I heard a car alarm going off while exiting the mall.
I’d have ignored it like I do most car alarms, but I was still on high alert from a previous car break-in in the not-too-distant past. I had left a large shoebox with about 70 compact discs in plain sight on the floor behind the passenger seat. I had also failed to remove the detachable face from my car’s CD player. Someone broke a window and stole them.
It was the first time I’d ever really felt violated. It’s a unique sort of anger. I replaced the broken window, the CD deck and about two-thirds of the CDs with insurance money and my father’s generosity.
Then, not long after that on my 17th birthday, my mom and stepdad took me to dinner and then the mall to buy me gifts. I realized while walking out into the mall parking lot that the car alarm I heard was mine.
My walk turned into a run.
Sitting in my passenger seat with my car door open was some asshole trying to yank the CD unit from my front dash, and my fight-or-flightometer was firmly set on fight.
Arms spread wide and displaying the universal sign language for Tough Guy® I yelled: “What the fuck, man?!” and just kept coming. I had every intention of slamming my heavy 1986 Buick Regal car door into him over and over again, but this guy was spry.
He jumped out and pulled a knife. It wasn’t a hardcore Crocodile Dundee knife, but it wasn’t some wimpy punk knife you wanted shoved into your gut either.
The switch flipped on the fight-or-flightometer, and I backed up. Dude ran away. My stepdad chased him, presumably less afraid of being gutted than I was. I always thought that was awesome, but only because he didn’t get stabbed. Later, I ID’ed the guy to police detectives from a series of photos at the police station. Maybe that guy is dead or in prison now. Or maybe he reads this blog and remembers that night (Hey man!).
Standing in my father’s kitchen with all four of my parents, my dad totally ripped my ass, which he almost never did. After going through all of that trouble with the police and insurance and him spending more money so that I could have my stupid (but awesome at the time!) car stereo that drove all the neighbors crazy, I had left a detachable face on the CD deck and more CDs just laying around in my car like a Welcome sign for thieves.
He was pissed. So I spent the evening of my 17th birthday, getting a verbal ass-kicking from my dad in front of all four of my parents who were pretty much never in the same room at the same time.
I totally deserved it, too.
(Listen to this song on repeat for the rest of the time you’re on this page, please.)
I turn 37 tomorrow.
For the same reason I left that detachable CD player face on even though I’d already had it stolen once, and the same reason I foolishly sprinted up to some stranger where I could have easily been shot and killed, I don’t know that there’s ANYTHING you could have told me 20 years ago that would have kept me from (stubbornly) “needing” to figure things out on my own—often the hard way.
I tell my young son 100-percent of the time we’re eating together to eat over his plate so crumbs and sauces and whatever fall on his plate and not on his shirt, lap, or the floor.
And pretty much 100-percent of the time, he gets crap all over his clothes and the floor. Because, almost certainly to his mother’s chagrin, he’s a little bit like his father.
But what if I could somehow get Doc Brown to fire up that old DeLorean time machine and hand-deliver it to myself in 1996? Wouldn’t I pay attention then? Probably not. But let’s pretend I would to eliminate some of the pointlessness from this exercise.
If I had to give the gift of knowledge and wisdom to a young man oblivious to his need for it in the form of a time-warped letter, what would I write?
A Letter to Myself on my 17th Birthday
Happy birthday, dude! I really wanted to come back to ’96 and just have a nice sit-down talk with you, but Doc was all “blah-blah-blah… time paradox… blah-blah-blah… space-time continuum… blah-blah-blah… destruction of universe…” so I was like: “Fine, Doc. Whatever. Give him this letter AFTER you tell him he’s a 37-year-old divorced single father who lives alone, works in an office cubicle for 40-plus hours per week, and doesn’t smoke or even drink often to help manage the shame. It’ll probably go over his head because I was kind of a dipshit at 17.”
Sorry I said that. But you really are kind of a dipshit. You get solid grades and have an excellent vocabulary so you fake everyone (and yourself) out. But you’re totally dumb. This isn’t unique to your teenage years. You’re actually a moron all the way through your twenties.
Intellectually and maturity-wise, turning 30 is really good for you. But sadly, that’s also when a bunch of bad personal-life things will start happening, and since you fake being smart instead of actually being smart, your entire life is going to fall apart. Like, clinically depressed, fall apart. Like, have a few things in common with suicidal people, fall apart.
Today, you have no idea who or what you want to be. You see all these other kids who are going to go off to college knowing their career path. You see people who seem focused and disciplined and who seem to genuinely crave knowledge.
You sometimes wonder what’s wrong with you because you don’t know what you want to do with your life. You don’t know why you never seem to be able to maintain long-term attention and focus. You don’t understand why all of these other people want to learn things. School’s boring. You just want a job that helps you pay the bills so you can get to that next weekend party. Living for the weekend.
But now you have a secret weapon. The knowledge of what you WILL want. I’m going to tell you what some of those things are, how you can have them, and a few bonus secrets, too. You’re welcome.
