Science of People - Logo

20 Key Life Lessons I Learned in My 20s

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

I turn 30 today.

Yes the big 3-0. I thought I would take a moment and write a rather personal post about the life lessons I learned in my 20s.

And I have a favor to ask:

For my 30th birthday I’m asking for advice. As you’re reading my life lessons, will you think about yours?

What lessons have you learned in your lifetime?

Reflecting about what I have learned was a wonderful process in itself. I realized that since I started my company at the age of 21, most of my 20s were spent building a business. And luckily, I write a lot about my experiences on this blog. You will see I get to link back to the articles and posts I have shared over the past decade at different points in my life in the lessons below. The other milestones of the past decade: meeting my husband, getting married, moving to Portland, making the best friends in the world and buying a home.

I know I have A LOT left to learn, but I laid out below what I have realized so far. Some lessons are professional, some are personal, I hope some resonate with you:

#1: Happiness First

There is a happiness myth. We think that we need to work really hard to be successful and that will make us happy. However, science (and my own personal experience) has completely debunked this common idea. Here’s the surprising truth:

Success doesn’t make us happy; being happy brings us success.

I lived the first 23 years striving for the opposite. I lived by what I call the ‘when-then’ mindset.

  • When I get an ‘A’, then I’ll be happy.
  • When I get this house, then I’ll be happy.
  • When I finish this program, then I’ll be happy.

I had it all wrong. You can’t wait for happiness. You have to fight for happiness and it has to come before anything else.

Why? Happiness brings you success, it makes you more productive and it is the foundation for everything in your life. In this way, I have chosen to make happiness my life’s starting line. And that is why it is my very first lesson.

For You: Now it’s your turn. Can you put happiness first? See how in my Science of Happiness post.

#2: I’d Rather Be Weird than Fake

I’m weird. I listen to polka music when I work out. I can recognize my friends by their unique pheromone scent. I ask invasive and oddly personal conversation starters with strangers. And for a long time I tried to pretend I wasn’t weird. I wrote blog posts that sounded like other experts, I faked my way through conversations about the latest ‘cool’ bands and I pretended to like going to nightclubs even when I would much rather be watching the history channel on my iPad in the bathtub. It took 30 years, but amazing friends, a weird-loving husband and an amazing Science of People tribe have helped me embrace my weirdness. Thank you for giving me the courage to be real.

#3: Never Take the Red-Eye

It’s just not worth it.

#4: Live an Experimental Lifestyle

I love to experiment. I love to try things out, taste test, savor, sample and test ideas. This love of experimenting is what led me to start our Science of People human behavior lab in the first place–I wanted an excuse to play around with ideas! But living an experimental lifestyle is not just about the lab; for me, it’s about a mindset. It’s having an idea and not accepting it as fact. It’s not dismissing it, but embracing it and playing with it. For example, here are a couple of my experimental rules:

  • If someone mentions a book to me 5 times, I have to read it to see why–this is how I ended up reading 50 Shades of Grey.
  • If no one will try something on the menu, I have to try it and give everyone a taste. This is how I ended up eating crickets.
  • If I have an idea that everyone tells me is crazy and impossible, I get 3 weeks to prove them wrong. This is how I ended up going to a Cuddle Cafe.

#5: Silence Is Golden

Silence used to terrify me. I was so afraid of conversational lulls that I would not only interrupt people before they were done speaking, but I would miss most of what they were saying while planning out my counter-point. This is a terrible way to interact. So, last year I took a vow of silence. 7 days of complete silence. It was horrifying, nerve-racking and difficult, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. In silence you learn. In silence you reflect. In silence you really connect with the people around you. I plan to take a vow of silence every year to remind me of this power.

In action, this principle is the hardest. When I am at networking events, coffee meetings, or parties, after someone is done speaking I practice taking a deep breath before I speak. It gives an extra second before jumping in with a response. 2 times out of 10 the person keeps going with something interesting! Sometimes we just need permission to dig a little deeper. Silence is that permission.

#6: Uncomfortable = Pay Attention!

