The past year or so has taught us many lessons and given most of us a chance to reflect on things, whether those were bigger, complex thoughts or the smaller, simpler things that had been whirring away at the back of minds.
The time to process – and act on – some of those, has been one of the few positives to take from this period.
The pandemic, and the lockdowns intended to halt its spread have coincided with the last year of my twenties. From today I can no longer select the 18-29 option on drop down menus, but the time it’s allowed me to reflect on my first 30 years on this planet has been incredibly valuable and brought fresh clarity I’ll take in to the next.
Inspired partly by a film set in a post-pandemic world and partly by Stephen Waddington’s posts on a similar theme, I’ve jotted down a few thoughts on 30 lessons I’ve learned and things I’ve come to understand and (for the most part) put into practice at this point in my life.
30 Lessons I’ve Learned
1. Write things down
It probably makes sense to start the 30 lessons here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a good (maybe even half-formed) thought and not been able to remember it an hour or day later.
I’m slowly learning to write every idea down so I can revisit it later – with a pen and paper or an app in my PR tool stack like Roam or Notion – to help keep track of thinking as it evolves and limit frustration later down the line.
2. Never stop learning
As even the first of these 30 lessons shows, you’re always learning in one way or another. There are a few things I’m pretty good at (though there’s plenty of room for improvement) and many more things I’d like to be good at but still have progress to make. The key here is openness and intent.
I’ve learned to be open to guidance and teaching in all its forms and am committed to putting the work in to improve my knowledge, thinking, and practice. Whether that’s Continuous Professional Development (CPD) or how to make the perfect bánh mì, the principles remain the same.
3. Look after yourself
Unless technology has moved on since I last checked, we only get one body. It’s important to look after it – and that means both physically and mentally.
Self care may be a term that’s been co-opted by wellness Instagrammers, but there’s a reason they have influence and their posts gain traction.
I’ve neglected my body in the past and used to regularly run myself into the ground. These days I’m much more mindful that the thinking that led to that behaviour was too short-term and had consequences I later came to regret.
I now take a much more proactive approach to self care and am happier and healthier as a result.
4. Don’t sweat the small stuff
I think as people get older, many of them come to this same conclusion – life is frankly too short to spend time worrying about things that you can’t change or don’t really matter.
Ask yourself is this important? Can I do anything about it now? Is a change in outcome worth the investment in time/resources needed to achieve it? If the answer to all three is yes, then great. If not, forget about it and move on.
5. Don’t wait for things to come to you
I’m not a fan of cliches (however many might sneak in to my writing), and while I may disparage hackneyed phrases, they are often rooted in truth.
“The harder I work, the luckier I get” has been attributed to countless individuals in various guises and while it is pretty cringeworthy, it’s something I largely agree with.
In the past I’ve been guilty of assuming hard work and good results will be noticed by others, and thinking that for the most part activities will be assigned according to capabilities and interests. The reality is that’s not always the case and sometimes you need to influence things yourself.
If you want to do something, put your hand up. If you want someone to know something, find a way to tell them.
6. Plan (and measure progress)
This is more a personal than professional learning (though if you’re not planning and evaluating in your work life, that certainly needs addressing too), and is something I’ve not always done.
I’ve always had ambitions and at least a rough idea of what I wanted to do, but in the past I had been content to take things as they came. That has changed as I’ve grown older and is among the most important of these 30 lessons.
Some of my goals are more well-defined and set-in-stone these days, but many are still more general directions than they are fixed destinations. What’s changed is that I’ve started thinking about imposing time constraints and am more regularly asking myself “am I there yet?” and “what am I doing to progress this?”, and that seems to be working.
7. Find your passion
Working out what interests you and spending more time doing it sounds simple. It’s not, but it will be rewarding.
I’m spending more time cooking and reading than I have in years at the moment, and am much happier for it.
8. Don’t take things for granted
This is one of the 30 lessons that I suspect most of us are well aware of, but don’t do enough about. Indeed, it’s something I need to work on too.
Friendships and fitness, and many other things besides, all require work and regular attention to maintain. Sometimes we don’t realise that until there’s major work to do and sometimes it’s just too late.
Working out what’s important to you and putting in the work is the best way to stave off complacency and its consequences.
9. Enjoy things at the time
I’ve heard international sports stars talk about this recently and it’s certainly something I’ve seen in my own life. Sometimes too great a focus on the next thing prevents you from enjoying the successes of the present.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the future, but it’s also important to take the time to celebrate things in the moment, and not leave it until later.
Even the small wins are worthy of celebrating and let’s face it we could all use an excuse to celebrate something at the moment.
10. Do your bit
There are plenty of important causes out there that we all believe in. They may differ from person to person, but everyone has them.
There are things I’ve felt are important and ‘cared about’ for some time, but while in the past I’ve taken action only where it’s convenient for me, these days I’m content to make change even when there’s friction involved.
If there’s something you feel strongly about – do something about it.
11. Switch off
Sometimes easier said than done, but very important nonetheless.
