#5: You’ll get your heart broken, but you’ll learn to love again
“[In an effort] to convince ourselves in the face of existential anxiety that our lives dohave meaning, … many of us … take to the Internet [on our birthdays to] …publish a list of all the important-seeming things we’ve learned [thus far during our time] … on Earth.”
Today I turned 34 years old.
Naturally, then, I’m taking to the Internet to publish a list of all the important-seeming things I’ve learned over the past 34 years.
Here are 8 of the most impactful, meaningful, and perspective-shifting lessons I’ve learned since coming into this world nearly three-and-a-half decades ago.
1. Some mistakes can’t be fixed with words.
I like to think I have a way with words.
Usually, if I do something to upset another person, I can say or write something heartfelt to genuinely express my regret and thereby resolve the situation.
There are, however, some circumstances where words — no matter how eloquently or exhaustively expressed — are insufficient to undo the pain that has been caused.
The clichéd adage actions speak louder than words is indeed true; and it holds particular salience for many people.
Whenever I wrong somebody for whom words aren’t enough to rectify the mistake I’ve made, there’s nothing I can say to make the situation better.
I have no choice but to demonstrate through my actions that:
- I recognize the error of my ways;
- I understand the suffering I’ve caused the other person;
- I regret what I’ve done; and
- I’m committed to never making the same mistake again.
I have to keep the details sparse so as to protect certain people’s privacy, but one weekend last summer I acted very shamefully way towards several of my relatives.
Letting my own insecurities and worries get the best of me, I selfishly and ungratefully ruined a family gathering, making everybody around me feel very uncomfortable for two straight days.
The following week, I sent each of my affected relatives a long, sincere apology via email.
The responses I received plainly indicated that mere words weren’t enough to make amends for my behaviour and that I would have to show through my deeds that I was indeed remorseful for how I had acted.
I had no choice but to wait several months — in one case, nearly six months — before I could see my family again; and, I was forced to live with the embarrassment and shame of that weekend all that time (rightfully so, of course).
Words are easy: you can fire off an email or make a phone call in a matter of minutes.
Actions, on the other hand, take time — especially if, as is the case with me, you live far away from family and friends and, thus, are able to see them only a few times per year.
2. Try as you might, you can’t fully control your reputation.
Near the end of my undergraduate degree, one of my philosophy professors cited reputation as an example of a dynamic over which a person can’t exercise full control.
Confused by his claim, I said, “Surely, if you lead a good life, be kind to others, act respectfully, and so on, people will tend to recognize you as a good-hearted person and avoid making disparaging remarks about you.”
He responded, “Perhaps, but you ultimately have no control over what others think or say about you. That’s not up to you; it’s out of your hands. You can’t dictate how others see you.”
He was right, of course.
Each one of us encounters, interprets, and responds to the world, including the actions of other human beings, through a unique filter that represents the crystallization of our position in social space, our dispositions, our biographical experiences, the collective experiences of the groups to which we belong, and so on.
When we act, our behaviour — our individual actions and our conduct as a whole — get ‘processed’ by other people’s filters; because we can’t (easily) influence the shape or configuration of these filters, we can’t direct how they might mutate or transform our conduct.
To use a clumsy analogy, rays of sunshine, no matter how beautiful they are, tend to disappear into the darkness of an overpowering storm.
That is to say, our well-intended actions are still liable to being interpreted in negative ways by those whose processing filters are rooted in pain, anger, pessimism, the desire for revenge, etc.
No matter what you do in life, there will always be people who don’t like you and who say unkind things about you.
Time and again, you’ll be treated unfairly, you’ll be accused of having committed deplorable acts you didn’t do, and you’ll have your character metaphorically assassinated.
Whenever this happens, try to take solace in the fact that those who unjustifiably slander you do it, ultimately, because they’re unhappy with their own lives and with who they are as people.
I’m not suggesting you sit idly by whenever somebody tries to destroy your good name; by all means, stand up for yourself and protect what’s rightfully yours.
However, as long as your personal safety/wellbeing and your livelihood (and those of your friends and family) aren’t under threat, it’s often far less stressful and more productive to just let the squawkers keep squawking — haters gon’ hate, after all.
3. Sometimes, you just have to accept how the world works and then use that insight to your advantage.
In more ways than I could possibly articulate, life is fundamentally unfair.
