Life lessons are great once learned, but the acquisition process is usually painful. So let's speed up the process.
Here are 14 things everyone should know before starting their middle years.
1. Your "best life" will always be a mixed bag.
In a 2012 study published in PLOS One, researchers asked participants to fill out questionnaires before a series of 12 weekly therapy sessions. What they found was surprising: Feeling both cheerful and dejected at the same time -- what psychologists call a "mixed emotional experience" -- was a precursor to improved well-being in following sessions.
According to the researchers, "Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being."
For example, you can feel down because of a recent setback, yet also encouraged by knowing you can work your way through it. Or anxious about moving, yet excited by the opportunity to have new experiences. Rarely are emotions totally one way; most of the time, they're a mixed bag.
The key is to recognize and embrace that fact -- to stop trying to be "happier" and start trying to be more "emodiverse."
According to the researchers, "Taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being."
In short: Noticing and embracing -- and forgiving yourself for feeling -- a wide spectrum of emotions, both good and bad, is the path to short- and long-term happiness.
2. Other people really do want you to succeed.
Say you're anxious about a pitch meeting. You're afraid you'll bomb. You're afraid potential investors will tear your presentation apart. That perspective -- that fear -- makes you see the people in the room as potential enemies.
In fact, the opposite is true. They aren't the enemy. They want to love you. Investors constantly search for great ideas, great ventures, or great companies.
They want -- they need -- to invest in great people. Which means they're on your side.
As Guns 'n Roses bassist Duff McKagan told me when I mentioned I was nervous about doing a TEDx Talk, "Remember, people want to see you do well. They want to see you kick ass."
The same is true if you're interviewing for a new job. Trying to sell a product. Trying to start a company.
People want you to succeed.
Because your success will help them solve a problem or fulfill a need of their own.
3. The best advice is not advice.
When asked, Jeff Bezos's boss at a hedge fund tried to discourage him from resigning to start Amazon, saying his idea was "probably a better idea for someone who doesn't have a good job." When asked, Walt Disney's brother (and business partner) Roy tried to talk him out of making Snow White. When asked, Warren Buffett's father told him it was a bad time to enter the securities industry.
People who ask for advice regarding complex or important decisions rarely want you to tell them what to think. They've probably done too much thinking; they're so deep in data, and analysis, and the weeds of pros and cons that finding clarity is almost impossible.
At that point, the last thing they need is answers. They need smart questions to ask themselves. With Bezos, whether he would someday regret having never tried more than having tried and failed. With Disney, whether he believed audiences would love a full-length animated feature at a time when seven-minute shorts were the norm.
Or, like Buffett, whether he believed his determination and work ethic could overcome poor market conditions.
The next time someone asks you for advice, don't tell them what to do. Don't tell them what you would do. Help them find the right questions to ask themselves.
And then surround yourself with people who do the same for you.
4. Hierarchical (political) gain is not achievement.
Infighting, positioning, trying to look better by making other people look worse: Playing politics can help get you ahead.
But if you win through politics, you still ultimately lose, since political success is based on the impulses, whims, and caprices of other people (often other people you don't even respect or like).
That means today's success can be tomorrow's failure, and success or failure is largely outside your control.
Real achievements are based on merit. They can't be taken away by anyone.
5. Big ideas are overrated.
Very few people hit the big-idea jackpot. I haven't. You may not either. And even if you did come up with the ever-elusive big idea, could you pull off the implementation? Do you have the skills, experience, and funding?
I don't either.
But we do have tons of small ideas. And if we act on our small ideas, we don't need big idea.
Success is a process, and processes are based on action. Make acting on all your small ideas a process.
6. Acquisition never leads to satisfaction.
Psychologists call it "hedonistic adaptation," a phenomenon in which people quickly push the buzz from a new purchase toward their emotional norm. A new house soon becomes just a house. Same for a new car. New furniture. New clothes. New anything. To get another buzz, you have to buy something else.
