40 lessons learned on the way to 40

Today is my birthday. 40! Yesterday I went shopping for Christmas presents and, full of the holiday spirit, wound up buying a dress (and handbag) for myself. The bag is particularly exciting if you listen to the upcoming “money stories” episode of Best of Both Worlds. The previous one was held together with dental floss.

Anyway, here are 40 lessons I’ve learned on the way to 40. Some are just personal knowledge, but some might be helpful to other people. And hey, if you’re in the US and work for the government or in finance, you probably have the day off, so you might have time to read this long list!

1. People can’t buy your book if they don’t know about it.

2. I don’t sleep well on planes. I’m better off staying over another night on the west coast and coming back the next day (international travel I just have to bite the bullet).

3. When people read what you write — even silently in their heads — they’re actually hearing the words. So read your work out loud to make sure it sounds good.

4. A good verb can incorporate a weaker verb plus the adverb you’d need to tack on. Write tight!

5. You’re/your, its/it’s, whose/who’s, they’re/their/there. It’s really not that complicated.

6. Nobody is a natural public speaker. People who are good at public speaking practice.

7. I don’t like false accusation stories. I also don’t like awkward situations that are supposed to be funny. This means the genres of mysteries and romantic comedies have a very high bar to clear for me to want to read/see them.

8. I am not a movie person.

9. I am not a dog person. Or a cat person. Or, frankly, a fish or hermit crab person, though I have acquiesced on those.

10. While I lose weight when I don’t eat carbs, I like carbs too much to do this long term.

11. You should just assume that anything you write or say about anyone or anything will be heard/read by that person or people who are particularly passionate (and not always in a good way) about the thing you are writing about.

12. The first mile of running is always the hardest. A mile in, you’ll feel better. Then good. Many situations seem a lot better and more solvable after a run.

13. Breastfeeding pro tip, learned from nursing four babies! When your milk comes in, start pumping at least one extra bottle per day immediately. Baseline supply is set by demand, and if you set your baseline higher than actual demand, you can miss a feeding without supply dropping below demand.

14. Also, when the baby starts crying at T+90-100 minutes after his last feeding, he’s probably crying because he’s tired, not hungry. Feeding him throws everything off. Letting him nap will get him to a more reasonable 3-hour feeding cycle.

15. Get more childcare than you need. Childcare isn’t bad.

16. When asked to do something in the future, ask yourself “would I do this tomorrow?” The opportunity costs for tomorrow are clear; for something far in the future, less so.

17. Going to bed early is how grown-ups sleep in.

18. It’s OK to quit most things you no longer want to do. If you find yourself creating long justifications for why it’s still the right thing to be doing, consider that it might not be the right thing to do. Maybe for someone else. But not for you, not right now.

19. Most decisions aren’t worth agonizing over. It will probably be fine. If not, you’ll figure out something else.

20. Fly direct whenever possible. Don’t check bags. (this fall, one of my sisters-in-law wound up never getting her bags during her entire vacation!)

21. Get TSA Pre-check. And Global Entry (I did #1, but not #2, and keep kicking myself every time I travel internationally). And for crying out loud, E-Z Pass!

22. Skinny jeans don’t look good on me. Very good on other people. Curiously, often people of similar height and weight. Not me.

23. If I buy uncomfortable shoes, I won’t wear them.

24. Ditto with uncomfortable clothes. I am so immature about this, but I am what I am.

25. Wrinkle creams don’t get rid of wrinkles. Botox does.

26. Kids are different. If your friend’s kid eats all her kale and responds readily to a sticker chart, that doesn’t mean she’s a better parent. It means she got a kid who loves to please people. Maybe you got a kid who does not give a *&%# about this.

27. Weather changes rapidly in the mountains. Pack appropriately.

28. Speaking of which, good outdoor gear makes cold and rain far more tolerable. To a degree. I have poor circulation in my hands and they go numb even in far-from-freezing weather. Those little heat packs for mittens help.

29. Nothing lasts forever. This is a good and bad thing. Wretchedly bumpy flight? It will be over eventually. That baby cannot scream forever. But that beautiful dinner with friends and the autumn leaves will end too.

30. Not everybody is going to like you. Critical but thoughtful and constructive feedback is a real gift. One should treat it as such. That said, there are people who get real pleasure out of leaving 1-star reviews or who would like to use what you put out in the universe as an occasion to lament their own unhappiness with the universe. Oh well.