There Are No Shortcuts
There’s only the long way. But here’s something awesome I didn’t expect at 17: Today feels the same as Today did in 1996. I know 37 sounds totally old to you. But it doesn’t feel old when you’re in the moment. The 20 years between your Today and my Today is more than enough time to master everything you want to master, even after learning what I’m about to tell you.
You Have Something Called ADHD
You’ll hear a lot about it later. You’ll think it’s made up. People will tell you it’s a fake thing Big Pharma is pushing to sell drugs to kids. And maybe it is! One of the best things about being 37 is that you’ll get really comfortable with the idea of uncertainty. It’s totally okay to not know things! Pursue knowledge. Pursue truth. Try your best. Learn about ADHD and how to manage it. That will help you with everything you do, and your relationships with everyone you meet.
You Value Money Too Much
I’m not saying it doesn’t matter at all. It’s nice to have. I’m just saying you rank it above most other things, and it’s a really bad idea. You should put most of your energy into the most important things. If you had a billion dollars, and then you found out you had brain cancer, would it matter that you were a billionaire? When your health is poor—mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally—everything in your life falls apart, and there aren’t enough dollars to fix it. Which brings us to…
College (Fresh out of High School) is Overrated
Not only is it overrated, there are some fields in which attending college can be demonstrably proven to be a bad financial proposition. It’s not your fault. In 1996, it seems like only the kids with no future skip college. The losers. And the conventional wisdom is you need a bachelor’s degree to get a professional job. But it’s a big lie everyone believes and I can’t figure out why. Some fields of study lend themselves to higher education. Law. Medicine. Engineering.
But pretty much everything else? You’re paying tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars for a piece of paper that says you learned things that if you drank enough beer, you didn’t actually learn.
At 37, I’ve had three full-time jobs following college graduation, NONE of which benefitted from me attending college.
I’m NOT saying be a burnout loser. I’m NOT saying don’t learn things. But I AM saying don’t take on a bunch of debt for a crappy four-year degree after classes you won’t remember and having acquired zero useful life skills or valuable knowledge.
Instead, read every book you can on the subjects which genuinely interest you, and then spend 40 hours per week actively practicing a skill or attempting to create something in your field of interest, instead of sitting in expensive classes that won’t help.
Because you’re you, it will take you five years to earn your bachelor’s degree and cost a small fortune.
You can get 10,000 hours experience (a time length generally accepted as achieving expertise at any given thing) by putting in 40-hour weeks for 4.8 years. Guess how many 22-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees are experts at anything other than bong hits and using coin-laundry machines?
You’re Not the Only One Who Thinks and Feels That
About what? About anything. You have thoughts and feelings and fears and questions and beliefs, and you never talk about them with anyone because it feels safer to keep it a secret. Maybe you’re afraid your friends won’t be friends with you. Maybe you’re afraid your parents won’t love you. Maybe you’re afraid you’re a freak, and if everyone figures out who the real you is, they’ll all laugh at you, and you’ll die alone and celibate with no friends.
EVERYONE else is ALSO thinking and feeling those same kinds of things. That’s an awesome life secret. Don’t be a fake version of yourself in order to win the approval of your friends, or family, or people you know from back home, or for girls you meet. No one will like the fake version of you any more than the real version.
Just be yourself, no matter what, and enjoy the absence of insecurity that comes from being surrounded by people who love and accept you as you are. Changes your whole life.
You’ll Have to Change Your Eating Habits and Exercise Regularly to Maintain Your Shape
One day, your metabolism slows, and you’ll gain weight. You’ll have to exercise even though you’ll no longer compete in organized athletics. When you do so in the morning, you will feel really good all day long, and you’ll look better, and the combination of those two things will improve your confidence and performance in everything you do. Which is good.
Write Down 10 Ideas Every Day
You’re going to discover a writer you really like named James Altucher. He preaches this, and it’s because he’s really smart. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad the ideas are. The point is simply to habitually be able to come up with new ideas all the time. When you’re 37, the superpower you wish you could have is the ability to quickly come up with several viable solutions to ANY problem as needed. It’s how you help people. It’s how you make money. It’s how you improve at things. It’s how you do anything. You think of something that may or may not have been tried before. Then you figure out how to execute it. Then you give it a try and see what works and what doesn’t. Repeat the good stuff. Avoid the bad. The applications for your ability to generate new ideas are limitless.
Human Beings Weren’t Designed to Sit in Office Cubicles and Take Things So Seriously
You’re pretty good with people. You have a lot of friends. It’s one of the best things about you. Don’t let the world tell you that you should abandon the love you have for your friends and the joy you feel from social connectivity because “it’s time to grow up.” If you meet a girl and she wants you to abandon your social life for her because she wants no part of it, you run. You’ll never make it with anyone who doesn’t share your values. You need not be ashamed of valuing fun and your social network. It matters so much more than money ever will.
You will learn SO MUCH about romantic relationships and about yourself over these next two decades.
Don’t Marry Until the Day You Love Someone More Than Yourself
If you’re wondering whether she’ll make you happy, she won’t. Making you happy is your job. If you WANT to make her happy, you’re on the right track. Marriage isn’t for you.