A fundamental part of being human is eliminating and avoiding anything that makes us uncomfortable–lumpy beds, inconvenient ideas and too personal questions. BUT I have learned that my biggest “aha” moments and ideas come from discomfort. Here’s why:

  • Discomfort is part of learning. You can’t be good at anything in the beginning, and this means discomfort is the basis of learning something really great.
  • Discomfort is part of growth. Our brain is like a muscle. The first few times you try something–like lifting a weight, it feels awful. But this discomfort means that you are building the muscles you need to grow.
  • Discomfort means there is more there. If something is challenging you, it is pushing your boundaries and that is often a good thing. Nothing good ever came from staying within boundaries.

Growth comes from the challenge of discomfort. click to tweet

#7: It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

I am a TED talk junkie. I love watching TED talks whenever I possibly can–every lunch break, while getting ready and while cooking. After hitting video #114, I started to wonder what the differences were between the talks that got the most views and the talks that got the least. I would watch two talks that came out the exact same year on the exact same topic but one would have 22 million views and the other would have 22,000. Why? We set-up a huge experiment to find out. We analyzed hundreds of hours of TED talks and found that there were patterns between the most and least successful TED talks. Namely, the mot popular TED talks convinced you in the first 7 seconds they were worth watching–and they did it all with their body language.

  • We had participants watch the first 7 seconds of TED talks. 1 group got sound. The other group had to watch on mute. Guess what? The ratings were the same! People consistently picked the same favorite talks whether they heard the actual talk or not.
  • Specifically, we judge someone’s charisma, intelligence and credibility based on their nonverbal–and this convinces someone within the first 7 seconds if they are going to like the talk or not.
  • We found 3 nonverbal patterns that people looked for in these first 7 seconds, I explain them here:
YouTube video

For You: Whether you are giving a TED talk or not, you can use these 3 cues EVERY SINGLE TIME you interact with another human being. They are the three keys to presence and it blows my mind to think about how important our nonverbal is to our memorability.

#8: Be Interested to Be Interesting

In the words of Dale Carnegie, “If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.” People don’t care if you are the most impressive, fascinating, interesting person in the room. They only care if you make them feel like the most impressive, fascinating and interesting person in the room. It took me many years to switch my focus to interesting to interested, but learning to search for other people’s spark completely changed the way I interact with people. And this brings me to #9:

#9: NO ONE Is Boring

We have talked to hundreds of people in our lab. We have asked them about their deepest darkest secrets, we have asked them to share their regrets and we have asked them to tell us their stories. And let me tell you, not one of them has ever been boring. However, many of them were boring at first. This might be controversial, but some of our participants were really hard nuts to crack. They came in and were very difficult to talk to–some might have even called them boring. But with the right questions and a true desire to discover their inner worth, we were able to unlock interesting stories from every single person.

  • Why do people hold back? Most of us, no matter how fascinating our story is or how amazing our talent, we are desperately afraid of rejection. And because we are afraid of rejection, we revert to boring because boring is safer than being criticized.
  • For You: If you truly want to know someone and ask the right questions you can meet the most fascinating people.

#10: If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will

This quote comes from Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less which was our April Book club book. I have read this book 3 times and each time I learn something new. But there is one principle that has stuck with me and fundamentally changed the way I approach my time:

If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will

When you sit down to do your to-do list or think about your life goals or make a big decision, who’s priorities are you meeting? You? Your spouse? Your kid? Your boss? What are your priorities? #10 for me is about living purposefully. It’s about living with direction and priorities instead of letting life happen to me.

For you: What drives you? Why are you here? How does this drive your actions and decisions?

#11: People are Almost Never Thinking About You

We worry that people don’t like us. We worry people are gossiping about us. We worry what people will think of us. Over the last few years I have come to realize that people don’t really think about us all that much. We have an average of 60,000 thoughts per day. Even if they thought about you 2 times a day–that is only 0.03% of their mental power.

Your thoughts change your action. Another way to think about it is that your mind changes your brain. Research has shown that thoughts create all kinds of neural pathways in our brains. If you want to power up, think power thoughts. Your thoughts are far more important than what other’s think of you…and this brings me to #12:

#12: Will You Regret This?