The debate around work-life balance or work-life integration is still very much raging, but if there’s one thing a year of remote working has taught me, it’s that getting away from a desk and notifications is paramount to my own mental wellbeing.
Over the years I’ve absolutely been guilty of working all hours, checking emails on holiday, and spending evenings thinking about the next day/week/months’ work.
These days I’m much more protective of my time and focused on being present in both my personal and professional lives, rather than always inhabiting a fluid state somewhere in between.
12. JFDI: better done than perfect
There are many good things about being a deep thinker, but the balance between well-considered and timely isn’t one I’ve always had success in finding.
Taking the time to think through all of the possible scenarios that may impact on the success of a plan is often welcome, but sometimes you just need to put the words on a page and send them.
This is something I’m getting better at, but it doesn’t come naturally. Recognising the occasions where you can employ some thought labour is key – sometimes you’ve got to JFDI.
13. People are not mind readers
Asking for help and advice is not a weakness – it’s not possible to know or be good at everything, and finding constructive and collaborative ways to tackle a problem is key.
However, if people don’t know the challenges you’re facing they can’t help you. Suffering through in silence doesn’t help anyone – letting people know what you’re thinking, feeling, struggling with, and where you could use their help is absolutely the best way forward.
I used to try to power through these situations through sheer force of will with gritted teeth and muttering under my breath – but that’s neither healthy nor productive. These days I’m much more open about what’s holding me back and find myself muttering far less.
14. Show your work
I can recall several occasions in my school years where an exchange along the lines of “why did you give that answer?”, “because that’s the right answer”, “Mr Silver, you need to show me WHY it’s the right answer” occurred.
Irksome though it was, these days I find myself showing my work more than ever. I may not be solving differential equations in 2021, but being able to walk others through your thinking is almost as important as telling them the conclusion you came to, in my experience.
Being prepared and able to explain why you’re doing things the way you’re doing them helps bring people along with you and work constructively together – that’s helpful on a rugby field, in an office, and many other places too.
15. Find perspective
It can be very easy to forget the biases and views you have that can impact the way you see situations. It is, however, very helpful to understand them.
Someone who grew up in a rural village in the North of England may have different views to someone who was brought up in inner-city London. That’s not to say that either of those views is right or wrong, but it is useful for those individuals to recognise the factors that are influencing their thinking and whether others with different views would see things the same way.
I’m increasingly conscious of why I think the way I do, and wherever possible to try widen my horizons to incorporate new thinking, opposing arguments, and whether the situation’s changed since I formed my opinion on things.
Whether it’s through a concerted effort to educate myself or just taking a walk to think something through, I’m always looking for ways to gain perspective on the world around me.
Undoubtedly one of the 30 lessons that’s hardest to learn is good judgment.
It’s something you learn by getting things wrong, through what you see around you, from taking counsel, and trusting your instincts, but it doesn’t come easily and second guessing yourself can easily become second nature.
It’s often said that with age comes wisdom, and while I know many far older than me that still haven’t entirely grown up, I think my judgment is much better than it was 10 years ago and, for the most part, improving as I get older.
17. Think before speaking
While unconscious bias training has received criticism from some quarters in the last few years, I’m not sure that very much of it is justified. Having been in trainings on the subject, I think there is merit to it and do put what I learned in to practice.
Taking a little extra time to fire up the ‘slow brain’ is in my view well worth doing. If it helps to shape a more considered view that is more likely to resonate with the intended audience, then why wouldn’t you.
This isn’t just about bias either – though that’s certainly one component – it’s about active listening. Those that know me and have worked with me will know that I subscribe to the view that if you have two ears and one mouth you should listen more than you speak. That guiding principle has always served me well.
Taking the time to understand the situation, the audience you’re speaking to, and any considerations you need to make before speaking is invariably worth the effort.
18. Mise en place
Anyone who’s had any culinary training or spent time around a professional kitchen will be familiar with the concept of mise en place. This French term for ‘putting everything in it’s place’ usually refers to chefs preparing ingredients in advance of starting cooking and assembling their dish. It’s a concept that applies much more broadly than this culinary context.
Whether in your personal or professional life, one of the things you should take away from these 30 lessons is there is value to getting the prep work in early as opposed to as you go.
Whether your preferred guiding principle is the seven Ps (Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance) or “by failing to prepare you’re preparing to fail”, the lesson holds true.
19. Mistakes as education
We all make mistakes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Repeating them may be, but there is much to be learned from making mistakes.
Some of the best lessons I’ve learned have been off the back of situations where I’ve thought “well, I’m never doing that again”.
We shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes, they’re part of the learning process.
20. To learn, do
Sometimes there are limits to what you can learn from a textbook or instruction – even from the best tutors.
I’ve often found that the best way to truly learn something is to do it, make mistakes, and do it again until you do it better. In fact that’s partly why this site exists – to help me understand a CMS, SEO, copywriting and much more besides.
There are certainly a lot of things that can be taught in a classroom, but I’d always encourage trying things too – I’ve learned a great deal that way, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
21. Your timeline is your own
I think many people of a similar age will look at their lives and judge themselves according to what those around them have done or achieved. While it’s very common, it’s not very helpful.
