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40 life lessons at 40 years old

The things I’ve learnt so far.

Next month I hit 40 years old which means I’m unofficially in the prime of life.

From here on out it’s likely to be a gradual declining curve, in the physical sense at least.

In other areas of life, I hope to continue to grow and evolve. Wisdom comes with age.

All being well, and with luck on my side, I’m at least halfway through this remarkable journey of life.

It’s good to reflect on the past and what you’ve learnt so perhaps there’s no better time than when you hit a milestone in life. 

Why not do 40 life lessons at 40?

1. Age as a number has little significance

At 40, I still have the get-up-and-go in me that I did at 30.

Admittedly the drive is for different things but nevertheless I’m as enthusiastic as I’ve ever been.

There are two types of ageing: chronologically ageing and biologically ageing.

Some young people have an old head on their shoulders, some 85-year-olds still feel the same as they did at 30.

I’ve always felt younger than my actual age and I’ve always approached life that way.

Don’t allow anyone to categorise you by your age, young or old. 

2. Life is for experiencing

Have you ever met someone whose identity is attached to their job?

Or someone who has had time away from where they were born and raised? They’re often very limited in their worldview.

They’ve never sought out different experiences, cultures or perspectives or pondered the big questions of life.

Joseph Campbell once said that the purpose of life is the experience and rapture of being fully alive.

When I think about the memorable times in my life they were all to do with the pleasure of experiencing.

Sure, career is a part of that but only one part.

Experiences don’t have to all be positive either. Some of the best people have their characters shaped by negative experiences.

Get as many life experiences as possible. Don’t settle into a routine for too long. 

3. Your body is a marvel. Take care of it

For years I would pride myself on how I never got ill. People I knew would be off work for all kinds of illnesses but rarely did I get more than a blocked nose in the winter.

I thought my immune system was unique. Maybe I would never get ill because I had some uniqu gene?

Clearly, I was fooling myself but this kind of false positive thinking is much better than the hypochondriac alternative.

Then when I was 38 I caught the flu. It was the first time I’d ever had it and I couldn’t shake it off. It was a bad one.

For three weeks I felt terrible. Death’s door type stuff.

I could barely get out of bed because my trusty immune system let me down. I’d wake up and think it was finally going only the next day to feel worse than ever.

It was a reminder that one day, in old age, a flu-like that will wipe me out for good. It was a reminder that maintaining good health throughout life should be a priority.

Without health you have nothing. We’re all decaying but you can prolong it by implementing a good health protocol.

4. Always be mindful it can be all over in a second

I lost a friend due to a drunk driver. Within a few moments a young girl had lost her life and a four-year-old girl was without a mother.

We never know what’s going to happen in life. Ideally, we want to live to an old age with family surrounding us, but it’s not guaranteed.

You may have known someone who lost their life when they didn’t deserve it too. It’s a wake-up call.

If there’s something specific you want to do in your life, do it! Don’t put it off until you’ve met some material goal.  

5. Never stop learning

Ongoing learning throughout life will keep your brain healthy and ensure that you are a valuable contributor to society.

You are lucky that you have access to the world’s information at your fingertips. This type of access to information is unprecedented, though learning is not just about hard facts, stats and data.

It can mean acquiring a specialist skill, understanding people better or just knowing how to be more compassionate.

In this day and age you have to develop a talent stack to remain competitive in today’s society.

You can’t teach wisdom but instead, it must be learnt through life experiences.

To become wise you must live a full life as it’s the only way to learn. You have no excuse not to self-educate.

Keep an open mind, a willingness to learn and, most importantly, have strong opinions but loosely held. 

6. Now is the greatest time to be alive

I’ve always maintained that if you’re of sound mind and body then right here and now is the greatest time to be alive.

We live in a society that, with a little success and luck, allows you to make a difference to your living standards if you want to. I climbed the social mobility ladder and made it from the building site to the boardroom

You can hop on a plane and within 24hrs be on the other side of the world or travel alone and meet new people on your journey. Despite what social media will have you believe, the world is safer than ever before.