A few years ago I read a story about an Australian nurse who helped people at the very end of their lives. She said she would often ask her patients what they regretted most right before they were about to pass. She said the most common regret was:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

It takes tremendous courage to be ourselves and to live the way we want to live. I endeavor to do this every day and often fail, but these questions keep me in check:

  • Will I regret not doing this?
  • Am I living a life that will make me proud at the end?
  • How can I live a regret-free life?

Take these three questions and write them down somewhere you will see them in a few months–a blank page of a journal, the bottom of a desk drawer or even the bottom of your cereal box. If we constantly ask ourselves how to live regret-free, we make choices that are for us and not others.

#13: We Love in Different Ways

Love is universal, but how we love is not. Looking back at my failed relationships–romantic, social and professional, I noticed that the major point of contention was a difference in how we loved and expressed appreciation for one another. The 5 Love Languages helped me realize that we didn’t care for each other less, we just cared differently, and that’s OK. I hope these help you understand how you love, how you feel love and how powerful it can be to honor your true language.

YouTube video

#14: Expensive Chocolate Is Not Better

Is it just me or do you think Hershey’s is da bomb? I would take a sweet, melty drugstore chocolate box over Lindt any day.

#15: I’m an Ambivert!

I used to hate being asked if I was an extrovert or introvert. Even worse is when someone tells YOU what they think you are after one conversation. It took me many years of research to understand the science of personality, but once I did, it was like being freed. We all have personality traits that affect our relationships, how we make decisions and our communication patterns. Extroversion–or how you orient towards people, is one of them. Not everyone has to be an extrovert or introvert; there is an in-between trait called ambiversion. Learning your personality type helps you make decisions and understand the hidden forces that drive your behavior. Take our quiz to find out if you’re an ambivert.

#16: Hangry

Something terrible happens when I get really, really hungry. This is called hangry. It’s when low blood sugar and bad breath mate to produce a terrible whiny, crabby, angry version of myself. At 30 years old, for the sake of my friends and family I have learned enough to know that I should always carry a granola bar. Always.

#17: PQ Not IQ

If I could go back and do college over again, I would change one thing. I would have studied less and partied more. Now, I don’t mean partying for the sake of raging and getting drunk. I mean partying for the sake of people. I spent years working on my technical skills for the job market and completely abandoned my people and relationship skills. What I didn’t realize is that relationships and people intelligence are far more important than IQ–not only in social and personal relationships, but also in professional ones. People skills are not a luxury. Like keeping your body in shape at the gym, I hone and tone my people intelligence, and it is amazing how much this has changed my life. I married my best friend. I have best friends that feel like family. I have less drama and miscommunications in my life because I put a priority on understanding how people work and leveraging it. My mission is to help my readers and students get this power and sense of joy from people as well. I hope I can help people with people.

#18: Seinfeld Was Right About Everything

Pretty much everything about Seinfeld turned out to be true. Man hands on a woman is really unfortunate. Names that rhyme with female body parts are still funny. And especially:

  • Cereal is not just for kids. In fact, cereal is like crack. I’ve never tried crack, but from what I hear it’s pretty addictive. And folks, I could have cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner just like Jerry Seinfeld. I used to think that when I was a sophisticated adult, I would sip a cappuccino and nibble a blueberry scone every morning alternating with raspberries on top of steel-cut oats (I started reading my mom’s novels way too young). Nope, at 30, cereal is still a main food group.

#19: Sleep Is a Priority

There should be a word for overly-tired-groggy-jerk. Grangry? (groggy and angry) Slitchy? (sleepy and bitchy). Whatever you have to do, you will do it better on 8 hours of sleep. Prioritize your sleep. It makes you a better partner, boss, friend and human.

#20: Trust Your Gut

I want to end on ‘trust your gut,’ because this is how I like to end every decision and interaction. Our intuition has developed over thousands of years to keep us safe and help us thrive. It’s taken me years to trust my gut and listen to my instincts, but they have never led me astray. I hope this is a muscle I can continue to flex.

I have a lot more to learn and can’t wait to write the post 30 Lessons I Learned in my 30s in 10 years. Until then:

How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Get our latest insights and advice delivered to your inbox.

It’s a privilege to be in your inbox. We promise only to send the good stuff.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.