29 Lessons I Learned in 29 Years

Today marks the beginning of my 29th revolution around the sun—a small wonder considering there had been a time when I could barely imagine myself past the age of 25. Some days I still can’t bear the idea that i’m past 25. Today is also remarkable in that it is the beginning of the end of my twenties—a label with which me and so many in my generation have identified the moment Time magazine labelled us (1981-1996) the “Me Me Me Generation” aka “the Millennials.” (I still remember the collective outrage, and at the same time validation that we felt when the issue made global rounds, forever cementing my generation’s role in the world.) I wanted to do something to commemorate this period, so of course I decided to write some of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far in this journey called life.

One of my favorite Filipino authors once said that “as you go through life, you learn many lessons. Unfortunately, these lessons only apply to the specific instances in which you learned them. Therefore, you can expect to make horrible mistakes no matter how long you live.” That’s true. Nevertheless, I do believe that in each of these lessons there lies a universal truth with which most everyone can resonate. Some of them are serious. Some of them are less so. Some of them are painful, and some of them I learned through joy. But most of the rest of these lessons are deeply personal, lessons I learned the hard way. I’ve written them down so you don’t have to.

  1. 20s are hard. This really should not come as a surprise, but it bears repeating. Nothing quite prepares you for it. The autonomy that you always craved as a teenager has finally come, but now you don’t know what to do with it; soon you realize that maybe you don’t want it after all. You want someone to tell you what to do, where to go. Because being out in the world is a terrifying thing; you are flying blind. The feeling that you are making a mistake every step of the way won’t leave you. The promises that your elders made, you quickly discover, are utter BS. Ecosystems are crumbling. Sea levels are rising, polar ice caps melting. Childhood traumas are surfacing, and new traumas are being made. You will get your heart broken. You will be broke. You will burn out. You will do good work, and then get fired. You will fight for something and fall flat on your face. And all the while you are constantly finding your place in this often cruel and uncaring world. But that’s part of the process. You need to learn how to navigate the hard times when they do come, because—just as Buddhism’s first noble truth states—life is suffering, and life is pain, and life is misery, and the goal is to emerge from hardships better rather than bitter, expanded rather than constricted. That’s what your 20s are for.
  2. Wear your age like a badge of honor. This may sound strange coming from someone who often likes to pretend that he’s younger than he actually is, but what I realized over the years is that I really have no desire to be forever young. Sure, your youth is a magical time unlike anything you will ever experience, but it is also a period filled with confusion and bad decisions and destructive behaviors, and I don’t know about you but I am loath to rehash juvenile narratives for the rest of my life, thank you very much. Going through life’s chapters is one of the most meaningful things you can experience, and there really is no point in staying in one place when you have overstayed your welcome.
  3. At some point, you would have to make peace with how your parents raised you. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for how you turned out. Sooner rather than later, you would have to accept responsibility for your own life. My experience is that my parents did the best they could in the raising of me and my two siblings. Were there times when they could have done better? Sure. Were there instances wherein they have caused us trauma and pain? Of course. But was it deliberate? Definitely not! Their approach to parenting may not have been the best, but whose is? Parenting, I realize now, is a high wire act, impossible to get right, but you do it the best you can anyway. My parents loved us dearly, and they wanted for us the best life has to offer; I can never blame them for that. It had not always been easy for either my parents nor my siblings. We were poor. We could never pay tuition fees nor rent on time. Our idea of luxury is going to the movies once every three, four months—at any rate a seldom event. But I had a very happy childhood, and I never once felt unloved. That’s a testament to my parents’ hard work.
  4. Everyone is wounded. It is impossible to go through life without being wounded at one point or another. And there are only two ways you can respond when someone shows you their wound; you either respond by acting on your own wound, or you respond empathically. The former is our default setting; the latter is infinitely harder, but also infinitely rewarding. Once you do, you start to see people in a completely different, compassionate light. A casual remark fails to trigger. An unkind act loses its edge. Attacks and betrayals and deceptions alike you stop taking personally and start to see for what they truly are, which is just their pain pushed out. 
  5. Be careful to whom you offer your body. Sexual freedom is a beautiful thing. That is, when done correctly. Now I don’t want to impose a rubric for the rightness or wrongness of sexual encounters. I am neither qualified to spew morality codes, nor do I want to. However, just because you can do something does not necessarily mean you should do it. Call me old fashioned but I subscribe to the idea that sex has to be meaningful. If a sexual encounter leaves you empty, heavy—that’s a strong indicator that something had been amiss. If the aftermath renders you indifferent or emotionally unmoved, that means it isn’t giving you what it is supposed to give you. More than a rendezvous of flesh, sex is a meeting of souls, a kind of spiritual communion. The problem with sex today is that it has become transactional, an exchange of fluids stripped of real significance and meaning. I am not telling you whether or not to sleep around, but you do have to know why you’re doing it. It takes real maturity and self-awareness from both parties in order to maintain a healthy sexual connection. 