Some people start on third base whilst others haven’t even had an at-bat yet, to use the familiar baseball analogy.
Some people are structurally disadvantaged as compared to other people, which produces a situation in which different individuals have objectively dissimilar chances of ‘getting ahead’ in life.
There’s no such thing as an ‘equal playing field’ when it comes to social reality; nor, for that matter, is our society based on a meritocracy.
A meritocracy describes a system in which those who are the best at what they do are predictably rewarded most handsomely for their accomplishments.
As Pierre Bourdieu has shown, however, dominant groups in society promote ideologies of meritocracy as part of their efforts to naturalize existing inequalities (and to responsibilize people for their own ‘failures’).
All of this to say, then, that life isn’t how it ought to be:
- The smartest students aren’t always admitted to college;
- The most talented athletes aren’t always drafted into professional sports leagues; and, to bring it closer to home,
- The best writers aren’t always recognized or celebrated on Medium.
When it comes to is versus ought, you have to choose your battles carefully.
One thing I’ve learned as an adult is that, in some situations, it truly doesn’t pay to paddle against the current, so to speak.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not encouraging you to trade in your idealism for pessimism nor am I claiming you should abandon your principles, give up on your hopes for a better future, or resign yourself to a cynical distrust of everything around you.
Instead, what I’m suggesting is that, depending on your abilities, expectations, and goals, it sometimes makes more sense to learn how things work and to adapt to them in order to play the ‘game’ well than it does to wage a war that’s destined to fail, leaving you disappointed and deflated in the process.
Perhaps my recent experiences on Medium are a decent example of this point.
After writing on Medium as much as I possibly could (without resorting to publishing junk) for three months straight at the beginning of 2019, I had earned about $1000 total.
In contrast, approximately six weeks ago I dedicated one day to editing a single article for a popular Medium writer, and I earned in excess of $600.
Talent alone isn’t sufficient for achieving success in this space.
To excel on Medium, you also need a huge fan base, a big collection of existing articles, and copious amounts of social capital (i.e., connections to Medium staff, owners of publications, and so on).
Rather than rebel against the system and/or spend hundreds, if not thousands, of hours building my audience, pumping out content, and so on, I made the decision earlier this year to provide real value to people who already possess the aforementioned resources; and it’s working out great for me so far.
I earn more money editing other Medium writers’ stories than I do writing my own essays; and, honestly, I enjoy the editing work far more than I do publishing my own stuff.
So, rather than ‘spin my wheels’ by insisting that Medium fundamentally change how it operates, I focus my idealism on my actual editing work — requesting, for example, that people stop using sentence fragments!
In short, I implore you to choose your battles wisely; if you do, you’ll likely find much more success and satisfaction in your work and creative pursuits than if you spend exorbitant amounts of time trying to convince others that ‘everything is broken’.
4. Every one of us is suffering from trauma.
Whether we’re explicitly aware of it or not, past trauma and the fear of future suffering drive a huge chunk of our behaviour.
So much of what we do is the product of a desire, whether conscious or unconscious, to confront or avoid the pain that resides inside our hearts (and, often, inside our bodies).
In short, we act the way we act because we want the hurting to stop.
We all want to be loved; we all want to be respected and appreciated; and we all want to feel as if what we do matters.
When we don’t receive the encouragement, love, and support we need as social animals, we lash out — against ourselves and others.
We engage in self-destructive behaviours and we attack those around us, including those whom, in a calmer and more rational state we’d readily admit, we care about more than anything else.
By recognizing that hurt people hurt people, we can learn to develop greater sympathy for others and, indeed, greater self-compassion.
This isn’t about foolishly excusing or rationalizing bad acts.
It’s about grasping the fact that most people, most of the time, aren’t inherently wicked or mean-spirited but, instead, go on the offensive in a desperate attempt to seek refuge from their own discomfort.
This understanding makes it possible to be more empathetic towards the plight of our fellow human beings.
5. You’ll get your heart broken, but you’ll learn to love again.
Unless you’re lucky enough to end up with the first person whom you love, falling in love will be one of the most enjoyable and devastating things that ever happens to you.
You’ll get your heart broken; you’ll experience anxiety, fear, guilt, jealousy, and sadness to a degree you previously thought impossible.
Having the person you love voluntarily decide they no longer want to be with you will cause your entire world to collapse.
You literally won’t know what to do with yourself on a moment-by-moment basis, and it’ll seem like mere minutes take years to pass.
