Since the day my nieces, now ages 4 and 7, were born, I have been writing them letters. These letters are being collected in a box for them to open when they turn 18. The letters are a combination of funny anecdotes about their childhoods, memories of my life, snapshots of daily activity, and also my reflections on issues, events, or subjects that I think would be worthwhile for them to read when they are young adults.
Normally, I don’t share these letters. But in light of today’s milestone, I thought I would share the letter I wrote to them today. If you’re keen to watch the video version of me reading it, it is embedded below. Otherwise you can just read it.
Today is my 40th birthday. In honor of the occasion, I want to take a few minutes to collect my thoughts at this milestone birthday and share them with you. Most people seem to dread each passing year and milestone birthdays depress them. Quite the opposite to this, I have found that each passing year gets better. I learn more about life, make new friends, have new experiences, and perhaps gain a little wisdom. To that end, if any of the wisdom I attempt to dispense in this letter turns out to be incorrect, I’ll still have my 50th birthday on which to correct myself before you are old enough to read these letters.
There are myriad lessons on life that are worth learning. Some that strike me as the most useful:
Live to your fullest potential. Your life is an empty vessel that will be filled with experience, activity, relationships, and accomplishments. How full will your life be? So few people are born with the advantages you enjoy. Honor that privilege by making the most of it.
Most people go through life not paying attention. Especially in a world in which communication is happening more quickly and the volume of information we wade through gets greater by the day. By not paying attention, people miss out on a lot of the beauty, a lot of the details, a lot of the important things, and a lot of the opportunities that come along.
The beauty brings joy, the devil truly is in the details, the important things can easily get lost in the chaff, and the opportunities can end knocking on an unanswered door.
Opportunities tend to present themselves more clearly than you would expect. Not only do you have to be paying enough attention so as to recognize them, you also have to be willing to take advantage of them.
Be willing to take risks, explore, push your boundaries, and test your limits. This doesn’t mean that you should do foolish things – although a little foolishness can be a good thing – but rarely will you grow if you only stay within your comfort zone. Try things that you think you couldn’t possibly do and you will be surprised by how things end up just being the baby steps to even greater accomplishments.
Exercise. Not only should you test your limits in terms of experience but you should also push yourself physically. Modern life is increasingly sedentary, a lifestyle for which our bodies are ill-suited. Make movement a part of each day. This doesn’t mean you have to be an athlete, nor do you need to suffer from worry and self-consciousness about your body. Just be active. You will have a greater appreciation for your body and will be healthier for it.
Eat well but don’t fret about food. Americans (and, increasingly, other cultures) have come to obsess about food in an unhealthy way. Enjoy food, but enjoy good food. Too often we mistake an overabundance of additives and preservatives that trick the chemistry of our tongue and brain for truly enjoyable and satisfying food. Eat a wide variety of foods, both for your good health as well as for the enjoyment of trying new things. Practice moderation in all things, including moderation.
Human beings are social creatures. Cultivate relationships by giving unconditionally, without the expectation of getting anything in return. Be caring and compassionate. Give to others, be charitable, be generous.
Assume the best of others. Be quick to forgive, quick to assume you have misunderstood, quick to let go of anger or grudges. They are seeds that bear only bitter fruit.
Things do not buy you happiness. There is nothing you will buy in this life that you will be able to take with you, so don’t accumulate unnecessary things. When you do spend your hard-earned money on things, wait before buying. Compare quality and buy the best quality you can afford, for it is better to have a few good things that last years than an abundance of things that break or wear out quickly.
Be thankful for the things you have – not the physical things – but the blessing of your life. Even when you are facing suffering and difficulties, it is all but certain that there are millions of people whose lives are much worse off than your own. While that may seem cold comfort at that moment, if you can focus your attention on the blessings you do have, it will make you appreciate the situation more.
Finally, cultivate happiness in the present. There is nothing you can do about the days that have passed. There is nothing to be gained by worrying about the days that are to come. There is only one moment that exists, and that is “now”. So be fully present in the now, enjoy it, and make the most of it.
Those are my words of wisdom to you on my 40th birthday. We’ll see how well they hold up when you read them in another eleven years. By then, I may have revised them significantly. But I suspect that while I will learn more lessons in life, these fundamentals won’t change all that much.
What about you? What lessons have you learned over your years? What advice would you want to share with someone who is becoming an adult?