world, to do our own small part in its restoration.
  6. Life is picking up broken pieces and trying to make something beautiful. Because we’ll never be done encountering the world’s brokenness, we each learn our own ways to take pain, hardship, or injustice and create something good. Not that “everything happens for a reason” but every broken thing can be made into something new.
  7. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. … We are workers, not master builders. Ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

    I find this poem, attributed to Oscar Romero, to be an important revelation about our place in the big picture. And a similar quote I love is: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”
  8. Marriage, in the best way, is a refiner’s fire. No one has helped me grow more than my life partner, Jedd. It takes a trusting, intense, ongoing relationship like marriage to expose our flaws and give them a chance to “burn” off.
  9. Adults aren’t so intimidating. I remember in college, I was intimidated to be invited to a “grown up party.” When I told my Mom, she sort of laughed and shared that adults may look older on the outside, but inside they’re the same people they’ve always been. The gulf between age groups was not as wide as I imagined.
  10. 28 and 38 feel nearly identical. I was surprised to age ten years and feel practically the same. This might be different for those with children, but apart from some additional life experience, I found I really didn’t feel much older even a decade later.
  11. Save the best for last. This is my motto when it comes to meals as well as life in general. In whatever way is in my control, saving the best for last keeps me always looking forward instead of feeling let down by what’s to come.
  12. Love people. Use things. Mixing up these two is trouble.
  13. Less than 20% of people are actually self-aware of how they come off to others. A researcher shared this stat on the Hidden Brain podcast.

    In my college years especially, there were several instances where someone I trusted shared how my behavior was coming across as stand-offish or uncaring to others. I was shocked, but they were valuable lessons. Without outside feedback, I had little opportunity to realize these shortcomings and try to improve.

    Knowing that it’s not easy to be truly self-aware or to invite criticism, we can give each other a little more grace.
  14. Introverts have an underutilized, quiet power. Our modern world is biased toward extroverts. Charisma and entertainment captures our attention. But we have so much to gain by rewarding and pursuing the qualities of introverts: thoughtfulness, perceptiveness, calmness under pressure, reliability…

    For more on this, I highly recommend the book Quiet by Susan Cain.
  15. Only work with friends if you’re willing to treat the partnership as any other business. Spell things out in writing, anticipate disagreements, don’t take it personally, and don’t expect leniency because you also have a personal relationship. If you’re not willing to do that, best to stay friends and avoid working together.
  16. The Perseid meteor shower comes around annually and the skies are often clear in August – don’t miss it!
  17. Parenting and teaching are two jobs I have exceeding respect for. Both deserve all the support society can muster. Neither should be taken lightly, which is part of the reason why I have thoughtfully deemed myself: not the best fit.
  18. I only recently unlocked the two secrets to drinking enough water every day: 1) Always having a nice water bottle (for me, this includes a straw) next to me. 2) Intermittent fasting helps me start the day with natural reminders to hydrate before I’m satiated with food.
  19. Understanding personality/psychology is immensely helpful in relationships. We all have a default assumption that others see and experience the world the way we do, a misconception which is the source of many conflicts. When I learned I was an INTJ and then a Questioner and then an Enneagram 5, I had so much better awareness and vocabulary to help share parts of myself that had caused misunderstandings before.

    Likewise, learning about others helps me interact more compassionately and effectively. Like this year, learning the definition and traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder brought clarity and helped get us unstuck from a toxic situation.
  20. Love has the power of a tiny sprout breaking through a concrete sidewalk. I love this unlikely but factual image, reminiscent of Wall-E or Planet of the Apes, and how the idea it brings to mind was spelled out by Maggie of the Pantsuit Politics podcast: “In every dark, lonely corner of this world today, there is no place so dark, so persecuted, so attacked, so racist, so terrible that love cannot get in.”

    I believe it. Because as much as I’ve seen horrible things in our world, I’ve also seen how love and light can always reach in.
  21. “The pitch we were meant to live at is love [devotion to the wellbeing of others]. Life never feels quite right unless love is the best and greatest part of it… Once we are awakened to love as the lifelong purpose of our hearts, then feeling love for all the world become the meaning – and greatest joy – of living.” – David Richo
  22. Everyone has their own gift of intelligence. While I happened to have the temperament and intelligence that allowed me to get good grades in school, I see now that our academic system only affirms a very narrow definition of success, which doesn’t serve individuals or the flourishing of our communities.

    Someone’s giftings, talents, and types of intelligence may not fit society’s mold, but that doesn’t mean they’re less important or less worthy. Communities need diversity in types of intelligence: emotional, scientific, auditory, artistic, healing, verbal, athletic, analytical, strategic… We need to find more ways to let each of our unique gifts develop, to be the best versions of our unique selves.
  23. Your body intuits things before your brain does. As someone who processes most of life internally in my head, this has taken me a very long time to figure out.

