3 Lessons I Wish I Learned Before Turning 33

“Hey, you’re the same age as Jesus was when he died!”

Yesterday was my 33rd birthday and the person who said that to me got me thinking about what turning “Jesus’ age” means.

No, there’s no mid-life crisis and I haven’t raced out to buy a convertible Corvette. But it’s sometimes good to think about what we’ve learned over the course of a lifetime.

I like to think about what I would tell myself if I could travel back in time to when I was in my early 20’s. Here are three lessons I would give myself.

Lesson #1: Bad Goals Are Always Disguised as Good Goals

If you set a goal for your life, you generally do so with the best of intentions. But good intentions don’t always lead to good goals. In fact, they can lead to just the opposite.

When I was in my early 20’s, I set a goal for myself that I would be a millionaire by 30. On the surface, this sounds like a good goal. After all, doing so would require me to work hard, make smart decisions with our money, live below our means, and to do all of the other things becoming a millionaire requires.

So what’s bad about this goal?

  • It puts the emphasis on the wrong side of the equation. Because my focus was on the money, I ended up making bad decisions during that period of my life.
  • I chose a career based on money rather than passion. I hated so much of my 20’s because I dreaded going to work each day. I was burning out very quickly.
  • I became a workaholic. I spent too many years working 80+ hours each week. I neglected my wife Lisa, our family, and our friendships. As a result, I nearly lost my marriage.
  • I didn’t take care of my health. By the time I was 26, my cholesterol was 351 (very bad), I was overweight, and I developed shingles due to stress. The final straw was when (at 31) I developed a severe case of vasculitis.

So how can you ensure that your goals are actually good for you? You evaluate the underlying assumptions.

I assumed that becoming a millionaire by 30 would make my life better than doing it by 35, 40 or even 50. Becoming a millionaire is a fine goal. However, the minute I put the “by 30” timeframe on it, I forced myself to make short-term sacrifices that would harm me in the long-run.

What good is being a 30-year-old millionaire if you’re overweight, burnt-out, and divorced?

If your goals require you to sacrifice things that you know are good for something you think might be good, it’s a bad goal.

Lesson #2: Life Moves Quickly, But This Isn’t a Race

When I was 6, Christmas took forever to roll around. A week was like a month. Now, I look up and it’s the end of August. It seems like just yesterday that I was freezing my butt off in January.

I know I sound like an old fart with this one, but I don’t care. It’s true. The more life advances, the more quickly it moves.

This can lead to the feeling that we need to hurry up: “Time is running out and I need to get a move on with my goals and my plans and my future. After all, look at the Jones’ over there – they already have 2.5 kids, a BMW, and a 5 bedroom house mortgage.”

The feeling like you’re in a race against time with your life is based on the assumption that certain things are “supposed to happen” at certain times.

  • I should be married by 28
  • I should own a home by 30
  • I should have 2 kids by 35
  • My 30s are my “earning years”
  • I want to retire by 50

And on it goes. But all of those make false assumptions of how life should work that aren’t based in anything other than tradition and the expectations of others.

This isn’t to say that you should lazily meander through life. On the contrary, you need to set goals and pursue your dreams.

But, if you race through life always trying to get to the next level, you’re going to wake up one day and realize that it was all in vain and you won’t be able to get any of the time back. And that’s what you’ll get if you chase arbitrary, cultural targets.

Generally, our biggest regrets in life don’t come from doing things we shouldn’t have done. They come from not doing the things we know we should have.

Lesson #3: Never Settle

Too many people settle for a mediocre existence rather than pursue a meaningful life.

How do I know? Because the average American watches 4 hours of TV per day. If you’re settling for a life of mediocre existence, you will find ways to distract yourself from that awful feeling deep down inside of you that your life lacks true meaning and purpose. You will want to disconnect from the “real world.”

Instead of pursing our passions, we watch reality shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance where we can sit on the sidelines of life and live vicariously through others who are doing what we’re afraid to.

If you only learn one thing before you turn 33, please learn this one: never settle. Never stop dreaming.

I’ve found my meaning through my faith, my family, my friends and my pursuit of my passion.

Share Your Lessons

If you could travel back in time, what lessons would you give to yourself?