40 Life Lessons I’ve Learned in My 40 YearsJuly 2, 2019 • By Tara Ziegmont
Today is my 40th birthday, and I have been looking forward to it for quite a while, so much so that I woke up before 5 am just to greet the day. (No, I didn’t set my alarm for that time. I just woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep.)
I remember when I turned 30. I was a relatively new wife and mother, and my expectations of those two things were, ahem, a little off. I expected my sweet, shy husband to throw me a huge 30th birthday party, and when he didn’t, I stopped talking to him for weeks. And then, he tried to put a small party together with people I didn’t even like, and I took the baby and ran off to Old Grandma’s house for a week.
Suffice it to say that I don’t have fond memories of turning 30 even though the decade on the whole was pretty great. I was able to be home with my kids full-time for most of it, even though I worked for most of it as well. I developed an amazing career from home, and I went back to grad school for a second masters degree. I lost hundreds of pounds, attended hundreds of hours of therapy, and read hundreds of books. My mother got sick and died, and my dad got pretty sick as well. My father-in-law passed away, and caring for my mother-in-law fell exclusively to Joe and me. I focused on my own self care. I started some good habits and some bad ones. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and experienced both depression and mania. I felt great sometimes, and I felt defeated sometimes.
There were a couple of years in there that were pretty abysmal, but overall, it was a great decade, definitely the best one of my life so far. I expect that the 40s will be just as awesome and maybe even more so.
In the spirit of self reflection, I have amassed a big list of the things I’ve learned in my first forty years. I’ve been writing this post for about a month, so it has gotten pretty long. Be prepared.
Life Lessons from Maya Angelou
“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life.” I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
I don’t know how old Maya Angelou was when she wrote those words, only that she was a brilliant wordsmith and wise woman. I met her once, in high school, and I heard her speak in front of a large audience. She was a magnificent performer and also quite the profound thinker. I love her words here.
I’ve incorporated some of Angelou’s thoughts into my own life lessons below. I hope you’ll read them and think about what life and God have taught you in your years, and work on living those lessons in the best way you can.
- Life isn’t fair, but God is good. People get sick and die. People steal. People say nasty things. Sometimes, life isn’t fair. We do well to remember that when we want to stick out our lips and pout. But despite all the not fairness of it, God is good. My favorite Bible hero is Joseph (of the amazing technicolor dream coat fame). Joseph was nearly killed, sold into slavery by his brothers, attacked, and jailed before he rose to power and saved many thousands of people – including those very same brothers – from starvation in the worst famine the world had ever seen. His life was not fair, and he didn’t deserve all the bad stuff that happened to him, but God had a great and mighty and wonderful plan for him through it all.
You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. – Genesis 50:20 (NLT)
- Progress is made one very small step at a time. The popular saying “progress, not perfection” comes from the Big Book of AA. In the context of a 12-step program, it means that you’re always moving towards the manifestation of the 12 steps through constant work and effort. I have discovered that whatever gains I can make, even if they’re small, they help me toward my goal. Right now, I’m struggling with food choices, but I know that if I can pass up the sugary foods just for today, it will be a little easier to pass them up tomorrow. Baby steps.
- Don’t wait until you’re old to be eccentric. Do it now. When I was in my early 20s, my brother-in-law said I should be in my 60s. I liked Louis Armstrong music and playing Yahtzee with Old Grandma. I still barely listen to popular music, and I am about a decade behind in trends. But I don’t care. I am who I am, and I like me for the most part. I like being different.
- You don’t have to do it all yourself. In my 20s and most of my 30s, I would struggle to do things for myself rather than shell out cash to someone else. Especially on my blog and around the house, if I could figure it out and tackle the job on my own, I always did. This earned me many sleepless nights and much heartburn.
I have come to realize that there are a lot of jobs that I don’t need to do myself. I don’t need to do the coding on my blog; I can pay someone who knows a lot more than me to do it in half the time. I don’t need to do my own book editing; I can pay someone whose eye is a lot more discerning than mine. Joe doesn’t need to mow our lawn; we can pay someone who enjoys it. We don’t even have to do our own cooking; we can purchase fresh, pre-made meals from a local clean eating service. We can create jobs, blessing others and freeing ourselves up for the tasks that only we can do, like studying for an MBA and homeschooling our kids and writing blog posts and working at our careers.
- Time is your most precious commodity. This ties closely in with #4 above. Time with my people ranks above just about everything else, except my own self-care. Ideally, they get the best of me, and the world gets what’s left over.
