6 Things I've Learned in the Last 10 Years

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6 Things I've Learned in the Last 10 Years

June 4, 2012

Today is my 30th birthday (not counting the first one). While I know people tend to panic on the birthdays that end with 0's, and I do wish I had accomplished more in my adult life by now, I can honestly say that I'm glad to say goodbye to my 20's. I feel like I'm coming out of a tunnel. Anybody who knows me fairly well knows that the last decade of my life has not been easy for me emotionally (especially college). I'm finally starting to gain an understanding of myself, my feelings, and my place in the world. While I don't claim to know everything yet, I know a whole lot more than I did at 20.

And knowing is half the battle.

1. There's no such thing as a free piano.

Several years ago, my brother Sam was working for the school system in a summer reading program. The school he worked in was getting rid of a piano. Since I play the piano (more or less), and all we had at our house was an electronic piano, Sam thought it'd be nice to acquire it for me. I don't know how he got it out of the school (I wasn't there at the time), but a friend of ours who owned a music shop agreed to store it for us, if we agreed to let his customers play it.

My original plan was to put it in my second floor apartment, but my parents and I gradually realized that just wasn't going to happen. See, this piano is 100-year-old Beckwith. It's the kind of piano you could imagine a cowboy hiding behind (or inside of) in a saloon during an old-west gunfight.

Or a red paintball battle.

It was big and heavy. My dad and I barely got my refrigerator up the stairs (though in our defense, my stroked-out grandma was punching it at the time). The piano would have to live on the first floor. So we cleared a space for it in the living room opposite my parents mismatched recliners, and hired piano movers since we figured we'd crush ourselves just pushing it up the front porch steps.

My point is, the piano would have ended up in the landfill if my brother hadn't claimed it. It was free. The piano itself didn't cost one penny, but getting it and keeping it in a usable place ended up costing quite a bit in time, effort, and money. Everything you bring into your life has to be paid for, even if it's only with the empty space that thing now occupies (If you think empty space isn't valuable, just visit a hoarder). Nothing is really free. I could have spared you my long and boring anecdote if only there was a well known colloquialism that basically said the same thing...

2. Everything worth doing is hard (but not everything hard is worth doing).

I'm sure everybody's heard this before somewhere, but it only really struck me as an adult how true it is. Growing up, school wasn't very difficult for me. I could get straight A's without trying too hard (compared to everyone else, anyway). Even with all my problems in college, getting good grades wasn't one of them. I was on a scholarship that required me to maintain a 3.5, so getting good grades was basically my job. My problems were emotional, not academic.

Got 99 problems, but a report card ain't one.

Well, making a living isn't as easy as maintaining a scholarship, especially when you decide to do it writing music. The older you get, the more everything becomes an uphill struggle. Whether it's arranging a marching band show, getting in shape, or just keeping your apartment clean, everything takes so much more effort than you expect. Of course, it's largely because you keep noticing more and more details that need to be taken care of. The other side of this is that everything worth doing is also worth doing right. If something seems easy, it's probably because you're doing it wrong. The annoying part is that you can't judge how important something is by it's difficulty. Beating Metroid Prime 2 is hard, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter much.

"What am I doing with my life?"

You really have to weigh what's worth the effort and what's not. I'm not complaining. The fruits of all the effort are definitely worth it, but it is an awful lot of effort. So it doesn't take long to realize...

3. People just do what they want to.

It's hard not to get frustrated with people. I like to think of myself as a pretty smart guy, but the downside is that everybody else seems so stupid by comparison. Sometimes I feel like an alien who was dropped off on Earth as part of some bizarre experiment in cultural immersion. I'm not saying I don't have my own bad habits and irrational thought patterns, but it blows my mind how some people can do things that are so completely against their best interests. I realized a long time ago that, given the choice between doing what people should do and what they want to do, want wins every time, hands down.

Myself included, as any bucket of chicken can attest to.

"That's not right," you say, "I don't want to go to work every day, but I do anyway." Think of it this way. You may want to quit your job, but you want your income and the standard of living it buys even more. You're willing to put up with something you don't like because it's better than the alternative. There are plenty of people who want to watch TV much more than they want a job, and that's just what they do, consequences be damned.

"Working is for young people."

If you want to do the stuff you should be doing anyway, that's great. It makes life much easier. But it still all boils down to what you want. And if people just do what they want, then you sure can't make anybody do something they don't want to.

"Says who?"

You can, however, slightly influence what people want through what they know. Rather than telling people what to do, give them truthful, useful information, and let them make their own decisions. People can only act on what they know, which leads me to...

4. Education changes people.

According to Maya Angelou, when you know better you do better. And according to Kuato, you are what you do. Therefore, the laws of logic dictate that you are what you know. Change what someone knows, and you change who they are.