31. If you’d like to write an op-ed, think about the thesis statement from the get-go. What are you writing about? Do you come out for it or against it? If you can’t sum up your answer in one sentence, you’ve got a problem. But once you have your sentence, great! Start with an anecdote that demonstrates your thesis. Now state your thesis. Back up and give some overview of the topic (briefly). Make your three strongest arguments for your thesis (with statistics if possible!) Then put in a “to be sure” paragraph addressing the strongest argument against your thesis. There probably is one. People who think differently than you do aren’t all stupid, so don’t take the lazy route of assuming this is the case. Then wrap it up with a good kicker (ideally revisiting the opener!) that gives people one last reason to be persuaded.

32. Just because something makes a good column or blog post doesn’t mean it will make a good book.

33. Just because someone is emphatically, belligerently claiming they know something is true doesn’t mean they do. Or that it is true.

34. A lot of statistics you read are misleading or misreported or just wrong. This was one of the first things I found out during my stint as a fact-checker at USA Today’s op-ed page many years ago. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to time as a topic. So much of the conventional wisdom is based on quick survey responses, rather than tracked time.

35. There’s all sorts of fascinating stuff in the Old Testament that never makes it into Sunday school lessons. Like the Witch of Endor. Also, a lot of “household gods” — monotheism took a while to develop. And the two (!) creation accounts in the first few chapters of Genesis.

36. I don’t like scuba diving. Cold water makes me cold. Breathing through my mouth only makes me anxious. I can see a lot of the same stuff snorkeling. Or at an aquarium. (Related: as mentioned in my DONE list, my husband and I went to India and saw tigers in the wild, which was really cool, but then shortly thereafter we went to the zoo and got a much better view of tigers…without the four hour Jeep ride).

37. Sewing a button back on is really easy. Repairing a hole in a pair of jeans is not easy. This is sad, since jeans get holes and a good pair of jeans is hard to find (see the skinny jeans problem, above). I’ve started to have some success buying copies of items of clothing I really like and use on the secondary market (ThredUp, eBay, etc.) after their manufacturers have discontinued them.

38. Nice umbrellas are easy to lose. Ugly ones have more staying power.

39. You can clean up the house at night but the toys will just come out again the next morning.

40. I am always sick around my birthday at the beginning of December. Thanksgiving seems to spread germs around, and the first cold snap heightens the issue (we’re indoors, the dry air makes me susceptible…) It’s the universe’s little gift to me. In the grand scheme of things, though, I’m probably happier with laryngitis than norovirus, so I should just count my blessings as my family members keep yelling “what?” from across the house after I’ve responded to their questions, rather than actually standing up and walking over to talk to me in person.

I’d love to hear your lessons learned!

Photo credit: Yana Shellman

47 thoughts on “40 lessons learned on the way to 40

  1. Happy birthday!!!
    So much yes on these! I turned 40
    in May and made a similar list. I included that it is more than okay to fail. In fact many times the best lessons come from it!

    Side note – I’m in the same boat about skinny jeans. I feel like that is all I can find. What kinds do you seek out on thred up etc? Thank you!!

    1. @Megan – thank you! I have big calves. It just doesn’t work. Currently I’m wearing a few pairs of Mother jeans – they have some straight leg styles. I had a great pair of 7 For All Mankind jeans but I haven’t been able to find that particular style anywhere. AG has also been good in the past.

  2. Beautiful post. I will share this. When I turned 50 I learned I don’t have to do what my sisters or others expect. I quit Sunday School teaching because the pastor was bullying me and found new life in volunteering at the elementary school where I started. When my daughter phones to complain, it’s a blessing and I should just put her on speaker phone, pick up my knitting and listen. I should just listen more.

    1. @LoriAngela- good for you! Sharing your gifts shouldn’t require being bullied – so congrats on finding a new way to help the world. And I love the idea of knitting as a way to productively sit through complaints 🙂

  3. Happy Birthday! And thank you for this. I turned 35 recently, so a semi-milestone birthday. It was actually on Thanksgiving and between all the fuss of traveling (and two small children) and the disappointment of not reaching a goal I had set for myself (lose 35 lbs by 35!) it was sort of a blah birthday. However, your list of DONE goals and the above of what you have learned have inspired me to think about what my 40th birthday will look like. What will I have achieved? What will I be doing? What situations will I have experienced and learned something from? I know this is standard goal setting stuff, but for some reason this time has really resonated with me and I’m already thinking of some semi-life changing things I might want to consider (or maybe that’s just a week with a kid with pneumonia and two working parents and basketball coaching season? Lol) Anyway, thank your for your lists and thoughtful reflection on life and Happy Birthday!

