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The Top 18 Things I’ve Learned On The Way To 44


The spring semester has ended. Graduations are commencing. Another group of seniors is leaving us to make their lives in the world beyond campus. I can’t believe it is already time for them to go. We work with them in class and try to impart different types of knowledge and certain habits of thinking.

Yet I find that I want to share with them some of the things I have learned about life, as opposed to politics (which is my academic subject), before they leave. Occasionally, I have the chance to talk with some of them about how things look to me at midlife. These are the thoughts I offered to a gathering of them this year.

18. An Apology Is Always Welcome.

As an honors student at Florida State University about a quarter of a century ago, I was sometimes afforded special opportunities. One was to take an honors seminar in public administration with the dean of social sciences, Charles Cnudde.

In those days, I often made poor decisions about academic priorities and sometimes attended Cnudde’s class on almost no sleep due to too much socializing. On at least one occasion, I actually fell asleep in the class. After becoming a professor myself, the memory of how little respect I’d paid to Cnudde haunted me. I realized how much it bothers me when students fail to pay attention or are distracted by their phones. I had already failed on one side of the golden rule, and now wanted better treatment on the other side.

I’m not sure I believe in karma, but I do believe in trying to make things right. Thanks to Google, I didn’t have to hire a private detective to find my former dean. I found him and apologized for my behavior in his class. He received it well, and expressed an interest in how my life has gone since that time. I no longer carry the burden of that failure. And I imagine he has the satisfaction of knowing that I understand what I did wrong back in 1989.

17. Be Interested in People.

Dale Carnegie offered this advice during his reign over the self-help market, but it has the advantage of being correct. Being interested in the lives of others, especially those who are older than you and who are living the kinds of lives you want for yourself, is the single best way to form relationships and it opens doors.

I remember meeting Mariam Bell at Prison Fellowship some years ago. She was busy, and didn’t have a lot of time for me at first. But I caught her during a moment when she wasn’t in a flurry of activity and began to ask questions about her life and career. Her answers interested me because she was doing things I wanted to do. She was friends with people who were heroes to me.

More important, though, is that our conversation caused her to see me as someone who could be mentored. She could see that I cared about the same things she did and that I wanted to be part of the important work she did. My friendship with her launched me into my first job with a think tank in Georgia. Other important mentors along the way also taught me and made it possible for me to take other opportunities. But it all started with just being interested.

16. However, Respect Boundaries.

The same part of my personality that has served me so well in terms of getting to know people and winning mentors is also the part that works against me. Long experience has (very) slowly taught me that not everyone is comfortable with the very low expectations of privacy that I have. Many people are reluctant to share details of their lives and will only do so after a lengthy process of developing trust. It is important to respect this difference between people. If you don’t, the fences turn into walls.

15. There Is Power in Silence.

One of my former bosses has a sphinx-like quality. I mean he is highly comfortable with silence, and benefits from the power and mystery it creates. When one person doesn’t speak, other people (like me) feel the need to fill the void. The result is that the person who takes on the burden of talking will often disclose things they may not have intended. Part of the advice is to use silence to your advantage. The other part is not to allow silence to intimidate you into saying something you do not wish to say.

The other advantage of silence is that it causes one’s words to take on a heightened importance. No one waits with anticipation to hear what the blabbermouth will say next, but when the quiet man or woman chooses to offer an opinion there is often a great deal of interest.

14. Listen Carefully.

Those of us who speak fairly freely and are transparent often fail to realize that others are choosing their words with great care. (“It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”) Without paying close attention to the words and phrases others use, we may often miss certain limitations of commitment or carefully created loopholes put in place by others. But if you listen with your mind fully engaged and with determination to take in the full meaning, you will avoid making costly assumptions or relying upon assurances that are actually not assuring.

13. Give Experience Its Due.

When I was young, I disdained experience in favor of intelligence. I thought the value of experience was just something older people made up to justify their advantages and power over me. As the years go by, I find myself learning one thing after another that could probably only be gained by experience. In the same way that one learns the power of bluffing by being bluffed, as in a game, so, too, is life. Some things simply have to happen to you to convey the lesson.

This dynamic explains the common phenomenon of young people finding their parents to be arbitrary and foolish in the teen years only to discern more wisdom and intelligence in their mothers and fathers as they begin to carry their own burdens and live their own lives. Just as experience can help explain your parents, it can also help explain your bosses. Sometimes, you have to spend a few years in your boss’s job in order to understand your boss.