Related: 25 simple & easy time management tips for busy moms
- Learn something new every day. I am a learning junkie; I love to learn. Whether it’s how to properly use a semi colon or how a monarch butterfly migrates, I aim to learn something new every single day. In the fall of 2018, I participated in a graduate-level botany course as a Penn State Master Gardener, and that led me to want to go back to grad school and get a second masters degree (an MBA this time). I love school (except for my current class which is terribly executed and miserable) and, although the subject is not always as thrilling as Master Gardener class was, I am loving being back in school and soaking up all manner of new to me knowledge.
- Forget what other people think. When I was in the psychiatric program in 2011, one of the things my counselor said most often was not to worry about what other people think. I was fixated on it at the time and, to be honest, I still think about it more than I should. I worry what my friends and colleagues think about me and whether they will see me as lazy or needy or too intense. I think a certain amount of this stress is helpful – it makes me not to act like a lunatic after all – but an excess of it can be paralyzing or lead me to overthink, which leads me to the next point.
- Enough with the overthinking! This goes hand in hand with worrying about what other people think. I am a A+ overthinker. I worry about things that never happen, and I read too much into just about every possible situation. No good ever comes from overthinking. Never.
- Be positive. I spent the first 35ish years of my life as a Negative Nelly. I looked at everything (except time with Gracie) as a bother, and nothing would ever go right. I realized somewhere toward the second half of the decade that nothing would improve unless my attitude made it so. It wasn’t a black and white decision; becoming more positive took a lot of time and effort over a period of years. But it did happen for me, and it can happen for you too with concerted effort.
Related: How to develop a positive outlook
- Stop comparing. Life is too short to look at what other people are doing, and comparing – especially comparing your struggles to someone else’s successes – zaps your energy and focus.
One of the great temptations for us as leaders and dreamers is to compare the start of our new adventures to the middle of someone else’s. You work on your first book and pick up Max Lucado’s 14th book and say, ‘Mine isn’t as good.’ You post your first blog post and look at Michael Hyatt’s 100th and think, ‘Mine is nowhere near as great as that.’ You give your first speech and watch Ken Robinson’s 1,000th at TED and think, ‘I’m not great like that.’ – Jon Acuff
Related: 20 Things to Stop Doing and Be Happy
- Cherish your people. My mom was not perfect. In fact, she was far from perfect and had a lot of flaws. I was so busy seeing what she did wrong or what she didn’t do at all that I missed out on opportunities to appreciate what she did right. If I had her back, I would try to accept the bad as part of the beautiful and love what she could offer. I miss her terribly even now, and she’s been gone for six years at the end of this month. Cherish the people you have, flaws and all, because you have no idea how long you’ll have them in your life.
Related: It Never Goes Away, but It Does Get Better
- Move on. This was one of the biggest lessons of my 30s. I grieved for my mom for years. The intense grief stole time from my kids and husband and life. Grieving is important and necessary and helpful, but staying stuck in it is none of those things. When something bad happens or you lose someone or something that was important to you, allow yourself to grieve and then get over it. I needed a good therapist to move past it. You may need one, too, and that’s perfectly okay.
Related: On Grief, Letting Go, and the Movie that Made Me Cry Myself to Sleep
- Make time for play. Play is doing things just for the fun of it, and it is fundamental to a good life. You simply cannot have a life in which you are happy and fulfilled without regular play. It doesn’t have to be every day or even every week, but you have to have significant blocks of time in which you have no goal except to have fun.
Related: 14 Habits of Very Happy Moms
- Exercise is the best medicine. In the first 38 years of my life, you couldn’t have convinced me of this for any amount of money or reward. I thought exercise was a punishment, something that was to be dreaded and feared. It was hard, and I couldn’t do it. I thought I had to live up to someone else’s standard (looking at you, phys ed teacher from 7th grade), and I was too fat to try. This attitude led me to top 400 pounds, and at that weight, I could hardly walk to the end of my block. But I did walk to the end of the block for a couple of weeks. And then I walked to the end of the next block for a couple of weeks and the next one after that. Every few days, I walked a little further until I was walking 4-5 miles most days. It’s not a punishment; it’s a celebration of a body strong and healthy and vital. Now, I don’t sleep very well and don’t have much energy on days that I don’t work out. There is not a single thing nor any pill that can give you the health benefits that 30 minutes of good exercise can give you, period.
- Get enough sleep. I cannot be at my best without enough sleep. I can’t. You can’t either. I read a study recently that said the brain actually consumes its own synapses when it is chronically sleep deprived, and people who don’t get enough sleep weigh more on average than well-rested people. Google it. You’ll see.