    1. @Kristin- thank you! Re your 35 by 35 – I’m trying really hard to learn to focus on process goals rather than outcomes. I’m not there yet (so it’s not on my 40 by 40 list…) but trying. So, if I exercise every day, eat lots of vegetables, limit alcohol and sugar and get enough sleep, this is the weight I am supposed to be. Whatever that number is. The processes are right, the outcome is secondary. But, like I said…this is a process too!

  4. Happy birthday! For more comfortable clothing, look for “jardigans.” Kind of a cross between a jacket and a cardigan. So comfortable!

  5. I love this post for so many reasons! Today is my birthday too. I flew back from San Diego on a red eye last night and didn’t sleep a wink, so I’m currently napping. I am also sick (every year I’m sick on my birthday!). I can relate to many of your other thoughts but those three coincidences stuck out to me. Happy Birthday!

    1. @Erica- happy birthday my birthday twin! Please take a good long nap to celebrate your birthday and yes, illness is the price we pay for being born this time of year 🙂

    1. @Sheila – I’ll look into it. Every time I clear customs I tell myself to go get it, but then I’m not traveling internationally again for a few months so I forget. Maybe a goal for 2019.

  6. Happy Birthday, Laura! I would love to hear more from you about number 18. Maybe something to discuss on the podcast? I have a lot of guilt giving up things I no longer want to do. As an example, I am an attorney who feels pressure to do community activities and pro bono work I don’t necessarily want to spend time on. I’d rather spend the time with my family, exercising, reading, etc. I am torn because I: A) Don’t want to look like a bad person or a jerk; and B) Don’t want to hurt myself professionally for failing to take part. On the other hand, life seems too short to spend time on things you don’t want to do. Do you have any ideas for handling this conundrum? Also, totally agree with 8–I didn’t grow up watching a lot of movies, and so I don’t enjoy them much, and often have no idea what people are talking about when they bring up something from a popular movie. Thank you, and I wish you many more happy years!

    1. @Kersti- thank you! Good question. Is there some way to steer your community activities and pro bono work to stuff you actually do want to do and care about? Maybe you could recruit a pro bono client for your firm that you feel passionately about serving? As for community activities in general, I wonder if there would be ways to combine these with things you want to do. Maybe start a volunteer-with-your-family type day for your firm. I don’t know – but I bet other readers have ideas, so I hope others will chime in.

      1. Thanks Laura, I have been toying with that idea. I think maybe part of the issue is that my job is very demanding time-wise right now, so outside of my billable work I am wanting some downtime. I thought maybe I could postpone some of this stuff until I get further in my career. Generally, partners at my firm have more time each year (like two months more time in terms of average billable hours), so I might wait to become partner before I do some of these activities. I will still feel guilty, but it’s not like I am forever refusing to do these activities. Thanks again! Love your work.

  7. Happy Birthday, fellow 1978er! Glad to know I’m not the only one who won’t wear uncomfortable shoes or clothes. I’ve tried. I took my shoes off at a formal cocktail party last night and stood in the host’s formal den in my tights.

    1. @Griffin – yay ’78! (If only for 3 weeks of it). And I would totally stand around at a party in tights. Possibly even bare feet.

  8. I like your list and I admire your courage. As your list indicates, when you put yourself out there, some will take shots at you just “because they can.” Hopefully you’ve learned to ignore them. But you also seem to have a healthy self-esteem that allows you to accept reasonably constructive criticism, which is admirable. I like #4 and #5 about writing. You’ve gathered an impressive amount of wisdom in 40 years. Now keep going. 40 is only the beginning.

    1. @mttiro67- thank you. I don’t know about courage but I figure life’s too short to get worked up about the occasional 1-star review 🙂

  9. Happy birthday! I enjoy this list. I have 2 years and 2 months until my 40th so time to get working on some of these things that I have yet to learn 😉

    1. @Amy S – thanks! And you should hurry up and turn 40 because you will definitely win your age group in races immediately!

  10. Laura, Happy Birthday! Have you considered using Mobile Passport? It seems easier to get than Global Entry, and getting through customs is as fast as Global Entry.