I can't understand parents who send their kids to college, hoping that their precious little heads will be filled with precious information, and are then totally shocked four (or six, or seven) years later when that kid comes back as an adult, completely different from how they left.

"Oh Lord, what have we done?"

What did they expect to happen? Or students who complain about having to take general studies classes that aren't related to their major. What did they think they were going to be doing in college? We tend to see education as job training, and in a lot of ways it is. Life is a lot easier when your education is relevant to your job. But education should be more than that. It should fundamentally change how you think about the world (hopefully for the better), and when you think differently, you behave differently. You are different. If you get a college degree while still believing everything you thought in high school, you were cheated.

"Woah, like...what're all these black squiggles?"

5. Happiness and pleasure are not the same thing.

People are always looking for something to make them happy, and I'm no exception. We buy new stuff, and make life changes we think will improve things. Unfortunately, there's this little thing called hedonic adaptation. It's a psychological principal that says new things make you feel good for a while...until you get used to them. Then you need something newer, bigger, and better to get that same good feeling.

Too small.

I'm sure you've heard people say that things don't make you happy, and that true happiness comes from within. I'm sure you've also heard other people say those first people are idiots or liars.

Those second people are usually broke.

While it's true that not having your basic physical needs met can seriously negatively impact your happiness, having way more than you need doesn't make you way happier too. The problem is, people tend to mistake pleasure for happiness.

Pleasure comes from present circumstances, but happiness comes from past decisions.

True, your current situation can make you feel good, and there's nothing wrong with getting pleasure from stuff, but it's only temporary. Sooner or later, the buzz you get from a new object or experience wears off. Real happiness comes from being able to look at your past and knowing you made the right decisions, that you acted with dignity. Whether it's working hard on a project, going out of your way to be kind, or putting money in a Roth IRA instead of spending it on lots of underpants for your extensive underpants collection, doing the right thing isn't always fun at the time. You need to think of good choices as an investment in future happiness, which will pay off at a later date. My grandfather lived with me and my parents for the last several years of his life. Was changing his diapers pleasurable? No.

"Hey, change my diaper. Come on, it'll be fun."

Although I loved him dearly, it felt like a big hassle at the time. But now, I sure am happy I did the right thing by him, and that happiness will never wear off. Which is important to remember since...

6. Depression doesn't always feel like depression.

As I mentioned before, college was a very difficult time in my life. Anybody who told me back then that "These are the best years of your life" filled me with an urge to either punch them in the face or curl into a little ball in the corner crying, depending on my mood that particular day. My junior year of college was the worst year of my life. Now, it's not as if every moment of every day was pure torture. I know it's a cliche, but if I had to go back in time, I'd do almost all of it all over again. In fact, most of it was pretty good. I had a lot of great, fun experiences, and wonderful friends, and I enjoyed most of my classes whether they were in my degree field or not. But for various reasons outside the scope of this article, I ended up in a deep depression which required medication to keep me going until graduation.

Is Xanax a food group?

I figured that graduating from college would make me all better, and for a while it kind of did. Everything felt a lot less stressful, and it was sure easier to get through every day, but I slowly realized that some of my emotional demons were still following me. My life became a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. I'd start to feel really happy for a while, and I'd begin to think that my depression was finally 'over', but the eventual crash was inevitably around the corner. I developed the sense that whenever I felt really happy, I'd have to pay for it later with a period of anger, frustration, and sadness. No matter what I did, every path felt like a dead end, every situation felt like a trap. Then, inexplicably, I'd get happy again and everything would be fine.

In college, I knew I was depressed. From the time that I graduated until pretty recently though, I wouldn't have described myself as depressed. Compared to my time in college, I felt downright great. What I didn't realize was that depression isn't just being really sad for a long time. It's a whole entire way of seeing the world and your relationship with it--a paradigm. It's the sense that the glass is half-empty on steroids.

"Ha ha. Your life is pointless."

It made anything other than TV and video games (as in, anything productive that requires hard work) feel like a pointless, joyless, hopeless slog. Even when I felt good and thought I was happy, I was still depressed. When I said earlier that I feel like I'm coming out of a tunnel, I mean it. My life now feels so much brighter and more hopeful. I didn't realize how depressed I still was until I started to come out of it. Over the past year, it's as if some switch in my brain got flipped. Getting stuff done, even hard stuff, feels satisfying again. And the frustrating thing is that I don't know exactly what happened to trigger the change inside me. It just seemed to happen. The best theory I can come up with is that I had to go through the bad stuff and learn from those experiences.

I'll be the first to admit that my depression isn't 'cured' by any stretch. I've accepted that depression is something I'll always have to deal with. I'll always have my highs and lows. But even in the worst of it, I'm now capable of reminding myself that I will feel better sooner or later, and knowing that makes a big difference. It's mostly just a coincidence that I'm figuring all this out now that my 20's are ending. All the same, you couldn't pay me to be a 20-something again.

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