The world is getting smaller but more abundant. Work hard and take advantage of the greatest time to be alive. 

7. You have to work to stay relevant

If you live in the West then you’ll know that our society values youth and beauty above all else.

Old age is more considered to be a hindrance to society rather than something that adds value.

This is in part due to people reaching a certain age and giving up on themselves.

Instead, you have to continually work at staying relevant, whether that’s in your job or in your personal life. As Charlie Munger says, you have to become a learning machine to be successful.

Cultures change and you have to move with the times to stay relevant. No one cares if “it wasn’t like that in your day.” Adapt or fall behind.

8. Everyone’s on their own journey

Someone once said we all live on one Earth but there are billions of people living in their own world.

We often forget that our reality is not the same for everyone.

Our experiences of events often differ considerably and we make our own decisions based on years of living our own existence.

If someone has a different opinion to you or different goals to you it doesn’t make them wrong. If someone shows animosity toward you it’s often to do with them not you. People often project their fears and anxieties onto others.

Remember that others are on their own journey making sense of this life too. 

9. On jealousy

Bukowski said, “I’ve never met another man I’d rather be. And even if that’s a delusion it’s a lucky one.”

I’ve never been jealous of any other man and I include mates who have had more success than me.

Some have made more money than me, had more success at work including one mate who played top-flight football in the English Premier League. Not once did I ever feel any jealousy toward them and was always happy to see them succeed.

A good life is far more than the money you earn or the job you have. And why be jealous of someone you like?

I like who I am to be anyone else. I don’t get jealous, I admire.

A lot of people are still driven out of jealousy. As Warren Buffett said, “It’s not greed that drives the world, but envy.”

Some friends and acquaintances will become jealous of your success or achievements whereas others will cheer you on along the way. Keep the latter close. 

10. Spend time alone and avoid those who can’t

I’ve known people who hate being alone. The thought of marinating with their own thoughts is something they fear and avoid.

If you have introvert tendencies and enjoy being alone and you’re with someone who’s the polar opposite then there’ll be trouble ahead. You’ll find it suffocating.

Equally, if you’re someone who doesn’t like being alone then work on it. Read Solitude and Leadership by William Deresiewicz to understand the importance of spending time alone.

Travel alone too. It’ll open you up to new people, places and experiences.

It’s important to take time out to reflect on your own. You came into the world alone and go out alone and that’s just the way it is. 

11. Remember those who helped you on your way

In your life you’ll meet two kinds of people.

The first kind are the people who are friendly but want something from you. You won’t hear from them when they don’t need you.

The other people are the people who want you to do well.

The first is an acquaintance and the second is a friend.

I’ve met both in my working life. You won’t tell what kind of person they are but over time they will reveal themselves. 

Remember to look out for those in the second camp.

It may be years later and you both may have changed as people but there was once a time when they gave you a leg-up.

Reach out and tell them that you haven’t forgotten and you’re glad they helped you. Pay it back.

12. Work on your Eulogy Virtues

In the book, The Road to Character, author David Brooks, discussed how in today’s society we are more focused on, what he calls, our Resume Virtues over our Eulogy Virtues.

In other words, we’re more focused on acquiring skills and status that help us in the job marketplace over developing character depth.

We rarely talk about integrity, honour, morals, principles and other positive characteristics. In fact, they are rarely a part of our modern vocabulary.

Look up the definitions. See the meanings behind them. They run deep.

Try being principled when no one’s looking. 

13. Learn charisma

Being charismatic can open new doors for you that wouldn’t usually be possible.

Why? Because charisma is not about you but rather how you make people feel.

Charisma is about communicating effectively (including nonverbal communication), presence, warmth, listening and being inquisitive.

Most importantly it’s about making people feel good after meeting you. Remember, people don’t remember what you said but how you made them feel.

It is not innate but it can be learnt with dedicated practice and it can mean the difference between a good life and a great life.

Develop the skills to be a charismatic person to create win/win social situations. 

14. Don’t allow anxiety to define you

Anxiety is a part of life for most people. It’s your body’s natural response to today’s complex digital environment which is physically harmless but can bring stress-inducing first world fears.

