this i believe (30 lessons for 30 years)

I’m a bit late on this, but I turned 30 this month.

29 was my favorite year. Really, I’ve enjoyed every year more than the last. But 29 was particularly unique and enlightening.

For one, it was spent entirely within the confines of a pandemic.

This led to a deepening of my closest relationships and commitments, an elimination of shallow relationships and obligations, exploration of deep questions and personal goals, and wading through the forest of therapy and trauma healing (including a profound MDMA-assisted psychotherapy experience).

Coming out the other end of the decade, I can say that my 20s were amazing, but I’m fully prepared for the symbolic start of something new.

My former boss Peep Laja used to write down his learnings on his birthday. It was inspired by others who have done the same. A lesson of belief for each year passed.

I typically do yearly reviews around the New Year, mostly reflecting on the past year and setting some broad goals for the following. This birthday I’ll try to outline 30 beliefs or lessons I’ve learned.

I’m writing this like a letter to my younger self, in a way. It’s clearly not supposed to be universal or representative of everyone’s experience. It’s a series of beliefs, pieces of advice, and lessons learned that I’m writing to me earlier in life.

1. Lay claim to your universe

A few months ago, I woke up and realized I actually hated a large part of what I was doing during the average day. I had too many meetings, no time to process my thoughts or emotions, and very little time to work on important projects or even spend time with close friends.

Then I realized: I can choose how I spend my time. The sentence “lay claim to your universe” flashed before my eyes.

I was a music major when I started college. My percussion instructor was strict, organized, insightful, and lively.

One day, when our percussion ensemble was standing around, disorganized and cluttered, she told us to “lay claim to your universe.” She said many wise things, but WOW, such a profound way to describe self-efficacy. Since then, whenever I feel like I’m being pulled by forces that I don’t agree with, I stand up and lay claim to the space that I’ve carved out for myself in this life.

2. Water polo, not swim lanes

I’ve written before about removing ‘swimlanes’ in areas of my life. Instead of looking at each segment of my life — friends, family, health, career, relationship, etc. — in different buckets, I see where I can combine them.

Morgan Brown told me on the podcast that, at Shopify, they don’t like swim lanes. Instead, they play water polo (or jazz).

“They’re playing the same game, playing the same song, but you have the autonomy and opportunity to be creative and apply that and to create something that’s new.”

3. Sacred Saturdays

Read this article by Ryan Holiday: You Could Have Today. Instead You Choose Tomorrow.

In it, he describes his perfect Saturday. Then he wonders, why not do this everyday?

It’s not always possible to perfectly architect your days, and maybe it wouldn’t even be desirable. The winds of obligation meet the storms of circumstance, and sometimes, you’ve got to do things you don’t want to do.

That’s the case for me. But now I have “Sacred Saturdays,” where I wake up and have zero plans, nothing on the calendar. I do whatever I feel like.

Somedays that is read for four hours. Somedays I go on a hike with friends and get tacos. Sometimes I go on a boat with friends and day drink. And once in a while, I get a ton of work done.

But it gives me breathing room and a mental model of what I’m working towards: the possibility of every day being spent with this kind of freedom, choice, and autonomy.

4. Know thyself

Here’s a pretentious one: the winding process of understanding myself has been one of the most fruitful journeys I’ve begun.

It never really ends. You keep peeling back layers of the onion, understanding your traumas and contextualizing them, understanding your behaviors and motivations, your faults and weaknesses. And this understanding can be painful, enlightening, your exciting.

And sometimes you get it wrong.

But the pursuit and gradual uncovering makes your relationships better, your business life smoother, and your goals more precise. Self awareness leads to less friction for those around you.

5. This should be fun

One of my agency’s principles is “this should be fun.”

Of course there are some things that aren’t naturally fun that you’ve just gotta do. Taxes, admin stuff, etc. I try to outsource or automate this stuff, but sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves.

But if I reflect on the past few weeks and realize that I’m forcing myself to go through the motions and I’m not having fun, something has to change. I have choices. This is a privilege, yes. But if I hate what I’m doing, I shouldn’t be doing it. People who are having fun will beat those who are doing it by obligation; their energy will outlast the latter.

Related (and possibly controversial): I think relationships should mostly feel easy, at least at the beginning. If it’s a huge struggle and not very fun in the beginning, it’s probably not going to get better, and it probably means you’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Better off closing that door to open up space for a better one.

I think this way about friendships, too, and that’s why I hate personal CRMs. If you have to be reminded to follow up with something, they clearly aren’t important to you.