Some people may keep lists of things to do by certain ages and some may feel disheartened if they haven’t achieved a goal they’d set themselves by a certain date, but ideas of what you should be doing by 25, 30, or 50 are largely unhelpful.
There isn’t a timeline to work to. Your life is your own and the sooner you realise that and get on with living it without trying to conform to someone else’s expectations, the better.
22. Give back
This is one of the 30 lessons I’ve thought about a lot recently. I’m in a relatively privileged position – I’ve got a good job, my health, and a network of close friends and family. Not everyone is so fortunate.
Personally and professionally, I’ve been given guidance, advice, and encouragement by a number of people that have helped me get to where I am today. So wherever I can, I look for ways to help others in the same way.
Whether that’s through the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, PRCA, Company of Communicators or beyond, I try to do what I can. It’s something that not only helps the industries and communities in which you play a part, but it’s incredibly rewarding and can teach you just as much as those you’re trying to impart wisdom on.
23. Energy vs time management
This is still very much a work on for me, and one of the 30 lessons that I wish I’d learned a long time ago. Managing your energy, as opposed to placing to much attention on time, can help unlock new levels of productivity.
For instance, I know that I do some of my clearest thinking and best work first thing in the morning – by rearranging my diary to pull important tasks requiring greater focus forwards in my day, I get more done and produce better work.
I can’t remember who first gave me this advice, but when you remember to put it into practice it can be a game-changer.
24. Calculated risks
There are times to play things safe, and times where doing so can be a hindrance. Learning when to take a chance is one of lives many tough lessons.
When I was younger I often got this wrong – at times being too cautious and others too willing to take a risk. I suspect this is something we all come to realise about ourselves on reflection.
At this point, I like to think I’ve got a better handle on where the balance is found and what my appetite for risk is. It helps that I work in a field where risk is a constant consideration, for sure.
25. Master your craft
This is another of the 30 lessons I’ve learned that can apply to a work context or on many things outside of it.
It could be the signature dish you rustle up for dinner parties as much as being able to come up with a pithy soundbite.
What matters is that you take the time and interest to identify areas for improvement and the steps needed to deliver better results next time.
Good can be great. Great can be excellent. If you make the effort.
26. Don’t let ideas grow old in a notebook
I have been and continue to be guilty of doing this. The number of scribbles in old pads and barely started drafts hidden away in files and folders is something that I should really do more about.
For some the time has now passed – someone else either took the opportunity before I got the chance or the moment has simply been and gone. I one of the 30 lessons I need to get better at doing something about.
I’m trying to improve myself here – ideas stuck in a notebook are no good to anyone but stationary makers. I’m striving to let more of mine see daylight.
27. Be open to ideas
Nobody has all the answers. Those that claim to are inevitably the worst kind of people.
I’m told I used to vehemently dislike fresh tomatoes. Today I’m a huge fan. However, it’s not just palates that evolve over time, it’s views and opinions too.
In some areas I have strongly held views – that I’m not a fan of brutalist architecture, is something of an understatement. But there may be an example I haven’t seen yet that does appeal, and my mind’s not closed to that.
Being open to new information is very natural for me, but I know it’s not for everyone. At 30 I know that going in to situations with both my mind and eyes open serves me well. I suspect I knew this long ago. I suspect I won’t forget it anytime soon.
28. The process may be more valuable than the outcome
Things don’t always go the way you want or expect. Even if they do, the result may still be unsatisfying. Sometimes that’s alright. Sometimes the outcome is secondary to what you learned in the process of getting there.
There are things where I look back and see that some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the last 30 years have come from some of my biggest failures or were things that ended up being just a little ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The key is learning not to be too hard on yourself when things don’t go your way and working out what positives you can take from the experience.
29. Be mindful of filter bubbles
Lots has been said about filter bubbles over the past few years. I can see examples from my own network of people who have clearly been influenced by the company they keep – both online and in-person – in some cases to their detriment. That’s not to say that filter bubbles are necessarily bad and that’s why I’ve included it among these 30 lessons.
I follow a lot of people on a number of social channels, and there are in some cases quite notable biases within that following – some aligned with my own views, and some that definitely are not.
However, by being aware that they are there and mindful of those biases as I ingest the information shared by those sources, ensures I’m making informed decisions and not being too swayed by partisan views.
30. Call it out
Despite all the progress we’ve made in recent years there’s still a lot of bad behaviour and discrimination out in the world today. Whether it’s all male panels or backwards beliefs, the situation isn’t going to change unless it’s called out and corrected.
Where I might have held my tongue in the past, today I’m much more willing to tell someone what they’ve said or done is incompatible with my friendship or a working relationship. I’ll continue to encourage others to do the same.
Reflecting on 30 lessons in 30 years
There are, I’m sure, many things I’ve missed and many things I’ve yet to learn, but life is a journey and as lesson two makes clear, I intend to keep learning.
If there is something you wish you knew at 30, or would advise yourself at that age, I’d love to hear it. Drop me a line on Twitter or leave a comment below.