I had my first experience later in life compared to most people. Thankfully, it was mild and I dealt with it quickly as I understand the psychology behind it.

Will it come back? Maybe.

Will I deal with it again? Yep.

The greatest living explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, in his book Fear: Our Ultimate Challenge says that anxiety is healthy if kept in its place.

The problem is, a lot of people allow anxiety to define them. It becomes a part of them when it doesn’t have to be this way and it can lead to worse issues.

Anxiety is a stress response that runs through you, but it is not a part of you.

15. Revitalise your sense of wonder in the world

The world is big and vast and our understanding of it grows all the time. But there are a lot of unanswered questions.

Why are we here? How did it all start? Do we have a creator?

No one has the answers. We can guess and make assumptions but no one truly knows. Not even scientists, religious leaders or die-hard atheists.

This is what I call living in awe.

As people grow old they lose their sense of wonderment in the world as their minds become stuck in their social constructs.

They forget that their very existence is a marvel (see lesson 3) and they should move through life with a sense of awe and wonder.

There is much we don’t know about the planet we live on. You can choose to live in fear and ignorance or wonder and awe. I choose the latter.

16. Learn the basic principles of lifting weights and building muscle

As you age, your body will develop sarcopenia. It’s the muscle-wasting disease that every man has from around the age of 30. The older you get the more the disease eats away at your muscles.

There are ways to delay the onslaught which is done in the form of resistance training. Learning the basic principles of lifting weights and building muscle will give you all the positive health benefits of resistance training and ward off sarcopenia into later life.

Better yet, build a muscular base and you may never develop sarcopenia at all. You don’t have to become a gym bro and dedicate your life to the iron. Three times a week with the right exercises will do it.

Understand the basics of lifting, nutrition and rest, and you’ll keep your muscle for life. 

17. Do intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting is something I’ll do for the rest of my life.

New discoveries on the health benefits to fasting are made all the time.

Intermittent fasting is great for fat loss, a greater sense of wellbeing, better focus and research is showing that it can help increase your lifespan.

When I’m fasting I tend to feel more focussed on the work I’m doing. My skin is smoother and my head feels lighter. There are countless people like me who swear by intermittent fasting.

It’s a more natural state of eating than having three meals a day. For millions of years our ancestors fasted and only in recent years have we eaten full square meals each day.

Do intermittent fasting to get back to your body’s natural state of eating. 

18. No one is coming to save you. You are in charge of your own destiny

Everything is on you. No one is coming to save you. You are the sole driver of your life.

The sooner you realise this, the quicker you’ll be a productive and functioning member of society.

I take full responsibility for every failure or loss in my life. Equally I take responsibility for all the success too.

Don’t blame anyone for where you are in life. The world is not a fair place.

In Thailand, I met a 55-year-old guy who was hiking his way around the world.

A cool guy, I thought, until he started talking about his childhood and blaming his parents for things that went wrong his life.

Remember that everything is down to you in life. All your successes, mistakes and failures. Own them. 

19. You are what you do

Want to be a photographer? Go out and take 100,000 photographs. Want to be a writer? Write a million words. Want to be an entrepreneur? Go out and work 16hr days including weekends for a year or two.

In the social media world it’s easy to write on your Twitter or Instagram bio that you’re a photographer, writer, entrepreneur, thought leader or expert but it’s a lot harder to actually be it.

It’s easy to publicise your virtuous self via a tweet or Facebook post but the grind is in the doing. The years of little success and acknowledgement are where both the skill and character formation take place.

You are what you do and sometimes to become the thing you have to work day-in-day-out to get there. 

20. Create your own definition of a successful life

I still maintain that this by Nassim Taleb is the greatest quote on success ever said.

“For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life.

“Let him be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions.” 

Find out your own definition of success, not other people’s. 

21. Right now are the good old days

Have you ever looked at a photo of yourself from ten years ago and thought those were the good old days?

Only to find ten years later the actual good old days were the time you were looking back on your ten year younger self?

The point I’m making is that right here, right now are the good old days.

You may not think it but in ten years time you’ll look back on now and think of what a great time it was.