6. Opportunities involve closing doors

Cliche advice but I find myself continually telling it to myself: every time you say yes to something you don’t really want, you’re saying no to something you do want.

To give space for a relationship to grow, you have to close the door on a million potential relationships. That’s commitment.

To exploit the business opportunity you’ve been given to the maximum potential, you have to close the door on potentially fun consulting gigs, conference talks, courses, and other distractions.

If you have an opportunity, something you’re chasing, the hard part (for me) is closing the other doors and paths. But I do realize now that I can usually reverse these decisions if I really want to, and life is long. Maybe you can do everything, just not all at once.

7. Dream bigger (there’s always room at the top)

Whether you’re Elon Musk or you own a corner convenience store, your work is going to take up a large amount of your time and energy. Why not aim at a huge goal that you really care about?

Also, big goals mean there’s less competition.

As Tim Ferriss said in Four Hour Workweek, “The fishing is best where the fewest go and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone is aiming for base hits.”

8. Where you go determines who goes with you (but you need both)

Throughout my life, I’ve never had a problem standing up for my own goals. At times, that has led to sacrifices in relationships. Now, I just bring people with me.

But I’ve known many people who sacrifice themselves and their aims for people whose paths and values differ from their own. This isn’t good, and it eventually leads to fractures or despair.

When you and the people around you have your ‘vectors aligned,’ it’s like magic – very little friction.

I, for example, have some idiosyncratic ways of living my life. I’m essentially semi-nomadic (homebase is Austin, but travel *a lot*) and have a flexible and strange career, but I would try to date people who worked stable jobs and spent all their time in Austin. Didn’t work.

9. If I’m afraid of it, I’ve gotta do it

“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.” – Tim Ferriss

Breaking up, making up, asking someone out. Taking an improv class. Calling to negotiate lower rates. Cliff Jumping.

There’s a rational limit here, so don’t nitpick this one. But usually if I feel a bit of fear and excitement, it means I’m headed in the right direction.

By the way, this means that I have to take a venomous snake handling course later this year. Oof.

10. Just do shit

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” – Mark Twain

Most of my problems come from overthinking. Action, in most cases, tends to solve my problems.

Nuance here (I spend a lot of time in thinking and reflecting mode, and it’s valuable), but in building my own business, the co-founders and I make the most progress when we just jump in and figure it out later. Send the email. Take the sales call. Figure out the service as we build it. Try the minimum viable test before building a huge strategy presentation.

When I’m feeling stuck, I tell myself, “just do shit.” Just do something.

11. Hard exercise is necessary

I don’t feel like my full self unless I’m getting in regular strenuous exercise – CrossFit, lifting, long hikes, etc.

Hard challenges in general, really. Things like cold baths, saunas, meditation, and challenging intellectual work.

But when I go 2+ weeks without a heavy lift or CrossFit session, I notice I become more anxious and irritable, and I seem to lose some of my creative and intellectual edge, too.

Plus, hard exercise makes me look better and gives me more energy. And I feel great after doing it.

12. Take the swing

I worked with a colleague in the past who would probably sling about a dozen jokes a day and maybe 2-3 would land. Most were duds (though I’d give a courtesy laugh).

But I loved it. I loved the attempt. Better to swing and miss than watch a strike go by.

Like experimentation, you often don’t know what you don’t know. You get wins by tinkering and exploring. Feedback is the mechanism for growth, improvement, and sometimes mastery. The more feedback you get through repeated attempts, the faster you grow and the more fun you have.

But it takes guts and the willingness to look silly or fail sometimes. Oh well.

13. The art of asking good questions

The smartest people I’ve ever worked with tend to be the ones who naturally ask the best questions.

Helps in relationships, too.

Proof for me is since I’ve started doing my podcast, almost all areas of my life have improved – agency sales, work meetings, management, pretty much any conversation, and of course dating.

Also, the questions you ask yourself (even unconsciously) form the basis of your narrative and reality. Asking better questions is a form of therapy (see: CBT).

I’m obsessed with good questions and I even keep a Notion document of “Questions I Love.”

14. Dopamine fasting isn’t bullshit

When I first heard the term “dopamine fasting,” I thought it was another dumb Silicon Valley biohacking thing. Maybe not as dumb as butthole sunning, but I definitely thought it was some nerd echo chamber invention.

Since then, I’ve felt the dark tunnel of the pandemic and all of its digital milieu closing in on my creative brain. All day spent on the phone, laptop, and Zoom calls make Alex a dull boy.