People will tell you that you’ll be okay, that you’ll ‘get over it’, and that you won’t always feel the way you do now; but, convinced that you’ll never love again and that you won’t ever find another person who makes you as happy as ‘the one’ did, you won’t believe them.
In short, it’ll be one of the worst things you ever go through.
The good news, however, is that those who promise you that, eventually, you’ll find happiness, love, and purpose again will be right.
Take it from someone who has had his heart broken multiple times so far: you will be okay and you will love again.
Yes, your first true love will always hold a special place in your heart — mine still does for me nearly 15 years later.
Nevertheless, you were a living, breathing, goal-setting, purpose-driven, joyful person before your relationship began, and you’ll eventually become that same person once again.
Yes, you’ll likely be more guarded and a bit more cynical than before.
All the same, one day somebody new will come into your life, somebody whom you can’t stop thinking about; and then that will become the new source of your anxiety and excitement.
Be careful with what you wish for 😉
6. The older your parents get, the more they’ll want (need) to spend time with you.
Both of my parents are successful, retired, and (relatively) healthy people.
They live in nice houses, take vacations several times per year, and enjoy recreational activities.
Over the past six or seven years I’ve come to see that, despite the pleasures they take in living the ‘good life’, all they really want to do these days is spend time with their kids, i.e., with my brothers and I (and our respective partners).
I’ve talked about this realization several times with one of my best-friends, and he tells me that the same dynamic is playing out with his parents as well.
When I was younger, I used to get annoyed whenever my father would ask me detailed questions about certain aspects of my life, such as friends, school, or work.
Sometimes, I’d purposely give him short answers in an effort to end the conversations quickly.
As I moved through my late-20s, however, I began to feel ashamed about having acted this way, for I recognized that all my father was trying to do was show an interest in the things that mattered to me.
How could I possibly fault him for that? Obviously, I couldn’t.
As I entered my 30s, I started thinking a lot more about what life must be like for my parents as people in their mid-60s.
- No longer had to work for a living;
- Had gone on dozens of trips over the years;
- Had partied late into the night more times than I could remember;
- Had loved and lost and loved again several times over;
- Had read countless books and watched countless movies; and
- Had pursued many creative projects throughout my lifetime…
…how would I want to spend my time, and with whom?
It dawned on me, quite viscerally in fact, that all I’d really ever want to do is hang out with my children, especially given that my own parents would be long gone by that point (as my parents’ parents now are).
As soon as I understood this, I began to feel immense empathy and kindness towards my parents.
Indeed, their penchant for repeatedly asking me when I’d next pay them a visit started to make a lot more sense to me.
They’ve done it all already — the parties, the food, the vacations, the work accomplishments, the marriages, the babies, etc.
All they want to do now is enjoy the company of the most important people in their lives — people whom they brought into this world in the first place.
So, I’ve tried especially hard to stay in touch with, and to see, my folks as often as possible over the past five or six years.
I’m not saying I’ve been a model son — I certainly haven’t been at times.
Nevertheless, I’ve consciously worked to be kinder, more patient, and more present towards my parents.
Life is short: one moment your dad is taking a new mountain bike out of the back of his truck and giving it to you for your 10th birthday, the next you’re living in your own apartment 3000+ miles away from your father, seeing him only two or three times per year — tops.
If you’re lucky enough to still have one or both of your parents in your life, and if your relationship with them is even half-decent right now, try not to take them for granted.
They won’t be here forever, so make plenty of memories with them before it’s too late.
7. You won’t get very far on your own (so network like your life depends on it).
For more than a decade, I neglected the social aspects of my career, reassuring myself that I could do it all on my own and that I didn’t need anybody else to succeed.
I was wrong—plain and simple.
I’ve overtly sought to expand my network in recent years, and the results have been very encouraging.
For example, I’ve earned more than $20,000 in the past 18 months on the back of a professional relationship I have with a lawyer in the region where I live.
These earnings derive from work I’ve done for various branches of government as a researcher, writer, and data entry clerk.
I’ve also had opportunities to attend and/or speak at several municipal drug policy/addiction meetings and federal inquiries.
Neither the money nor the government jobs nor my involvement in the meetings would have been possible without the above-mentioned lawyer—take him out of the equation, and I’m merely a subject matter expert watching from the ‘sidelines’ rather than a paid professional.