  11. Happy birthday! This is a good list. I am also not a movie person. My 9 year old is doing her best to convince me to be a dog person, but I’m holding firm so far…

    The two creation stories in Genesis was my biggest surprise in reading Okay, So Look! I had no idea. (I did not grow up religious, and while I read large parts of the Bible for various college classes, never read Genesis.)

    1. @Cloud – it’s interesting how many people don’t know that. Or that they appear to be written by entirely different authors. The question of biblical authorship, and how jointly written books come to be, is a fascinating one.

  12. Happy Birthday, Laura! I have followed your work since 168 Hours and often thought you are much wiser than your years. (I am much older than you). Love all your books. Keep writing!

  13. I don’t think not wanting to wear uncomfortable clothes or shoes is immature at all—but I’m the same way 🙂

    For jeans, consider looking into Denim Therapy. It’s a company that repairs holes in jeans really well—you mail them in. It’s a little pricey but I also have a hard time finding jeans and hate shopping so to me it’s worth it. They have two types of repairs and one is slightly less expensive, and it has held up really well for me.

    I love this list in general! I think knowing (and accepting) yourself makes things a lot easier.

    1. @Caitlin – OK, I am totally checking out Denim Therapy. I am a bit old to pull off the holes-in-jeans look now…

  14. Happy birthday Laura! I also have a fall 1978 birthday (and a 3-year-old boy!) so I enjoy your Oregon Trail generation musings. I found the XM Poprocks station on your blog. Hope you had a great day!

  15. Hi Laura, I love your writing and wish you a happy birthday. But number 14 – advising that you do not feed a baby 90-100 minutes after their last feed – is contrary to the best known evidence about how babies feed at the breast. I appreciate that this technique may have worked for your family but please do not perpetuate errors and misconceptions about infant feeding.

    1. @Rebecca- thanks for your comment. I was not implying that this was for the first few weeks, more once the baby is somewhat older and settling into a schedule. Then I found this pattern incredibly helpful. I did not do this with baby #1 and was not able to keep nursing him exclusively. I did with babies #2-4 and was able to nurse exclusively for much longer (through to solids) and to keep nursing for longer as well (15-18 months). While I’d be happy for you to post links/citations of studies from peer reviewed journals, I also believe that the mother’s comfort/convenience/sanity are not irrelevant details for having babies continue to feed at the breast.

  16. Belated happy birthday Laura. Like one of the other commenters I have been reading your blog for over 3 years now and love it and have all the books. I read “Children on the Oregon Trail” a number of times as a child/teenager and loved it, but as a UK reader I have no idea what “the Oregon Trail generation” refers to! Can you elucidate please? My next milestone birthday is in February (or half milestone really – 55) and seems impossible but you have given me a lot of food for thought. My two years younger brother has just retired from the Royal Navy after 35 years as an officer. How can that be? A great friend from school died from cancer in May. Again how can that be? I really do need to seize the day or will be 60 before I know it. Best wishes for your next decade.

    1. @Katherine B – Thank you for reading and for getting my books! So “Oregon Trail” was a very popular educational software program that a lot of elementary schools had loaded on their Macs in the late 1980s. So if you were in an after school program, or recess was canceled for rain and they put you in the computer lab instead, that was probably what you were playing. It had very very basic graphics. You’d buy food and supplies and then try to take the Oregon trail. Along the way you might be attacked, drown while fording a river, or contract disease (hence the dysentery references). You might run low on supplies and have to go on starvation rations. Good stuff.
      And yes, time does just keep going. It seems amazing that turning 20 was half my life ago. I remember it. It doesn’t seem like ancient history!

  17. Happy Birthday Laura
    I’m a big fan of your work. I love the list. Number 26 in particular is ringing a bell for me this week – my son doesnt care nearly as much about reward stickers as his teacher would like him to!
    I love this idea of making a list. I turn 40 next Sept so maybe I’ll also give it a go

    1. @Carol – make a list! It’s a good way to reflect. And yes, some people are way more into sticker charts than others!

  18. Happy belated birthday! So far for me, 40 has been better than 30, which was better than 20. I’m hopeful this trend will continue. I’ve found with increasing age has come self acceptance and increased ability to objectively assess my own shortcomings, both of which have improved my confidence. I read somewhere that righteous indignation and anger can be almost as powerful a mood boost than true happiness. Realizing that has been helpful to me when someone lashes out, and quite frankly, explains a lot about why the world is the way it is.

  19. Happy belated birthday! huge fan of your blog and podcast. Not sure as a male how many others like me follow you a lot. I look forward to seeing where life takes you in your 40s.

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