I won’t pretend to know the actual factual neuroscience, but I’ve listened enough to the Huberman Lab podcast to realize that if you keep amping up the engagement loops, normal stuff doesn’t do the same thing for you.

And you become an incredibly boring person when you spend your free time scrolling Twitter and sitting in Clubhouse chats.

I’ll be honest: I struggle with this constantly. But I do try to check out a bit on the weekends and spend more time on my paddleboard. I also try (and sometimes fail) to set limits on my social app usage.

15. Time spent with smart people is nourishing

Before the pandemic, I used to do a lot of lunches, coffees, conferences, and other social meetups with acquaintances and business connections. Little did I realize how much it fed my intellectual spirit.

Reading is great, but doesn’t do the same thing. No amount of blog posts can replace one good conference happy hour conversation.

There’s some mixture of the value of live IRL interactions, the mental stimulation you get from debates, and sheer osmosis of novel ideas.

16. Make stuff

I like to make music. I didn’t do that for many years, but now I’m doing it again. I’m learning how to play songs on the piano, and I’m trying to write songs again. They suck, but it’s fun.

When I spend time building things, I’m happy. My company, songs, crappy paintings, new food dishes, etc.

The better your “create to consume ratio” is, the better.

17. Avoid Productivity Hoarding and Looking Busy

I recently re-read the 4 Hour Workweek. The last time I read it was when I was in college, and it really influenced a lot of my subsequent decisions. First, it introduced me to the world of startups and tech in many ways. Second, it made me want to design my career to fit my ideal lifestyle. I ended up working remotely while traveling to dozens of countries.

Somehow, in the last year or two, I began collecting productivity rituals and tasks. Things that made me feel important and busy. Things that clogged up my calendar and prevented me from doing actually important work as well as from actually experiencing my emotions in the moment.

Don’t do that. If you have browser tabs open with the hopes you’ll eventually read that article one day, just close it. To do list items that have been on your list for 30+ days? Remove them.

Take an inventory of things you do regularly that you don’t like doing and automate, outsource, or eliminate them.

This isn’t laziness, it’s making space for actually impactful work. Or maybe it is lazy, but it’s smart laziness. No one sitting in meetings and making slide decks all day can actually be fulfilled by this stuff.

18. Personal Optimization is a Laffer Curve

I’m speaking more about personal and life optimization than conversion optimization here. Your efforts and results with self optimization, biohacking, whatever, look like this:

Start off doing things that move the needle. You get an Oura ring and learn that phones before bed and alcohol aren’t good. Drop those. Take some magnesium and start meditating. Great.

But there comes a point where the pursuit of perfection is really just an excuse for avoiding real risks and feelings. Also, when you’ve got such a rigid diet, sleep routine, morning routine, whatever, that rigidity backfires. Your 2 hour sleep ritual gets in the way of actually relaxing to the point where you sleep well. Your morning 30 min meditation + journaling + whatever else prevents you from actually getting work done.

Self-improvement has certainly, um, improved myself. But I’ve also had the pendulum swing too far. Now I embrace, love, cherish inefficiency, redundancy, wasted time, and aberrations from my habits and rituals. We’re not robots.

19. Slack Notifications Are a Trojan Horse

Always on communication has built poor expectations for workplace communication. Slack, email, and other notifications have increased stress and prevented deep work.

The accessibility is a double edged sword. Personally, I’ve chosen to turn off all notifications on my phone, and I only check Slack a few times per day.

20. Arguing is Mostly Pointless Unless It’s Fun

You’ll rarely *actually* change someone’s opinion, so I just let go most of the time when someone says something I disagree with. Unless they’re a close friend and I want to spar with them for fun. But most of the time, arguments are wasted effort, especially political ones.

21. Politics as Moral Identity is Dangerous

Humans are tribal, and it also seems like we need to believe in something higher than ourselves that grants moral boundaries and intuition. Religion had its problem, but in its place, fractionated politics and tribal identities seem to be taking place.

When you can justify your moral superiority by the side you’re standing on, you’re in a dangerous place, personally and historically.

Your neighbors, even the ones with different political opinions, have more in common with you than you think (and certainly more in common with you than your favorite politician). Don’t let the team blood sport of politics ruin your family and relationships.

The worst atrocities in history were communities by people that vehemently believed they were morally superior (overactive superego also leads to atrocious crimes).

22. Writing is Thinking

When I write more, my ideas become crystalized. When I write and then publish more, my ideas become leveraged. And the feedback from those articles further crystalizes my ideas.

So: write more. Simple one (but not easy).