Related: 17 easy ways to develop a positive outlook
- Don’t just set goals, make tangible plans to achieve them. You are not Cinderella, and you do not have a Fairy Godmother waiting to make your dreams come true. When I was in my early 30s, I wrote down all kinds of goals thanks to some CDs from Jack Canfield. The big one was that I wanted to earn $5k a month from my blog and retire early from my job. Unfortunately, wanting those things is not the same as having a plan to make those things happen, and it wasn’t realistic to expect to go from $500 a month to $5,000 a month without a lot of work. In fact, all these years later, I’m just around the $2,000 mark, and I have worked really hard to get here.
- Find the silver lining. There is always a silver lining, but you probably won’t be able to see it at the time. I know I keep coming back to this, but my mom died in 2013 from pancreatic cancer. It was one of the two singular worst experiences of my life, but it helped me to be able to hold the hand of a girlfriend and walk her through the death of her mother a few short years later. It was hard to relive my experiences, but it was just what she needed to get through it. Another friend held my hand and walked me through it when it was happening to me, and my silver lining was the chance to pay it forward to someone else.
- Forget regret. I have been pretty good about this through my 40 years, but there is one thing I do regret. That is that I planted on purpose invasive bamboo in my backyard in an effort to mask the junk of my back neighbor. It was a horrible mistake, one that is probably going to take over our entire backyard and one which I see and lament almost daily. But I can’t go back and change it, and I didn’t listen to my dad’s advice at the time, so I just have to deal with the problem I created and get on with my life.
- Don’t make excuses. Some people are really good at blaming others and making excuses for themselves. I used to be one of these people, but I don’t think I am anymore. I own my mistakes (like the bamboo! GAH!), and I make an effort to fix whatever the problem is. That’s all you can do.
- You do you… This goes along with not worrying about what other people think. Whatever the thing is that makes you happy, do that thing without apology.
- …and don’t judge people for what they’re doing. But while you’re doing your thing, don’t judge the decisions and actions of other people. You have no idea what battles they’re fighting or what happened to them this morning or what their mental health is like. The only perfect person ever was Jesus, and you are not Him.
- Everyone is fighting an unseen battle. You have your stuff, and you might be tempted to use it as an excuse. But everyone has stuff. Every single woman on the planet feels like she’s a mess (if she’s honest), and she’s worried that she’s going to get found out as a fraud. I suspect most men feel inadequate, too, but their brains are different and I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that no one is exempt from crap, so we should all be kind to people and make allowances for their flaws just as they make allowances for ours.
Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. – Henry James
- Less is more. There’s a line in one of my favorite movies where the main character says, “More isn’t always better, Linus. Sometimes, it’s just more.” And this really applies to almost every area of life. Less food is better. Less stress is better. Less physical stuff is better. Less commitments are usually better.
- Don’t say yes if you want to say no. Along those same lines, I never commit to something because I’m afraid or uncomfortable to say no. My favorite words are, “I’m sorry but I can’t.” I don’t usually offer an explanation because it’s not needed. I can’t is a complete sentence.
- Helping others is vital. I just said that you should never feel obligated to agree to do something, and I stand by that, but offering your help to other people is fundamental to being a human being. Whether you donate your decluttered stuff or feed the homeless or tithe at church, whatever you do, do it with a cheerful heart and a generous spirit. Don’t say yes to a request because you’re afraid to say no, but do go out of your way in whatever way you can.
- I need many cats. Cats make me happy, not one or two cats but a house full of cats. We have six right now, and that is perhaps too many, but I love that there’s always one waiting to love on me. They all like to be with me wherever I am, and I like to be with them.
- Financial freedom brings more peace of mind than anything else in the world. A few years ago, I started automatic savings plans for a lot of our expenses. I have savings accounts for car repairs and vacations and gifts/holidays and homeschooling and medical expenses and many more. Every other week, each one automatically pulls a certain sum out of our checking account on the Monday after payday. I almost never have to worry about how I’m going to pay for things now, and that brings me so much peace and contentment that I can’t even put it into words. We were recently able to go to New York City for 4 days to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway (and a slew of touristy things), and I paid cash for the entire trip including the meals, hotel, and hefty show tickets. We left the city without a penny of debt, and the joy in that is something that cannot be overstated.
Related: How to have a debt free Christmas
- Save more money than you think is possible. This goes along with the last one. Save more than you think you can. I’m not saying you should run yourself short or overdraw your checking account; that would be stupid. But you can and should cut your expenses as much as possible so that you can save money for the things that really matter to you, like vacations and big holidays matter to us.
- Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer. I have been all over the eastern United States, the Caribbean, and even to Europe, and I’m going to Africa in a few months. I love to travel, and I especially love to fly, and I don’t do it as much as I would like. I am not nearly as well-traveled as some of my friends, but I think my little family travels more than a lot of people. Travel, exposing yourself to new experiences and places and people, is priceless and makes you a better human being, much more than the new earrings you were thinking of buying.
- Gossip is toxic. I’ve seen a meme now and then that says something like “Great minds discuss ideas; small minds discuss people,” and I believe that to be true even if it describes me a lot of times. When I was in high school, my youth group leader said that it’s okay to talk about people if you are expressing concern or trying to help them, but it’s not okay to talk about them if you’re making fun or spreading things that would make them look bad. I’ve tried to live by that definition. I’ve not always been very successful; I’m a work in progress in this area.
- Stop wishing your life away. When I was 13, I couldn’t wait to be 16. When I was 16, I couldn’t wait to be 18. When I was 18, I couldn’t wait to be 21. It went on and on until I was in my mid-thirties. Now, I just am what I am, and I’m happy with it. If you spend your life wishing you were older or smarter or thinner or richer, you’re going to miss the good that’s right in front of you.
- Step outside your comfort zone. I wrote a long time ago that your comfort zone exists to hold you hostage, and I still believe that is true. Stretching and growth hurt; they are by necessity uncomfortable. You can’t improve if you’re comfortable, so step outside of comfortable and become who God meant you to be.
- You can do anything, but you cannot do everything at once. A wise friend said this to me when I was a new mom. I had always wanted to earn a PhD, and I couldn’t bear to continue with graduate school given my new baby at home. “Do it when she’s older,” she said. “You have plenty of time.” So now my kids are older, and I’m back in grad school again. It’s interesting though. I am busy, but I still don’t do everything I could be doing (see #4 above).
- Let your freak flag fly. You are special and unique and interesting and maybe even eccentric (#3 above), so confidently hold your head up high and be proud. Be proud of the body that grew and birthed your kids. Be proud of your work. Be proud of your brain. You are good as you are, and you have so much to be proud of.
Related: I am good printable affirmations
- Agree to disagree. Joe and I disagree on politics. When I say we disagree, I mean we are fundamentally and diametrically opposed to each other’s views. I think he’s dead wrong, and he thinks I’m dead wrong, and we don’t discuss it ever because neither of us is going to be swayed by the other. That’s the beauty of life, right? We can hold conflicting opinions on anything from the direction of our country to the best route to drive to church, and it’s okay as long as we don’t tear each other in our disagreement.
- It’s okay to cry. I didn’t grow up in a family where soft, tender feelings were okay. In fact, I heard pretty often, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” and that impacted me pretty deeply. It’s only been through a whole lot of therapy that I’ve come to appreciate soft feelings like sadness and loneliness. In fact, I had a seminal conversation with my kids over the weekend after watching Toy Story 4. “The end was really sad,” Grace said. “I know. I cried until my eyes hurt,” I responded. “Me too!” Allie said. Joe stayed quiet. But it made me really happy to know that my kids think it’s okay – normal even – to cry and have soft feelings.
- Today is special. Don’t save nice things for special occasions because you’ll never use them. Burn the candle. Use the china. Celebrate the goodness that you already have.
- Overprepare and overdeliver. I am a neurotic overachiever, ask anyone who knows me. I do my schoolwork at 110%. I blog at 110% (this is word 4,013 in this blog post). But remember, you can’t do everything all the time, so understand that there are going to have to be things that you don’t do at 110%, like cooking and cleaning. I do those at 5% on a good day.
- Forgive everyone everything. I am a champion grudge-holder, but this is an area I’ve been really working on over the last couple of years. Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Hard feelings hurt the holder of the feelings but don’t impact the other person much, if at all. You don’t have to forget, but you do have to forgive so you can get on with your own life.
- Show up and be here now. Mindfulness is a big buzz word right now, but for good reason. Being fully present in the moment, without distraction or multitasking, is the best way to learn. It’s the best way to ensure you don’t miss something important. It’s the best way to make people feel important. I know as mothers, we have to multitask, but try your hardest not to do it whenever possible. It matters.
So that’s it. I’m not sure if anyone will actually read to the end of this post (it’s so darn long!), so if you did, leave me a comment below with your favorite of my reflections.
Be well, friend. I’m off to enjoy my birthday.
© 2019, Tara Ziegmont. All rights reserved.