Speak to any musician who made it or a self-made millionaire who started with nothing. Both will look back on the days of struggle with fondness. Perhaps with rose tinted glasses but fondness all the same.

Remember that right now are the good old days. Not the past and not sometime in the future. Relish the now.  

22. Don’t follow fashion

Fashion trends quickly go out of style and before you know it you’re being tagged in photos from five or ten years ago and you look like an idiot.

Wear clothes that don’t go out of style. Suits, blazers, jeans not too tight or baggy, shirts, sweaters, t-shirts and polos in black, white, grey and navy.

Dress your age. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone who’s 40 dressing like they’re 25.

Find a style that’s comfortable for you and stick with that. 

23. Build an online platform

If you work in an industry where you’re selling something, be it a product or an idea, you need an online platform.

If you work in an industry where you need to persuade people you need an online platform.

The media industry is being completely changed by the internet and social media.

We still haven’t seen the full extent to what it will do. One thing certain, however, is that influencer marketing is a growing industry as more people become social media influencers.

In a world where anyone can publish to a global audience by building their own online platform you need one too.

I’ve been involved in social media since 2005. Back then it was called blogging because it was a time before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest etc.

I’ve created large blogs and then deleted them again. Built an influencer tool and then sold it before launch. Made good money in consulting and advising companies on how best to use digital and social media.

One thing I haven’t been is consistent with building a platform which is a marathon, not a sprint and is about long-term consistency. Imagine how big a blog I’d have now if I stuck with the original. It would be huge.

Ten years ago was the best time to create an online platform. The second best time is now.

24. Live in a big city (at least for some of your life)

It will open you up to new cultures, people, foods, job opportunities as well as open your eyes to wealth inequality, poverty and corporate greed.

You’ll find every form of human life living in a global city. Some of which will become good friends.

If you come to a global city to pursue a career you’ll develop skills and be pushed harder than anywhere else.

Moving to London was one of the best decisions I ever made. There are a number of different reasons to live and not to live in London.

For me, it’s shaped my character substantially, provided me with unforgettable experiences and introduced me to people I would never have met.

Living and working in a big city will do shape your character like no other experience but staying too long can turn you cold. 

25. Do something now that in ten years you’ll thank yourself for

If I think back to 10 or even 20 years ago there were certain decisions and moves I made that I now thank myself for.

The short-term ‘discomfort’ I had at the time more than paid for the comfort I enjoy today.

  • Deciding to go into further education even though I had to reduce my living standards for a few years
  • Opening an ISA savings account when I had very little spare cash allowed me to build a savings foundation
  • Setting up a blog in 2005 knowing that this new online thing had potential
  • Going out of my way to introduce myself to people I admired or thought were interesting anddeveloping relationships with them

It’s important to live in the now but not recklessly. Think about the things you can do now that your future self will thank you for in ten years. 

26. Track your health

We’re lucky that we have the technology to allow us to track our health even at the genetic level. What a time to be alive.

I’m a big believer in self-tracking health data so you can monitor your health. Yes, it’s geeky but the more you understand about your body the better you’ll spot changes in it.

Track metrics like your weight, body fat and get regular blood tests to measure your testosterone, Vitamin D and other important hormones.

Yes, we’re all heading in the same direction but understanding your body’s own data will help you keep on top of changes in your health.

27. Know how to make a power smoothie

If you work hard and play hard, eating nutritious food can fall by the wayside. Life is like spinning plates and sometimes a couple of them fall and smash.

Thankfully, today you can buy an electric blender that will crush up fruits, vegetables, seeds and oils and turn them into a great tasting smoothie.

Learn how to put a few of these ‘power smoothies’ together so that getting those vital nutrients is easier.

Buy a solid blender and learn how to make a couple of nutrient dense power smoothies. 

28. Prioritise laughing

Laughing is one of the most underrated activities you can do. It’s no surprise that as a child you laughed more times on average than you do now.

Laughing produces all kinds of positive effects including reduction of the stress hormone, cortisol and the production of the feel-good hormones, dopamine and serotonin.