12. But Don’t Allow Your Youth and Inexperience to Paralyze You.

It is possible to revere experience so much that you, as a young person, can be paralyzed and intimidated. You can go on the job market and take a position and be so tentative and permission-seeking that you aren’t any good to anyone. Remember that part of a boss’s job is having a good sense of what you might be able to handle and giving you tasks that will help you to develop the relevant mental (and maybe physical) muscles.

When you are given an assignment, trust that your boss thinks it is appropriate to your abilities and do everything you can to figure it out on your own. Only seek help after you have exhausted your own avenues for progress. You may be surprised what various manuals or your friend, the Internet, can do to help you begin answering some of your questions. And when you show that initiative and ingenuity, your boss absolutely will notice.

11. Mistakes Can Have Value.

There are three primary ways to react to a mistake. You may defend your mistake, become wounded by your mistake, or choose to learn from your mistake.

The first two choices have severe consequences. People who defend their mistakes prove they haven’t learned the lesson and may not be trustworthy in the future because they will repeat the error. Such persons will rack up a lot of damage and smart people (including managers and employers) will choose not to go along for the ride.

The second choice leads to tentativeness and self-pity. You may come to view yourself as a person who simply can’t make the right decision and therefore is not worthy of opportunity. If you go this way, you end up wrecking your ship on the shore of emotional funk.

But the third decision turns mistakes into gold. Wise managers and wise people generally value a person who makes a mistake and then demonstrates that he or she has internalized the lesson. The key is the word “lesson.” Mistakes are a costly form of education, but they can be the best teachers. It is also worth pointing out that people who make mistakes when they are young and stakes are perhaps smaller will be smarter as the stakes become larger.

10. About the Stock Market.

Don’t buy and sell in the emotional waves of the market. I don’t pretend to be a financial guru, but I’ve lived long enough to realize that the market has its irrational moments when everyone begins to act like animals (thus the bulls and bears) rather than true investors. Have a method of determining the value of companies other than relying on animal spirits. Even when we suffer big, bad swings downward, there is typically a recovery (post-1987, post-2008) over the next few years. If you answer that you can’t wait for the recovery, then the market is not for you.

9. Avoid the Golden Handcuffs.

My first real professional job was at a large health insurance corporation in Florida. I worked with several people who were well-compensated, but largely unhappy with the nature of the work. One boss offered me some strong life advice that I have generally heeded ever since: “Don’t get the golden handcuffs. Don’t get loaded down with high car payments and a mortgage that you can only afford if you do this job. Maintain your freedom.” He was right. I’ve taken his advice ever since and always strive to live in such a way that I have some margin and could change gears if necessary.

Along those lines, don’t collect possessions. And when it comes to things like boats or vacation homes, it’s probably better just to rent them when you want them instead of having them take up valuable territory in the back of your mind (and slowly draining your bank account).

8. Be Careful When You Buy a House.

The process can be like a game of Old Maid. Everyone in the transaction is about to get what they want, except maybe you. The sellers will get out of their mortgage and will likely take some cash with them. The realtor will take a nice commission. Your supposedly flinty home inspector is just like them, generally. He does the inspection. He gets paid. If he raises a fuss, the community of realtors will remember and will do what they can to minimize his appeal.

There are three parties (maybe four, if there are two realtors) who will all benefit from a done deal. Your destiny is more complicated. You may be taking on a bad house that is damaged, destined to be undesirable, is too expensive, etc. Resist all the momentum for the deal and take your time.

7. Remember: Every Man (and Woman) Is a Bad Judge in His Own Case.

My besetting temptation has always been hubris. The Christian faith is the only thing in my life that has caused me to reflect critically on the things my ego serves up. I’m thankful for that religious check on something that can do real damage in a life. Excessive pride alienates friends and loved ones. It also makes enemies of people you may have only known a short time.

To this day, I am embarrassed at things I said to my father and mother because of my disproportionate ego. I also regret my attitude toward superiors in some of the jobs I held, especially as a young person. If you want to spot a bad employee, one method is to look to the person obsessed with whether he is being respected or not. Self-flattery is its own reward. But along with it comes many disadvantages to which the proud person is often blind.