Marriage is harder than you think, no matter how many people told you it was going to be “work.” It’s hard to be afraid of what you don’t know. But I hope you’ll believe that you should be. Fear is generally bad. A healthy fear of divorce is wise.
It’s hard to understand that being a good person is not the same thing as being a good husband or a good father.
When you’re young, you don’t realize something VERY important: Your brain is hardwired to feel bored when you do any one thing too long, or when you fall into routine and familiarity. It’s not just you. It’s every person in the world. It’s called hedonic adaptation, and it’s probably responsible for most divorce, feelings of depression, sexual affairs and addictions. If everyone knew about this, we’d all stop looking for the bigger, better deal all the time and ruining our relationships and destroying our chance at contentment on our never-ending pursuits of happiness we never achieve.
So, no matter how gorgeous, fun, kind, smart, sexy your wife is, you will get used to her like all other good things in your life you take for granted (health, income, safety, shelter, transportation, etc.). Make it a daily habit to feel gratitude for the good things in your life and major discontentment will never set in.
People who do whatever they “feel” like will never have healthy relationships, will never pay bills, or hold down jobs, or take care of children, or accomplish anything, EVER. We succeed when we rise above our feelings and make good choices. Some days you will feel “in love” in your marriage. Other days you will not. If every couple who didn’t feel “in love” got divorced, 100-percent of marriages would end in divorce. Never forget this: Love is a choice.
Lastly, there’s a word you don’t quite understand. You’ve just heard adults use it. It’s probably the most important word you can ever fully understand as an adult if you like healthy relationships and a low-drama lifestyle.
The word is: Empathy.
It sounds a little feely and bullshit to you. I get that. You know what else feels like bullshit? Divorce. So shut up and pay attention.
You’re alive and you think things. You look around and you see the world, and you react to others and life events based on all of the things that have happened to you from birth until right now.
This is very important. Every other person on Earth thinks and feels differently than you. Sometimes what they think and feel will conflict with your thoughts and feelings. This is okay. People disagree all the time, and often work things out.
Sometimes, something happens, and it feels like a HUGE deal to you and you can’t figure out why someone else doesn’t feel the same. Other times, something happens, and someone else makes a HUGE deal out of it, but you don’t get it because it’s not on your radar or doesn’t impact your life.
You’ll accidentally rub strangers the wrong way once in a while in situations like this. Fine. Whatever. Just try to be polite.
But here’s the really scary part: You’ll also accidentally upset those closest to you in situations like this. Like your girlfriend or wife. They’ll TELL you. And you STILL won’t recognize the gravity of the situation.
I know you don’t get it. She likes Reba McEntire’s music, and you think it’s absolute GARBAGE. And then when you say so in a chiding, not-particularly-serious way, she acts super-butt-hurt about it and you can’t figure out why. You think she’s overreacting and you’ll say so.
She’ll want you to apologize for hurting her feelings.
But since apologizing is tantamount to admitting fault, you won’t do it. You did nothing wrong! She freaked out like a crazy person. If anyone owes anyone an apology, she owes me!, you think.
You will KNOW that you’re in the right and she’s in the wrong.
You’ll know it because your heart tells you that you love her, and that it’s totally insane to conclude that your repeated mocking of Reba McEntire music is a punishable crime.
Every time a situation like this arises, you will argue your well-thought-out and honest point. You will see her anger and frustration grow. You’ll hold your ground because you’re certain she’ll eventually come around to your mature, emotionally stable and intelligent point of view.
And then one day, she’ll leave you. Over something as seemingly benign as a dish left by the sink.
You’ll be taken by surprise. First, by the move, then by how miserably broken and lost you feel. It’s hard to breathe sometimes when it REALLY hurts. It’s not something you’ve ever had to deal with. You’ll be terrified because you didn’t know the human body could feel like that. Joyless. Totally defeated.
Then you’ll go on living, and all around you everyone else is pretty normal. They laugh at jokes and do fun things on the weekend. You’re on the brink of a breakdown, and a constant threat to cry. (I know! CRY! Like in front of people. It’s wild.)
How is it possible, I can feel like THIS while they’re right there feeling like THAT?
Two people. Same situation. Two RADICALLY different experiences.
Things happen to other people that affect them emotionally in profound ways. You won’t always understand because the event didn’t affect you at all.
How healthy your relationships are, and how happy your life turns out will hinge predominantly on your ability to care about things that affect people in your life—not because they impact you emotionally, nor because you are naturally interested in whatever the subjects are—but because the people you love care about them.
On its own, this wouldn’t matter to me. But this matters very much to her. I love her. She matters very much to me. Therefore, I care about the thing, too. It now matters to me BECAUSE it matters to her.
That’s it, kid.
That’s your birthday present. You don’t understand how important it is, and if you work a little bit, you may never have to because all of your relationships can be mostly healthy, and free of pain and drama. That would be awesome for all involved.
It’s the little things that can change everything. Some crap like Reba McEntire. Or even just dirty dishes.
Now, go play your Alice in Chains and The Fugees, then don’t forget to remove the detachable face when you’re done.