As we get older, we tend to take life more seriously. Work, relationships, money, health issues and things out of our control all take their toll on our ability to make time to laugh.

When was the last time you laughed uncontrollably, deep from your belly and until your eyes water? Those are the best kinds of laughs.

Find a funny mate, watch comedy, learn some jokes but whatever you do, prioritise laughing.  

29. Learn basic self-defence

The world is safer than ever and as you get older you tend to mellow out a little. Getting into scrapes is generally not on your priority list. That said, people minding their own business get jumped on every single day.

Learning basic self-defence skills like how to throw a punch or pin someone to the floor can help you if you need to defend yourself (and others).

These skills also give you the confidence to know that if something does happen you may be able to prevent it.

Learn basic self-defence skills and they could help you in any time of your life.

30. Politics, like life, is nuanced

We live in a black and white thinking world.

“You’re wrong, I’m right.”

“You support X so that means you MUST be a Y.”

“You said X & Y back in 2007 so you must still believe this ten years later and if not you’re a hypocrite.”

People love to pin labels on other people as it’s easier for them to rationalise why they do or don’t like them.

Someone may be pro-capitalism but against allowing the banking industry function with little regulation.

Or they may be for helping people from war-torn countries seek asylum but against a no-cap policy on economic migrants.

Politics is nuanced, people are nuanced, life is nuanced. It’s complicated. Remember that when dealing with others who have a different view to you. 

31. Have a side project

We all have to work and we all have to earn money. There are few people in this world who enjoy getting up day-in-day-out to go to work regardless of whether they’re a entrepreneur or corporate slave. Work is often a grind particularly after years of doing it.

That’s why it’s important to be working on a side project. Whether it’s building a blog, working on an online business, renovating a property to sell for profit or just exploring a subject you’re deeply interested in.

Having a moonshot-type of side project allows you to dream a little. It may never take off or amount to anything but it will keep you distracted from the mundane of regular living.

The writer of Game of Thrones didn’t get his big break well into his later age. Before then he was relatively unknown.

Have a side project and keep the dream alive. Don’t be clubbed into the dank submission of normal mundane life. 

32. Find the cardio that fits

Doing regular cardiovascular exercise is important for both your physical and psychological wellbeing.

Everyone has a favourite kind of cardio, whether it’s running, cycling, swimming, triathlon or even walking. It’s usually the one that we’re the best at and that we enjoy doing the most.

Find the cardio exercise that you enjoy and provides a rush of endorphins after. And do it regularly.

33. You’ll never find balance in life but try to

Some of the most ‘successful’ people in one area of life are failures in other parts.

The entrepreneur has made a load of money and received accolades for being a savvy businessman. But his health is poor due to the stress and he hasn’t spoken to his family in years.

The fitness guy has got the six-pack abs and the half a million Instagram followers. But he’s developed a psychological problem with food and has low esteem as he never feels perfect.

Some people are brilliant at just one thing and that’s what they’re meant to do in life and nothing else. These are geniuses. You are not a genius.

Seeking balance in a world which encourages us to stand out is hard. Where being mediocre is discouraged and frowned upon. But being ‘well-rounded’ means you’ll live a more ‘whole’-some life.

Try to dial in all areas of life. It will be a constant balancing act and you’ll never get it perfect but try at least. 

34. Remember your roots

For a good few years I ran away from where I was born and raised. I had moved to London and had gotten on the career ladder. My past was my past and, in my mind, I was moving on up.

Over time I realised that I actually like where I’m from. I’m proud of my upbringing and my working class background.

It was a parochial upbringing which gave me a naive way of seeing the world. Twelve years in London has given me more of an understanding of how the world really works.

Regardless of where you are in life, you should always remember your roots. It’s the place that shaped you and informed much of the unique views you have today. 

35. Understand humanity

You are an important member of the human race. You should understand where you/we have come from at both a biological and historical level.

Learn a bit about history, psychology, sociology and any the other social sciences.

Understand the laws of human nature like what motivates people, why power corrupts and how you can navigate your way in the world.

Learn about the atrocities of Auschwitz, horrible wars and famine all the previous generations had to go through to get us to this point.