The same dynamics apply in the context of my work as an editor.
I’m currently earning 3–5x as much money editing other writers’ Medium stories than I was earning earlier this year when I was pumping out tens of thousands of words of original content each month.
Essentially, I reached out to a couple of successful Medium writers at the end of the spring, offered to edit some of their articles for free, and, after having impressed them with the quality of my work, slowly began building real relationships with them.
Five months later, these folks are now paying me to help them polish stories that regularly attract many thousands of claps and hundreds of fans each—not to mention ‘featured’ status every now and then.
Cancel the relationships I’ve formed with several all-star Medium authors, and I’d likely still be hustling for new editing clients rather than trying to find enough time to manage the incoming requests for my services.
We live in a highly networked/gig economy-based world; so, if you’re a businessperson or creator of any kind, stop living like a recluse and start building your network.
Your future self will thank you for it.
8. Pay (more) attention to the little ‘voice’ inside your head.
If you’re anything like me, you can often sense when things just don’t ‘feel right’.
Whether it’s being able to tell that a friend is upset with you before they confirm it, that a relative with whom you haven’t spoken in a while isn’t doing well, that you’re flying too close to the sun (i.e., taking too big of a risk) in a given situation, or that you’re not living up to your own potential, you intuitively known when something is ‘off’.
My experience suggests respecting this ‘gut-feeling’ is the correct thing to do far more often than it isn’t, particularly when it comes to business, education, finances, and relationships.
Whenever I start saying to myself things like, “I shouldn’t be doing this”, “this isn’t smart”, or “I don’t have a good feeling about this”, I know it’s time for me to reevaluate the circumstances at hand.
Things tend to take a turn for the worse whenever I ignore my inner guidesman; I doubt I’m alone in this regard.
Call it a conscience, moral compass, inner critic, parental voice — whatever you want.
The way I see it, the voice inside your head represents a culmination of all the practical wisdom you’ve gained throughout your life so far, making it a sort of pre-reflective store of knowledge that allows you to intuitively sense whenever you start veering off the right path.
Listening to this inner voice can help keep you out of trouble; if you’re already treading deep water, it can prevent you from drowning, as it were.
Here are eight of the most life-defining lessons I’ve learned so far during my time on this planet:
- Often, “I’m sorry” just isn’t enough to right your wrongs. Always try to act as courteously, kindly, and thoughtfully as you can. It often takes much more than a simple “I’m sorry” to effectively make amends for your mistakes, but the opportunities to actively make such amends are sometimes few and far in between.
- You’re not fully in charge of your reputation. It’s impossible to dictate what others think or say about you. Again and again, your reputation will be subjected to unfair criticism. Be as authentic, friendly, and honest as you can be, but ‘let the chips fall as they may’.
- You have to know when to play — rather than rebel against — the ‘game’. Try to be forward-thinking, practical, and strategic when it comes to is versus ought (realism versus idealism). It’s not your responsibility to fix everything that’s wrong with the world. Where appropriate, learn the system and then work within it (whilst staying true to your core principles) rather than trying to upend roots everywhere you look.
- Every one of us is suffering from trauma. Don’t lose sight of the fact that we’re all fighting our own battles, trying to figure out not only how to heal from emotional suffering but also how to give and receive the kindness, love, and support we need to flourish as human beings.
- Somebody is going to break your heart, but you’ll be okay. Nothing hurts as much as having your heart broken, especially when it happens for the first time. No matter how devastated you are at the time, though, not only will you make it out the ‘other side’ but you’ll also love—truly love—once again.
- The older your parents get, the more they’ll need you. Try to spend as much time with your parents as possible, especially as they age. As their day-to-day obligations diminish and their free time increases, they’ll want to see/talk to you much more than ‘normal’. The memories you create with them during the last decades of their lives will mean the world to them (and, one day, to you as well).
- Put as much effort into building relationships as you do into developing skills. Relationships make the world go round. Highly successful people are often highly networked people. Expertise and skills are crucial, but, when you pair them with extensive social capital, that’s when you can really start to shine.
- The little ‘voice’ inside your head is an invaluable guide to making smart(er) decisions. Pay attention to your gut-feeling: it often ‘tells’ you what you should (and shouldn’t) do in life. Combining your intuition with the rational part of your mind allows you to make more informed evaluative judgments than does relying on logic alone.