Some of us judge ourselves too harshly. Humility is a good thing. It means that you do not think too highly of yourself and do not expect the royal treatment. But too many people (often women) go beyond humility into denigrating themselves. The answer for them is not the warning against pride, but rather the assurance that they are bearers of the image of God and that they possess the dignity that accompanies such an exalted status.

6. Respect Your Future Self.

I got this from a female federal judge in Houston who was speaking to a group of students. You will ultimately have to live with all of your choices. What seems worthwhile in the moment may bear crushing weight in the future. When you make decisions or act in certain ways, ask how your 44-year-old self will feel about what you did. Will that person thank you, or offer a blistering critique for your failure of the marshmallow test?

This advice can backfire. I used it when trying to convince my son to put more effort into his math homework. Concluding my speech, I confidently asked, “So, son, what do you think your future self would say to you if you were able to travel forward in time and meet him?” He responded, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU’LL CREATE A PARADOX!”

5. Don’t Just Read.

Do away with the activity of reading as a passive thing. Have a conversation with books. Make them yours through the process of real interaction. Write in the margins. Underline. Circle. Bracket. There is an enormous difference between passing your eyes over a book and truly reading it. If you read in this active fashion, you will own texts in your mind and will be able to draw upon them for the rest of your life.

4. Decide What You Believe Before It’s Time to Act.

Many years ago, I walked through a neighborhood at night with my young wife. We heard the growling and barking of what sounded like a frighteningly aggressive dog. The muscles in my legs bunched up and the flight mechanism kicked in. But just as I began to run, my wife called out, “Hunter, don’t LEAVE me!”

My conscience took root and I stopped. I had never thought of what I would do if danger presented itself. The incident showed me that I needed to be ready rather than allowing a fear response to rule me. A few years after that time, I read about a professor at Virginia Tech who blocked the door to his classroom and sacrificed his life to protect students from a campus shooter. He was a Holocaust survivor. I suspect he acted heroically because he had already faced crisis and knew who he wanted to be in the midst of it.

What if you are tested in the crucible? Will you be refined like gold with the dross burning away? Or will you overturn the whole works and seek an escape? This could be when you find out your unborn child has a birth defect. Who are you in the moment? This could be you when an attractive co-worker tries to kiss you in the elevator and you are a married man or woman. Who will you be then?

3. Don’t Give Up on Yourself in Your Twenties.

After I finished my master’s degree and entered the workforce, I was depressed. I didn’t have a vision for my career. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I wasn’t thrilled with what was happening. I began to think of myself as a formerly promising young man.

In the darkest moments, I was just past 30, weighed about 325 pounds, and my career wasn’t working out. I began to think that my wife and our baby would be better off without me. There were times when I fantasized that the best thing that could happen would be that I died repelling a home invasion, leaving my wife and child with a fresh start and the life insurance money. Right at that moment, when I was in the deepest self-doubt and pain, things began to happen for me. All those years of continuing to read and think and write and study paid off.

Do work now that may have no ready outlet. I wrote several things early on that weren’t ready for prime time. But I kept trying and when the first big moment came, I had something to offer. Keep moving. Opportunity is likely to make itself known. The question is whether you will have anything to offer when it does.

2. Write Down Your Prayers.

I don’t know about you, but when I lay in bed with my eyes closed and I pray, I often find my mind just randomly wandering until I’m not praying any more. I’m just drifting and maybe heading toward sleep. I have found that when I write my prayers, I stay focused. I also find that I can leave the prayer behind in the book in which I wrote it and know that it is there and God knows about it. After years of this practice, I enjoy going back and reading through the prayer journals to see what my concerns were and what happened. I also see how God changed me during those times.

1. Stay at Your Post.

My sister married in 2004. She asked me to read something for the wedding. I asked the Baylor professor Ralph Woods for his recommendation. He suggested the following passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”:

Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love, you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind.

I would love to cite that passage more extensively, but you can see where Bonhoeffer is going. Husband and wife, these words represent offices which God has established with privileges and duties not only toward each other, but also toward the rest of humankind. We must take realize the gravity of the commitment we are making.

To emphasize the point, I think of another wedding I attended. The best man rose to speak a tribute to the groom. He thanked his friend for helping to keep him from leaving his own wife and family some years earlier. The words he remembered? “Stay at your post.”