Read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari to get a macro view of how we humans branched off from homo erectus and eventually ruled the world.

Understand where you came from as a species and it will given you an indication of where we might be headed. 

36. Travel to broaden your horizons

Yes it’s a cliche but I’m a perfect example of this.

Up until the age of 21, I had never been to another country, which is old by today’s standards. In fact, I’d barely left the village I was born in.

What’s even more funny is, the first time I ever went abroad was to smuggle cigarettes back Lanzarote, the Spanish-owned Canary Island off the west coast of Africa.

Me and two other mates had our flights and accommodation paid for and were given spending money to spend a week in the sun. Our side of the deal was we were to bring back 80 sleeves of 200 cigarettes back through to the UK.

This was at the time when cigarettes were so expensive in the UK that paying people to do this was profitable (and legal provided you only did it once).

Needless to say, that week in the sunshine with the cocktails, beach and girls opened me up to (literally) a whole new world.

Since then I’ve wanted to see more of the world and forty-odd countries on five continents later I’m not doing too badly.

There are many benefits to travel so do it as much as you can and absorb the culture, cuisines and people.

Travel won’t solve all your problems (as much as social media will have you believe) but it will broaden your mind. 

37. Speak your truth

Speak your truth means stand up for what you believe in.

Too many times people prefer to not say what they believe. Instead, they prefer to say what they think others want them to say rather than saying what they truly believe and feel.

Why? For fear of being outcast from the group. We are, after all, social animals.

I can’t be like this. I have to speak my truth and say how I feel. It may isolate me from certain groups but that’s a price I’m more than willing to pay to be true to myself.

Conforming is easy. Being a sheep is easy. Never wanting to rattle the cage is easy. Speaking your truth is hard and that’s why you must do it. 

38. You make luck

Luck can’t be manufactured but you can increase your odds of luck.

By doing so you open yourself up to the world and its possibilities.

Reading, researching, attending events, meeting new people, travelling to new places and using social media to connect with likeminds is how you do it.

No one ever got lucky by shying away from the world and I’ve never met a lucky person with a negative attitude towards life.

Being a lucky person starts with the right mindset and is followed through by taking appropriate acton.  

39. Learn compounding

I wish I discovered compounding earlier in life. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have done anything about it.

Compounding is about instilling positive habits that, in the long, run can make a huge difference to your life.

Take money, for example. Warren Buffett understands compounding well. Despite being the world’s greatest investor, his net worth didn’t grow into multiple billion dollar figures until later in life. It was the result of years of his wealth compounding.

It’s not just relevant in regard to money. Take health. Eat just 125 calories less of your normal intake each day and in a year you will have lost weight. Equally, eat an extra 125 calories and you’ll eventually get fat.

The book, The Compound Effect, is a great read if you want to understand more about compounding.

Add small positive changes to your life and start early. Over the long term, it could mean a vast difference in health, wealth and everything else.

40. Memento Mori. You are going to die

Memento mori is a latin phrase which means something like, “remember you are going to die.”

Sounds morbid? That depends on how you look at it. In my reality, it’s the most freeing experience you will ever have.

It allows you to differentiate between what’s important and what is not. Your job, career, house or social status ultimately mean very little in the vast cosmic arena.

In 100 years from now no one will care who you were and that’s how it should be.

Once you’ve figured this out you’re left with what truly matters. Thinking you’re going to live forever or just preferring not to think about it at all means you’re at best kidding yourself and at worst wasting vital time.

Remembering you’re going to die will give you a sense of purpose, free you from nonsense and allow you to live a life on your own terms. And that’s what I intend to do for the rest of mine. 

Here’s to the next 40 years.

40 life lessons at 40

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  1. As always – a brilliant post Stephen. You have a way of articulating and crystallising thoughts that resonate. 2, 6, 19, 33, 36 and of course 40 really hit the spot! (And I know you point out in #9 that jealousy shouldn’t be part of your make-up – but I’m bummed that I didn’t know smuggling cigarettes (if you only done it once) was legal 20 years ago!)

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