  6. Always do the right thing. The caveat is that it is easier said than done. The right thing is not always the easiest thing to do. And sometimes doing the right thing feels a lot like the wrong thing. So how do you know? A good rule of thumb is to follow your gut; one way or another it’s always steering you in the right direction.
  7. Tend to your own garden. People will always be doing things around you. They will do it faster, better, and most of the time they will succeed at it. However it is important to recognize that you are on your own journey, and so does everyone else. Don’t compare your chapter one to someone’s chapter five; most often than not, you’re not even writing the same book. Stay the course and trust the process.
  8. Your grades do not matter. Your GPA does not matter. Your accomplishments, achievements, attainments do not in the grand scheme of things matter. Your soul mate would never compare their transcript with yours. Your friends would not think less of you for being an average, C-student (if they do, you need better friends). You can have all the experience and all the skill that a potential employer would like in an employee, but if the dynamic is wrong, if the rapport is not there, if the chemistry is simply off, they will give the job to someone else. I do not mean to suggest that you should be remiss with your studies. I do not mean to suggest that you take schooling for granted. A good education remains one of the best things you can acquire for yourself. Invest in your studies. But at the end of the day, what your schooling is is an exercise in self-discipline. It is an extended course in motivation and willpower which lend themselves long after you finish your degree. What kind of a student you are at school determines what kind of a student of life you eventually become. Nevertheless, do not beat yourself over the fact that you didn’t do well in school. Nor the fact that your IQ surpasses not the average ceiling. Some of the greatest geniuses have contributed to humanity, and some of the greatest geniuses have caused horrific crimes against it. Your measure as a person—at the risk of sounding excessively saccharine—lies within, not in a certain number or figure or chart.
  9. Fear is useful in the way that an empty sign on your fuel tank is useful: it is a warning, and you need to see it, but you also have to do something about it, not just despair helplessly at its being there.
  10. Be kind. Always.
  11. Happiness is a personal thing. It has nothing to do with anyone else, and to look for it elsewhere sets you up for disappointment every time. It’s your job to find it and cultivate it and maintain it within yourself. Every manifestation of happiness outside yourself is temporary and forever fleeting. 
  12. Celebrate others’ successes. When someone gets a piece of the pie, it is easy to feel as though there is less of the pie for you to have. This is a harmful belief that society all too eagerly reinforces at every turn. Just because others are succeeding before you doesn’t mean they’re succeeding in replacement of you. There is a place for everyone, and there is always more of the pie to go around.
  13. Privilege comes in many forms. The color of your passport is also a privilege. Your white-sounding surname is a privilege. The nationality on your birth certificate is a privilege. So the next time you clamor for people to “check your privilege!” don’t forget to acknowledge the privilege that you do have, because privilege does not fall into a binary of “having it” on the one hand and “not having it” on the other. I am a queer person of color in a predominantly white country. I come from a poor background and I have very little wealth to my name. Even if I could afford it, my third-world passport does not grant me entry to most countries on this planet. But my being male allows me to walk alone late at night without much worry. My education opens me up to more opportunities than my lesser fortunate countrymen. The color of my skin precludes some of the horrors that my darker-skinned brothers and sisters experience daily. I am not privileged, but I do have some privileges.
  14. Doing your best doesn’t guarantee success. There is a common but pernicious misconception which promises rewards in exchange for our best efforts. Contrary to popular belief, doing your best does not shield you from failure. In fact, doing your best renders you more vulnerable to it. What it does shield you from is regret—the should have, would have, could have conversations that occur in your head when things don’t go your way. What doing your best does is that it dispels the bitterness and the blame and the self-flagellation with which failure comes, not immediately but eventually.
  15. Doing your best is the reward
  16. Never underestimate the wisdom of the heavenly bodies. Don’t dismiss zodiac signs, horoscopes, tarot cards. There are some valuable lessons to be gained from them if you open yourself up. After all, we come from stars, are made of star dust—literally, scientifically, look it up. With that said, they are at best guides, not sentences, and should be taken with a healthy heaping of salt. 
  17. Like most things in life, friends come and go. That’s a good thing. They have simply served their purpose, and holding on to them doesn’t do anyone any favors. When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, the butterfly no longer has any use for it. That doesn’t mean the cocoon was useless; in fact it was a necessary step in the process of becoming. Friends are much the same. The universe places people and circumstances in our path in the exact time we need to experience them. So when people leave—willingly or otherwise—let them, and bless them for it. The good news is that those who are meant to stay in your life do. These are the friendships you need to cultivate and treasure to your last breath. With that being said,