23. Substance > Style in Writing and Elsewhere

Style matters, but you can’t put the cart before the horse. In content marketing, there’s a lot of talk on how to create good outlines, style guides, personas, etc. Editors look to replace passive voice with active voice (the passive voice wasn’t removed from this sentence) and shorten sentences.

However, unless you’re writing about something that actually matters and helps people, this is the wrong order. I’d rather read a shoddy, typo filled landmine of an essay that was truly interesting and useful than a beautiful poetic bit of fluff.

24. Long Term Games with Long Term People

Naval:

“But essentially if you want to be successful, you have to work with other people. And you have to figure out who can you trust, and who can you trust over a long, long period of time, that you can just keep playing the game with them, so that compound interest, and high trust will make it easier to play the game, and will let you collect the major rewards, which are usually at the end of the cycle.”

The games I want to play are long/infinite games, so it’s incredibly important to pick the right people to play them with. This matters for my business partners and hires, but also for every contractor, assistant, outsourced agency, etc. I work with.

25. Having a Dog Improves Your Life

You’ve got some extra responsibilities, but that’s a small cost for every other part of your life being better by having a dog.

26. Don’t Fear Being “Squishy” From Time to Time

Friend of mine says more men should be “squishy” — aka show their emotions, be vulnerable.

Midwestern stiff upper lip guy here; totally agree. Through a few years of therapy and “plant medicine” work, plus really opening up to select long term people, I’ve realized this makes you feel closer to the people around you, enriches relationships, and just generally gives life more depth.

New thing I’m working on, but it’s going well so far.

27. Novelty Elongates Your Perception of Time

When you’re doing a lot of interesting stuff – travel is the easiest example – your days feel like they fly by, but your weeks feel like decades. You look back and think “wow, I can’t believe we’ve done X, Y, and Z all within the last few days.” And voila, you’ve actually increased your perceived quantity of time. This is a real magic trick.

The opposite is when you sit in the same cubicle and take the same commute every day and sit in the same meetings. Days feel excruciatingly long, but you look back at the past few months and can’t remember where the time went. The first few months of the pandemic were like this for me.

I learned this from Moonwalking with Einstein.

28. Mostly Ignore Fitness Advice From Nerds

I was super into the biohacking, the whole nine yards. Did keto, drank bulletproof coffee, did intermittent fasting, optimized my workouts according to Dave Fucking Asprey.

Then, during the pandemic, I hired a fitness consultant. I told him my goal was to get jacked (sounds arrogant, but deep down you know it’s an authentic goal).

We added back a big breakfast, tons of carbs (including white carbs like rice and bread), added in cardio (a no no for biohackers since it raises cortisol or something), and basically just walked back all the shitty internet advice. Results: I got jacked. I felt great. Bloodwork got better.

I saw a Tweet where a non-diabetic tech nerd was wearing one of those continuous glucose monitors and learned that HIIT workouts were bad because they spiked his glucose. IYI.

Now, I still try to keep an eye on emerging research, but I try to ignore advice from new health gurus with books and trademarked diets and supplements to sell. Turns out most good advice is: lift weights, eat clean. The margins are for the athletes, not those who sit at their computers for 12 hours a day.

29. Manifestation Kind of Works

My co-founder and I started joking that we were working on our goals by ‘manifesting’ them, like the secret. Oddly enough, we started attaining the things we were hoping to manifest.

My old manager Scott Tousley sent me an ‘idea job description’ I wrote to describe my dream role. This was written many years ago. Well, I have that job today. Didn’t even think about it.

Obviously, you’ve gotta work towards your goals and I’m not just creating vision boards all day. But there is something to articulating your goals, what you really want, and focusing on the details. You notice opportunities when they come up, you subtly position other areas of your life to get those things.

So yes, I keep a vision board.

30. Advice is Contextual

This is a letter to myself, and maybe it will help you, but maybe not. Really, I arbitrarily picked 30 things that came to my mind in the scope of writing this. I didn’t hear your backstory, I don’t know the context in which you’re reading this. In fact, I’m sure some of this advice wouldn’t make it to the list if I had written in next month. I’m also sure I’ll disagree with some of it in the future.

So always be careful with advice, on life, business, relationships, or otherwise.

Gathering copious advice is also akin to perfectionism, procrastination, and the fear of earnestly trying and failing. Just go out and do the thing.

Conclusion

Thirty feels great. I’m ready for the next decade of life, learning, and the pursuit of happiness.

 

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a product growth and experimentation expert as well as co-founder of Omniscient Digital, a premium content marketing agency. He enjoys skiing, making and experiencing music, reading and writing, and language learning. He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog, Biscuit.

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