    I’m still learning to recognize and trust my own instincts by noticing when I feel at peace or when I feel a subtle but sickening dread about a choice I’m making. I’m learning to notice physical signs of emotion that help me identify when something is bothering me and why, rather than obliviously feeling agitated.
  24. Don’t be surprised when standing up for yourself can be an uphill battle. When I was young, I remember my Dad imparting this fact of life: no matter what you do, not everyone is always going to like you. And that you need to “be your own cheerleader.”

    Self-love, self-respect, and self-trust are important foundations to carry us through a world that wants us to follow a certain blueprint or bend to aspirations we may not necessarily believe in. Standing up for ourselves is not easy, but it’s worth it.
  25. Fear is a friend and an enemy. It’s important to understand the difference between fear that comes from the stories we tell ourselves vs. real fear that is our body’s way of telling us about legitimate dangers. Sometimes things are scary specifically because there’s a tug on our heart to move forward and overcome it, to reach somewhere better than where we’ve been.
  26. Take screen sabbaths. Even if you don’t work at a computer, most of us have mini personal computers (smartphones) constantly in our hands or pockets, feeding an increasing frenzy of dopamine hits and never letting our brain just relax or… heaven forbid… get bored.

    It takes deliberate planning to avoid screens for a whole day, but it is well worth the try. I’ve found that when I actually do this, I am more likely to have something near an epiphany … or at least get some real rest.
  27. Look for work that fits how you want to live your days. This is admittedly a privileged perspective, but if you have some modicum of choice around the work you can do, I suggest prioritizing the activities and the people you want to spend your precious waking hours on.

    Too often we’re sold a career path that takes over our lives. When Jedd and I started prioritizing flexibility, travel, health, and family, we found work that allows us to fit those values into our daily lives. I have no regrets.
  28. The older I get, the more I want to know about my ancestors. I’m fortunate to have research from family historians who came before me, which I started reviewing during the pandemic. It’s fascinating to think about all the people whose countless, diverse experiences led up to my birth. The sheer number of great-great-great-great and great-great-great-great-great grandparents each of us has is sort of mind boggling in itself!
  29. Be where your feet are. A new friend shared this mantra with me, and it’s the perfect reminder for a forward-thinker like me. I’m constantly planning ahead, which I enjoy. But I have a feeling that the moments we truly pause to be present are our best chance of transcendence, grasping eternity, in this life.

    Being fully aware of the people and the place right in front of us, where are feet currently are, is an act of gratitude and centering. This is something I want to practice much more.
  30. There’s little better (for me) than being an Aunty. I’m forever grateful to my brothers and sisters-in-law who gave me the gift of this role. My (now 4!) nieces and (one) nephew light up my life. I hope to be a part of their lives as much as I can, with a strong devotion to their growth and wellbeing.
  31. Busyness is bad news. Time is one of our most precious resources in life. Feeling that our time is limited makes us less likely to look outside ourselves. Though being busy has become a status symbol, or makes us feel important, I think our goal should be the opposite.
  32. Productivity does not make us more worthy. I learned a hard lesson in college when I tried to do all. the. things. Classes, planning campus events, assisting the French teacher, joining clubs, exercising, hanging out with friends, taking on leadership roles. I finally realized how exhausted I was and how I couldn’t do anything well if I tried to do everything.

    In Peace Corps Jamaica, I was forced to slow down. If it rained, no one went out. Even the laundry couldn’t dry on a rainy day. Running an errand at the cell phone store would take a whole afternoon, if you were lucky not to have to come back a second time. I learned to be ok accomplishing just one or two tiny little things in a given day.
  33. My capacity each day is limited. Being able to slow down served me well during pandemic lock downs, but I became even more accustomed to minimal activity/socializing/achievement in a given day. I learned through the Enneagram that my personality feels capacity limits more than most and needs to conserve energy in order to face the external world as my best self. I’m learning to embrace that and not apologize for it.
  34. Do something active every day. Exercising is good for our brains and our bodies, and the habit of being active each day is one of the best commitments I’ve ever made to myself. Over the decades, this has included a little less running and more walking, plus more regular yoga or stretching. To me, making this a sustainable, daily habit that I can continue into old age is more important than what activity I actually do or how many calories I burn.

    More to come (maybe)…

4 thoughts on “30+ Life Lessons From 40 Years of Life”

    1. I love your thoughtfulness in all of these and they contain so much wisdom. At age 75 I can say you’re spot on with these life lessons. I look forward to reading about all your adventures and hope to travel with you and Jedd one of these days. Love and hugs from Mama Linda

  1. Hi Michelle! These are wonderful. Not only do you share a lot of wisdom with all of us, but I’m certain that just the process of thinking them out and then writing them down was enormously beneficial. I recognize a few of the lessons that you share in my own life and I’m guessing anyone who reads this would do the same. And guess what? In 10 years in the future you might not feel much different either but I’ll bet that you’ll come up with even more “Life Lessons” when the time comes. Thank you for sharing these with us! ~Kathy

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