And you're never really satisfied. You can't be. That's not how we're made.
Lasting satisfaction comes from doing, not having.
Want to feel good about yourself? A simple way is to help someone. Knowing you've made a difference in another person's life creates a lasting buzz.
7. The people around you are the people you chose.
If any of the people around you make you unhappy, it's not their fault. It's your fault.
They're in your professional or personal life because you drew them to you -- and you let them remain.
Think about the type of people you want to work with. Think about the types of customers you would enjoy serving. Think about the friends you want to have. Then change what you do so you can start attracting those people.
Successful people are naturally drawn to successful people.
8. Your resume is just a record.
Many people collect jobs and experiences in pursuit of crafting a "winning" resume. That's backward. Your resume is like a report card: It's just a by-product of what you've accomplished, learned, and experienced.
Don't base your life on trying to fill in the blanks on some "ideal" CV. Base your life on accomplishing your goals and dreams. Determine what you need to do to get to where you want to be, and do those things.
Let your resume reflect that journey.
9. Effort can always be your superpower.
As America's Cup-winning skipper Jimmy Spithill says, "Rarely have I seen a situation where doing less than the other guy is a good strategy."
You may not be as experienced, as well funded, as well connected, or as talented, but you can always out think, out hustle, and out work everyone else. (Or, as I like to say, the extra mile is a vast, unpopulated wasteland.)
Even when everything else seems stacked against you, effort and persistence can still be your competitive advantages -- and may be the only advantages you truly need.
10. Your success is predictable only in hindsight.
Read stories of successful entrepreneurs and it's easy to think they have some intangible entrepreneurial something -- ideas, talent, drive, skills, creativity, etc. -- that you don't have.
It's easy to look back on an entrepreneurial path to greatness and assume that every vision was clear, every plan was perfect, every step was executed flawlessly, and tremendous success was a foregone conclusion. Yet their success, like anyone's success, was never assured.
Only in hindsight does it appear that way.
The only thing that's inevitable is if you don't try, you can never succeed.
11. If your goal is to get rich, you'll need to start a business.
Check out any "richest people" list. Check out the IRS list of largest gross adjusted incomes. What will you find? Aside from a few people who won the genetic lottery and inherited fortunes, the rest are almost all entrepreneurs.
That's because, in simple terms, when you work for someone else, you will never be paid more than that person or company decides you're worth. And your income will always be capped.
Start a business, and the only limit to your income is you.
12. Success always requires sacrifice.
We'll let Michael Phelps explain this one--here's an excerpt from our conversation a few years ago:
"I did miss some high school dances and parties. I did lose the chance to hang out with people. But I didn't care, because I knew I had the opportunity to do something no one else had ever done. That made me willing to make those sacrifices.
"If you really do want to do something significant, you're going to have to make sacrifices. You have to. That's just part of it.
"Was it hard and grueling and brutal? Yes. But if you look at the most successful people, they do things when they don't necessarily want to do them.
"That's what makes you great: Doing things when you don't want to do them, because you know that is what it takes to get you where you want to go."
13. Everything starts with defining "success."
As you plan a new business, embark on a new career path, or pursue a new challenge, take the time to decide what "success" really means to you.
If your goal is to become a wealthy restaurateur, the economics of the industry mean you'll need to own multiple locations. You'll need to build not just a restaurant, but a restaurant business -- and you won't have time to work in the kitchen or the front of the house.
Which is great if working in the business is your goal. But it will leave you unhappy and unfulfilled if your real definition of success is getting to spend every day cooking great food.
Make sure that what you really want is the same as what you will actually get.
14. The best investment you will ever make is in yourself.
Want a guaranteed return? Invest in yourself. Improve your skills. Improve your network. Increase your expertise, your talent, your experience.
Put money and time into becoming a better version of you.
That will generate better long-term results than any other investment -- and is the one investment whose outcome you can almost totally control.
It's also the only investment guaranteed to help you live a more fulfilling life.