    • 17.1 Don’t be shitty friend. Don’t use people for your own entertainment. Don’t abuse their kindness and don’t take for granted the effort and the time they put on you. Remember, relationships are a two-way street. There has to be a proportional give and take dynamic at play. When they message you, don’t reply hours, days later and pretend you simply forgot. When they invite you out and you can’t commit, suggest a different time. When they trust you with a secret, guard it with all your heart. When they fuck up, call them out on it but do it with humility, do it from a place of love not condemnation. Uplift them. Support them. Show them you care. Sometimes the lesson in friendships is for mutual growth; stay. Sometimes the lesson is to learn your self-worth; in that case, leave, cut ties.
    • 17.2 If you have to beg for their affection, they’re not worth it. It is pathetic. Don’t do it. 
  18. Meditation is not a be-all-end-all solution to all life’s problems, but it’s damn close.
  19. It is never okay to justify toxic behavior with past trauma. Of any kind. It is a sad fact of life that bad things happen, most of the time to people who do not deserve it. But that does not entitle you to act on those traumas. Ever. There are few things more despicable than playing the role of perpetual victim. You can be victimized, and empower at the same time. You can be victimized, and inspire. You can be victimized, and have agency. You can be victimized and not be a victim. This whole “look, woe is me” mentality is a scourge in today’s society. Sure, life has knocked you to the ground, but you have to get up at some point. 
  20. You have to believe in something greater than yourself. Some people call it religion, or God. Some people call it the universe or life source. Some people call it a calling—as in a calling to create (the arts), a calling for knowledge (the academe), a calling to heal and make better the lives of others (medicine and the sciences). No matter the name you give it, what they all share at their very essence is the belief that in the grand scheme of things you are but a speck of dust, a tiny human whose place in this life is minuscule but never inconsequential. You have something to contribute, irrespective of the form in which that contribution comes. And tapping into that greatness gives you power beyond measure.
  21. Never let a day go by without being grateful for at least one thing
  22. Show up. When you’re in pain, feel it; otherwise that pain will fester and metastasize and destroy you in myriad ways. When tragedies happen, be present; it gives you access to a deep inner strength. When you’re suffering, honor it; it opens your eyes to others’ suffering. When you stumble (and you will), own it; that’s the only way you can truly learn from it. When joy comes knocking at your door—accept it, milk it, and don’t let anyone convince you that you don’t deserve it. And when you win, celebrate it; you realize what life is all about.
  23. Don’t give a flying fuck about what other people think. This is a lesson that has taken me quite a while to learn, and I’m embarrassed to say that this is a lesson that I am still learning to this day. Like Joan Didion said, “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”
  24. True self-love is not a superficial thing. Self-love goes beyond treating yourself to a mani-pedi. Self-love goes beyond binging on Netflix. Self-love is not a hot bath in candlelight. Don’t get me wrong, these things have their place but self-love, true self-love, is developing good habits. Self-love is choosing broccoli and sprouts over chips and chocolate cake. Self-love is waking up at 5 in the morning and working out despite your every cell screaming bloody murder. Self-love means having difficult conversations with friends instead of avoiding it. Self-love is trying to be the best version of yourself when no one is around, especially when no one is around.
  25. Hard work beats talent any given day.
  26. Never let anyone make you feel bad for your taste in art. Go ahead and listen to that Billboard Top 100 playlist. Marathon Tiger King in one sitting, and then afterwards the Real Housewives of New York Season 5. Whatever floats your proverbial boat, go do it and have fun. We enjoy the kind of art that we do because there is something about them that resonates with us; and it isn’t necessarily because we have bad taste. (What even constitutes “bad taste,” anyway? Who gets to decide?) It is a deeply personal thing. For example, there are days when I find myself listening to Michael Bolton and Christina Aguilera and Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears and New Radicals and Linkin Park and whenever I do it is because I want to reach for that feeling of naive bliss their songs used to give me when I was a small child growing up in the Philippines in the 90s, and if I am labelled with having bad taste for it, then so be it. It is just as equally valid to enjoy Dan Brown as it is Kubrick, to listen to The Smiths and Pink Floyd as it is Paramore. People who spurn what they deem “lowbrow” art are deeply insecure. It gives them some twisted pleasure imposing unto others what they deem meaningful art, an illusion of superiority that is truly self-deception. Life is too short to be snooty about the kind of art that you like. Let people live.
  27. You only have one body, so take care of it. The state of my body is something I always have at the back of my mind; I suspect hypochondria does that to a person. But more than that, I do have a deep respect for my body that on the surface may seem contrary based on the dietary decisions I’ve been making lately. But I try to honor it as best as I can. In fact I had developed some years back an unhealthy lifestyle in which I had worked out too much and ate too little and obsessed too much about my weight on the scale. A ridiculous affair considering I have always been skinny and I always had trouble putting on weight even with my best efforts. Now I’ve come to understand that there needs to be a perfect balance between a healthy diet and right exercise. The key is moderation.
  28. If you’re tying to make something happen, and you’ve given it your all to make it happen, and it’s still not happening, it’s time for you to let it go.
  29. Relax. Everything is going to be all right.

Published by Jared Carl

Philippine-born, Berlin-based writer

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